Over the past 10 years my work has become increasingly driven by themes concerning the detrimental impact humans are exerting on the natural environment. After moving to Tasmania I quickly began learning about the numerous environmental issues that plague its fragile ecosystems, particularly the ongoing logging of the north-west temperate rainforest known as the Tarkine (takayna). As an avid plein air painter, ecology enthusiast, and activist for environmental preservation this became the impetus to construct a project that would enable me to experience first-hand the destruction being imposed on a truly indispensable habitat. I became immersed in the Tarkine for days on end, producing studies, sketches, and journal documentation based on my observations of the aesthetic juxtaposition between pristine old-growth myrtle forest surrounding the Julius River and a nearby freshly clear-felled coupe. I became captivated by the absolute beauty of the Tarkine, and disturbed at the chaos of the splintered detritus and machinery strewn across the clear-felled coupes that exposed our short-sighted greed in this land that should be regarded as sacred. 20th century American painter Rockwell Kent suggested, that “Contemporary art is a record of man’s reaction to the environment of contemporary life, an expression of human imagination affected by the spiritual and material conditions of its day.” (Kent 1933 pg31). This project expresses my reaction to contemporary life and emotional connection to the decline of natural environments.
My aim as an artist is to document, expose, and reawaken an emotional connection to natural world. I see the deforestation of the Tarkine is symbolic of our disconnection with the natural world and this project seeks to reconcile our connection with the environment while representing a visual allegory pertinent to the increasing detrimental impact we exude on the planet.
Contrasting Stumps - A precursor to studio project
During my first bushwalk immersed in old-growth myrtle forest surrounding the Julius River I was fascinated with the various stages of naturally decaying stumps. Hunkering down in the undergrowth I created gouache studies that aimed to extract key features, implicitly anthropomorphizing them as relics from a time past stoically guarding over the various species of moss, fungi, and lichen they harbor. I applied this same method with the fractured clear-felled coupe down the road. The process of creating 8 stump studies (4 from the clear-felled coupe and 4 from the Julius undergrowth) helped me to formulate a visual language of rhythm, form, and color that would become a reoccurring compositional theme throughout the final polyptych.
Julius River gouache field studies for organic stumps
Clear-felled coupe gouache field studies.
Studio based stump, Organic Decay (oil on canvas)
Studio based stump, Harvested Decay (oil on canvas)
This project depicts the alternative futures of the Tarkine’s old-growth forests through its diverse microcosms in an allegorical polyptych contrasting the aesthetics of pristine habitat and sacred grounds, versus the desecrated and destroyed. In Nato Thompson’s book Seeing Power: Art and Activism of the 21st Century, he writes of a spectrum of legibility and social engagement where “An artwork must remain opaque enough to invite proper amount of speculation and guesswork.” (Thompson 2015 p.34) For this reason I decided to seek a less didactic approach to the construction of my project, utilizing compositional and stylistic ambiguity that I hope challenges viewers to formulate their own interpretations of the work. The ambiguity begins with the unique arrangement of panels. The symmetrical conglomeration derives from tracing the borders of the proposed optimal boundaries set for the preserving the Tarkine as a National Park. I used thick paint to describe the border and folded it in half emulating a Rorschach inkblot test. I used this small-scale mock-up as a guide to sketch out a composition, placing small paper cutouts to guide the preparation of stretched canvas panels that would fit into the butterflied border in a mosaic like fashion. From afar the mirrored image suggests an abstract symmetrical mass of shape and color. Upon closer examination the panels transition into independent fragments depicting the interconnectedness of the Tarkine’s various microcosms; the fungal network of the undergrowth, a clear-felled coupe, the endemic fauna, piles of slash and detritus.
