Philip Hunter: ‘I’ve developed an approach to painting that emulates the act of walking through a terrain and exploring it firsthand’
The Australian artists talks about the influence of Sidney Nolan, his most recent body of works, Geophonics, his interest in landscape and in events that happen below the Earth’s crust
by JANET McKENZIE
The Wimmera landscape, in the North-Western Victoria region of Australia, so apparently replete with life, was interpreted by Sidney Nolan in the 1940s when he was posted there while in the army; his images soon became inexplicably linked to avant-garde art practice, as much as his personal response to place. They also became icons of modernism in Australia. The Wimmera is a vital source for Philip Hunter, who was born in 1958, and grew up in Donald, a small town there. In the 60s, Hunter’s family relocated to Melbourne, where he still lives, but he returns each year to the Wimmera. In his work, he challenges meaning in art, and the experience of landscape as image and poetic form.
Over the past 30 years, landscape, investigated with a zeal and determination, has underpinned Hunter’s work, in which it is experienced for its specificity, its poetry and its enigma. That which is perceived on the periphery of one’s vision is given central focus; in the creation of the peripheral view, Hunter takes an imaginative leap of faith. His images of landscape as place, the poetry that describes the genius loci, make a potent contribution to contemporary art. Over the past 15 years, he has been working on what he calls The Flatlands Project. Intrigued by events that happen below the Earth’s crust, his recent elegant and haunting paintings conjure the ancient and mysterious nature of Australia’s centre and the balance between human life and the environment.
Janet McKenzie: Sidney Nolan famously immortalised the Wimmera in the 1940s when he was posted there during the war. How did his visionary works affect you as a young artist?
Philip Hunter: It took me a long time to become interested in Nolan’s work. I recall seeing some in reproduction, maybe in the late 60s or early 70s, but as a young artist I seemed to have had very few opportunities to see his work firsthand. I don’t remember him spending much time in Melbourne in those years. It may have been that the majority of his work was held in private collections. He was also resident in the UK by then, I think. The first time the Wimmera pictures were exhibited as a specific group was in the early 70s, in Adelaide. I was still a schoolboy in Melbourne and didn’t get to see that exhibition. [The poet and critic] Max Harris wrote the catalogue essay for the show and his description of the Wimmera and its inhabitants was withering. As a young artist, I hadn’t been all that persuaded by Nolan’s brand of painting – probably because of the influence of Clement Greenberg and his cohorts and the preference for varieties of abstraction that had prevailed among the artists that I knew then.
I think it was in the early 80s that Nolan gifted a group of about 25 paintings and drawings of his Wimmera series to the National Gallery of Victoria. That was about the time I first met him, when I was teaching painting and drawing at the Victorian College of the Arts. In 1984, I had some of my drawings, from a series called The Pastoral Hero Suite, exhibited alongside Nolan, Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd and others, in a show in New York called The Australians.
Later that same year, the National Gallery bought one of my Pastoral Hero paintings and it was then that I started to gain access to his work and began to pay more attention to what he had been doing during the preceding decades. I eventually produced a body of work in the late 90s that was conceptually based in the Wimmera.
The project began with a group of drawings I made from Mount Jeffcott, where I was thinking about a long-distance drawing conversation I might have with Nolan, whom I imagined was still drawing from Mount Arapiles about 100km to the southwest. The work I developed from those drawings was later shown alongside a selection of Nolan’s paintings and drawings of the Wimmera, at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne in 2001.
There are a handful of paintings from Nolan’s time in the Wimmera that I often think about and that remain key works in both his oeuvre and in Australian art generally. His pictures from the railway yards at Dimboola – The Railway Guard and The Flour Lumper – are two that immediately come to mind. Also, his paintings of the Wimmera from Mount Arapiles and his picture called The Farmer. But one, in particular, has stayed with me longer and more powerfully than just about any of the others. It is his painting of Kiata (c 1943). That work is quintessential Wimmera. The shimmer of the heat haze, the solitude of the railway siding, the distant wheat silo, the single horse and cart, a handful of outbuildings, a sprinkle of individual trees, an expansive horizon and a very big sky.
