The artist as explorer

Mandy Martin's recent landscapes
Michael Milburn Gallery, Brisbane

Over the past decade, Canberra-based artist Mandy Martin has made her mark as a painter of contemporary Australian landscapes. Martin 's paintings during this time focused on the impact of European tampering with nature-a twentieth-century urban artist depicting the "cultural and industrial colonisation of Australia "1 , Dramatic iconography included stark industrial buildings set in a ravaged or barren landscape-a contemporary interpretation and commentary on Burke's treatise on the nature of the sublime and beautiful. Uncompromising and startling, these images became an established component of Martin 's oeuvre.

In her recent exhibition at Michael Milburn Gallery, gone are the industrial sites and the angst-ridden narratives. The psychological insights and the dramatic iconography are still present, but these paintings are more subdued and introspective. Like a giant panorama, these landscapes are presented as a "grand suite" and do not carry the visual and narrative impact of some earlier paintings that could have been read as either a celebration of industry or as a plea for the preservation of the Australian landscape. The works in this exhibition appear as a homage to the explorers of yesteryear-'The heroes of geographical romance"2-and to the grandeur of the Australian landscape. They are a visual commentary on the artist's exploration of self and place, but more particularly on the intrinsic qualities of the pigment used to make these statements. Martin's former social and political concerns are seemingly swamped by the technique and the celebratory use of paint.

As a group, the paintings are overwhelming in the sheer physicality and sensuality of the paint-smeared, knifed, scraped, brushed, and perhaps squeezed straight from the tube-the smell of oil paint permeated the gallery. Across the foreground of the wide panoramas "place" is spelt out. One felt tempted to trace a finger through the text, words from explorers' notes pulled through the paint as though drawing in the wet earth with a stick. McCahon-like, the incorporated text locates, yet dislocates. There is seemingly an element of play here and yet, knowing something of the history of the artist, one knows, or hopes, there is more.

Earlier this year, Martin spent ten days in the Flinders Ranges and the area north to Coober Pedy. She kept a journal, and each day entered two visual recordings of places visited or sighted during her journey. Twenty large drawings were completed in situ in much the same manner as some of the early explorers who ventured into this and other areas. Martin's sojourn into this particular region was inspired by the journals of Ernest Giles. This explorer has been described as a "romantic Voss-like figure in the down-to-earth history of the Australian outback"3, who apparently recorded hopelessly incomplete maps, provisional names and romantic sketches. This recent body of work is autobiographical in the sense that Martin is the explorer, the pioneer venturing into a 'no-place', an outsider indulging in the space of the topographer. There is no real sense of mapmaking in the paintings but there is a definite reference to the colonial and later explorers. The artist records her mark in the earth or on the shores of Lake Eyre, a quasi map-maker and quasi explorer. Martin had been down this path before when she paid homage to Ludwig Seeker and followed the route of explorers Burke and Wills into the Strzelecki Desert.

Crossing Giddi Giddini Creek on the Bindey-1 Plains-Due East, 1992, one of the largest and most powerful of the ten works in this exhibition, is an extension of Martin's exploration of land use and abuse in Australia. The viewer experiences the environment, the elements, and the vast, curved arc of the landscape as if observed through a telescope. The recurring use of the ellipse is a favoured compositional device that Martin has been using in her work since 1982. She has often stated that the curve of the earth represents the ascending side of evolution and the descending side, devolution. It represents birth and death, regeneration and degeneration. Here, the composition allows the vaporous sky with its dramatic cloud formations to become as important as the curved land mass, rich with dense, murky colou rs and crunchy textures. Showing through a predominantly subdued palette are unexpected glimpses of turquoise paint, hot pinks, searing red ochres, muddy chocolate, lemon gold, acid greens (indicating pollution?), "oil black" paint and encrustations of gold dust.

Assuming that this is a post-apocalyptic vision, Martin's landscapes have an inherent sense of mystery and predict the ultimate triumph of nature. There is no habitation here, no lush growth, just vast, empty landscapes of denuded earth; the ghosts of smoke-belching industrial buildings (the focus of previous paintings) stored in the mind's eye of the viewer who comes to these works with a knowledge of the artist's oeuvre. The degradation and exploitation seem complete and yet in Martin's landscapes of the mind the land endures.

notes: 

1. Mandy Martin, artist's statement, in Reconstructed Narrative: Strzelecki Desert Series, (exhibition catalogue), Christine Abrahams Gallery, Melbourne 1992.

2. Paul Carter, "Invisible journeys, exploration and photography in Australia 1939-1989", Island in the Stream: Myths of Place in Australian Culture, ed. Paul Foss, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, 1988, p.49.

3. Louis Green, "A Voss Among the Explorers, The Career of Ernes! Giles ", Quadrant, no.7, 1963, p.17.