Collector's Dossier: John Wolseley's Wild Heart - Art Collector

Issue 53, July - September 2010

Sasha Grishin takes a walk through John Wolseley’s sprawling map-like paintings and finds an artist who is not afraid to invest all of his wild heart into his work.

In May of this year, John Wolseley completed his huge mural, Wild Cries Wild Wings of Wetland and Swamp, on the theme of Australian waterbirds, in Melbourne’s City Square. It was a commission from the Melbourne City Council as part of its Propositions for an Uncertain Future public art program on the theme of sustainability. The painting is bold, unconventional and passionately committed to the environmental cause. It can be described as a meditative, philosophical statement, but at the same time it is an object of great beauty. This broadly characterises much of Wolseley’s art.

When Wolseley, at the age of 38, arrived in Australia in April 1976, it was to be for a short visit. Now, 34 years later, he is still in Australia and is widely regarded as one of the foremost Australian artists of his generation. His work defies any standard art historical categorisation. When examined from the point of view of medium and art form, he is a virtuoso printmaker. He worked with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 in Paris, at the Birgit Skiolds Print workshop in London and more recently at the Australian Print Workshop in Melbourne and has continued to make prints, employing different experimental and conventional printmaking technologies, through to the present. He is also a passionate watercolourist and an outstanding draughtsman, who has been preoccupied with making minutely detailed studies after nature for most of his working life, and yet, at the same time, he enjoys the challenge of working on a monumental scale and using the strategies of collage and assemblage. He also has a considerable body of large-scale work executed in oils and acrylics. For many years he has worked in installation art and has extensively exploited photography, both as an end in itself and incorporated into other art mediums. Yet throughout, there is almost a sense of distrust of the finished art object, of the grand statement. In John Wolseley’s work, truth seems to lie more in the process than in the conclusion. There is more excitement in the first encounter and the search, rather than in the finding.

Shortly after his arrival in Australia, Wolseley noted in his journal something concerning his thinking about the process of art making: “I like meeting a painting to be like meeting a person. It involves a mixture of gentleness, tentativeness, humour, aggression, anger and violence. I feel that not many painters put much of themselves into a painting, most put only one limited quality – which is why so many paintings are so contrived. This contrived nature has a lot to do with the desire of modern painters to paint modern paintings – an obsession with creating a recognisably stylish image – there is so much formula.

“How one achieves a painting, which has strength and strangeness of image, as well as an expression of the more meditative gentle areas of the subconscious, has a lot to do with how a picture is made (there are many ways of doing this). I myself like to go through an expression, at first, of my tentative exploration and love of a partial landscape ... It is the specific quality of light, mood, of that particular time, that group of trees, or that strange bird or animal. These are often gentle undemonstrative things. I like then to put them in my studio and draw around them, crystallise, extract and express more general and more abstracted things about them; finding abstracted shapes which are often less gentle, more violent, often more expressive of my own pain, joy, or search for equilibrium. I do this at odd times wandering around and making shapes instinctively as the days go on. And I hope [that] by uniting the earlier stages from the initial excitement of finding something which moves me with an impression of its more general configuration, that the picture becomes a whole, a totality.”

This notion of finding refuge in nature, of exploring the specific and the peculiar slice of nature in a very personal manner and then working towards a broader understanding on a more universal level, has been characteristic of Wolseley’s art making from his earliest years through to the present. Many of Wolseley’s large works are several metres long and are about journeys, they record passages of time and movements within these passages of time. Some have a self-contained intimacy, a passage of a number of days recording in great detail objects encountered within a fairly limited site, others operate in a broader more holistic manner.

Wolseley is a rare sort of artist and wherever he works, he is always described in terms of the other. In Australia, there is a tendency to describe him as a “pommy eccentric”, a 19th century gentleman naturalist and obsessive watercolourist. In Europe, he is the “white blackfella” who has spent too long under the Central Desert sun and is too preoccupied with lines of mystic energy in the land and various forms of Asian Zen mysticism. He is unconventional, his work does not neatly fit in into any pre-established school of art or pattern of thinking, yet his sprawling map-like paintings, his installations and those wonderful analytical and intricate prints have always been highly regarded.