The paint is applied in veils of pigment – it is vaporous. In that sense, it is not dissimilar in application to some of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings or the late pictures of Willem de Kooning, the light touch in the Kiata painting also reminds me of those exquisite surfaces created by Ken Whisson. Kiata is full of air and heat and space. This is a place that is familiar to me, a place that I recognise as being like my original terrain. I think it is the success of this painting, and a few others from the same time, that set him up for the landscapes he produced 10 years later – the backdrops he created for the Ned Kelly series.
JMcK: What does your most recent body of work: Geophonics (2016) seek to address?
PH: Geophonics began as a response to some work I had been doing in Tasmania. I was drawing at a place called Skullbone Plains, north-east of Lake St Clair, on the edge of the World Heritage area, and realised that it was the first time I had knowingly worked in a landscape that had been shaped by glaciers. When I got back to the studio, I found some material in a geological journal that discussed a phenomenon known as “post-glacial bounce”. In effect, during the last ice age, the weight of the ice sheet was heavy enough in some parts of the world to compress the lithosphere – that’s a compression of soil and rock of up to 70-80km below the Earth’s surface. During the past 15,000 years, there are places where the lithosphere has begun to expand again, the ground popping up in increments that look not unlike the terracing of rice paddies in mountainous regions of Asia.
I started to speculate about the sound that the “expansion” might make deep below the surface and then came across a picture of an apparatus called a geophone. It records sounds in the lithosphere. It looks like an extraordinary piece of high-modernist sculpture. Geophonics is the term I coined to highlight the idea of sounds in the Earth, the idea of an underground noise and space (or non-space), a geology that adds a different structure to the landscapes I have constructed.
JMcK: There is a vastness implied in your recent works, yet they are not actually big paintings. How do you consider you achieve this?
PH: The recent paintings are relatively modest in scale, at least by comparison with the largest works I’ve made in the past. But I’m not so sure that the size of the canvas has much to do with a believable rendition of spaciousness or vastness.
I remember the first time I saw Mark Rothko’s murals in the Tate. The sensation I experienced is difficult to articulate, but my memory is one of encountering a deep spatial pulse – vast, rhythmic and eternal. I recall the effect of what seemed to be a deep bass symphonic resonance, a sound conversation between each of the individual canvases. Conversely, I once saw a very small painting by Jake Berthot, a pocket-book-size picture that was a complex layering of different greys with some wonderful reds breaking through the field and also at the edges of the canvas – it seemed like I was looking at something almost infinite in its dimensions. The point of these examples is to highlight how very little a pictorial space relies on the scale of the painting’s support.
I guess we could discuss technical applications, colours, tonalities, glazes, varieties of mark-making, compositional relationships, thickness/thinness of medium or pigment translucency, etc – the art of painting so to speak – but that would also seem to be beside the point. It wouldn’t really articulate the means by which a painter might convey a sensation of vastness.
I guess by way of a reasonable response, I would say that I’ve developed an approach to painting that in some way emulates the act of walking through a terrain and exploring it firsthand, looking under stones, the backwards and forwards of creating an image, of discovering some type of structure within the pictorial field is the way I proceed. It can be extremely slow progress at times, but it is the way I’m able to establish meaningful relationships with a painting, to unveil as I go along just what it is that I am able to see and experience and find out. Given that a fair amount of the source material I employ refers to landscapes and geologies of vast proportion, the images I produce will hopefully reflect the spatial amplitude and complex makeup of those places and the ideas that I am painting about.
JMcK: Your recent cloud works are made from linocut, which seems an unlikely medium, given the misty, fluffy nature of clouds and the assertive nature of linocuts?
PH: Linocut isn’t the first medium you would think of to make an image of clouds, but the potential density of this graphic medium seemed to be appropriate for what I wanted to do.
