Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Unconformity Project - LARQ Combined Openings - Queenstown Heritage & Arts Festival

By Lucy Wilson

Walking to the Opening of The Unconformity Project at LARQ (Landscape Art Research Queenstown) run by Raymond Arnold, I caught sight of Mount Mother Lyell in the late afternoon light. Spectacular. The sun was illuminating the bare rocky surface, which glowed through its weather washed patina. I soon learnt in the exhibition speeches about ‘the Western Feeling’.

It was in The Unconformity Project that geology and art came together. Where the movement of human endeavour above and below the surface of the earth encountered the natural and mysterious movement of rocks below. Vivid connections were made by artists Tim Chatwin, Julian Cooper, Ruth Johnstone and Jan Senbergs in a four part exhibition.

In geology, Unconformity is the term given to a rare geological feature, which represents the overlaying of a number of geological ages into one area of rock. Queenstown has one high on Philosopher’s Ridge. Unconformity is the core motif of the project.

The art of gathering – in this instance gathering rocks, artists, place and time together – is another art form for Raymond Arnold. The project in some way emulated the phenomenon of geological Unconformity by presenting a rare artistical feature, showing artists' work from different eras and different perspectives and in varying forms, yet all drawn together by the unlayering of rock in Tasmania. Cuts of history and rock intrigue taught us about the deeper layers of Queenstown and our own relationship with the underground.

Julian Cooper painted Philosopher’s Ridge and features found in walls of rock like sliding pillars and ‘benches’. He lives in England and comes from a lineage of British landscape painters. Raymond Arnold has been following his work for over twenty years and invited him to be LARQ’s 2011 Artist in Residence to spend time painting the mines and mountains around Queenstown. He accepted and it seems the gathering of these two artists has chemistry as exciting as the union of unconformity rock. They share, in Julian’s words to Raymond, “the ambition of extending the idea of `landscape’, to encompass human interventions and extractions … acknowledging that we as humans are inextricably part of `nature’, and more and more a governing factor on the behaviour of its processes in terms of climate, geology, and life forms.”

Raymond describes Julian’s paintings as “direct and intimate”. Julian has painted all his life with a focus on landscape and rocky mountains, including a pilgrimage to Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash. Yet he had never before used the colours or range of palette he found in Western Tasmania. Recently he’s been exploring a contemporary language for painting mountain and rock, and in his Queenstown work he found it. He uses long brushes so he paints with his whole body and has such a high level of skill and freedom that he creates fearlessly contemporary and spirited works. They’re deeply honest paintings. He paints the rock as it is, but in a way that I haven’t seen before; this has influenced the way I now look at the rock and opened my eyes and appreciation in a new way. As we drove out of Queenstown, past the cut in the rock for the road, I could `see’ Julian’s paintings.

Tim Chatwin’s paintings of the Beaconsfield mine instantly stirred my memory of its relatively recent disaster, which flashed all over the world with the speed, breadth and width of global media. It was before iPhone technology, which has catapulted us ever further into instant touch screen communication, but was a far cry from the scramble for telegrams that jammed the wires and broadsheets of a hundred years ago during the Mount Lyell mine disaster. Both disasters had panic, fear, jubilation for the survivors and grief for the dead. I confess that in the limited time to do everything in the festival the gallery doors to Tim’s exhibition were unfortunately closed when I got there so I pressed my face against the window to look at images of fluorescent mining clothes hanging on hooks and other underground scenes. In his exhibition notes Tim writes about the vertigo of experiencing ‘deep’ time by going underground on a spiralling descent through mining cuts, with rocks over 400million years old.

There were two exhibits at the Mt Lyell General Manager’s Office, which attracted lots of people wanting a sticky-beak at an otherwise closed-door environment. Melbourne artist Dr Ruth Johnstone has been an artist in residence with LARQ and focused on Robert Sticht who was the Manager of the mine at the time of the disaster. In his office her installation Mining the Archive showed his avid passion for collecting prints, including valuable Durer woodcuts and Rembrandts now held in the National Gallery of Victoria. With extensive research Ruth had created a literal rendition of Sticht’s opulent manager’s house figuratively at the top of the mine with a noisy mechanism carrying messages and ore up and down. I would have liked to linger over the hundreds of copied prints, but the whirring of the mechanism grated on my tired nerves, so I moved on.

Painter Jan Senbergs spent time in Queenstown in the early 1980’s when the Franklin Dam controversy was in full swing. (Interestingly it was due to the innovations of the Mount Lyell Mining Company that the Hydro Electric Commission was established in Western Tasmania with the Lake Margaret power scheme, which still exists today.) It was important to see earlier artistic responses and depictions of the mine and Queenstown landscape. His drawing/note book was open and a few impressive large canvases painted with a dark palette had temporarily returned to their source for the festival, including The crib room where miners have a break and rest, depicted as a symmetrical scene with candles and underground shafts and activity.

The crowd at the LARQ Combined Exhibition Opening spilled out onto the street, encompassing the ever-changing light and colour of the surrounding hills. 


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