Monday, December 10, 2012

The Unconformity Project

by Elizabeth Barsham
“I’ve never seen so much interest in rocks!” exclaimed the happy geologist from Devonport.
Far too many people were crowded into the LARQ gallery in Queenstown for the opening of The Unconformity Project, and loving it.
The Iron Blow - some of the rocks that inspired Julian Cooper
 We were surrounded by the wonderful bold, colourful paintings of Julian Cooper, LARQ Artist in Residence in 2011. Julian lives and works in Cumbria in the UK Lake District, and climbs rocks and mountains when not painting. The rocks around the old Iron Blow are not of great interest to a climber, but they inspired some terrific paintings, and these are great, energetic celebrations of stone. Julian's rock walls are alive and sparkling, reflecting harsh sunlight off uneven planes, hiding their secrets in shadowed clefts.

You can see for yourself on his website: 
WEST LYELL – paintings by Julian Cooper at Landscape Art Research Queenstown (LARQ) - Gallery

Tim Chatwin has also painted rocks – but from a completely different perspective. He worked at the Heritage Centre at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine in Tasmania, and the paintings in this exhibition derive from an underground visit to the mine and a meditation on the Beaconsfield Mine Disaster. He remarked that he felt rather like an invasive species in a festival whose theme was a mining disaster a century ago in Queenstown, but the specifics of time and place are irrelevant. These are paintings of everyone’s nightmare, trapped in a dark, threatening space, with a distant hint of light marking the unreachable escape route. Touches of brilliant creamy-white against intense darks create glimpses of a frightening subterranean world fleetingly revealed in the flash of a photograph. A few free brush strokes suggest ghostly figures against the black of a tunnel; a spill of light indicates the wall of a shaft as a precisely painted cage disappears into the darkness, and a chain excludes the viewer from the reassuringly well-lit area in another dark painting.

The Skin of Them, a painting of clothing Tim had spotted hanging in a change room, is attracting much attention from visitors. The hard hats, safety vests and trousers hang unsupported in an ambiguous blue space, and some find this the most disturbing painting in the exhibition. Where were the men who shed these “skins”? What had happened to them?

THE SAVAGE ROCKS OF CIRCUMSTANCE – paintings by Tim Chatwin at The Old Bank (LARQ annexe)
Mt Lyell Heritage Centre. Original brick building is the old Mine Manager's Office
Arguably the most prominent person in Queenstown in 1912 was Robert Sticht who designed and supervised construction of the copper smelter and was then the General Manager of the Mt Lyell Mine. Although his salary was not huge compared to that received by the managers of other major Australian mines, Sticht was a great art lover and assembled an impressive collection of artwork, books and manuscripts. More than 2,000 items, including a large number of Durer prints, are now in the National Gallery of Victoria and hundreds of other pieces are divided among other libraries, museums and archives. The former Mt Lyell Mine Manager’s office has become part of the Mt Lyell Heritage Centre, and old miners are permitted to wander through the sacred offices once strictly out of bounds.

Dr Ruth Johnstone, Senior Lecturer in the School of Art at RMIT, drew on her interest in historic prints to create a multi-media installation right there on Mr Sticht's desk in his wood-panelled office. In the middle stands a model of Penghana, his magnificent house, supported by a model poppet head amid a pile of red archive boxes representing the hills from which his wealth is mined. Copies of Durer prints spill out over the desk to be picked over and rearranged by the public, who, to Ruth's delight, “remake” the installation daily. A chain-driven lift continually raises “ore buckets” containing the names of artworks in the   collection from the boxes below to the house above, and the piece is completed by a mass of rolled-up plans thrust between the uprights supporting the model. A very witty and elegant representation of an important figure in Tasmanian history.

THE JEWELLED HOUSE OF ART AND NATURE - installation by Ruth Johnstone at the Mt Lyell Heritage Centre

Mt Lyell Heritage Centre

I first became aware of Jan Senbergs almost thirty years ago, when he failed to give me an award in an art show he’d been asked to judge. His paintings impressed me greatly, with their big, strong, uncompromising images, and three pictures painted after his visit to Queenstown in the early 1980s are hanging in an empty room a couple of doors away from the Mine Manager's Office. It is a joy to see these dark, dramatic works, along with a selection of drawings, in their rightful place - that is, within the harsh, uncompromising hills of Queenstown. The administration building is an ideal location, with its mineral samples, mine models and photographs of the smelter works providing context, all against the backdrop of the mine itself.

THE INFERNAL REGIONS OF TASMANIA - paintings by Jan Senbergs at the Mt Lyell Heritage Centre
According to the glossy poster, an unconformity is a rare geological feature where rocks from widely different geological ages are juxtaposed; there is a notable one in the Queenstown area. It is an appropriate name for an exhibition featuring work by four very different artists in different venues. The geologists are in their element.


This is a photograph of Hunter Street in Queenstown. The orange building on the right is the LARQ gallery. The large building a few doors up the street is the venue for IHOS Opera's production Kimisis on Saturday morning.

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