Darren Wardle: The Dystopian Prism - Art Collector

Issue 46, October - December 2008

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Housing estates and Los Angeles strip malls have both wormed their way into Darren Wardle’s landscapes. Despite their hyper-neon brightness, these canvases are riddled with decay and disintegration writes Tracey Clement.

Darren Wardle is back in Australia, but you have to wonder how long it will last. For the last six years his relationship with his home town of Melbourne has been long distance, held together by a protracted kind of commuting between there and the United States. Wardle recently returned from a stint in the Australia Council studio in Brooklyn, New York. There he picked up American representation with Luxe Gallery in New York, but for inspiration, the painter’s eyes are firmly fixed across the continent on the opposite coast.

In 2004, Wardle undertook an Australia Council residency in Los Angeles, California. He had been to the city before, while still studying, and it had made a big impression. But after three months of immersion, there was no going back. LA has become Wardle’s muse, an endless source of fascination and inspiration. Home to Hollywood, Nip/Tuck and Rodney King, the city of angels is both utopia and dystopia; one of those places you either love or loathe.

Wardle is clearly a man in love. Asked to describe LA’s appeal he says: “It’s a beast. It’s an absolute beast. It is just so hungry and unsustainable.” But he says this with equal parts awe, disdain and affection, adding, “just when you think it’s all the same, just mini-mall after mini-mall, something will pop up and make you do a complete 180. It’s always surprising.” Clearly seduced by the low slung, glistening grid of LA, Wardle paints hybrid architectural landscapes, a kind of postmodernist nowhere, or more accurately, anywhere, a seamless blend of Californian malls, Las Vegas-style artificial nature and even iconic Australian buildings, all rendered in neon bright colours.

Despite their wilfully syncretic construction, glaringly artificial colours, and almost psychedelic, lurid sci-fi tone, Wardle’s paintings are still, in many ways, traditional landscapes, evidence perhaps that regardless of the USA’s magnetic pull, Australia and its painting traditions have had their effect on him. Which is hardlysurprising since Wardle was born in Heidelberg, Victoria, and grew up in thelong shadow of Arthur Streeton and his compatriot plein air painters.

Wardle was always drawing as a kid,but like many young people raised in the suburbs, even those living right next door to Heidi, he didn’t really think of art as a possible career. He enrolled in TAFE graphic design courses, but quickly changed to fine arts. One body of work, which he made in between finishing his RMIT Bachelor degree in fine arts in 1991 and returning to complete Honours in 1997, particularly references the Heidelberg legacy. He photographed a housing estate called Streeton Views, plonked on one of the painter’s classic vistas, once a month for several years. Inevitably, he even did some plein air painting there, saying: “That’s what you do! Australian landscape painting; you take your easel outside and paint.”

Wardle quickly moved on from painting outside, but he has always remained connected to the history of Australian landscape painting. Citing early European etchings and drawings that were sent back “home” as precursors of today’s glossy real estate brochures he says: “I’m interested in how Australian landscape was always tied to development.” With this in mind, the homogenous LA-style architecture that spreads across Wardle’s recent canvases begins to look less like a fantasy landscape and more like evidence of real development, a record of the global reach of American culture.

Regardless of where they are situated, in a specific real place, or in an imaginary Pacific Rim location, it is clear looking at Wardle’s landscapes that something has gone terribly wrong. Buildings disintegrate and implode, cars crash, fires smoulder at the edges of monolithic modernist towers. And everywhere the skies glow with unnaturally bright, digitally tweaked, cataclysmic colours that can’t simply be blamed on smog. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian are words frequently bandied about to evoke Wardle’s vision. He concedes that his paintings are “meant to be both beautiful and terrible…My work is basically what I see, taken to an extreme. I’m always looking at things through a dystopian prism, but I’m hoping it won’t turn out that way.” When pressed, Wardle describes himself as an optimist. A week later he changes his mind. Darren Wardle may be ambivalent, but his paintings speak for themselves.

Darren Wardle’s new work can be seen in two upcoming solo shows: Soft Target at Nellie Castan Gallery in Melbourne, from 7 to 29 November 2008, and Modular Liberties at Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art in Sydney, from 2 to 21 December 2008.

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