The landscapes of the South West have been of great inspiration to artists both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

View Comments
Laurel Nannup Picnic at Phumphries Bridge.

About this Place
VISUAL ARTS
About this Place
Holmes a Court Gallery, Vasse Felix
REVIEW: DARREN JORGENSEN

The landscapes of the South West have been of great inspiration to artists both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. However, exhibitions have tended to favour the one or the other, telling an Aboriginal story or a broadly European one.

A new exhibition of work from the South West mixes these artists and their stories together, making it possible to see what indigenous and non-indigenous artists have in common, rather than what separates them. There are paintings dating back to the late 1800s hanging next to works from 2012, making it an exciting attempt to capture the sensibility of the region.

One of the early works in the show, an 1889 landscape by Nellie Christmas, sets the tone as it shows a gorgeous but haunting sunset over the Blackwood River. As the light dims, a shadowy, dreamy space appears below the tall trees that line the water.

Some 70 years later a 1961 painting of Fremantle Harbour by Frank Norton is of another haunting sunset, replete with grey and pink. Audrey Greenhalgh's painting of industry in Kwinana also features this eerie quality of sunset sky.

All of these paintings seem to hide a secret, as their tonal shifts bring a mysterious quality to their landscapes. So, too, in a watercolour by John Barker, the hills around Narrogin seem to hide something, as they are painted flat against the page.

It is as if in answer to these works that indigenous artists tend to show what it is that is haunting the landscapes of the South West. Laurel Nannup's Picnic at Pumphreys Bridge is a linocut which shows a group of girls swinging on a maypole at the local mission.

There is only the thinnest of smiles on their faces, the hardest of childhood histories cut into their eyes. These were girls who had been taken from their parents, and it seems that the bush behind them mourns as much as they.

There are also some works by leading indigenous artist Sandra Hill here, including an apron sewn with some of the language of colonial life in WA. Perhaps the most disturbing of these historical works is a priest from the old Clontarf Boys Home that has been made out of palm fronds.

Called My Brother's Keeper, it is by Janine McAullay Bott, and simply oozes with creepiness, as if he grew somehow out of the sclerophyll scrub of the South West.

The most spectacular work in the show is by the late Shane Pickett. A 3m landscape of muted brown and black, this was made just before he died in 2010 and represents a radical development in scale and style.

This is a haunting, brilliant composition. The profiles of low-lying hills seem to unfold with textures of brown and black paint.

Again, here a South West artist seems to capture the spookiness of the land, as if it is inhabited by spirits. That indigenous and non-indigenous artists share this vision of the landscape points the way to a regional sensibility of the place.

Other parts of the world, such as the Great Plains of the US, or Northern England, have strong regional identities grounded in shared landscapes and histories. This exhibition points the way to a shared identity for the South West of Australia, one that unites this sense with knowledge of the region's history.

Here I have pointed to the haunting quality that artists find in this landscape, but there are other common qualities at work here too. While many of the paintings create shadows underneath the foliage of trees, in the many wonderful etchings and linocuts on display here the tree trunks offer ways for artists to create strong contrasts between black and white.

This happens in Laurel Nannup's recent work, as it does in Beatrice Darbyshire's 1939 etching The Road to Balingup. Here we peer through the long shadows created by trees on either side of a road.

It is often said that European modes of art, such as landscape, were imported into Australia and that they never capture the quality of light that exists here. However, in the South West, indigenous and non-indigenous artists alike have adapted the landscape genre to create meanings that have little to do with its European history.

Through the evocative use of colour, the tonality of shadows and the strangeness of the sky, artists of the South West have often succeeded in portraying something ethereal about the country.

This exhibition is an ambitious experiment in mixing up artists whose experiences and works are very different, and yet who share a common subject. They point the way to a conversation about what it means to live in this region, a conversation that has been a long time coming.

About this Place is at the Holmes a Court Gallery at Vasse Felix winery, Caves Road, Cowaramup until February 3.