The works in this exhibition trace the stages of a three year transition in my painting life from the dry Mallee country of northern Victoria to the wetlands of New South Wales and the swamps of the Camargue in southern France. During this time, I spent many months camping and drawing in areas of remnant scrub in both wetlands and drylands. When working on Murray Sunset Refugia with Ventifacts 2008/2009, I found a secret island of unburnt scrub remaining after the bush fires. This was a refugia or sanctuary in which plants and small creatures sheltered until the fire had passed and then gradually began to re-colonize the surrounding sand dunes. Then, when I journeyed to the rapidly diminishing wetlands and swamps of the more temperate zones, such as Dismal Swamp and Bloodhound Swamp beneath the Grampians in western Victoria and the wetlands of Gwydir Region in New South Wales, I found that these sites were also important ‘species banks’ for a continent whose ecosystems are under stress.
Most of these paintings start in a rather simple way. What I like doing most of all in the world is immersing myself in a location which is completely new to me; wandering about and making drawings of the intimate processes and natural history of the place. This exhibition has numerous studies of this kind which are the basis for larger works in which the details of a specific site relate to the more abstract dimensions of the earth like geology and climate. I want the finished works to become celebrations of the strangeness and beauty of certain places, and to mark particular moments of delight and amazement. The wonder of seeing a flock of a thousand waders, Bar-tailed godwits flying as one and then landing on a wild shore in northern Australia, having flown 11,000 miles from their breeding grounds in Siberia. Or waking up after a snooze in the reeds in the Camargue and seeing an evening sky almost covered by Flamingos flying to their sleeping quarters on a salt lake. Or glimpsing a tiny Clamorous reed warbler sitting on its secret nest woven amongst the reed beds of the Gwydir wetlands.
I tell my friends that I have become a wet painter now as well as the dry one I used to be. Certainly my love affair of the last few years with carbon in the form of charcoal is now joined by a more liquescent pushing of the medium of watercolour to its uttermost pooling, flooding and swampy limits. Something else seems to be happening too, the pull between these dry and wet mediums seem to have drawn me, as if by sympathetic magic – to images of the Titanic battle which is happening between the same primary elements out there in the greater cosmos. Out there the natural rhythms of wet and dry, hot and cold, all linked by the natural carbon cycle are being pushed to extremes – they are in rebellion. Even the Black-backed heron is defiant. I painted it wading through a marsh beside a Gippsland Power station in A Natural history of Swamps III, Heron in marshland – Loy Yang Power Station. In the vast open-cut coal mine nearby, I found fossils of the flora of the carboniferous period. Cryptogamic plants from a swamp which now in the form of coal is belching out of the Loy Yang chimneys as CO2.
The phantom and protean presence of carbon weaves in and out of this exhibition sometimes optimistically and playfully, sometimes with a Plutonian foreboding; as described in different modes on the gallery walls. I would like to describe this exhibition as having four movements:
MOVEMENT 1: Desert Ventifacts and the Keeling Curve
The flying papers now on the gallery wall are ones I let loose in burnt desert scrub for many weeks, sometimes months – to rise and fall in the desert winds. Each sheet of paper recorded carbon traces in the form of charcoal, stipples, grazes and marks, made by the burnt fingers of the trees and shrubs. When I returned to collect them I usually found they had travelled long distances; often held in the arms of trees or nestled in banks of sand. Having been made soft from dews and showers, and dried and tossed by the wind, they had become fixed in a variety of sculptural forms. Through this flight of paper ventifacts I have drawn an enlarged version of one of the most significant scientific diagrams of our time. The Keeling Curve, made at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, plots the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere from 1958 to the present – a sharply rising line which I have juxtaposed on the gallery wall with the rise and fall of my wandering ventifacts.
The progression of this graph up the wall dances up and down in a zigzag motion as each year the CO2 rises and falls in response to the leaf cover of the deciduous forests in the northern hemisphere. Each year in the north when summer turns to winter the CO2 increases as the leaves disappear and the level of photosynthesis falls. The CO2 decreases again in the spring with the return of the green foliage. Here, stolen from science is a wonderful image of a breathing earth. There is a steady movement upwards and the graph line hits the ceiling of the gallery about now – 2010. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere with its linkage to rising temperature is near the highest it has been for the last 400,000 years. We are reaching a point of no return. It has been interesting and worrying in my two years examining swamps to find the poignant connection between contemporary swamps, and those ancient Permian and Carboniferous ones are the origin of all our coal. If we go on as we are, as Thomas J. Crowley of the U.S. Global change Research Information Office wrote; ‘the geologic record yields the rather startling conclusion that the climate of AD 2400 – 2700 could be comparable to that experienced during the Age of dinosaurs, which was as warm as any time in the last billion years.’
