09
Aug
15

Exhibition: ‘John Wolseley – Heartlands and Headwaters’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 11th April – 16th August 2015

 

This is a wondrous exhibition by John Wolseley at NGV Australia. The whole feeling of the exhibition, its scale and intimacy, the attention to detail and the sheer the beauty of the work is quite outstanding. I was fascinated with the text descriptions the artist gives with each piece of work, included here in the posting.

While Wolseley plays with time (deep time, shallow time and now time) and space here it is more than that, for deep time (or “the zone” in the alternative parlance of athletes) is also used in artistic activity to refer to the experience of being lost in the act of creation or the consumption of a work. To the viewer, so it would seem here for we become lost in the art of creation. There is a sense of timelessness, the experience of unusual freedom within time, an unawareness of time, within Wolseley’s work, yet still grounded in the past and present, flowing into the future of this planet. This sense of place, context, space and time(lessness) are lucidly resolved in the artist’s work.

As the Introduction to the exhibition states, Wolseley conceives the exhibition as gesamtkunstwerk , a total work of art, presenting new possibilities for understanding landscape in the twenty-first century. This generally works well in revealing the unique, dynamic processes of natural ecosystems when the work is on the wall. However, the floor of the gallery (natural timber boards) lessened the experience of the “total work of art” for me. If you are designing an exhibition that would seem to me to be immersive (to some extent) then the work needed more grounding than it contains here.

This is a minor observation in an otherwise superlative exhibition. The colours, the sensitivity of the painting, the flow of the images, water, music, prose… are a narrative almost like a fable if the issues were not so real. The heightened imagery and emotional effects of the work make us truly aware that now is the time for action. The future development of the new coal power stations must be stopped. Renewable energy is the energy of the future as much as it is light emanating from the past.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart.

.
Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

 

 

“Over the past four years, John Wolseley has travelled and painted throughout the Australian continent. He has journeyed from the swamps of the Tasmanian high country to the coastal flood plains of the tropical north, exploring the nature and action of water and how it has shaped the land.

Wolseley has worked on site beside strange and diverse wetlands – sphagnum bogs, ephemeral waterholes, bilabongs and mangrove swamps – and combined his own distinctive mark-making processes with more traditional watercolour techniques. He has ‘collaborated’ with plants, birds and insects and used a range of drawing systems that includes frottaging (rubbing against) burnt trees, burying papers in snad and swamps and nature printing from leaves, wood and rocks.

The artist’s layered and collaged papers have been assembled as an installation in the shape of a giant branching tree, surrounded by large-scale works which enclose the viewer in an immersive environment. Wolseley has rejected European landscape conventions that often reduce a complex, living system to a static and generalised representation. Instead, he endeavours to reveal the unique, dynamic processes of natural ecosystems. Conceived as gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), Heartlands and headwaters presents new possibilities for understanding landscape in the twenty-first century.”

Introduction text to the exhibition

 

John Wolseley. 'History of the Whipstick Forest with ephemeral swamps and gold bearing reefs' 2011

 

John Wolseley
History of the Whipstick Forest with ephemeral swamps and gold bearing reefs (detail)
2011
Watercolour, charcoal and pencil on 2 sheets (a-b)
233.5 x 286.6 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

One summer’s day I walked from my studio into the forest and followed a dry creek to some swamps and pools bursting with life. This arid landscape, so torn up and churned over, was still miraculously reinventing itself. Such resilience!

In this drawing I bring together the histories of three kinds of time: the ‘deep time’ of geology, ‘shallow time’ since European arrival, and ‘now time’ in October 2011. The history of the hidden workings of the earth I stole from a geologist’s map. Resting on this ancient framework in the painting’s centre is the green swamp. Above this is another map, which tells the story of William Johnson, a visitor to this forest 160 years ago, whose discovery of gold was the birth of the Bendigo goldfields.

When I was working on this painting, this bush was burnt in line with the government’s draconian legislation to burn all public bushland in Victoria every ten years. This often gives no time for vegetation to mature and seed, and biodiversity in certain fire-sensitive ecologies is being ravaged. My reverence for nature’s resilience was moved to a sense of deep chagrin that yet again we are destroying the matrix which is our home.

