by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Many artists live in rural parts for the ‘silence and contemplation’ that the country affords. But with this year’s appalling bushfires in Victoria, which killed over 200 people, the bush is no longer safe. The work of these women artists reveals the uncompromising attitude to their art practice and the manner in which their lives are forged by the elements.
GW Bot lives in Canberra, Australia’s bush capital with the Brindabella Ranges on one side and suburbia on the other. Wendy Stavrianos lives on the slopes of Mount Gaspard, in Central Victoria, which she describes as “seductively beautiful”, where her ideal studio is an old shearing shed just a few hundred yards from the house. In February 2009, she realized it had become a disaster waiting to happen:
As the fires raged we realized life had changed forever. In that shed and the shipping containers nearby is most of my life’s works. The fires were a new phenomenon, so ferocious. All the old warnings had no real meaning. As the drought continues here and the dams have very little water left in them, we know we cannot fight a fire. When the fires were raging around the state, and near Bendigo, so close to us, I began to panic and carry paintings I would not like to lose to the main house. I realized I could not defend the studio as well as the house. As the news came in over the radio, I realised the house could burn down also. This new reality of fire has left us all with a siege mentality. (Letter May 2009).
Helen Geier lives near Braidwood on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. She observes that, since living there “the climate has changed, growing less predictable and more extreme, with more long dry spells and electrical storms”. She describes it “as an anxious landscape”.
The Shoalhaven River, where we are, is very low for two thirds of the year, creeks have stopped flowing and ground water levels drop further each year. We rely on and pump this ancient underground water for our farm.
Living in the country makes you more aware of the dynamics of nature. I don’t see landscape as pictorial, or as framed views; I’m less aware of the surface terrain than I am of what is above and below the ground. This awareness moves the viewpoint to a stratified landscape, layered with underground caves and trapped ancient water. The ancient landscape of the inland makes you aware that you are walking on a dry seabed and in the heat the air takes on a liquid quality.
(Letter May 2009).
GW Bot’s landscape-inspired works commemorate and celebrate poignant aspects of life. Her recent work has as its stated intention, “a dialogue between silences and spaces and the landscape of glyphs.” Bot’s drawing, printmaking and sculpture, is inspired by the landscape near Canberra where she lives. She observes in the landscape a language, through which she seeks to capture, translate, and comprehend the unknowable aspects of life. The landscape she depicts is not a real landscape but a metaphysical place. The signs and symbols that have developed in Bot’s work, which she calls ‘glyphs’ (words) form a calligraphic language, from which she creates a visual poetry. A semiotic approach to art-making enables her to identify in the landscape a language waiting to be translated. There are references made to the scribbles in nature itself, the marvellous patterning in the bark of gum trees created by moths, which Judith Wright (1915-2000), one of Australia’s most important poets identified in her poem Scribbly Gum. The reference to, ‘scribbles in nature’, was first used by Marcus Clark (1846–1881) in the 1870s, when he described the Australian bush in the most disparaging terms, as “the strange scribblings of Nature learning how to write”.1 Bot points out, “Nature does know how to write and we are trying to understand it”,2 due in large part to an increased knowledge of Australian Aboriginal culture, and to individuals such as Bot, being prepared now to explore it thoroughly. Indeed her exhibiting name GW Bot pays homage to Aboriginal culture, for wombats are prevalent near her home and she has taken them as her totemic animal. According to Aboriginal totemic belief, each member of a clan inherits a particular plant or animal of the region. Christine Grishin chose GW Bot for it implied a oneness with nature. The source for her name, however, lies in historic French documents, where the marsupial is referred to as le grand Wam Bot. 3