Proposed Tarkine boundaries butterflied as the infrastructure of
polyptych panel composition
Pen and ink mockup for compositional infrastructure-
Throughout the exploration of the 16 panels the viewer is encouraged to journey through the Tarkine’s ecosystem, into the dank undergrowth and entangled amidst the splintering trees and piles of slash. The panels are linked through extended horizon lines, and repetitions of form and color, allowing a fluid transition from one panel to the next, and once again emphasizing the fragility of an interconnected web of life. I aimed to create a similar visual dynamism to that of the Coriolis effect, where the 8 left panels are rotating counterclockwise in a cycle of natural decay, and the 8 right panels rotate clockwise in a cycle of harvested decay. This contrasting dynamism relates back to the various stump studies of natural vs. harvested decay. In aiming to heighten an aesthetic divide between clashing states I explored a new way of working. My style loosened, becoming more gestural in emphasizing the dichotomy between synthetic and natural materials through hard and soft edges. I fashioned a limited palette derived from preceding stump studies to strengthen the cohesion through the entirety of panels.
Under-painting with interconnected gestural lines.
This washes and heightening of gestural lines-
I found a significant correlation between my project’s emphasis on a call for change and the painterly response to rapid changes in technology and social structures during the early 20 century. The invention of Cubism sparked the development of a myriad of artists and movements in which I found great inspiration. In my rendering of dense bush and forest canopy I studied aesthetic elements of Orphism, which was based on cubist construction but focused more on the interaction of color.
Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms, (1914) Oil on canvas. 250 x 250cm Musée National d'Art Moderne de Paris (France- Paris)
Rayonism, developed by Russians Natalia Goncharova and Mikail Larionov, strove to depict time and space creating painted compositions of dynamic rays of light and contrasting colour. I found this useful to depict the rays of light shining through the forest canopy as well as suggesting a sense of movement in the beating of birds wings.
Natalia Goncharova The Forest, (1913) Oil on canvas. 130 x 97cm Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
I found the stylistic dynamism of the futurists echoed the machined devastation I witnessed whilst exploring the clear-felled coupes, while Franz Marc’s (1880 -1916) endeavors to construct a new symbolic visual language in response to humanities dire need to reconnect with nature is well aligned with my motivations for this MFAD project. In 1911 Marc and Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky formed Der Blaue Reiter, a group seeking to represent “the spiritual in art” through form and color. In Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art he urges artists to convey their “inner feelings expressed in terms of natural form (a picture of stimmung)” (Kandinsky 1977 p.2) stimmung referring to the essential spirit of nature, which is a key driving concern of my project.
Umberto Boccioni The Charge of the Lancers, 1915. Oil on canvas. 50 X 32cm Private Collection
Franz Marc Fate of the Animals, 1913. Oil on Canvas. 1.96 x 2.96cm Kunstmuseum, Basel.
Wassily Kandinsky Composition VII, 1913. Oil on canvas. 200 x 300cm Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow
Just over a century later an artistic impetus for change continues. Tasmanian artist Richard Wastell creates powerful paintings and drawings inspired by the charred stumps of clear-felled old growth forests. Wastell’s stumps allude to the remnants of prehistoric skeletal remains jesting at our inevitable demise if we continue to destroy the natural environment. Tasmania’s Tim Burns’ mosaics of color usher the viewer into a contemplative exploration deep amidst the bush imploring a more soothing reconnection to the innateness we share with the environment. Artists such as these who are driven by a deep concern for environmental preservation have been immensely influential on this MFAD project.
Richard Wastell Napalm forest. Myrtle,Leatherwood, Sassafras, 2006. Oil and marble dust on linen. 132 x 182cm Private Collection
Tim Burns Ripple and Current, 2010. Oil on linen. 183 x 198cm Bett Gallery
This project confronts the alternative futures of the Tarkine’s old-growth forests. It traverses the interconnected microcosms of a fragile ecosystem, prompting the viewer into a consideration of this conflicted landscape and placing them as a keystone who can support or dismiss of the preservation of the rainforest. The fight for the preservation of the Tarkine is a battle echoed in many of Earth’s rainforests. Art possesses the power to influence the future trajectory of mankind, and it is vital that artists to use this power wisely. This project is my attempt to use art to engage the viewer with issues of deep and urgent concern.
Kandinsky, W. (1977). Concerning the Spirituality in Art New York: Dover Publications, p.2
Kent, R. (1933). Rockwellkentiana: Few Words and Many Pictures. Chicago: Lakeside Press, p.31
Thompson, N. (2015). Seeing Power, Art and Activism in the 21st Century. New York: First Melville House Printing, p.34