I remember watching some thunderheads roll across the sky one day in the build up to one of those enormous summer storms we get here in Melbourne – they had a mass, a visual weight to them that started me thinking about how I could introduce a similar element into a picture. I hadn’t really thought about linocuts as a medium until about 18 months ago. I’d been looking at a lot of woodcuts at the time, especially those by Edvard Munch, and I had also seen two or three large-scale linocuts by two aboriginal artists whose names I don’t know but who were working somewhere near Cape York, or on an island in the Coral Sea, or maybe Torres Strait. Those linocuts were large, perhaps 1m x 2m, extremely elaborate and highly stylised. I particularly liked the crispness of the edges of the lines in those prints. It may have been the indigenous artists or the multicoloured woodcuts by Munch that gave me the impetus to try out a new medium like linocut. In the past, I’ve often used printmaking to interrupt the look of my paintings, to experience the surprise of a new form or space that only printmaking seems to afford. I guess that’s why I chose to work with linocuts for this new group of prints – it’s an improbable medium, especially given some of the images I’ve been applying it to. The other element I was keen to look at was how the colour and tonality of the ground might change the motif from print to print. I started to handpaint the sheets with watercolour prior to printing. I’m not sure just how far I can take these prints. I have a real liking for them at the moment and I think I’ll continue with them for some time. There are probably about 10 to 15 images in various stages of completion in the studio. I’ll let them accumulate and decide what to do with them later.
JMcK: The paintings The Geosphere and Geobloom paintings (2016) are created in oil paint, but drawing underpins them and, indeed, all your work. Can you explain the role of drawing in your art practice?
PH: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t draw, but that’s probably true for most artists that I have met, they start out that way. Drawing has been the core activity in my practice since I began working on a daily basis. Even before then, as a child and then as an adolescent, it was the way I could most easily go about picturing the world. It’s an activity that allows me to garner information and to be direct in the way I respond to various ideas. I can use it to record the look of things in very elaborate ways, or I can just be cursory with my attentions. Drawing can be speculative – hypothetical. That’s probably how it’s recognised around the world, as something that is hypothetical. If I want to really get to know a place, what it looks like, how it feels, I draw it. And there are so many different mediums that are available to us to make drawings. All in all, it’s an essential component of what I do.
JMcK: Shallow Aquifer (2016) is just one of your paintings where you appear to have gathered treasures, allowed these jewels to resonate, and to assert the necessity of maintaining the ecological balance to future human existence. Am I reading too much into your choice of elements, objects of great natural beauty?
PH: Shallow Aquifer is a picture I’d been looking to paint for some time, but without any real idea of what it was going to be, or how I was to go about doing it. I had a general sense that I needed to expand the range of my palette, to create a richer field of colour and to intensify the atmospherics of the paintings. I wanted to introduce more abstract elements – some type of architectonic framework that could support the complex spaces I was constructing within parts of these new pictures. I have always looked at a wide variety of other peoples’ paintings over the years, but recently I’ve spent a lot of time looking at works by Milton Avery and Roger Hilton, some Georgia O’Keeffe and also Helen Frankenthaler. They would seem to be a disparate group of artists, but what I’ve been doing in focusing on them is to heighten my sense of the differences in their applications, the variety of their colours and tonalities and the range of their individual pictorial spaces. I suppose it’s been something of a “fishing expedition” over these past couple of years. I’ve been locating new resources in literature and music and in different printmaking and painting practices from around the globe. I’ve begun to establish a series of new drawing sites in various parts of the country, especially along the Great Dividing Range from southern Victoria, through New South Wales and into Queensland. I think all of this has helped me to reinvigorate my general optimism for the directions these new paintings have taken.
As regards to the environmental issues you raise, I have often worked with elements in the landscape that would generally be considered as topics related to ecology. But unlike the amazing environmental art of, say, John Wolseley, for instance, or the poetry of John Kinsella and his lifelong discourse on eco-degradation (especially as it relates to farming practices in the wheatbelt of Western Australia), my work has precluded overt narratives. I think it could be described as polytemporal in the way that some sound compositions operate spatially, but I’ve not found a means of presenting the issues of ecophilosophy in any way other than by implication and rhythmic imagination, to borrow a term from Paul Carter.
When I started work on Shallow Aquifer, about 18 months ago (early 2015), I was about to make a trip to Western Australia as artist-in-residence at the Central Institute of Technology in Perth. During my time there, my wife Vera [Möller, also an artist] and I travelled north along the edge of the Indian Ocean for a few days. We visited Lesueur National Park, and for both of us it was something of a revelation. It is a heathland that sits between the coast and the Western Australian wheatbelt. There are some isolated woodlands of taller trees, but the majority of the flora is low shrubbery. The biodiversity of that landscape is mind blowing. There are somewhere in the vicinity of 900 species of plants in the region. I remember getting out of the car at one point and, within just a few metres, we noted some 15 to 20 different species of plants. The geospatial volumes are beyond comprehension. I heard about aquifers that are larger than some European countries. The vast mineral resources of that landscape are renowned and when you look out on the Indian Ocean, it’s difficult to comprehend that the next landfall is Africa.