 

John Wolseley. 'Regeneration after fire - the seeders and the sprouters, Mallee' (detail)  2009-11

 

John Wolseley
Regeneration after fire – the seeders and the sprouters, Mallee (detail)
2009-11
Watercolour, charcoal, pencil and pigment
152.2 x 256.7 cm irreg.
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

I went for a long walk through recently burnt mallee scrub in the Big Desert Wilderness Park. Some of the mallee roots had vivid amber, scarlet and mauve new growth exploding from the surviving stumps. Nearby were scatterings of tiny, bright banksia seedlings that had germinated after the fire, causing seed pods to burst open and expel their seeds. Botanists call such trees ‘seeders’, while their companions, the mallee eucalypts, are known as ‘sprouters’. Sprouters have a large root, known as a lignotuber, which stores water and nutrients – this is part of a brilliant strategy for survival in arid landscapes.

 

John Wolseley. 'From Siberia to Roebuck Bay - the godwits reach the mangrove swamps, WA' (detail) 2012

 

John Wolseley
From Siberia to Roebuck Bay – the godwits reach the mangrove swamps, WA (detail)
2012
Watercolour over pencil, charcoal and coloured chalk
151.9 x 199.0 cm irreg. Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

Each year in June the bar-tailed godwits fly 12,000 kilometres from their breeding grounds in Siberia to the north coast of Australia. I was standing by the sea on the north Kimberley coast when out of a clear sky the godwits arrived in vast, pulsing flocks that swooped down to rest on the mudflats. The land, with its mudflats and sandbanks, had been formed by the great king tides, dragged for eons by the cycles of the moon. And now I could see these great tides of godwit, pulled by another powerful force, flow down and merge with the waters.

 

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of swamps III, heron in swamp - Loy Yang Power Station' (detail) 2009-10

 

John Wolseley
Natural history of swamps III, heron in swamp – Loy Yang Power Station (detail)
2009-10
Watercolour, pencil, ink, black chalk, scratching out and leaf
114.0 x 176.0 cm
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

I was looking at a dam in the grounds of the Loy Yang Power Station, when in flew a black-backed heron. It looked for fish in the water and then peered at a billboard declaring ‘Hazelwood Power Station – WETLAND DEVELOPMENT PROJECT’. I walked down to the vast open-cut coalmine, and looked for fish fossils and Cryptogamic flora among the seams of coal. Then I returned to the heron, which now seemed to be looking at the steam and CO2 belching out of the cooling towers – those clouds of CO2 that came from the coal which was once a carboniferous swamp.

 

 

“For four years, artist John Wolseley has roamed the coastal floodplains of the Northern Territory through to the glacial lakes of Tasmania, exploring and recording in exquisite detail the diverse wetlands of Australia. The works he has created will be revealed at NGV Australia.

This series of eighteen evocative works on paper, many of them monumental in scale (up to 10 metres in size), detail the geographical features and unique plants and animals of these wetlands in works characterised by minutely- observed drawing and rich watercolour washes.

Many works combine collage and unusual markings made through burying works or hoisting large sheets of paper across the charred remains of burnt tree trunks and branches. Through this ‘collaboration’ with the natural environment, Wolseley subverts traditional approaches to the depiction of landscape and seeking to give the natural world a more active presence in the work of art.

‘Heartlands and Headwaters celebrates Australia’s unique and diverse natural environment,’ said Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV. ‘Wolseley’s work is not only of great beauty, but also demonstrates how depicting the landscape has become an important form of activism’.

The mangrove swamps of Roebuck Bay in Western Australia, the flood plains of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory, the Finke River in the Simpson Desert and the sphagnum swamps of Skullbone Plains in central Tasmania are just some of the sites detailed in these impressive works.

Commissioned by Sir Roderick Carnegie AC, these works celebrate the beauty of the Australian wilderness and encourage an understanding of the significance and environmental fragility of these remote and little-known sites.

 

About John Wolseley

Born in England in 1938, John Wolseley immigrated to Australia in 1976 and has gained recognition in the past four decades as one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists whose work engages passionately with the environment.