Bot uses the strange patina created by the harsh climate in Australia, on fence posts, which have witnessed bushfires, floods and the intense sun. Elements of this language, she points out “can be found on bark and trees and encoded within the shrubs, eroded gullies and fields of grass. It is highly lyrical and profound, dramatic and tender, timeless and ephemeral. After having spent more than two decades working in the landscape, at times I feel almost like a medium through which the scribbling of nature are recorded”.4
Bot’s glyphs are made up of “potent marks, they are reductive in their simplicity and symbolic of their real and metaphysical sources, that represent the internal and external places she inhabits”.5 They pay homage to the mystery and power in nature and they implore the viewer to address environmental issues as a matter of urgency. Indeed the minimal forms of Bot’s glyphs enable speed and drama to be conveyed, the glyphs dance in an anthropomorphic frenzy implying a relationship with universals – physically with the moon, the sun, the shapes of the trees. Movement is subtly orchestrated by the artist where her drawn images are made in pencil, linocut, watercolour, bronze: “My sketchbook drawings are not always finished drawings now; they are more like shorthand notes to help me remember things.” She describes the cutting of lino to be a direct form of drawing, too.6
The Australian landscape can be “very rough, and tough”, Bot told a London audience at Hart Gallery earlier this year. There is an intense ravaging of the landscape by bushfires, on a regular basis. The 2003 bushfires near Canberra were unprecedented and posed a danger on an awesome scale. After years of drought the danger is intensified. In Victoria in January 2009 over 200 people died in the worst bushfires in history. In Judith Wright, poet, environmentalist and campaigner for Aboriginal Land Rights, Bot has a fellow traveller. “A strong relationship with the land is what grounds us”, Bot points out, an aural tradition that affirms where we belong. It enables an approach to life that has a parallel in Zen philosophy and in music. Objects and the space in between are equally valid, just as intervals in music provide room for the imagination. Bot’s drawn images, firmly based in the landscape form an internal metaphysical landscape, which enables visual, mental and emotional processing that is required throughout life. A metaphysical landscape is formed in the actual processing and making of the glyphs, the orchestration of images becomes a mirror of her deepest experiences. Gaston Bachelard refers to the ‘forests of our selves’, where the physical world of the imagination and the soul, connect.7
Drawing materials are chosen for association and practical qualities. Fine paper is like skin, it is sensitive to touch and the fragility that has made curators question its longevity, the artist points out, should be pitched against the fact that a fragile relic such as a piece of an ancient manuscript, is “more telling of a civilisation”. Paper for all its fragility is also strong. Tapa cloth from Tonga, a gift from her brother, was used by Bot for its associations with life and death rituals. “The Tapa itself represents a rite of passage. I love this association and the texture of it. It is made out of the outer bark of a mulberry tree and reminds me of the bark from Australian gum trees. For me there is also a connection with Aboriginal bark painting”.8
The dichotomies to which Bot’s works allude invest the works with a sense of hope, for after every fire there is regeneration. Following the deepest tragedy of her daughter Natasha’s death in 1999, Bot created life-affirming images that bridge the devastating abyss of human grief. In this her generosity as an artist and individual is given a poignant voice. Bot believes that death defines life, which imbues Island, (2003) with a poetic beauty that reaches into the darkness, viewed from an aerial perspective that assuages isolation in a personal world shorn of hope. As a mother she seeks meaning in the land, as mother earth, a connectivity, with universal experience and she does so with original and vivid results. Bot’s drawn marks are affirmative of life; the glyphs assume human qualities such as their ability to float and dance. They inhabit the picture plane with confidence making a connection between the abstract and real life possible. Hers is a poetry that connects individuals irrespective of culture or place, with a female nurturing voice, a giver of life.
