This exhibition is a kind of homage to the work of one of Australia’s great artists, Fred Williams. In the 1970’s as a young artist I thought that Fred Williams had painted the definitive, quintessential Australian landscape. At that time, neither I nor any of my artistic peers wanted to engage with the Australian landscape tradition – we found it conservative and stifling and besides, conceptual art offered a compelling alternative. However, since the 1980’s, Aboriginal artists have spectacularly reclaimed and reinterpreted this landscape tradition, inadvertently bestowing a new relevance on Williams’ work. In his distinctive abstractions of the Australian bush, which he typically organises into a somewhat chaotic pattern of hieroglyphs, we recognise some kind of arcane language (an “ur-text”) and we see that nature, indeed, “speaks” but not in a language we can comprehend.
In recent years I have been experimenting with Williams’ imagery in my own work – of particular interest to me now is his last, somewhat maligned, Pilbara Series 1979-1981. A number of works in my exhibition, such as Melancholy Landscape VII 2011 and Thou Majestic: D 2011 draw on this series. In particular they reproduce the line of undulating mountains from his Karratha Landscape 1981. In this painting, the uncanny regularity of the contours of the mountain (or is it a hill?) reminded me of the very distinctive ‘journey lines’ in certain Aboriginal paintings and perhaps they suggest a hidden affinity that Williams’ art has with Aboriginal depictions of landscape. It is worth noting that the Pilbara series was an unusual departure for Williams into the ‘outback’ – artistic terrain that he otherwise left to artists such as Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, and John Olsen to explore and colonise.
In my versions of Williams’ landscape the location is the Western Desert in Central Australia bearing the names of places such as Papunya, Tanami, Haasts Bluff, Kintore, Jupiter Well, and the names of the disappearing tribes of those areas – Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara, Pintupi, Luritja. I am also somehow reminded of Albert Namatjira and the words of the German poet Novalis who observed that “every individual is the centre of a system of emanation.” Above all, for me, the desert is a metaphor for the self: “I shall become no more than movement or stillness or an idea of being – there is no-one here.” The desert is a tabula rasa – a surface on which the writing has been erased, ready to be written on again.
This exhibition also celebrates the 200th work in my own series Nature Speaks – Nature Speaks: CZ 2011. I began this series in September 1998 almost two years after I moved with my family from Sydney to the rural town of Cooma in south-east New South Wales. Ten years later after selecting this title, for what is arguably now one of my most significant bodies of work, I came across Antonin Artaud’s “50 drawings to murder magic”, published by Seagull Books in 2008. Written in a mental asylum in France, the last lines of what were Artaud’s last utterances are worth recounting:
“so my drawings reproduce
thrown up in this way
where the way passes
used to be called the Great Work
of alchemy now
pulverised because we are
no longer in chemistry
but in nature
and I do believe
is about to speak.”
31 January 1948
Imants Tillers, 25 April 2011, Cooma