Critique of Russell’s work by Artist Bob Matthews

Blessed are those hunger and thirst for righteousness

This Critique was first published in the book ‘Treforms – Recent Paintings by Russell McKane’ 2007. Bob was a great friend of mine who perhaps more than anyone knew my work intimately. He was also old school, very learned, and disarmingly honest. I’m sure in this review he had a smile on his face as he wrote the section on Fed Williams, the Australian Landscape painter I most admire. Bob sadly passed away in 2014. He is greatly missed.

I believe that any artist who tackles the nature of the Australian landscape, east of The Great Divide, probably cannot avoid using the film “Picnic at Hanging Rock” as a benchmark to inform as to the spiritual ethos of the Australian bush. This is not suggesting that visual artists should try to reproduce “snapshots” from the movie. But rather grasp after the uniqueness of imagery that is instantly recognizable as Australian Bush then plummet the depths of the spirit of the different places to be found. This being the metaphysical reality that struck the early European settlers as quite eerie and disconcerting. An alien world with a ominous presence and a place “easy to get lost in”. Rightly the Australian Aborigines have a deep routed belief in “Place Spirits”. So to successfully capture the Australian landscape an artist must illuminate a vision of the physical and spiritual actuality of the subject. This is not the landscape images that could be called the grand visa but rather the intimate, close and personal, experience of a singular place. A sacred place.

The earliest Australian artists such as Glover or Buvelot missed the mark and only produced warped European landscapes. The land was so new and strange to them it was beyond comprehension even at a banal physical level.

The Australian “Impressionists” also missed the mark. Though at times they travelled in the right direction and had, at the very least, an acceptable degree of observation and technical skill. I find myself in complete agreement with Robert Hughes that Australia has never actually produced an Impressionist painter. Still those that hold the title have produced some wonderful work. Unfortunately it was always overlaid with European sentimentality and mythology. For example:- Charles Conder “Yarding Sheep”, “Springtime” Sydney Long “Mid-day”, “The Spirit of the Plains” Arthur Streeton “Box Hill, Evening” Or was the depiction of white settlers conquering the land perceived as enemy. For example:- Frederick McCubbin “The Lost Child”, “A Bush Burial”, “The Pioneer” Tom Roberts “The Breakaway”, “Bailed Up” Hans Heysen though not born in this country probable went closer to a spiritual perception of Australian landscape than any of the others. He has been described as a portrait painter of the gum tree. Unfortunately the animals in his paintings are sheep and cows thus echoing pastoral European reality. So he to was still locked into a European ideal. An important point is that “Picnic at Hanging Rock” also had this sense of the land as enemy but the archetypical nature of place was at least more faithful to actuality. In either case there was not the deep rapport required to be in harmony with the spirit of the land and the sacred nature of some places.

The artist though that represents the deepest schism between us and our land is Fred Williams. For example:- “Sapling Forest” and “Lysterfield Landscape”. At first thought the abstraction of the environment should lead to a deeper metaphysical understanding. Unfortunately his work is informed by a politically correct, elitist, city based fine art establishment. Thus his imagery serves to separated Australians from their environment. The work of his that appals me the most is “Waterfall Polypytch”. Having listened to an interview where he stated his approach to this set of images I fully understand why the result is so impersonal, cold, calculated and totally lacking in a deep relationship with place. At his best Fred Williams creates sensuous hedonistic displays of exquisite painterliness. E.g. “Sapling Forest”. His images epitomise the precious fine art object rather than a deep spiritual relationship with place. At this point don’t gain the impression that I hold figurative work above abstraction as this is far from the truth. Some of John Olsens work such as “Spring in the You Beaut Country” has an archetypical power that expresses the timeless majesty of this country of ours. At another level Lloyd Rees reaches towards a deeper reality of the sacred place in such works as “The timeless Land”. Finally I feel that the late works of Russell Drysdale such as “Man with a Galah”, by holding up the aboriginal relationship with the land as example, are of great informative spiritual value.

A true understanding and visualisation of the sacredness of place, in part by the visual arts, is needed to heal, or at least keep healthy, the collective national spirit of the Australian population so that we may live in balanced harmony with our environment. Truly as a nation we don’t have a great track record in this regard. As things stand at this point in time we must, as a species, drastically change our relationship with the land or suffer disaster of world wide magnitude. Maybe quite simply we are a mistake that should be removed so that a fresh start can be made? I hope not!

Russell captures the unique nature of the Australian bush both physical and metaphysical. His work demonstrates an intimate and personal relationship with each place that he makes sacred. The very spirit of these hidden places, with peculiar, exotic shapes, colours and powers, comes to
life. A Realism whose point of view is so personal that it almost becomes surreal or even abstract in nature. His work has a great painterly or expressionistic quality that resonates with spiritual relatedness.

