Annabel Nowlan

Annabel Nowlan’s 'Vernacular' (2020) pitches linguistic and cartographic modes of meaning-making towards each other. While one panel of the diptych is run across by the truncated tropes of Australian-English dialect — ‘rego, compo, kero’ — the other is sparsely marked by lines converging to section out quadrilateral portions of space. Nolan seems to be asking how human beings can attempt to organise (or perhaps, as is suggested by ‘rego,’ to register) a landscape whose history is, at least in part, that of one loss overrunning the other.

The Wagga Wagga Art Gallery is a fitting site in which to view Nowlan’s work, dealing as it does with the ongoing legacy of colonial intervention in Australia. The land of the Wiradjuri people on which the gallery stands was first ‘explored,’ surveyed, and then settled in the 1820s, opening up the area for population by a community of squatters. Not only is Nowlan’s work, in this show, situated upon a site of the colonial history which is also the artist’s central concern; it is also crafted from the same materials from which this history was built. Vernacular (2020), for example, is made on a tarpaulin base, and gestures as such to agricultural practice and itinerant domesticity in its very materiality as much as its form. 

Though Nowlan evades the visual tropes of landscape tradition, her work engages deeply with landscape as both a geographical and historical entity. Where Vernacular takes for its base a stretched tarpaulin, other pieces in the show work on rivets, scrap metal, organic matter and found pieces of tin. The aged surface of Nowlan’s landscape is both underwritten and undermined by human histories of extraction, agriculture, and industry. Landscape, here, is defined as much by historical processes of production and (mis)use as it is by the materials which make it up. 

Turning from the material to the formal qualities of Nowlan’s work, too, an ambivalent, sensitive thinking of landscape as shaped — made meaningful for its human inhabitants, but also actually manipulated at its sites — by processes of mark making comes to the fore. The ‘Swaggie Symbols’ series (2020), for instance, arranges icons used by itinerant communities throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries across portions of weathered aluminium. These marks, loaded with a semiotics that the viewer might or might not be able to interpret, are part both of Nowlan’s artistic practice and of a greater historical system of communication through marking the land. Marks upon the landscape — legible, codified — become marks recontextualised in the work of art. What is the relationship, this series asks, between the meaningful mark of the map, the graph, or the pictograph, and the mark re-situated on the gallery wall? What do these works do that maps, surveys, and their other predecessors do not?

Perhaps one answer to this question might be locatable in moments where land-marking systems break down within the work. What the artwork as distinct from the map does, that is, is attend to incoherence, to loss, and to error. For Nowlan, these errors are often those of industrial capitalism, but also of the colonial project. Title Clash (2014) stages this fragile interaction perhaps most directly. Running across the picture space are bolded letters, graphically recalling road signs or construction markings, in the Roman alphabet. Flickers of coherence flash out amongst the swarm of signs, but distinct words seem to dissolve as quickly as they emerge. Softer marks, layered below this, spell something we might just make out as ‘Wiradjuri,’ while a set of branched lines marking perhaps trees, or else telegraph poles or wind turbines, wend their way across the work without resolving into a stable arrangement. 

The notion of instability itself, in this show, is ambivalent. The mutability of spatial perspective and the attendant upsetting of accepted knowledge of the land are treated equally as troubling and exciting; in histories of difficulty or of injustice is also the potential for regenerative growth. This double valence finds its expression even in Nowlan’s ‘signature’ verdigris green, which permeates many of the works. Acerbic, it evokes processes of decay, and calls to illness, or to something not right. And, yet, the green feels somehow also ecological in its tenor, insistent on vibrancy and life beyond the human.

For Nowlan, the history of land in Australia is not able to be fully resolved to itself: its own contradictions, misinterpretations, and conflicts. Nowlan’s post-colonialism is distinct in its insistence on the importance of registering the fault lines of human, and especially European, intervention into the land. To register, it seems here, is not necessarily to build a specific path toward reparation, thought it is to clear a way for it. Nowlan’s project is not to offer conjecture on an alternative to our current use of the land, but it is to explore the vexed structure of the historical foundations on which new ways of being with this land might be built. 

EXHIBTION
Unfinished Maps
30 January – 4 April
Wagga Wagga Art Gallery

 

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