Lisa Uhl: The roots run deep - Art Collector

Issue 70, October - December 2014

Jane O’Sullivan talks to Lisa Uhl about her passion for painting the distinct desert walnut trees of her family’s stories.
Lisa Uhl, photographed for Art Collector Issue 70, October - December 2014. Photo courtesy of Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency

“I paint my family’s country,” explains the young Fitzroy Crossing painter Lisa Uhl, “where they came from the desert many years ago, its hot red sand hills and small trees – that’s why I paint trees.”
Her canvases are often riotously coloured, but the strong verticals of the trees give her work a very different sense of power and visual energy to that of her contemporaries at the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, including Sonia Kurarra and Uhl’s aunt, Dolly Snell.

“I like painting trees, that’s what I’m good at,” Uhl says simply. “My style is different from other artists here at Mangkaja Art Centre, that’s how I paint.”

She is a bold and confident colourist, deftly layering tones and introducing unusual contrasts. Her canvases often sing with heat – reds are often placed alongside purples and pinks – but cooler blues and greens also make an appearance. Commonly she will only work with a palette of two or three colours and this, combined with the relative simplicity of the compositions, is part of the appeal of her work – that she is able to achieve so much with so little.

“When people see my painting they’re inspired by the way I do my painting with different colours,” she says. “I would like people to understand why I paint trees and tell them how my people walked for miles looking for trees to have a rest from their long journeys.”

It was Snell who told her many of these stories about her family and her country and, in doing so, provided Uhl with the inspiration to start painting trees.

She began painting at Mangkaja Arts less than a decade ago and she is enthusiastic about the support she has received there. “At Mangkaja Art Centre my aunty Dolly, my family and the other artists tell me ‘don’t stop, keep painting’. Sometimes they help me choose colours to use on my paintings. I tell them keep on painting. We help each other here at Mangkaja Art Centre, they are like mentors to me.”

Now in her 30s, Uhl’s career is beginning to move quickly. Her first solo exhibition was at Perth’s Seva Frangos Art in 2012, and her work has also been acquired for the Wesfarmers collection. This quarter will see her second solo exhibition at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne. She is a prolific painter and there will be 20 works in the exhibition, most of a medium scale of 120 by 120 centimetres.

Last year Uhl visited the Brisbane foundry UAP where she transformed the desert walnut trees in her paintings into a cast aluminium sculpture, which was later exhibited in Here&Now at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in Perth’s University of Western Australia.

Although Uhl remains committed to paint, the experiment with sculpture showed the enduring power of the tree motif she works with. Both her two- and three-dimensional work conveys a sense of standing in and looking out across a shimmering expanse of Kimberley desert. There is movement, but not the kind found in cities full of bustling people and traffic. Instead it speaks to the visual distortions caused by heat.

And while trees are often employed to confine a space within a composition or create a sense of containment, Uhl uses them in the entirely opposite way. In her works the trees impart a feeling of distance and the suggestion of a vast sky above. In this sense her works place the viewer directly in the landscape, and relate to the physical experience of being in country, but the way that Uhl chooses to work her tree motif over and over again, with variations each time in composition and colour, suggests another perspective. While the surface of the landscape might change, the heart of the country remains the same.

Interview translation by Jennifer Dickens

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