Over the years Wolseley has travelled extensively throughout the country, into the arid interior and remote wilderness areas in all states, camping out for extended periods and immersing himself in the landscape.

This approach is reflected in the distinctly non-traditional character of the landscape works Wolseley produces. Instead of presenting a single overarching view of a particular site they are composite images that combine precisely observed details of flora and fauna. Informed by readings in geology, biology, cartography and other disciplines, these provide multiple perspectives on the location’s topography, journal notations and observations of natural cycles or patterns of the area.”

Press release from the NGV website

 

John Wolseley. 'Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts' 2008-10

 

John Wolseley
Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts
2008-10
From The Great Tree of Drawings 1959-2015, installed 2015
Pencil, watercolour and charcoal on 15 sheets (a-o)
Dimensions variable (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

John Wolseley Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts (detail) 2008-10

John Wolseley Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts (detail) 2008-10

 

John Wolseley
Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts (details)
2008-10
From The Great Tree of Drawings 1959-2015, installed 2015
Pencil, watercolour and charcoal on 15 sheets (a-o)
Dimensions variable (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

This work was made in the Murray-Sunset National Park, where I found an island of unburnt scrub remaining after a bushfire. This refugium, or sanctuary, provided shelter for plants and small creatures from which they could later gradually recolonise the surrounding sand dunes. The small, flying sheets are papers I released to blow on the desert winds for weeks and sometimes months. Each sheet records carbon traces made by the burnt fingers of trees and shrubs. Having been made soft from dews and showers, and dried and tossed by the desert winds, they have become fixed in a variety of sculptural forms.

 

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania' 2013

 

John Wolseley
Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania
2013
Watercolour, pencil, pen and ink, and sphagnum on 8 sheets (a-h)
155.6 x 407.6 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania' (detail) 2013

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania' (detail) 2013

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania' (detail) 2013

 

John Wolseley
Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania (details)
2013
Watercolour, pencil, pen and ink, and sphagnum on 8 sheets (a-h)
155.6 x 407.6 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

As a creek moves down to the shores of Lake Ina in the central highlands of Tasmania, it swells out into an ancient sphagnum moss swamp. I leant over and peered into a gap between the mats of sphagnum, and a small fish emerged in the crystal water. This brief phantom – a Clarence galaxias – was only miraculously there because its ancestors had been isolated by a glacial moraine (ridge) upstream, which six million years later had saved it from the European trout, which had supplanted most of the other galaxias in the rest of Tasmania. And then, marvellously, it had been saved again by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, which had purchased these plains to protect them from further loss and degradation.

As the grey shadows moved down the hill and melted into the lake, I soaked and painted the spongy sphagnum mats with tinctures of watercolour – viridian and crimson and Indian yellow – and laid them on several sheets of paper. I did the same with water milfoils, spike reed, tassel sedges and bladderwort, and weighted them down overnight with slabs of bark. Their images were imprinted on the paper, emerging slowly like a photograph being developed.

 

John Wolseley. 'From the edge of the great flood plains of Garrangari and Garrangalli, NT' 2012-14

 

John Wolseley
From the edge of the great flood plains of Garrangari and Garrangalli, NT
2012-14
Pencil, charcoal, black and brown chalk, watercolour, coloured pencil, coloured pastel, frottage and collages of linocut, wood relief printed in black and brown ink, watercolour, charcoal and coloured pencil over pencil and pen and ink on Japanese and wove paper
155.5 x 961.7 cm irreg.
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

In June 2011 I was standing on the edge of the monsoon rainforest bordering a vast flood plain in East Arnhem Land with Djambawa Marawili, the great Yolngu leader and artist. Djambawa recounted how in the dawn of creation ancestral figures had moved up from the coast, digging for edible roots as they went, creating springs of fresh water that still bubble out along the plains. He described how when the first sun came up these ancestor women turned into brolga cranes. As he sang the song several brolgas emerged from the mists and flew slowly towards the coast.

This was the originary moment of this painting. For the next three years, guided by the Dhudi-Djapu clan leader and artist Mulkun Wirrpanda, I collected and drew specimens of plants and trees of the flood plain, and their edible roots and tubers. In the painting I have drawn many of them, along with the various trees festooned with vines.

