Ashley Crawford, Wimmera: The work of Philip Hunter

Book Review

In his foreword to Wimmera: The Work of Philip Hunter, the novelist Gerald Murnane speaks of a certain ‘winking’ of detail from the edges of vision, be it visual or imaginary. The author of The Plains, a novel written in 1982 about ‘an imaginary Wimmera’ (Wimmera 11), shares an understanding ‘wink’, a ‘secret knowledge’ (9), with the painter whose recent body of work is also called The Plains. Both reside in the state of Victoria, Murnane revealing that he has ‘found enough hints of strangeness in my native territory without having to look elsewhere’ (10).

Such ‘hints of strangeness’ oscillate in the nocturnal vistas of Hunter’s Wimmera. Murnane’s plainsmen found that what ‘at first seemed utterly flat and featureless eventually disclosed countless subtle variations of landscape and an abundance of furtive wildlife’ (90). And Hunter, through calligraphic trails over an abstracted landscape—sometimes defining a horizon—continues their journey by seeking ‘the vagaries of topography, shifting spatial orders, botanical and geological eccentricities’ (88). Camping in the Wimmera he would discover, as Ashley Crawford recounts, ‘a tapestry of time-based patterns’, including the flight paths of birds and the way that ‘in the darkness tractors would rotate over the fields, their lights picking up flecks of dust’ (111).

Hunter, unlike Murnane, grew up in the Wimmera in the town of Donald. The works of The Plains become, then, a personal voyage of memory and rekindled experience: ‘My landscapes are a metaphor for my knowledge, memory, traditions. I use them as a means of exploring, of journeying. Everyone has their own geography which needs to be mapped out’. (48).

After Murnane’s ‘less is more’ evocation of an imagined ‘level countryside in a vague region inland from Bendigo’ (9), we are plunged into ‘A Literary Lunch’. As the first chapter of this book, it is a curious beginning. The reader may enjoy a moment as voyeur, ascertaining just who was invited to merit a photo-documentary record of this lunch in Hunter’s studio. We are being asked to witness the breadth of ‘the intellectual and cultural networking that Hunter relishes’ (13). But the sceptical might also detect sturdy scaffolding being erected to ensure we regard Hunter with appropriate seriousness. Lyn Williams (widow of Fred), Patrick McCaughey (ex-director of the National Gallery of Victoria), art historian Janine Burke, gallery director Jenepher Duncan, architect Peter Corrigan—the list goes on—are gracing Hunter with their presence. And it is from this cast of dignitaries that Crawford will draw comments and quotes, one of the more memorable being an open letter written by McCaughey in 2000, to be quoted by Crawford in full (100-106).

Such a jarring and disquieting beginning tears us from the resonance established by Murnane. Why would Crawford (or the artist or publisher) feel the need for such a phalanx of critical support? As we are soon made aware, the artist has struggled not only against the sway of postmodern critical theory, but also those contemporary attitudes which have repeatedly deemed painting dead and viewed landscape as an outmoded genre. Hunter was the ‘marginalised’ artist, for whom ‘approaching the landscape after the theory laden years of postmodernism was a perilous exercise at best’ (35, 86). Crawford has the classic argument of redemption: ‘Many Australian artists tend to fall for the follies of fashion. Not Hunter’ (12). After such travails, the exhibition ‘The Plains: Wimmera and the Imaging of Australian Landscape’ of 2000 then opened ‘to rapturous response’, those ‘who had previously dismissed Hunter as an outmoded landscape painter were forced to revise their opinion’ (90).

Crawford does Hunter a disservice by adopting such a defensive posture. Serious analysis is ruptured by petty politics. Moreover, the fact that this posture is assumed by the former editor of the magazines Tension, 21.C and World Art provides an inevitable irony. One suspects, perhaps wrongly, a belated rancour towards the critically rigorous Art & Text opposition. Of Hunter, we learn that ‘The Visit Cycle’ exhibition of 1990 was his last at City Gallery, Melbourne, a gallery then ‘veering in a strongly conceptual direction, in part influenced by such artists as John Nixon and Mike Parr’ (54).

Crawford is assiduous in providing a clearly written, thorough account of his subject, taking us through the various series that followed Hunter’s art school experience at Prahran in the late 1970s. But beyond an almost journalistic inclusiveness, whereby we are treated to the opinions of a wide range of commentators, we sense another agenda. For Crawford does not merely provide a thorough exposition of Hunter’s oeuvre, but deliberately positions him as a landscape painter continuing a line established by the likes of Fred Williams and John Olsen, and as an artist of equivalent stature to predecessors such as Sidney Nolan. Comparisons with Nolan derive from a common subject matter, namely Nolan’s wartime Dimboola and Wimmera works. In ‘The Plains: Wimmera and the Imaging of Australian Landscape’ exhibition of 2000 at the Ian Potter Gallery in Melbourne, the two meet. In Crawford’s assessment, ‘While curator Peter Haynes had presented Hunter’s work alongside Nolan’s Wimmera drawings, it was Hunter who won the day’ (90).

