FIONA LOWRY Story Owen craven photography daniel shipp
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RTIST PROFILE visits the studio of Sydney-based painter Fiona Lowry to discuss the histories and stories of the Australian bush that inform her contemporary renderings of a landscape as sinister and dangerous as it is breathtakingly beautiful.
iona lowry’s artworks are contemporary renderings of conventional portraiture and landscape painting. Although she cites locations such as Belanglo State Forest and loosely references actual events including the Ivan Milat ‘backpacker’ murders and the infamous Ned Kelly crimes, Lowry’s airbrush technique depicts the sites of these histories through somewhat abstracted, hazy aesthetics. This is part of the paradox of her work – it is as much about formal qualities and beauty as it is about the evocation of impending doom or unease. There is a seductive weightlessness to the effervescent application of paint that belies the paintings’ thornier content. In a number of works the viewer’s vision shudders across the surface: the point of focus staggered over the painting, denying a single point of perspective and a conventional reading of foreground and background. Here, the historical specificities associated with the term landscape slide into the paradigm of place, a broad concept also accommodating nuance and imperceptibility. In the place of Lowry’s pictures, narrative is subverted and the optical field oscillates, infused with a melancholy air that is often erotically charged. And so, in their representation of exposed bodies and sense of menace inside the forest at the limits of our civilisation, Lowry’s paintings expound the cultural understanding of the forest’s abomination.
The body plays a critical role in the field of visual contact. The figures
in her paintings occupy much of the overall composition. The body extends close to the frame’s edge and lies naked, crouching or splayed with provocative vulnerability. In considering these ideas, Lowry draws inspiration from a range of cultural sources including Nick Cave’s love songs; Walt Whitman’s poetry; the ‘divine terror’ of the Old Testament; apocalypse culture; and William Blake’s art and philosophy. Blake, Whitman and Cave certainly traverse time but their work shares an interest in religion, and the co-existence of light and dark as an expression of life and death, love and hate, and the rational and irrational. Your paintings could be classified – quite separately – within the genre of the landscape tradition but also portraiture. Do you approach the landscapes differently to the portraits? I don’t really see them as portraits in the usual sense of the word. They are more about my ideas, associations and experiences in relation to the figures. Because the landscapes are of a specific place and there are all these associations around that particular site, they operate in the same way. Technically, I feel I approach them quite differently. The figurative works live in a somewhat dreamlike state and the landscapes are more psychotic. But I feel that they achieve their power by sitting in the same spaces together.
Guo Jian Story Paul Flynn
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RTIST PROFILE visits the Beijing studio of painter Guo Jian to discuss the paintings inspired by his time in China’s military that reveal the contradictions behind the country’s propaganda machine.
Performance, music and visual arts have long been used by armies as a way of rousing troops to their cause, but perhaps nowhere on such a grand and systematic scale as China. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been the central actor in the Chinese Communist Party’s myth making. Since the founding of the Republic in 1949, traditional novels, ballets and operas have been reconfigured into stories and images of the PLA’s modern military triumph. While the disastrous policies of The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a destructive social-political campaign aimed at purging the party of Mao’s imagined enemies and enforcing Maoist orthodoxy, are now officially repudiated, major works from that era such as the ‘Red Detachment of Women’, performed for US President Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit, are still part of the repertoire of the National Ballet of China.
