The Promise (detail)
Oil on maple panel, 2019
The other side of who we are: five South Australian artists in China
To take artists out of their comfort zone is a challenge and a gift. Travel is an invitation to explore a new sense of light, colour, gesture, and materials, as well as another landscape and culture. Any artist works in a constant stream of influence and cultural exchange, a stream that crosses national borders. Formal encounters such as this exchange between the South Australian Living Artists' Festival (SALA) and Shandong Young Artists' Association (SDYAA) might be fleeting, but they can permeate well beyond the contained moment, finding subtle ways to enter the individual artist's sensibility. Through their work, these connections find the eyes and minds of many others; so artists can channel the flow of an ephemeral spring into the river of a culture.
The importance of such exchanges cannot be overstated in maintaining a long and fruitful friendship. Hospitality allows the guest to move in another land with an equally generous spirit and an open mind. With over thirty years of sister-state relationship between South Australia and Shandong, this creative exchange is one encounter in a much bigger story.
The meeting of Chinese and Australian artists is a meeting of two ways of seeing. For South Australians, the specificity of a local visual culture is revealed by its outline against the light of a much older tradition. We are seen as much as seeing. But there are as many ways of seeing China and Australia as there are pairs of eyes. Which ways matter? What deserves our attention? Visual artists, trained not just to make images of the world but to show us their meaning, are uniquely placed to navigate these questions.
The South Australian work represented in this exhibition is both global and intimate. In form, these works reflect some of the wonderful diversity of contemporary Australian art practice. We are invited to see China through the eyes of five independent-minded artists – to look at how we see, and think about why it matters. These works examine the real and the imaginary, the future and the past, the built environment and the natural, the big picture and the smallest detail. Using apparent limitations as starting points for evolutionary change, they show us something of the essence of a place in the throes of transformation.
Deidre But-Husaim has long been interested in looking at how people see, painting figures in the act of gazing upon a work of art, or some other subject; her figures are often turned away from the viewer, so that we spy upon observation itself. But-Husaim's fascination with people in the act of looking is extended in these paintings, which take small moments from everyday life and unfurl in them a sense of possibility.
In visiting China, But-Husaim was challenged by the problem of light, identifying the limited horizon as a site of tension. Long in love with Adelaide's clear and open skies, Jinan's urban haze lead her to address light and colour in a new way. She was struck by the way that industrialised light offers moments of beauty, bringing a strange warmth to a scene. Her subjects may pause in a horizonless space, but they are bright with life.
These small paintings depict ordinary people at work, the act of carrying burdens, or the moment of encounter with something other. The iterations of the ubiquitous three-wheeled cart or sanlunche quickly evoke the bustling movement of China. But when we look closely, we see that But-Husaim has transformed these glimpses of everyday life into something fantastical. Emergent swarms ooze or creep from her vehicles. Two women lift an impossible form with one carrying-pole; with another, two men raise a tree wrapped in what appears to be golden silk, relaxed in their sacred undertaking. In these images, we witness a wonder and respect for work, the energy of life sustaining itself, the joyful energy of the uncontainable.
The generosity in But-Husaim's images of working people and her transformation of ordinary objects become offerings, honouring the unseen labour that fuels China's growth. Her tonal subtlety and humility of scale invite us to pay patient attention to detail. Facing a swarm of energy, a young man gently reaches to greet it, meeting something human in that form. In such intimate moments of encounter, in the same spirit, But-Husaim sees a universal tenderness.
That sense of the universal also inflects Louise Feneley's work. An oil painter and teacher who began her long career in the abstract mode, Feneley still draws on the principles of abstract art, utilising composition, balance, and the effects of light as a way to explore visual energy. In all her work, Feneley finds ways to look at what is not there – the unspeakable, the numinous, the mystery that hovers in the everyday. She sees China in red and gold hues, a synaesthetic response which has shifted her palette, moving her away from the muted light of coastal South Australia to which she is accustomed.
Posing temple paraphernalia alongside Tsingtao bottles and souvenirs, Feneley contests the border between holy and ordinary objects, finding universal resonance in colour and composition. For her, the empty beer bottle holds as much energy as Guanyin's red ribbon or a prayer tag. In Feneley's still lifes, the energy that connects artists to one another does not require spoken language. There is a vitality in the craft that cannot be lost in translation. "I look for the mystery behind the phenomenal world, behind the obvious, visible world," she says, "some quality one senses between the appearance of things... For me, painting is pre-verbal, and that mystery is pre-verbal."
Feneley's preoccupation with the elemental – her recent paintings have risen to the challenges of depicting air, water, and earth – primes her to see the fire at work in China, present as the heat of bold red surfaces or the quiet light of a domestic altar. By arranging that forward-moving, dynamic energy into a space of private contemplation, she calmly reconciles an apparent contradiction, never letting go of the reverence for form that underpins her craft.
