Hells gate, the legend lives on

Searching for hells gate
Percy Trezise, Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey and Ray Crooke
Cairns Regional Gallery
29 August - 9 November 2014

"Far North Queensland is a place of legends. From ancient dreamtime stories to tales told during the push to colonise Cape York, there is one place where ancient and colonial legends meet. That place is known as Hells Gate.1"

In 1969 the painters Percy Trezise, Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey, Ray Crooke and amateur anthropologist Frank Woolston undertook an expedition to Cape York to relocate Hells Gate, a natural pass through the Great Dividing Range. This pass was used to access the Palmer River goldfields from Cooktown during the gold rush of the mid-1870’s. The name Hells Gate reflects the bloody confrontations that took place between Indigenous inhabitants and explorers and gold prospectors who were pushing their way through the country in pursuit of adventure and wealth. The collection of paintings in Searching for Hells Gate, curated by Cairns Regional Gallery Exhibitions Manager Justin Bishop, illustrates how the three artists each expressed their relationship to the landscape and history of the area.

The paintings, created over a forty-three year period (the most recent being a triple portrait of Woolston, Roughsey and Trezise by Crooke painted in 2013), illustrate the landscape of the area, the ill-fated Kennedy expedition story of 1848, ‘which Percy and Dick became involved with between searches for Hells Gate’,2 the 1969 expedition and depictions of ceremonial and everyday life of Indigenous inhabitants as they lived before the impact of exploration and mining altered the character of their society forever. Still photographs contextualise the history of the area and most importantly show the artists, triumphant and exhausted, at the pass. 

Both the earlier (1970s) and later (1980s) works by Crooke in this exhibition depict dry, rocky escarpments, either being scaled by the Kennedy party or as figureless landscapes. These however, change markedly from early to later works. In the 1970’s paintings the landscape is bathed in the dreamy mists of time. Purple and blue skies add to the distancing of the views, giving them a sense of inaccessibility. In the later works the landscape is sharper, the palette realistic and there is a definite immediacy in tone. That is not to say that they do not harbour mystery, but rather in a symbolic form. Quinkan Country, Laura (1989), for example, is overtly cryptic. In every way a very fine Australian landscape, there are also elements of composition that baffle the eye and imagination. A strange dark shadow running vertically down the sharp edge of a rock-face speaks of unseen forces claiming their place among the craggy outcrops. Time has brought a degree of resolve to Crooke’s representation of the ghosts that haunt the landscape, but has not banished them completely. Bishop observes:

"There is something ineffable about the Hells Gate story and in particular about the landscape in Cape York. Like only a few other places in Australia there is still an aura of magic and mystery to it. The Dreamtime is still very strong there. I think that’s what you pick up on. The Europeans came and went and the bush still survives. I think Crooke captures that mystery.3"

Roughsey’s paintings from The Kennedy Expedition series are arguably some of his best works. Intricate detailing and a hyper-realistic palette bring these works to life with a freshness and three dimensionality that cannot help but excite the viewer. So too in the works showing scenes from the 1969 expedition, from which you can easily glean the affectionate and productive friendship between Roughsey and Trezise. In Trezise and Roughsey at the caves (1970) Roughsey is pointing out features of painting on a rock wall, both men totally absorbed in what is before them. This work illustrates the artist’s skill as a painter, creating great depth in perspective through his use of shadowing and choice of palette. Despite the large scale of a number of works in the exhibition, such as Trezise’s triptych Ambush in the Rainforest (c.1984) and Crooke’s majestic Sandstone Escarpment, Laura, Cape York (1990), a small painting by Roughsey cannot be surpassed for emotional effect. Kennedy and Jackey Jackey Midday Rest (1983) shows Jackey Jackey, freshly caught goanna in hand, looking upon the greatly depleted Kennedy resting at their camp. Kennedy’s days were indeed numbered and it is easy to read grief into Jackey Jackey’s hesitant approach towards his ailing friend.

Hells Gate has been a magnet to curious and adventurous men over the decades. Bishop has presented an intriguing show, which preserves this mystique. While the process of discovery is itself well-documented, the stories of Aboriginal ambushes on miners, ill-fated exploration and the Indigenous folklore regarding the supernatural inhabitants of the area, the Quinkan, are all shrouded in mystery. Bishop had a clear sense of the unique nature of the area while curating the show, commenting that 

"The story reveals to us something about the human condition… It truly was a case of cultures colliding and no one came out the winner as the bush took back what is rightfully its own. It has all the makings of a great legend and we will always know very little of the people involved.4"

Searching for Hells Gate leaves you feeling you have seen a show of exciting works bound by an important story, while at the same time hungry to learn more about that story. Bishop has curated a fine and significant exhibition drawing upon the Cairns Regional Gallery Collection and works from private collections within Queensland. Given its level of historical significance and artistic merit, it is a shame that a catalogue was not produced. On the other hand, the unstated significance of the themes represented in the exhibition gives the viewer an opportunity to delve deeper and explore on their own terms. The absence of a curatorial big voice, a thing that intrudes so unwelcomely into many contemporary exhibitions, is refreshing in Searching for Hells Gate. Bishop’s intimate knowledge of the artist’s oeuvres and the historical context of the works has afforded him a curatorial invisibility which gives the sentiments encapsulated in the paintings room to breathe.

Ray Crooke, Quinkan Country, Laura, 1989. Oil on board, 120 x 75cm. Gift of the Cairns Regional Gallery Foundation to the Cairns Regional Gallery Collection. 

notes: 

1. Justin Bishop, excerpt from didactic panel, Searching for Hells Gate, Cairns Regional Gallery, 2014.

2. Justin Bishop, interview with the author, 20 September, 2014.

3. Justin Bishop, ibid.

4. Justin Bishop, ibid.