Even today an estimated 10,000 ‘entertainment soldiers’ – dancers, singers, musicians and acrobats – are charged with the business of raising morale both for the military and the public at large. Peng Liyuan, wife of current Chinese leader Xi Jinping, was until very recently herself a performer to troops, more famous among the general public than her husband before his current rise to
I remember one old guy standing in front of a painting wanting to smash it with his walking stick. Our minds were opened up
power. Popular media also plays its part: turn on state television and there is a devoted channel for gala performances, blockbuster movies and countless hours of popular TV dramas on military themes. The message through all is clear: the PLA is the bedrock of China’s modern identity and the key to its future security. Artist Guo Jian has known the PLA from both behind and in the front of front lines – from enlisting in the late 1970s to escape the drudgery of small town life as an army propaganda painter, to a decade later finding himself among the students carting bodies off Tiananmen Square as those same forces opened fire on him and his classmates during the tragedy of June 4, 1989. His extraordinary experience has been the inspiration for a life’s body of work that reworks elements of the state’s propaganda to document the milestones of his generation: from a rag-tag bunch of poor rural kids manipulated by a closed cultural and political system, through momentous, heartbreaking change as China struggled to absorb the influence and criticism of the outside world. Guo Jian was born in 1963 in China’s southwest backwater province of Guizhou. At 17 (claiming to be older), he joined a group of 400 teenagers from his community on a train to a military training camp as part of the recruitment drive for the Sino-Vietnamese war. The innocence and idealism of their enlistment is captured in his series ‘1979’, where we see romantic black-and-white images of Guo and his friends as stereotypes of the patriot soldier – dressed in new uniforms and staring off into the distance much as young soldiers still do in the countless military propaganda posters that litter Chinese cities today. “At first, they put us on a nice train – and everyone came to the station thinking we were heroes,” he recalls. “I was really happy, but my classmate was crying. He told me to stop fucking smiling because we’re all going to die.” Once in the neighbouring province of Yunnan,
he and his friends were ordered off their comfortable ride and into a freight train, where they were “packed in like pigs”. As he recalls, this was his first lesson in the grim reality of army life. The training camp where they were eventually offloaded was a village warehouse 300 km from the border with Vietnam – with one gun and no bullets: “In China, the first thing they train you in is how to march and how to listen to orders. Every day we were told the Vietnamese were coming to kill us,” he notes bluntly. “We were given the army newspaper and made to read it every day. After a few months we got really angry about the Vietnamese. We were brainwashed … we had to volunteer ourselves to go to the war and that is how they made us want to go.” Guo Jian had been brought into the army as a propaganda painter, recognised in his home town for artistic skills he had developed through copying – first from images in the bottom of decorated wash basins or, when available, sketch books borrowed for a hasty ten minutes from those lucky enough to own them. But while his talent was to be put to use rousing the troops, he recalls the army had a difficult enough time keeping them from deserting. “People hated the army life,” he said. “I would try to get sick by standing in the sun or in the cold. One day a soldier came back who I hadn’t seen for a month. He said he’d been in the hospital so I asked him ‘oh what disease did you have’ and he said he had his foreskin cut off. So then we all went to the doctor and said, ‘I have an infection, I need to get circumcised’. The doctor said no but I persuaded him to let me go to the hospital. I got a month off but I had to get a real circumcision. We would all go – two or three at a time.” One of the few respites from the cycle of propaganda and exercise was the occasional visit of singers and dancers brought in to perform
PROFILE Guo Jian
Tim Allen Story Alison Mackay & Richard Morecroft PHOTOGRAPHER STEPHEN OXENBURY 090
or Tim Allen, working in the landscape – wielding charcoal, gouache, ink and other water-based media – is only one half of his practice. Working from his Blue Mountains studio, a large converted machinery shed with huge doors opening out to the surrounding bushland, Allen makes large works, mainly in oils; paintings which are an expansion and a distillation of his plein air works. He exploits the qualities of oil paint, whilst retaining the energy of his outdoor studies. Whether indoors or out, the influence of the natural world is always apparent in his work.
Your parents were highly motivated to appreciate wild landscapes – their beauty and adversity. Was that an important part of your life from an early age? Well yes, when I was very young. My father was one of Australia’s pioneering rock climbers and he was climbing at quite a high level until he had an accident in his late 50s and is now a paraplegic. He did the first ascent of Ball’s Pyramid and many others in the early 1960s. My mum was a pioneering bush walker as well; she did one of the earliest traverses of the Western Arthurs in Tasmania. I was brought up into that and taken out into the wilderness for considerable lengths of time. The time I spent in my 20s and 30s out in wild places – rock climbing, skiing, walking – has become the source of everything I’m doing now. The current works, which are from the Snowy Mountains, are not about a particular view, they are taking from everything my earlier wilderness experience has given me, a sense of being in a remote landscape. How did that wilderness connection begin to show itself? When I discovered the work of British artist Richard Long at art school it really chimed with me, particularly his 1970s works and