Russell McKane uses the close intimate portraits of trees that he paints as metaphors of the human condition mitigated by his deep religious conviction. At another level Russell McKane is drawn to the more primitive archetypal spiritual sense of place that has to exist for a harmonious and sacred relationship with the land. I suspect he perceives this as a dichotomy that he is uncomfortable with. The truth is that these perspectives are only two aspects of the same truth. In either case he demonstrates the required sensitivity to spiritual reality to show others the
way to harmony and grace, to experience life personally and environmentally. He is also quit consciously aware of the need for correct stewardship of the sacred earth on which our very existence depends.

An examination of how Russell McKane approaches his image making must be made before a critique of an individual piece is attempted. The work is wholly executed on site no matter how inconvenient the position. Standing in a stream to execute a work for example. This requires many visits to his subject over a period of time. His subjects are often in fairly remote locations. Russell McKane is in no way an impressionist painter, one who works quickly and often with pure colour. Instead he uses a technique of carefully building the forms followed by many layers of glazing. Is he crazy to use this technique, more suitable to studio work, out in the bush. No! For this activity forms a very important service in his success as a painter of the intimate landscape involved in the portrait of a single tree. He spends long periods in isolation contemplating his subject visually which should settle his mind into the right hemisphere thus placing him in a meditative state. This should lead to a state of Grace in which the mystic communication between himself and the subject leads to a true portrayal of a sacred place or maybe to truly making a place sacred.

Thus when others observe his work carefully they can reach a deeper awareness of the true nature of our country. I believe that at least some of his paintings have reached close to this ideal but only if one has the eyes to see. So Russell McKane’s trees inform his audience of some truly important realities which they otherwise might have remained ignorant of for their entire lives. This is supported by anecdotal evidence in that people who have viewed his work later comment that they have spotted a McKane tree here or there. This means their vision of the world has changed somewhat. Contemplate on his images deeply and thus learn, in part, the true nature of living with our environment.

Blessed are those that Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness. Figure in Landscape No 20. 2005. Oil on Linen 750x1050mm Currently available for Sale. $4500 Contact the artist.

SPECIFIC COMMENT ON: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

At first glance this painting is not visually complex. Easily accessible through its obvious figurative treatment. It is also fairly straight forward in its meaning or message. A tree striving for life thus creating a metaphor for “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Is this image in fact so simple? My conclusions are, no! In fact the more carefully this image is contemplated the more rich and complex it becomes. Thus exposing the depth of relationship that Russell McKane formed with this place and therefor the healing power of the sacred that was brought forth.

This image is a story of endurance, obedience and survival! Therefore charged with Grace. Like a high energy electrical capacitor waiting to be touched to spark forth. So I am going to make this critique by listing and commenting on each formal element of the work.

LINE: Some of the most striking features of this image involve line. The most important is formed by the line of the tree going from top left to bottom right then continuing onto the cliff face curving down into that corner. The second major line is that of the horizon that basically bisects the image into almost, but not quite, equal parts. The last significant issue of line is the shape of the tree, roots, trunk and branches. These form an amazing dance of life that… visually works.

DIRECTION & MOVEMENT: There is a very strong tendency for the eye to be led diagonally down and out of the image at the bottom right corner. Strangely this is, I feel, in this case a virtue as it defines the unseen nature of the cliff which one could easily slide off. The drop over the edge can not be observed directly so the tendency for the eye to travel metaphorically down and over is of great importance in the reading of the situation. By studying the growth and predicament of this tree which is floating above the stone cup that originally held the soil in which as a seed it settled shows that it has been in danger going over the side more than once. Metaphorically its faith has held disaster at bay. Then there is the dance of life of the tree itself which forms a vigorous “S” shaped movement back and forth across the image. The blue mountain in the far distance is the pivot of the whole image. This element annoyed me greatly at first as it keep grabbing my attention. In the end the realisation hit that it continues to draw the eye in. Pulling it back from the cliff edge and pointing to the infinity in which this small diorama exists. Thus serving as a needed holistic device.

SHAPE & FORM: The bold, stark shapes or forms in this image give it a great strength of drama. There is basically three large areas. The rock face. The tree shrouded gorge. The sky. The large area of the sky almost but not quite divides the image horizontally into half. Then there is the shape/form of the tree overlapping the three main visual masses.

COLOUR, TEXTURE, CONTRAST & TONE : Naturalistic! Subtle and appropriate! Holds the image planted in the earth.

PATTERN & REPETITION: The Pattern & Repetition of “individual leaves” is almost mandatory to describe a gum tree.

RHYTHM: There is a sense of pulsating rhythm in this image that is hard to pin down but has to do with the twisting turning efforts of the tree to survive against all adversity. This tree dance contains the rhythm of joyous life.

HARMONY: The harmony in this image is not of the formal art element variety. Rather it is the harmony of perfect righteous obedience. The tree has a profound secret it is willing to share if one is willing to listen.

COMPOSITION: The composition has now already been defined.

FINAL WORD: This image contains little that is symbolic, even of the archetypal kind. Except the curved rock bowl is symbolic for me of Grace supporting this thirsting striving tree. The intended metaphor is in fact not even that important when the depths of meaning have be searched. Instead this image expresses the raw reality of standing in the Presence like all truly sacred places should.

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