Proximity and Perception

Danie Mellor
Cairns Art Gallery
4 May – 1 July 2018

The exhibition Proximity and Perception at the Cairns Art Gallery gave local audiences the opportunity to see work by acclaimed Australian contemporary artist Danie Mellor. The show included drawings1 and photography created during the past decade and was occasioned by the arrival of the gallery’s newly acquired drawing Dulgu-burra (a procession of history) (2018). Mellor, whose Indigenous heritage is Mamu, Ngagen and Jirrbal, regularly exhibits in large public institutions and respected commercial galleries in Australia and abroad, so Proximity and Perception was a rare opportunity for the artist to show his work in an institution in the region of his traditional Country of the Atherton Tablelands. 

The exhibition is also an acknowledgement of the high esteem in which Mellor holds friend and mentor Dr Ernie Grant. The large portrait of the Jirrbal elder, Untitled (Ernie Grant in Blackman Street) (2006) was hung inside the doorway of the exhibition space, fittingly opening proceedings. Ernie Grant is an important figure in Mellor’s cultural and spiritual journey and the artist has been spending time with him learning about Country for over fifteen years. The portrait of Grant was the first of Mellor’s works to be acquired by the Cairns Art Gallery and is the earliest work in the exhibition. 

Six of the eleven works in Proximity and Perception are mixed media drawings on paper. Apart from the large portrait drawn in pencil and charcoal, the other works on paper have blue landscape backgrounds with humans and animals depicted in full colour, with the exception of Above and below (2016) in which the figure of an Aboriginal man is also rendered in blue tones. Mellor uses his own photographs, historical images and vistas from Spode china for the landscape backgrounds, and the Aboriginal figures are borrowed from historical photographs. Many of the drawings have elaborate floral borders and ornate gold frames. The overall effect is of charming decorative pictures, a pastiche of pretty elements, not unlike Victorian decoupage screens. 

Beyond these idyllic scenes lies a darker reality. By the time photographers were capturing or posing Aboriginal rainforest groups and individuals in photographs, large numbers of them had been killed and many were living on the edge of their rainforest homelands near to starvation. The blue of the rainforest in Mellor’s drawings is the melancholy colour of an overcast sky, the pallor of death. At the turn of the nineteenth century, there was no reason not to believe that the Aborigines of the rainforests of North Queensland would expire, as murder, starvation and disease rapidly reduced the population. Mellor’s full-colour depiction of the animals, people and material culture of the rainforest is an affirmation of their miraculous survival against the odds. 

The order of works in Proximity and Perception followed the pattern of development of Mellor’s oeuvre. The portrait is clearly an early work, lacking the tightness and polish of more recent drawings, but nevertheless an important part of the artist’s personal journey. The blue and white drawings that have dominated his practice for over a decade, and which curator Ashleigh Campbell hints in the catalogue essay, may have come to an end with Dulgu-burra (a procession of history) ‘possibly’2 finalising the series, lead into Mellor’s photography. 

The five photographs in this exhibition depict a rainforest landscape associated with an Indigenous legend about ‘Girrugarr, a magical, shape-shifting ancestor who provided the names of all things in that environment and landscape’.3 The materials and techniques Mellor has used to reproduce the works make them timeless. The images titled New Materialisms (anticipating Girrugarr) III and V (2015) (each 200 x 120cm), hung as a diptych, are printed on curved aluminium. The effect is both unsettling and exciting, as if one is viewing an alien landscape and not knowing what might materialise with the next step. Mellor has revealed, 

[W]hen I created those works, I was reading how Einstein noted there are no straight lines in the universe; everything was curved, particularly space time (as I understood it). It seemed to me there were strong correlations between this way of thinking and ancestral dreaming stories, and the way they feel quite omnipresent and even quantum, sort of beyond time… Working imagery onto curved panels was an experiment in approaching an almost indefinable subject, and quite a vast one.4 

The distance (envisioning Girrugarr) (2017), a natural successor to New Materialisms, is clearly derived from the same creative wellspring. The photographic image is a diasec mounted Lambda print on metallic photographic paper. This method of reproduction lends even more life to an already animated vision. Not immediately apparent is the figure of an Aboriginal man bearing ceremonial body decoration of cockatoo feathers. In contrast to his blue and white drawings where the figures are made patent by their full colour against a blue landscape, this figure is at one with his surroundings. Re-destined by Mellor, transported from a position of vulnerability into a world of power, the ancestor has been afforded the ultimate freedom of fulfilling his personal and cultural potential. This time traveller could well represent Mellor who, through contact with family and instruction from his mentor Ernie Grant, has become deeply embedded into a meaningful cultural landscape. 

The photographic works in Proximity and Perception eclipse Mellor’s drawing in terms of their emotional impact and the access they allow audiences to the artist’s inner realm. They are the upper room, transcending the romantic depiction of Country in the blue and white series of drawings. In these photographs Mellor has moved from the historic to the personal, confidently sharing his vision without recourse to borrowing and artifice. The distance created by redrawing historical photographs, framing and reframing and esoteric references has been shortened. Mellor’s photographs communicate the timeless magic of the rainforest, abounding in mystery, alive with movement, pungent, cool and damp. Of course, the viewer cannot know the depths of lore and knowledge therein, but it is more than enough that Mellor has communicated its power through the lens of his own discoveries. 

Danie Mellor, Above and below, 2016. Wax pastel wash with oil pigment, watercolour and pencil on paper mounted on aluminium, 96 x 120cm. Courtesy the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane.

Danie Mellor, The distance (envisioning Girrugar), 2017. Lambda print on metallic paper, 120 x 140cm. Courtesy the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane.

Danie Mellor, Dulgu-burra (a procession of history), 2018. Wax pastel, crayon, coloured pencil, wash with oil pigment, watercolour and pencil with glitter and Swarovski crystals on paper, 98 x 149cm. Commissioned by Cairns Art Gallery Foundation and donated to Cairns Art Gallery, 2018. Collection Cairns Art Gallery, Cairns.

notes: 

1. Mellor’s drawings are mixed media including pencil, charcoal, wax pastel, wash with oil pigment, watercolour, coloured pencil, glitter and Swarovski crystal on paper. 

2. Ashleigh Campbell, Danie Mellor: Proximity and Perception, ex. room brochure, Cairns Art Gallery, Cairns, 2018. 

3. Danie Mellor, New Materialisms (anticipating Girrugarr I-V), artist statement, 2015, supplied by artist 14 June 2018. 

4. Danie Mellor, email communication, 14 June 2018.