the whole notion of ‘art made by walking in landscapes’. He didn’t do this in a particularly romantic way – he’d walk spectacular places and banal places, sometimes he’d just walk in a straight line for days. But it was the idea that spending time in the landscape, especially by walking, navigating and mapping, was half the artwork. That all combined with ‘School of London’ influences, Frank Auerbach and David Bomberg especially. Auerbach was one of the greatest influences on me, but one of his teachers was David Bomberg. As a student, I read his stories of going up into the wilderness of Scotland and painting all day in a blizzard. It was at that point the two different aspects of my life – the wilderness and the art making – combined. Going to art school didn’t seem to have anything to do with what I’d done up until then, but Bomberg’s work brought them together. You seem to have made a commitment now to the plein air tradition, have you always worked in that way? The plein air thing became very important from about 5 or 6 years ago and it’s made a huge difference. Before that I’d been a landscape artist dealing with semi-abstract and quite minimal wilderness-inspired
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Adelaide Bienniale Preview OWEN CRAVEN
With a 26-year history, the Adelaide Biennial is the nation’s longest running survey of contemporary Australian art. It is therefore fitting that this year the exhibition looks not just at the art produced by Australian artists, but at the underlying, often muted, stories of our history since colonisation. ‘Dark Heart’, the 2014 exhibition title, is a ‘warts and all’ look at personal, political and psychological aspects of contemporary Australia. From intercultural relationships, environmental fate, gender and political power, the Biennial is an exploration of our cultural identity. ‘Dark Heart’ tells a narrative of Australia’s dark past and poses a challenge to the fabric of contemporary Australian society through the vast assemblage of works on display. Biennial Curator and Art Gallery of South Australia Director, Nick Mitzevich, says the exhibition is “inherently emotional and immersive… one that explores the underbelly of contemporary culture”. Over 25 of Australia’s leading contemporary artists explore our nation’s cultural identity through photography, painting, sculpture, installation and the moving image. Diverse perspectives converge to challenge and reflect upon our histories. While eX de Medici’s works are reminiscent of history paintings and focus on the darkness of war and physical violence, a striking series of portraits by Tony Garifalakis present a more contemplative and menacing depiction
of political leaders. Memories of feeling outcasted as a child have inspired Julia deVille’s installations, pieces that combine jewellery-making with taxidermy. Dani Marti’s visceral work explores identity through interwoven shadows, highlighting both light and darkness. These works have a strong inflection of portraiture and resemble swatches of fabric that capture personalities, moods and emotions. As such, they recall the intimacy of fabric in contact with the body and represent not only states of feelings but also regimes of class, power and self.
Warwick Thornton, and Lynette Wallworth in collaboration with Martumili artists. Mitzevich’s commitment to engaging visitors in difficult conversations regarding these issues has resulted in the accompanying Biennial catalogue, further investigating the difficult and discordant themes of the exhibition with a feature essay by one of Australia’s most controversial expatriates, Germaine Greer. ‘Dark Heart’ tells the story of the history of Australian society and attempts to create meaning of the world we live in through inherently emotional work, drawing from the inner depths of a darkened past to shed light on Australian society today.
Artist Ah Xian sought political asylum in Australia following the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since the 1990s, Xian has united traditional Chinese materials and techniques with contemporary sculptural practice to address issues surrounding cultural displacement, identity politics and the relationship between East and West. Xian’s busts, with their decorative accessories, metaphysically explore the nature of existence and imply something beyond the physical entities we inhabit.
EXHIBITION Dark Heart: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art 1 March to 11 May, 2014 Art Gallery of South Australia www.adelaidebiennial.com.au
The remaining roll call of artists includes such prominent practitioners as: Brook Andrew, Del Kathryn Barton, Martin Bell, Ian Burns, Dale Frank, , Fiona Hall, Bill Henson, Brendan Huntley, Kulata Project – Tjala Arts, Richard Lewer, Trent Parke, Patricia Piccinini, Caroline Rothwell, Alexander Seton, Sally Smart, Ian Strange,
01 Tony Albert, 108 (detail), 2011–13, 99 mixed media collages 02 Ah Xian, Evolutionaura1: Turquoise-1, 2011–13, bronze, gold, turquoise, 54 x 43 x 29.5cm 03 Brook Andrew, Australia I, 2013, mixed media on Belgian linen, 200 x 300 x 5cm 04 Dani Marti, ARMOUR, Folly of Fear (detail), 2012–13, rope, rubber and leather, 340 x 170cm 05 eX de Medici, The Law, 2013, watercolour and white gouache on paper, 114 x 700cm Courtesy the artists, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne, and Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
PREVIEW Adelaide Biennial
From intercultural relationships, environmental fate, gender and political power, the exhibition is an exploration of Australiaâ€™s cultural identity.