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When Pamela Kouwenhoven won the Heysen Prize for landscape art for her work in South Australia, not everyone was happy. Two letters to the local newspaper, The Courier, said her art was insulting and that it so missed the beauty of our country that Hans Heysen would be rolling in his grave. But Kouwenhoven’s rusty portrayals (or betrayals) of country have captured a sense of place; they speak the ethos of the dry land we inhabit.
Her works are large (around two square metres), using scrapings of discarded malthoid on board or galvanised iron. Malthoid, a heavy black gritty tar-paper, was once rolled onto the base of water tanks to keep them watertight. Its hidden deterioration from long contact with earth, tank, and water capture images of the dryland spirit. Kouwenhoven puts these remnants of discarded tanks to a new use which both memorialises a way of life and comments on the state of our too dry environment. She and we together are ‘scraping the bottom of the tank’.
South Australia and Adelaide have been most aware that the Murray-Darling River is drying, dying. So it is appropriate that this work now comes to Queensland, the source of the water and of the river’s precarious state. The work combines both startling beauty and environmental comment.
These works reflect the round bases of tanks, in browns, rusts, and an almost greenish-grey. They are memories of water, stilled. The symbol of the exhibition is the circular Dryland Base 2, the welds of the tank base more obvious in the pink with orange centre. The unusual pink seems somehow more thirsty for water. These are stranger planets than we know; our familiar blue-green earth is transformed into a more threatening image of the future. Only one piece includes any life form: Scraping Global with Frog is a large ellipsoid shape, in which a small brown mummified frog disappears into the rusted bitumen colours—only the title makes you seek it out and mourn its passing presence.
My favourites in the show are the series of slightly smaller square boards called Pressing Dryland Site. The rust and browns allude to a past of less industrialised, smaller scale farming. The abstract layers form a complex minimalism. And there are landscapes to be interpreted here, both aerial and traditional. The aerial view might be dying farms, their regular patches dividing the dry land with hopeful claims; the ripples in the dark malthoid reflect the plough. A mountain looms, its tip glows rust in the final touch of sunlight as night falls. These are ‘edge places’—maps of both the past and the future—just as our society is in an edge place at the moment in its climate transition.
Kouwenhoven’s careful framing makes the dryland wild; created by but free of humans. The work suggests both beauty and fear. Malthoid has become a useless barrier between humans and nature’s dry revenge for its misuse. The malthoid, while holding a memory of the earth beneath, dissolves in drought’s fury to form an awe-ful art.
The calcified rust on iron welding creates whole universes that tell of fearful futures and past struggles. This is an exhibition that says a lot with little didacticism. It looks beautiful, minimalist, enlivening and calming the gallery’s space. While there is despair, there is also hope. Pamela Kouwenhoven’s grand works are humbling, using cultural cast-offs to claim the environmental future. This is green art that accesses what lies beneath.