Philip Hunter: The Memory of Water - Art Collector

Issue 41, July - September 2007

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Philip Hunter’s creative enquiry into the sublime and the human psyche produces his well-recognised and highly idiosyncratic notion of landscape. Ashley Crawford examines his recent works.

The air swirls with heat and dust and smoke, a savage updraft lifting the dry earth into the sky and forming phantasmagorical clouds. The light is diffused, casting strange shadows onto the land. The feeling is apocalyptic – a world desiccated by drought and fire.

For some years now Philip Hunter has been pursuing what he calls The Flatland series. These are, in essence, landscape paintings; but they are landscapes unlike any in the substantive history of Australian landscape painting. They swirl and shimmer with a strange language of their own. And just as the landscape is in a continual state of flux, so have Hunter’s paintings evolved over the duration of this project. There have always been swirling eddies in his work hinting at the presence of water, but in the past these have been cloaked by the golden hues of grasslands. The land now is denuded; what was once an inland sea has morphed into an abstracted, scarred dustbowl.

Like the works of Paddy Bedford or Rusty Peters these paintings tell a story and like those artists the stories are filtered through a highly personal and seemingly abstracted language.

Hunter collects a variety of materials that contribute to his distinctive visual language. Direct observational drawing is always his starting point. He often examines the local histories of the places and communities he explores, and accumulates research into natural history and cultural geography. He is an avid reader of works of fiction and all of these materials are blended with a vigorous drawing regime. It is a rich intellectual life but you are not likely to hear him espouse obscure theories. He has formed strong opinions about the landscape and of the practice of painting without being pretentious. It was however, something of a surprise when he pointed me towards The Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament as we talked about the new works in his studio.

“As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze.” 1:4

Now Hunter is neither a Bible-thumping zealot nor a born-again environmentalist. He would be better described as a pragmatist, one who sees the consequences of our collective actions on the environments we inhabit. But he is also quick to point out that the larger Australian experience has been one of periods of scarcity and moments of plenitude. Given our current and prolonged drought the debate regarding Global Warming doesn’t seem so far removed from the content of these images. Regardless of their elegant abstractions, their beautifully swirling patterns and the clear evidence of superb draughtsmanship, there is a darkness in these paintings and, as one reads in Ezekiel, there is a warning.

The Flatlands project has evolved over several years. The look of the more recent works is markedly different to the earlier paintings of The Plains and Wimmera Series. When talking to Hunter about the visual shifts the artist suggests that it is primarily a spatial alteration.

“I’m using a more buoyant atmospheric,” he says. “They are not nearly as sparse as the earlier pictures. Spatially, I’m looking to add new ingredients that will afford a richer encounter for anyone who wants to have a look.”

Indeed, given Hunter’s work of recent years, these works could almost be described as baroque and one can note relationships to his Continent series of paintings from the late 1980s. Those works echoed such romantic European painters as JMW Turner, Eugene Delacroix, Caspar David Friedrich and Antoine Watteau. These references were balanced with his less academic forays into painting in environs such as Tower Hill, Gundagai and Kakadu, thus there were multiple accumulated landscape sources filtered onto the canvas, blurring any specific source or influence. The result was a highly idiosyncratic and personalised notion of landscape.

Hunter’s romanticism, his investigation into the sublime, ran side-by-side with his considered creative enquiry into the human psyche, not just of the artist himself, but also that of his audience.

A number of the works in the studio are a direct response to a camping trip he made in late 2006 to Acheron in north-eastern Victoria. He first tackled that landscape in 1992, and although the area is anything but a flat terrain, there are elements that influence the current program. Writing of the Acheron district in 1969, GW Noble noted that: “The dark and forbidding forest ranges must have recalled descriptions of the underworld for the Cerberean Range was named after Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the Lower Regions. The Acheron River was known as the underworld stream of dark and sinister associations, and the country around Hell’s Gate near Jamieson was so appallingly rugged that it suggested the motto above the entrance to Dante’s Inferno – ‘All Hope Abandon Ye Who Enter Here.’”

These observations had real currency for Hunter during his last visit to the area. As he related: “Over December and early January, the air around Acheron was full of smoke from the nearby bushfires, dust and smoke, and with the temperature rising to 40 plus degrees, the sheer weight and oppressive force of the atmosphere was something to regard. I wanted to see if I could bring some of those elements to the new paintings.”

And the current drought across the continent is also figuring in this creative enterprise. Parts of Hunter’s oeuvre have investigated the once present inland seas. He has noted the influence of the receding waters and their contribution to the shape of the topography of the plains.

“The idea of ghost waves, the echo or memory of water, I’ve picked up on again. The discrete undulations suggesting the presence of ‘wetness’ seems so desperately relevant right now … renegade waves of dust.”

It is, however, only after some prodding that Hunter will turn to the overtly political issue of global warming. “The science is pretty firm, and not a question of ‘if’ but to what extent the impact will have,” he says. “It is only when the populations of our cities can’t water their lawns or wash their cars that the subject gains any real political momentum. Water conservation is ever present in non-metropolitan Australia.”

Changes in environment have most certainly impacted on Hunter’s painting.

“Rather than holding onto the ideas that drove the earlier works, the palpable form of the plains at night and its correspondence to aquatic spaces, this last group of works lives in the dirt, the dust the heat and the sometimes diffused light of that combination of elements.”

What is particularly striking about the paintings is Hunter’s drawing with paint. He has always emphasised the importance of drawing in his practice but the crispness of the drawn elements now has the clarity of Scrimshaw – the art of drawing on polished bone with a needle point. Traditionally that art was practiced by the Inuit Indians and achieved a remarkable clarity of line.

Hunter’s line-work floats on, over and under the surface of these deeply textured landscapes like the “ghost waves” he sees surging through the heat-hazes of the Australian landscape.

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald in response to Hunter’s 2002 show at the Tim Olsen Gallery, Peter Hill proclaimed that: “Should the commissioners for the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale ever want to do anything as risky as showing an Australian landscape painter, Hunter would be my first choice.”

It was a bold proclamation, but few contemporary artists have had the skill – or the intelligence – to tackle the Australian landscape in the way Hunter has. Being a far away island, Australia’s cultural gate-keepers have always tried to pretend that its visual arts are international and are strongly removed from any sense of the rural Australian experience. Hunter has set himself, and his viewers, a challenge to confront the inner psyche of our continent. ¦

Recent works by Philip Hunter will be exhibited at Tim Olsen Gallery in Sydney from 11 to 29 September 2007.

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