Gatherers in a Timeless Land, No. I, (1993–94), by Wendy Stavrianos brings together a number of heartfelt preoccupations that have evolved from the 1960s to the present day. Immediately recognisable and occupying a unique position in Australian art, the work of Wendy Stavrianos was described as early as 1982 as, “cutting a swathe through visions of pastoral landscape in Australian art”, leaving, “tradition in tatters”.9 The sheer force of these works is astounding. Her early drawings were quintessentially feminine, yet with a spiritual clarity and wide appeal. She used materials for which she felt a personal affinity – cloth for example, resonates with associations with her childhood: costume, dressing up, sewing; then as a mother – with the feminine rituals involved with nurturing, veiling, (attesting to identity and sexuality), cloaked figures, curtains that alluded to concealment. Sewing which she had learnt as a young girl became as immediate a tool through which to make significant marks, as traditional drawing materials such as pen or charcoal. The sewn line became the drawn line. The combination of the traditional female occupation of stitching with powerful landscape works found a voice in Fragments of Days That Have Already Become Memories (1976–78). In this, a work of intense beauty and emotional resonance, the feminine language and political conviction towards environmental issues converge. She felt personal outrage at nuclear testing and uranium mining, evidence of which was in abundance when she lived in Darwin for nine years, from 1973, with her young family. Traditional aspirations towards family life and motherhood were constantly challenged by the reality of balancing life as mother and artists, with the material necessity of teaching. She created a visual language which sought to achieve the reconciliation of opposites: spiritual versus ecological, inner versus outer, concrete versus metaphoric. Abstract metaphors allude to emotional states.
Her family’s life in Darwin was shattered by Cyclone Tracy, which destroyed their home and much of Darwin on Christmas Day in 1974. It was interpreted by local Aborigines as being the inevitable consequence of the damage that white settlers in Australia had inflicted on the land, especially with mining and nuclear testing. Stavrianos gave vent to her anger and loss through intensely worked drawings using rapidograph pen and ink, on large bolts of fabric. Later, in 1993, the sudden death of her son Peter was devastating, yet she gave a voice to her anguish through work of great poignancy, the mark-making of years of intense witness as artist and mother, maker and nurturer underpinning her acutely felt observations from nature. In technical terms she draws upon a wide range of objects, materials and transforms them through dreamlike imagery to create a haunting personal iconography.
From Fragments of Days, (nine panels each 274 cm x 91 cm) a forest drawing made in Darwin, to the installation works of the 1990s Wendy Stavrianos has displayed a courageous and unique vision. Sewn lines and fine pen and ink lines on this vast scale were created by hand with the fabric draped over the artist’s knees. Of significance in terms of the feminist movement in art, Stavrianos was not at the time consciously aware of the power of her own voice. Yet her female vision assumes an iconic status in her drawn and sculpted cloth works where fragility, change and decay, are expressed through complex drawn lines that allude to a metaphysical drama and essence of the female experience. In this her work shares the power and validity of Eva Hesse. Stavrianos is overtly political in works such as Rape of a Northern Land, (1976-78), a strident voice against the pollution created by mining. Drawing on a large scale with the immediacy of the drawn line is rooted in Stavrianos’s rigorous early training and subsequent art practice. It enables her to amplify her inner voice, to embark on a journey, which uncovers previously taboo areas of experience in art, uncovering the unknown and the unexpected.
Mark-making in combination with sculpture in memory of her son enables a process of nurturing, healing and renewal to take effect. The ongoing catharsis and transcendence, which her experience has forced her to process, has resulted in a sanctuary for the viewer to attend, in an almost ritualistic manner. The viewer in turn finds comfort and illumination, in spite of the loss to which the works allude.
The recent work by Wendy Stavrianos, The Gathering Field, is the product of a residency at Arthur Boyd’s property, Bundanon on the south coast of New South Wales. There her early Darwin method of working in pen and ink and canvas to create three-dimensional totems in the wet season, became an appropriate form again. She explains:
After many years of living with the drought that affects central Victoria where I have over time, come to terms with the ‘dry, I have celebrated the gold of those summer grasses. This [work] deals with those dualities, the psychological split between abstraction and representation, city and country, space and its various forms pitted against each other; one reality against another, dark against light, the ‘field’ – literal and metaphorical. These are the ideas that excite me.10
Gathering objects from the land, like a bower bird, that are rich in association such as plants, animals, bones and feathers, with making art, and then making art historical references to Jean François Millet’s (1814–1875), The Gleaner, (1857) Stavrianos creates haunting works to address the urgent plight of the environment.
