The Mystery of Forgetting

Ross Wolfe

This exhibition initially confounded any easy, reflexive reading. It was composed of works by the artist, Ross Wolfe, and works from the Flinders University collection (selected by Wolfe doubling as curator). The Flinders works were diverse and bore no obvious, immediate relationship to each other. They included a c.1600 engraving of a martyrdom by Hendrik Goltzius, a mid 19th century lithograph of a landscape by Nicholas Chevalier, an early 19th century engraving from the Disasters of War series by Francisco Goya, and a number of 1990s acrylics by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Dispersed within this company was the work of Ross Wolfe. Some of Wolfe’s works were paintings—small panels in the main—within which figures or figurative forms, and sometimes landscape motifs could be discerned. A bank of TV monitor-like images, The Mystery of Forgetting, captured the death throes of strickened ships, contributing a powerful set of metaphors for a collective memory loss of insights and values that, as essayist Wendy Walker states, have become ‘diminished and compromised in contemporary life’. A set of works, The reality of Hell as a place of everlasting punishment, featured Warhol-like newsprint-derived images of assorted violence and misery.

This entire exhibition, with its seeming lack of centre and its many competing voices, challenged the viewer to find sufficient scaffolding to make sense of the project. If, in the viewing process, the artist’s small hermit-like figures had been discovered, some insight should have emerged. Wolfe’s hermits, or holy men, acted as tangible reminders of an alternative world view and pathway for living. One photograph in the exhibition, showing a Sadhu or ‘holy man’, was taken by Wolfe when travelling in India in 1969. The hermit figure had close associations with Eastern cultures, but the motif was derived primarily from St Anthony the Abbot (AD 251–356), the founder of Christian monasticism who was famously depicted being tormented by devils in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (and also by Sidney Nolan in the 1950s). But Wolfe’s hermit was sourced from an alternative depiction by Bosch that shows the saint as a solitary, slightly forlorn character, ‘lost in the wilderness of the inner mountain’ and thus dealing as it were, with inner, rather than outer demons.

It is the principle of world denial, not the ‘Christianity’ of Anthony, which has attracted the artist, who has commented that this interest ‘reflects the idea of a driven, individual pursuit for self-knowledge’. Wolfe’s extensive collection of newspaper clippings includes stories of individuals who have elected to live apart from society. Adding complexity to his own self identity as an artist (who has for much of his working life been an ‘outsider’ as an arts administrator/manager) is his respect for the Australian artist Ian Fairweather who, in the later part of his life, self-exiled to Bribie Island.

The persuasiveness of ‘The Mystery of Forgetting’ lay in its ambit strategies. The jump cut associations (and sometimes clashes) between works dealing with humanity on one hand and nature on the other, or between sublime beauty and ugly deeds, created a high level of tension. Then there was the fascinating dialogue between the living and the dead; the living artist (Wolfe) summoning all the others who either through the witness they bore to the human condition in extremis, or their indelible sense of belonging to a place, suggest that for him (and perhaps others) there is a way forward. The message of Wolfe‘s at times feverish mark making, is that his ongoing personal ‘tao’ will continue to have the grace and speed, but also the determination, of an old hermit leaning heavily on a staff. It is as if the laboriousness and at times denial of certitude in the mark making and the ‘half-hatching’, and the sometimes stuttering serialisation of personal motifs, was in itself a metaphor for the wider task of authentically engaging with the world, by incrementally adding through small koan-like insights to a sum of personal understanding of how all things connect.

The strategy of convening work from across a collection or time, as a personal artistic statement, has precedents (Joseph Kosuth at the Brooklyn Museum, Kara Walker at The Metropolitan, for example). Such strategies may only work for audiences (not catalogue readers) who actually experience such exhibitions. The reward for this commitment, as with ‘The Mystery of Forgetting’, was to be reminded that creative contexts engender renewed dialogue between a half-forgotten ‘art historical’ past and a ‘contemporary art’ present. It is a simple and powerful strategy. But implementing or engaging with it is equivalent to setting sail, like Ian Fairweather on a makeshift craft towards Timor half a century ago, and letting the winds and currents of ideas compressed within art works of calibre, set the course.