MOVEMENT 2: Forest
Here are two works in which I try to describe the experience of moving through a mature forest. A forest which is a storehouse of carbon and an engine for that amazingly ingenious process in which the leaves of the trees convert the CO2 and other elements in the air into the oxygen which we breathe. In this case I am in the Cobboboonee forest towards the South Australian border – dragging my feet through the leaf-litter, hands grasping the trunks and branches of the trees, eyes up in the tracery of the branches with the song of birds in the air around me. Carbon is present here in all its many forms, exhaled and released in the breath and song of the birds and an air-born sugar glider, and in the charcoal of burnt branches. And at the same time, inhaled and contained in the miraculous processes of photo-synthesis.
MOVEMENT 3: Birds and birdsong
Here are paintings of ‘landscape in the presence of birds’ which I have made in the course of my travels over the past two years.
I have devoted this section of the exhibition to another kind of breath – the condition of the earth being reflected each day in the life of birds, and expressed in their song. The singing of these flying feathered things being in a sense – like my desert papers – a reflection or register of the CO2 in the air. Like the canary in the mine, they too are a gauge or record of the well-being of the earth. In several of the paintings I have incorporated ‘sonograms’ – visual representations of birdsong .
MOVEMENT 4: Swamp
Here, as a counterpoint to the dryland works, are three large paintings of contemporary wetlands. A natural history of swamps II, Purple Swamphen – Gwydir Wetlands 2009/2010 is one of several paintings in this exhibition about Old Dromana – a property which could be called the heart of the Gwydir Wetlands, north of Moree, NSW. This rich ecological site has recently been bought by the government to be made into a permanent reserve. A wonderful example of vital habitat saved from inappropriate use like the industrial production of cotton.
I like the idea that a given swamp or wetland contains within it the history of the world. As I paint these wetlands a sense of this history loomed in the back of my mind. A history of deep time which has been so beautifully revealed in the Vostok Core. This core of ice, several kilometres deep, is a vertical record of the changing conditions of the earth’s climate laid down over 400,000 years. Here one can ’read’, the periods of hot and cold, and the glacial and interglacial times; and one can also see repeated at intervals the great swampy times such as in the Carboniferous and Permian periods when much of the world was damp and marshy. The cycles of Deep Time, of dry/wet, desert/swamp are all there as rhythmic as a heartbeat. One gets a sense of how these conditions repeat themselves in a cycle of eternal return. There will be more swampy times, more glacial epochs. But because of what we are doing, releasing at an unprecedented rate the carbon laid down in those ancient Carboniferous swamps – we will almost certainly not be there to see them. I find that these swamps, wetlands and forests are, like deserts - wonderful places to meditate and find ways of understanding these changes. Thoreau thought so too. He talked particularly about swamps as being a kind of omphalos or ‘navel of the earth’. He wrote:
When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood,
the thickest and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I
enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum.
—John Wolseley, August 2010
John Wolseley (b.1938) is one of Australia’s most well respected contemporary artists. In 2005 he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Macquarie University and was also awarded the Visual Art Emeritus Award by the Australia Council. Wolseley’s work has been selected for numerous important group exhibitions such as ‘Reframing Darwin: evolution and art in Australia’ at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne (2009); ‘The Ecologies Project’ at the Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne (2008); ‘A Bird in the Hand’ at the LaTrobe University Visual Arts Centre Gallery and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2006), and ‘2004 – Australian Art Now’ at Federation Square, National Gallery of Victoria (2004). A major monograph, ‘John Wolseley: Land Marks’ by Sasha Grishin was published in 1998 by Craftsman House and a second, expanded edition was published in 2006. A major article on John’s recent work is featured in the current issue of ‘Australian Art Collector’, (Issue 33, July – September 2010). John Wolseley’s work is represented in all the major State galleries and in numerous private collections in Australia and internationally. ‘Carboniferous’ is John Wolseley’s fifth solo exhibition with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.