Amber Wallis: Psychoactive landscapes - Art Collector

Issue 58, October - December 2011

Landscape painting is one of the more traditional genres of Australian art. We are used to seeing the exterior used as a metaphor for the interior and psychological. But as Carrie Miller writes, Amber Wallis’s sexually charged canvases take us one step further, throwing us off the therapist’s couch and into a wild drug-fuelled haze.

The title I Fuck Mountains – the name of a recent exhibition by Amber Wallis – says a lot about both the artist and her work. On one level it expresses the fact that her abstracted landscapes are sometimes populated with sexual imagery, on another that, as a contemporary female artist, she is simultaneously subverting and extending the most traditional of Australian painting genres.

For an artist with such buzz, it’s surprising to learn she’s only been painting since 2007. The 33-year-old ex-pat New Zealander had originally studied photography but realised that drawing was what allowed her to recreate her memories in a way that photographing them couldn’t. As Wallis puts it: “The simplicity of a good line is what it’s all about. I like the simplicity and purity of it yet the implicit difficulty in achieving it. It is what I strive for.”

At first blush, trying to situate her work within the context of contemporary Australian art isn’t easy. She is often characterised as a landscape painter but her practice is more diverse than this and her landscape work is distinctly contemporary. For one, her palette is not of the landscape and while, like other artists, she employs the physical exterior to express her own interiority, her work is more psychoactive than simply psychological. At the point where abstraction meets figuration, anything can happen through Wallis’s quasi-automatic process.

But while her work may be difficult to place in relation to her peers, it can be understood in broader terms as part of a movement away from postmodernism to a revisiting of the past without irony or nostalgia. In the artist’s own terms: “I hope to create work that is imbued with a sense of history and timelessness yet being of my own time.” There is a genuine sense in which there is a looking back in order to move forward. This is evidenced by some of the artists she cites as reference points, among them Cy Twombly, Wassily Kandinsky and Sidney Nolan as well as Tracey Emin and Gareth Sansom.

In addition to critical recognition and commercial success Wallis has something else, the admiration of her peers. And even rarer, it is an admiration shared by both the more traditional and contemporary ends of the art world. This is probably because she is someone who has committed herself to the development of a singular visual vocabulary, demonstrated by the fact that her work, while not necessarily unique in its themes or objectives, nevertheless has the mark of originality.

“I hope to have a style that is distinctly my own and not swayed by passing fads or fashions but is rather a language unique to my painting and drawing,” says Wallis. “While not discounting my influences, if I can be true to my own language and truth then it will be a more fulfilling journey as an artist. So I am not sure I could describe my style, it eludes me, it’s just something I do, a language that makes sense to me.” •

New work by Amber Wallis will be exhibited at Utopian Slumps in Melbourne from 11 November to 3 December 2011.

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