On this Island, Meeting and Parting | Curator’s Note

Introduction essay from the On this Island, Meeting and Parting exhibition catalogue.

Written and curated by Owen Craven.

The process of painting is not simply the application and treatment of pigment on canvas, board or paper. The process starts well before the physical stroke of a brush. It is driven often by a philosophical mindset. Artists view the world differently to the rest of us. They see things in colour and form we often don’t. It is through the act of art making that their world view is — both physically and philosophically — absorbed, digested and interpreted. The lengthy acts of looking, thinking, sketching, researching and documenting are the integral steps in creating a body of work for exhibition. Through this process their talent for linking our eyes with their imagination grows.

In his diaries, Eugene Delacroix discusses the intangible elements of the painting experience: “In painting, as in external nature, proper justice is done to what is finite and to what is infinite, in other words, to what the soul finds inwardly moving in objects that are known through the senses alone”. Much of this is an intangible experience and transpires through process; the process of experiencing and responding to an object, place or idea. Knowledge of an artist’s process is an invaluable tool in understanding the intangible elements of a painting. Delacroix describes this as a “mysterious bridge‚Ķset up between the spirit of the person in the picture and the beholder”. Interpreting a painting, or indeed art of any medium, can be a difficult and challenging task. As American art critic Peter Schjeldahl once said, painting is “capable of highly nuanced meaning”. Approaching art can be a daunting concept. While there is an aesthetic to which a viewer can respond, our contemporary society has an insatiable need to know all and to know it quickly. So often when somebody approaches a painting they inherently ask ‘what does it mean?’

Often is the case, there is no answer. Just as the act of making the painting was a fluid and undefined process, so too is the act of interpretation. What is important is understanding and knowing the process by which the painting was created. Knowing how and why the artist decided to paint what they painted, and the way it was executed, better equips us with a skill set for further interpretation of the painting. However, artists are a solitary lot. It is a rare occasion we are privy to the early acts of art making. The process is often conducted in isolation — the studio a deeply private space, compared to that of a public gallery. So rarely do we gain first hand insight to the artist and their process. So infrequently do we follow the journey of a body of work growing from conception to final installation.

On This Island, Meeting and Parting is an exploration of process. It is as much about the final body of work as it is about how the works came about. This exhibition is the final part of a project that saw eleven prominent Australian painters led on a tour to New Zealand’s North Island. ARTIST PROFILE, in conjunction with Winsor & Newton, invited the artists to participate in a landscape painting expedition — extracting the artists from their studios and asking them to respond to an unfamiliar territory, into which they were taken, in their own unique way.

The tour took in the extremities of the island, exploring the east Wairarapa coast before heading to the island’s volcanic centre, Mount Ruapehu. A vast difference in terrain, climate and topography meant everyday was an opportunity for the artists to see something new. An unfamiliar landscape brings to the surface the fundamental elements of looking and observing. As the days progressed, the artists sketched and painted en plein air — at times by themselves but often in little groups. The new and unfamiliar landscape sparked curiosity and conversations. Questions were asked and ideas were shared. Their responses to the landscape, while unique in their artistic output of style and form, were a shared experience.

The survey of works in On This Island, Meeting and Parting are the result of this journey and its process. Works painted en plein air hang along side paintings only made after thorough research into the landscape and its history of a time gone by. Paintings with figures — imagined and real — placed in the landscape are juxtaposed by the abstract expressions of other works. Each painting is an insight into the individual’s process and interpretation. The exhibition is a privileged and rare view into the processes of artists working from the beginnings of a project to its very end.

Owen Craven

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