Yet Crawford is only telling part of the story. Landscape, or ‘country’, has figured strongly in Indigenous art since the 1980s. Indeed, is it still possible to think of landscape painting as we once did? Since the 1980s our understanding of Indigenous art and culture, alongside our revised attitudes towards ecology and land care, has meant nothing less than a revolution in our thinking.

Crawford’s narrative is frustrating in his failure to take on board in any meaningful way Indigenous art and culture. He states that Hunter’s work is ‘discussed in terms of the tradition of landscape painting as having its historical context within Australian painting and the broader European tradition and as manifesting a concomitant awareness of indigenous art’ (121). Yet, to use Murnane’s phrase, Crawford only ‘winks’ at the issue of Indigenous art. We are informed of ‘the decimation of the local indigenous population’ in the Wimmera (122). And we read briefly of the way in which the ‘brown and ochre palette and the strangely aerial viewpoint recalls the work of such indigenous artists such [sic] as Rover Thomas, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre and Rusty Peters’, or that, compared to Thomas, there is a similar ‘nearly hallucinatory approach to swirling form and a strangely hovering perspective’ (93, 123). But no sustained analysis is attempted and Hunter remains curiously silent. Hunter visits Kakadu in 1987—following on from his Tower Hill works, his Cythera Series—but there is only passing mention of there being ‘rock drawings everywhere’ at the ‘sandstone escarpment’ of Koongarra Saddle (46). Then immediately we join Hunter on his first visit to Europe where Rubens’ Medici Cycle will provide the source material for his next body of work. The focus, with scarcely a falter, remains on a European and white Australian heritage. Too late, we will be told that ‘Hunter has, of course, attended to both modern Aboriginal art and had first-hand experience of older rock art in Kakadu’ (122).

Crawford does take on board Hunter’s awareness of American Land Art. The desolation of the American west can scarcely be thought of without the likes of James Turrell’s Roden Crater, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and, not least, Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field. He does not, however, pursue any shared interest in ancient sites and cultures. As to any links to art engaging with an ecological agenda, his primary reference is to Geoff Lowe’s and Tony Clark’s paintings of Tower Hill—Tower Hill in Victoria having been revegetated to resemble paintings by Eugene Von Guérard of 1855. Lowe’s works of the 1980s are treated dismissively by Crawford: ‘Geoff Lowe had used such material with some literalism in his Tower Hill paintings to little effect’ (116).

Crawford’s most successful means of positioning Hunter within a surreal context is through literature. David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life is a key example, though Crawford also references a ‘surreal sense of landscape’ in the works of ‘Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Gerald Murnane [and] Jorge Louis Borges’ (53, 19). Hunter, as Crawford states, similarly wanted ‘to find a geography of the imagination’ (54). It is a point made repeatedly, as here by critic Gary Catalano: ‘Hunter’s art is one in which poetry has always tended to take precedence over topography’ (50). Crawford’s description of Hunter imagining the vestiges of an inland sea within the Wimmera, finding ‘the ebb and flow of long ago tides’, willing ‘the sea to return at nightfall’, is evocative indeed (122, 97). Again, literature is at hand, this time J.G. Ballard’s short story Now Wakes The Sea of 1963 (97).

Finally, do we accept the claim made by Crawford that Hunter’s body of work, The Plains, is ‘a landscape unlike any portrayed in the long history of that genre’ (12)? Certainly these are ‘canvases of mystery and memory rather than explicit descriptions of a “real” place’ (12), but have not the paintings and prints of Judy Watson excavated the memories of this land with great poetry, and from an Indigenous perspective? There are a great many parallels between their works. Both blend a birds-eye panorama of country with the never-strictly-rational delineations of memories of life, both set a haunting tone at once delicate and monumental, both find reverie in darkness. When McCaughey identifies a ‘spectral and evanescent’ quality in the ‘vanished human presences’ in Hunter’s ‘layered landscape’, it could also be found in Watson’s. Watson, however, is never mentioned (102).

There is no doubt that this is a handsome publication, richly illustrated not only with Hunter’s works, but also with panoramic photographs of the Wimmera by Mark Lang and David Shaw. Those approaching Hunter’s work through Crawford’s text might, as Murnane remarked of his novel The Plains, best use its pages as ‘part diagram and part map’ (9). For, in approaching Hunter’s pictures of the Wimmera, it is as well to follow Murnane’s example: ‘I do not stare at the Wimmera as I pass through. I watch from the sides of my eyes…’ (11).

notes: 

ashley crawford, wimmera: the work of philip hunter

Thames & Hudson, Fishermans Bend, Victoria, 2002

ISBN 0500 50 010X (hardcover)