A shifting palette has also arisen in the work of Thom Buchanan, whose energetic uptake of red and gold hues presents a contrast to Feneley's calm contemplation. Buchanan's preoccupations with time, memory, and architectural space are powerfully re-arranged in these works. For Buchanan, the dizzying experience of Jinan's urban modernity stimulated fresh thinking about the process of human development. His awe at the rapid transformation of urban space was tempered by glimpses of an ancient culture's traditional appreciation for the natural landscape.
In China, Buchanan identified "a surface tension between the past and the future" that spoke powerfully to his own practice. Working at that tension point gives Buchanan a way of looking at China in a moment of divergence and connection as the country transforms. In his paintings, we witness the contrast between architectural and natural forms, but also their interrelation, their inseparability.
Buchanan's layered approach emphasises the persistence of the past despite the speed and energy of change as China hurtles towards the future. As in much of his work, the use of perspective at once distances us and draws us in, questioning our assumptions about time and space. The experience of losing information in translation, at first a limitation, has given him form for these paintings in which, he says, "not all the data has been downloaded onto the canvas."
Witnessing the work of master calligraphers in Shandong, Buchanan found a resonance with his own practice, but rather than imitate the technique of ink and brush he has sought to highlight that sense of movement in his own contemporary mode. The resulting works speak to the compression of the present moment. By loosening the bonds of time, Buchanan's sense of awe is returned to us, re-expressed at a human scale.
For Luke Thurgate, images of China were first forged by a childhood steeped in kung fu movies and episodes of Monkey (the TV adaptation of Journey to the West that screened in Australia throughout the 1980s). Visiting Shandong and Shanghai, he was impressed by the verticality and repetition of forms in the urban environment. Like all these artists, he sought a way to approach the challenges of scale.
Climbing Taishan, Thurgate found a language for the combination of grandeur and subtlety he witnessed in the work of Chinese painters, an ability to negotiate a balance between excess and refinement. While ascending this most sacred of mountains, Thurgate made three small sketches, restricted to these simple gestures by the limitations of time and the effort of the ascent. In this exhibition, he works from those sketches and his own memory to produce an image of Taishan, drawing directly onto the gallery wall in charcoal. This mode of drawing is ephemeral and gestural, giving the artist a way of speaking to the enormity and significance of the landscape while embracing its fragility. Working in this mode, Thurgate resists illusions of permanence and perfectionism, creating something that can only be truly seen in the process of its making.
By responding to the landscape in this way, Thurgate refers to Chinese traditions of landscape painting, traditions which give context to his existing practice. Thurgate's agile work loosens the demands of representation, turning limitation into possibility, seeking a more essential energy of place. By tracing the movement of the body through time, he expresses the qi of seeing – a quality for which there is no word in English, though we recognise its presence in the martial and the visual arts.
Damien Shen's works primarily address themes of history and legacy, working across photography, drawing, and painting to investigate questions of identity, heritage, and memory. Of Ngarrindjeri and Chinese ancestry, Shen's paternal grandparents were born in Shanghai and his father emigrated to Australia from Hong Kong. In Shandong, he was fascinated with Song Dynasty art and artefacts, in particular traditional family portraits painted onto silk. Here, he has painted himself into portraits in a similar style, addressing himself to his paternal line.
Photography is a longstanding part of Shen's practice, and with it, the tension of attempting to hold or restore what is lost. By referring to these portraits that once served the purpose of photographs, he investigates his own identity and history, but also asks questions about authenticity and memory. Shen thus interrogates Australia's myth of 'contact' or 'settlement', revealing a much longer and more complex process that includes many incarnations of exchange, theft, enterprise, and flight. Unable to replicate the original silk materials, Shen has painted onto unstretched canvas, and by turning this limitation into a material reality he emphasises the re-appropriation of traditional portraiture as an act of removal from its source. The resulting works operate simultaneously as history and as fiction.
Shen credits his Chinese grandfather's entrepreneurialism for his ability to manage his rapid success as an artist, and his work evokes the spirit and strength of generations of migrants. "The greatest benefit of this experience has been an opportunity for me to give time and attention to my Chinese ancestry," he says. "It's the other side of who I am."
To see artists encounter a place through its visual culture is to witness the exchange of something inexpressible. The language of craft is both universal and culturally specific, shared and untranslatable. The common work of visual artists, regardless of their background, is not only to present the world but to show us how and why we see the way we do, and to open the mind to further possibilities.
These five artists are all technically accomplished, and each seeks to balance this image-making prowess with deep attention to the conceptual and imaginative foundations of their work. Within their own mature and considered styles, these artists find ways to respond to the challenges of form, scale, light, and colour that they discovered in China, meeting apparent limitations as opportunities to explore and extend their practice.
In the work of these five South Australian artists, we see many iterations of China: the ancient and the modern, the sublime and the humble, the sacred and the ordinary. We see China and Australia, deep in the long conversation of our connected histories. We are invited to explore with an open mind, and to reciprocate their generous attention.
© Jennifer Mills
Jennifer Mills is an Australian novelist, short story writer and poet.