He is a consummate technician as a printmaker, draughtsman and watercolourist, and since the age of 30, he has been awarded various international distinctions and is represented in many public collections in Australia, Europe and Asia.

His career path is also unusual. Although he was born into an art family, he promptly went on to successfully complete a Diploma of Agriculture. Then he studied art in London at St Martins and later in Paris and when he seemed to be assured of a brilliant career path in England, Wolseley visited Australia and decided to stay. Shortly after that he settled into one of the most civilised pockets of Australia, St Kilda in Melbourne and more recently Fitzroy in Melbourne, from where he has organised field trips into many parts of Australia, Asia and South America, spending about half of each year away from his studios in Melbourne and Bendigo. In this sense he is an itinerant artist, often difficult to contact and living as a virtual hermit in remote locations and working on major projects such as tracing the Wallace Line (a line marking the ecological transition between Asia and Australia), the migration of birds and the seismic shifts in the earth’s tectonic plates over millennia.

A peculiarity of Wolseley’s working method is to keep detailed notebooks, which serve almost like a primary laboratory where he records his thoughts and observations and often, in the form of sketches, presents brilliant excursions into attempts to understand the inner workings of nature. In one such notebook, back in 1993, he wrote: “I have been trying to understand sand dunes – their layering, their rhythms and movements and their cyclic developments which have the structure and elegance of a complex mathematical theory. Often I have been camped in the swale of some huge longitudinal dune and during the night, the wind from some unusual quarter has quarried down through several strata of sand and revealed hidden layers of great antiquity – say a 1,000-year-old camp of the Wanganuru people. Or revealed the geography of an older dune system which in turn may cover the fossilised remains of an ancient forest. I have been looking upon these layered archaeologies, these gold and red piles of different histories and systems as a metaphor for the human psyche; the way each of us could be seen as a walking many-layered world of passions, ancestral memories, neuroses, genetic patterns and ancient archetypes.”

More recently, when examining the traces of bushfires in the Royal National Park, he extended his practice of employing local materials – such as the burnt carbon of trees and the marks made on paper by the remnants of burnt bush – as part of the art making process. Increasingly he became aware of the ghostly echoes left by the perished bird habitats and also the process of regeneration following the fires. Subsequently, working in the dry Mallee country, he became, in his own words “increasingly interested in the relationship – the critical balance – between wetter areas, swamps and creeks and the surrounding dryer areas. And so for the last two years I have been immersing myself in swamps, billabongs and wetlands of all kinds … the wetlands being a kind of refugia for all manner of birds and other fauna”. In part this found reflection in his Melbourne City Square mural and in his forthcoming exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne.

In Wolseley’s art it is not a case of claiming the landscape, but coming to grips with it on its own terms and understanding how it affects you and not how you may affect it. It is Wolseley’s search for new ways of looking at the Australian natural environment, which we see so clearly in his work, and the break with the European visual conventions, that has characterised his art over the past 40 years.

The best works & where to find them
John Wolseley is widely represented in most Australian public art collections and in major collections abroad, including the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Arts Council of Great Britain. His work is available from Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and Australian Galleries in Melbourne.

How to start collecting
John Wolseley has always been quite a prolific artist who has exhibited frequently since his first solo exhibition in 1962. Generally his prints sell from between $2,500 and $10,000 while his paintings, both the mixed media works and the watercolours, range in price from $10,000 up to $75,000. The larger paintings are highly prized with collectors while his installations and commissions have been in excess $100,000. He is also an artist who has generally improved with age and unlike some painters whose early work is more highly prized, John Wolseley achieves some of the highest prices for his most recent works.

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