The Gatherer is about restoration and our links to the history of our connection to the earth, to the timelessness of that act of engagement with its ancient mysteries, like the deep spring embedded in the rock that has sustained human beings through time.11
Of A Metaphysical Edge, (2005) her new work, Stavrianos states, “In the large eponymous work titled, A Metaphysical Edge I wanted to make a raw piece that has the energy of drawing with an emphasis on shapes and a strong presence of the human condition, without illustrating it or being didactic. This work does not moralise; it stands in suspension, waiting – which can imply hope for a more earth-connected world in opposition to the dominance of technology. The work deals with various forms of painterly representation; repetition, drawing in its rawest form, distortion, variations in scale, modelled form and flatness. I do not want the shapes to look precious or crafted, therefore I use a jigsaw as a drawing tool, going against the trend at present where some artists employ skilled craftspeople to make their work for them. I insist on my own experience being part of my journey and built into that is the meaning behind my art making”12. In the installation, The Metaphysical Edge, the figures hover between the space of the dark lost forest, on the edge – between one state and another. This is a dark visual poem about yearning for a more connected world.
Pictorial space is Helen Geier’s metaphor for cultural experience, on a personal level and in the wider world. Using an amalgam of pictorial forms that belong to her own life and the collective cultural memory that she observes, Geier creates a complex processing of images and perspectives. By presenting a multi-focal image such as an overall diamond grid, in contrast to one point perspective of European art, she is defining the picture plane and presenting multiple viewpoints of disclosure and enclosure. In doing so Geier is challenging the notion of universals, in order to present a sensitively considered view of the modern world informed by personal experiences and collaborations in Asia and Central Australia. The work poses questions such as how, an Australian artist, whose work has been formulated by a Eurocentric tradition, which is now in ‘a dynamic relationship with a plethora of other cultures – both indigenous and regional’,13 conceives space. She makes complex works in a wide range of materials, where the endless experimentation and constant reassessing of her work from the past creates a layering in both physical and conceptual terms. When she worked collaboratively in India and exhibited there the response was succinct: “Geier’s work speaks a language of precision and sensuousness. She excels in her understanding of geometry, space and linear perspective. Technically sound, her photo-etchings and photo-lithographs give a profound insight into the artist’s psyche, raising questions about her emotional, cultural and psychological conditioning”.14 Among her finest works are those done in collaboration with Kanchan Chander from New Dehli. The exhibition in Canberra, in 2002 was the result of an ongoing dialogue and collaboration: Karol-Bagh to Tascott. The exhibition title refers to the place names of the two artists birthplaces. The artists met in New Dehli in 2000.