For me the great miracle of that morning rested in that moment of time – being there, seeing the living land and sensing the ‘deep time’ so intimately linked with the life and art of the people who have lived in it for so long.

 

John Wolseley. 'A Daly River creek, NT' 2012

 

John Wolseley
A Daly River creek, NT
2012
Watercolour, pastel, pencil, charcoal, ink, yellow pencil and collage of woodcut and linocut on Japanese paper (a-c)
152.0 x 602.0 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

John Wolseley. 'A Daly River creek, NT' (detail) 2012

 

John Wolseley
A Daly River creek, NT (detail)
2012
Watercolour, pastel, pencil, charcoal, ink, yellow pencil and collage of woodcut and linocut on Japanese paper (a-c)
152.0 x 602.0 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

Here is a flowing tropical creek near Nauiyu, about two hours’ drive south of Darwin. It shows the fecund, flowing mass of life and aquatic plants and fish, and how they are all an integral part of one particular ecosystem. The plants were all drawn on the spot or collected and drawn later in Darwin. It was May 2012 and I went on several trips with the ethnobiologist Glenn Wightman, the Ngan’gi elder Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart AM and other artists from the arts centre at Nauiyu. They showed me the plants in their living habitat so that I could draw them in action, rather than as dried museum specimens – the Nymphaea waterlily, with its long, convulsive stems, several species of bladderwort, water chestnuts and duckweed.

In this tropical aquatic painting I have tried to show how landscape for me is made up of energy fields that I draw as passages of particular plant forms, in which the individual plants move or dance with different rhythms. My intention is to show how these rafts of different species weave in and out of one another, and across the surface of my painting, rather as a passage of a symphony changes key and mood.

 

John Wolseley. 'Cycles of fire and water - Lake Tyrrell, Victoria' 2011-12

 

John Wolseley
Cycles of fire and water – Lake Tyrrell, Victoria
2011-12
Watercolour, charcoal, pencil, sponging and scratching out on 2 sheets (a-b)
154.0 x 610.0 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

John Wolseley. 'Cycles of fire and water - Lake Tyrrell, Victoria' (detail) 2011-12

 

John Wolseley
Cycles of fire and water – Lake Tyrrell, Victoria (detail)
2011-12
Watercolour, charcoal, pencil, sponging and scratching out on 2 sheets (a-b)
154.0 x 610.0 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

I was sitting on a low sandbank and drawing the pools of water that lay on this ancient salt lake. A rust-coloured cloud erupted into the air and darkened the sky over the water. The wind grew stronger, as if emanating from the core of the fire, and it carried embers and burning branches like dismembered limbs. I felt a kind of disquiet, almost dread. I knew such fires had always been part of the natural cycles of the bush, but this was one of several I had experienced that season where it felt as if fire itself was behaving in a different, more erratic way; as if the subtle equilibrium of the climate was changing.

From out of the billowing clouds of smoke some spoonbills, ibis and cormorants emerged, and flew far out over the lake. Several of them alighted on a patch of sunlit water and remained there, as if illustrating some cycle of eternal return – from action to stillness, from noise to quiet. But as I watched, the great black cloud drifted over their resting place, moving them on as if they were being chased away from the world they had known.

 

John Wolseley. 'After fire - spiny-cheeked honeyeaters at Lake Monibeong' (detail) 2009-11

 

John Wolseley
After fire – spiny-cheeked honeyeaters at Lake Monibeong (detail)
2009-11
Watercolour, charcoal, pencil, gouache and brown chalk
151.7 x 128.9 cm
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

Walking through the recently burnt Cobboboonee Forest in Victoria one morning, I reached a lake where fresh water rested in sand dunes bordering the sea. I stood beside a burnt banksia tree with powdery black, corrugated bark. It had been a stormy night, but now the sea and lake were calm. Several spiny-cheeked honeyeaters swooped down, perched in the tree and sung out jubilantly. It was as if they were filled with elation at all these elements coming to rest in equilibrium – the lake resting within the sand dune, the quietening of the wind and the passing of the fire.

 

 

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
10am – 5pm
Closed Mondays

National Gallery of Victoria website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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