Alice Wormald

Owen Craven writes about Melbourne-based artist Alice Wormald's rigorous, layered approach to painting the land in Issue 28 (2015).

Alice Wormald is inspired by the natural world. She makes abstracted landscape pictures that lead the viewer’s eye around her compositions in unexpected ways. Wormald creates paintings out of a compulsion to construct strange natural spaces where surface and depth, representation and abstraction all converge. The works often develop through a process of image collection and collage with a focus on natural imagery such as rocks, plants and geological formations.

Wormald’s process involves spending time immersed in the landscape. A new body of work often begins with a roadtrip. Her most recent exhibition at Daine Singer Gallery, Melbourne, was inspired by a drive down the Nepean Highway, to Frankston, Victoria. Stopping at seven or eight op-shops along the way, she filled her car boot with nature photography books and magazines – anything from coffee-table books to National Geographic back issues. For good measure, she fanned out to op-shops in Oakleigh and Noble Park, too, cramming what extra she could fit into the car.

Using what she accumulated, Wormald cut out photographs of nature from these publications, tracing the contours of petals, branches, winding rivers and mountains. She slipped these into meticulously organised plastic sleeves, which were labelled by subject (‘Foliage’, ‘Rocks’, ‘Rivers’) and by colour (‘Purple’, ‘Green’, ‘Blue’). Eventually, these slices were arranged into collages.

The pictures that Wormald creates are reconfigured to provide a compelling encounter with depth, object and landscape. By accentuating and distorting formal elements such as composition and scale, the pictorial space is disrupted, demanding intense observation up close while simultaneously directing the viewer to make sense of the ‘landscape’ before them.

While finding her inspiration in the natural world, Wormald is very much interested in how the landscape is interpreted. She looks to other artists’ treatments of landscapes in order to generate new ways of seeing nature. Her compositions are informed by and build upon that which has come before her in the history of art making.

For instance, she refers to Georgia O’Keeffe’s layered New Mexico mountain ranges and William Robinson’s gnarled Gold Coast rainforests. Slicing and combining these images together to create an original view, she further crafts her view of the landscape by painting over the top of the collages with oil paint and watercolour. The result, after being led by her intuition – responding to the materials and subject alike – creates fascinating, abstracted and deeply layered spaces. The landscapes are alien to what we know or expect; something straight out of a science fiction novel. They’re tidy compositions, with complementary colours and textures balanced across the canvas, but after a closer look these scenes show themselves to be ultimately impossible – in this world or any other.

Aerial vistas butt against floral close-ups, upsetting any sense of scale. The traditional Japanese landscape painting technique of framing the background with trees in the foreground is used here to split the plane into separate, almost entirely unrelated worlds. Elsewhere, mountains sit in front of vast plains, but the perspective seems slightly askew. The viewer’s eye is led around the picture with a sense of constant push and pull.

Her rigorous approach to painting captures the rough white edges of the collages, even the shadows underneath each layer. Different degrees of focus, different paper stocks and different printing palettes in each photograph make themselves apparent. Due to the honesty of photorealistic painting and the neutral, painted surface, these discrepancies often come across as a surprise.

In ‘Grass Drawing’, a frozen waterfall sits atop an aerial view of the branching burn marks etched out by a bushfire. For all the grand contrast of ice and fire, the scene is belittled by minuscule flecks of red and green – a straight-faced translation of printing errors in Wormald’s found photographs.

These proofs of process, which might seem coy or conspiratorial, speak more to a continued renegotiation of landscapes. From sourcing to slicing to arranging to painting, Wormald grasps at scenes. By showing her hand, and in effect painting it, she depicts both landscapes and the way that she wrestles with them.

In turn, the viewer wrestles with the scenes she creates. Even while you stand still, a landscape is something you navigate, not something you absorb in one sweeping, single glance. Tearing her mountains and lakes and trees into pieces, Wormald forces viewers to observe the territories in new ways. Viewers are asked to tear apart her images bit by bit with their eyes as they tease out the edges of these disparate worlds. Even the paintings, with all their internal tension and discord, seem close to tearing themselves apart.

Alice Wormald is represented by Daine Singer, Melbourne and Gallery 9, Sydney.

Partly Altered Aperture
21 February – 17 March 2018
Gallery 9, Sydney