JMcK: Your work is at once of a specific part of the world, of Australia, yet it is also enigmatic and universal. Can you describe your choice of locations?
PH: The locations that I work from often take a long time to find. It’s about establishing relationships, finding things to look at, and also feeling that there is something to respond to or think about. I’ve never been motivated by the idea of simply finding a picturesque view. I want to get to know a place, to feel part of it and to experience it differently than I would if I was just another tourist passing through. It’s about having genuine encounters. I have a number of sites that I have returned to again and again over the past 40 years. There are others that have been important, but are not so easily accessed. My most favoured sites are within a few hours drive of the studio in Melbourne. I can pack up the car and go drawing for a day or two on a whim. Once the driving extends to several hours or more, it becomes an expedition, I stay for longer and it takes a bit of forward planning. The drawings I make out-of-doors are, in general, straightforward renditions of actual terrains. It’s in those works that I find ways to make different types of marks or discover methods to articulate small moments that occur close at hand or at a distance. Sometimes those drawings translate into paintings and prints, but mostly they simply remain as collections of experiences – resource material for the studio.
JMcK: Your painting and printmaking studio have been separate to your home, and it is at home that your draw. Can you explain the relationship between each activity?
PH: I lived and worked in my studio for the first decade or so after art school. It was largely a question of finances. For several years, I was employed on building sites or was teaching painting and drawing at art schools during the day. My practice was primarily an activity undertaken at night.
If I was physically too tired to paint, I would still attempt to draw each evening. That was when I first started to appreciate the clarity that working at night affords. The eye isn’t distracted by anything other than the events that unfold before it on a page. These drawings are different from the works I’ve just talked about – the ones that I produce out-of-doors. They are independent from them and from my paintings. I can employ them to test out what it is I’ve been doing during the course of a day in the studio. Alternatively, they can allow me to focus on what it is I might be painting into the future. Mostly they are works produced simply for the sake of making them. Although I often read at night, the activity of drawing after dark is a habit that I’ve generally tried to maintain all the way along.
Different from the house, my studio is a large-scale industrial space that enables me to work on several projects at one time. I can completely surround myself with pictures. I have a number of walls that were purpose built for pinning up drawings and prints. I can also use those walls as big drawing boards for larger works on paper. I have built a small printmaking workshop at the studio.
I first started to work with the three mediums simultaneously in the mid-80s. Rather than doing a block of time in the print workshop and then another producing drawings or paintings, I would spend a portion of each day working with each medium. The project was called The Territory: 1st Hemisphere and it was shown at the Monash University Gallery in 1992. It took about five years to complete. It was made up of three distinct groups of images, each of which was realised in the three different mediums.
I wanted to see how, for example, a small-scale wood engraving or mezzotint might influence the look of a drawing or a painting of the same subject. It was a three-way conversation between each of the mediums; there were no hierarchies between them. Many of the marks I have gradually developed in my paintings and drawings came from that very project. For example, I observed the way a burin might cut into copper or end-grain boxwood and gradually translated and developed that into a range of marks that I have used for drawing and painting and other methods of printmaking.
JMcK: Can you describe your new studio and what work you expect to make based on the coast of the Bass Strait, facing Antarctica?
PH: We’ll maintain the studio in the city as the primary workplace, but the idea is to split our time between the two locations. It’s an exceptional part of the world. The ocean is continuously dramatic as the prevailing weather comes from the southwest and the fronts move up from the Southern Ocean. I spoke with a close friend who has been painting Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean for many years and asked him what I might expect. I think his best suggestion was that I start collecting tidal charts and moon cycle calendars. I suspect that the biggest impact will be the intensity of the light. I’m trying not to preempt the influence of the new place. I think I’ll start by making a lot of monoprints. I’d like the experience of Bass Strait to be something of a surprise.