It is impossible to examine or fully appreciate Helen Geier’s recent work without an understanding of her entire oeuvre for she constantly reinvents her work and creates intriguing paths in and around a range of material – literary, philosophical and aesthetic. Her drawing employs a range of inventive materials and all of her work is informed by a strong basis in printmaking dating back to her training at St Martin’s in London. The knowledge of the picture plane is thoroughly explored in printmaking, where layering and surface patina are created and re-created as part of the dialogue with images and ideas. The boundaries imposed by the technical processes give rise to inventive conceptual design. The simplest drawn lines can be combined with the architectural drawings of great precision. Geier’s interests range from Bowles’ Practice of Perspective, (1783) which inspired a body of work in the 1990s to the collection of sequins, beads, fabric and the sewn line. Aspects of decoration such as lace patterning are juxtaposed with a colonial saw, which slashes the canvas. Which ever way the drawn line is created, it is the process that insinuates itself on to the finished image, a process of exploration. Geier admits to the complexity of her work: “The continually overlaying nature of my work also makes it difficult to define. In fact, to make a statement in words, about painting, seems to deny the ongoing and unconscious nature of the process. It’s a ‘chimera’ continually changing complexion and perimeter. My work is never finished. It continues to evolve in my mind’s eye and new meanings are revealed to me by feedback. My work becomes a window into my mind and the viewer can experience my perspective”.15
Karol-Bagh to Tascott celebrates a collision of ideas and cultures. The works are mostly in the form of scrolls, the human image imposed on a landscape that is defined by architectural archways, perspective playing a vital role in the angle from which we embrace the image. The scrolls fall to the floor giving a sense of infinity. The picture plane that defines western art has been put to one side, but it remains in the arena as a reference point. Images from the large scrolls are echoed in sculptural forms as part of the entire installation; materials as varied as sequins, spray paint, block print, thread, and lace make this a rich and subtle play of forms and ideas. The drawn line is lifted off the picture plane; it is taken for a walk through the gallery space. Liberated drawn images are taken a step further in her exhibition in Canberra in 2008, Meander II A Reflective Path, a body of work that was produced in response to a trip to Central Australia. For three weeks in June 2007 Geier hosted an open studio at Watch This Space Gallery in Alice Springs. There she experienced a significant interaction with Indigenous art and with the land itself.
Kieren Sanderson, the programme manager of Watch This Space, from 2005–2007, observed the strength of Geier’s response to her visit to Alice Springs: “The finely tuned meanings and approaches that Geier has developed over her thirty years of practice are repositioned in this body of work as she continues to dissolve standardised Western perspectives and spatial structures. She threads, pleats, tears and fold the paper into a variety of scrolls and forms, physically drawing upon the ranges, gorges, desert rivers, mulga woodland, sand country and salt lakes of Central Australia. Her subsequent feathery brushwork and recurrent patterns create a textural richness that reflects the organic and cyclical processes characteristic of the physical environment”.16
Meander as a title has cultural references but in a study of drawing one can make the connection with Paul Klee’s description of drawing, “to take a line for a walk”. Given Geier’s cultural meanderings, it comes as no surprise to see an overwhelmingly prolific response in physical terms to her cultural foray in Central Australia, where the paper mount also enters the whole space, the edges with painted, drawn motifs from the landscape become the drawn line too. Using the unique landscape of Central Australia as her inspiration, the three dimensional, spatial drawing of Helen Geier makes an important contribution in the Australian context to new drawing practice and definition.
1. Marcus Clarke, For the Term of His Natural Life, Melbourne, 1874.
2. GW Bot, Artist’s Talk, Hart Gallery London, 18 March 2009.
3. GW Bot, Paddock Glyphs, Australian Galleries, Sydney, 17 April–4 May 2008.
5. Sheridan Palmer, “Dialogue of the Australglyph’, GW Bot, Glyphs, Hart Gallery, London, December 2006.
6. “Conversation with GW Bot”, Landforms in Contemporary Art, Vol. 1, Issue 2. Integrated Education Ltd, Whangaparaoa, New Zealand, 2008.
7. March, 2009.
8. “Conversation”, op.cit.
9. Susanna Short, “Canvases leave tradition in tatters”, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 1982.
10. Wendy Stavrianos, The Gathering Field: Selected works from the Mount Gaspard Studios, 2003-2006, Metro 5 Gallery, Melbourne, 12 July–6 August 2006.
12. Wendy Stavrianos, “Artist’s Statement”, A Metaphysical Edge, Bendigo Art Gallery, 2005.
13. Helen Geier, “Artists’ Dialogue with Binghui Haungfu,
Chance Connections – Cultural Space and Perspective, Sydney May 1996.
14. Kanchan Chander, “Helen Geier: Different Fields of Vision”, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 5–11 February, 2000, Art Asia Pacific, Issue 29, 2000.
15. “Chance Connections”, op.cit.
16. Kieran Sanderson, Meander II: A Reflective Path, 29 February-28 April 2008, Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs.