The Crow Trap.

The Crow Trap. Photo: Supplied

Spirit in the land 

ANU Drill Hall Gallery, closes April 1, Wednesday-Sunday noon-5pm

Reviewer: Sasha Grishin

Spirit in the land is a wonderful exhibition which is now in its second year of touring Australia. It has finally reached Canberra before travelling on to Benalla, Tweed River and Penrith.

While there has been a considerable amount of sterile academic writing on the theme of cultural interconnectedness between indigenous and non-indigenous interpretations of the land, this exhibition in a fresh, graphic and convincing manner demonstrates a shared visual sensibility.

The 11 selected artists - Russell Drysdale, Rosalie Gascoigne, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi, Sidney Nolan, John Olsen, Lin Onus, Rover Thomas, Fred Williams, Lorraine Connelly-Northey and John Davis - look at the landscape from an intrinsically Australian perspective.

The exhibition is neither a survey of Australian landscape painters nor of attitudes to the land by a group of artists. It is an exhibition built around strands of visual connections, as perceived by the two curators, Robert Lindsay and Penny Teale, both from the McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park in Victoria. These strands are not always instantly apparent, but reveal themselves gradually as you gaze at the exhibits and tap into the spirit of the works. This is the beauty of the exhibition, it actually works visually, rather than simply ideologically.

A number of the artists, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Sidney Nolan, Rover Thomas and John Olsen, share a bird's-eye view where the landscape becomes an aerial map, one on which incidents occur. Some paintings trace a sacred topography, others see the surface as teeming with life or simply observe a solemn grandeur of an aerial topography.

Each artist penetrates beyond the superficial skin of appearances and establishes their personal relationship with the land. Although all of these artists record a site-specific landscape, rather than a generic one, in each individual instance the landscape is also peculiar and unique to Australia.

Another common theme is that of the preciousness of the Australian landscape where, in the sparseness and apparent monotony, there exists an exceptional richness of detail and each of these details carry with them the scars of time. Dorothy Napangardi, Rosalie Gascoigne, Fred Williams, Lorraine Connelly-Northey and John Davis all comment, through their art, on these qualities of preciousness and record the weathered facades of the elements found in the Australian landscape.

Connelly-Northey, possibly the least well-known of the artists in this exhibition, weaves her symbols of the Australian landscape with the weathered materials discarded in the bush in a similar manner to the way Gascoigne rearranges the found metal fragments into a new convincing reality. John Davis, with his poignant emblematic symbols, conveys a whole ideology concerning a precious threatened environment, while Fred Williams traces the water paths in the works on display, noting their eternal nature as well as the glistening temporal surfaces.

It is interesting how Drysdale, who has some of the earliest paintings in this exhibition, managed to tap into the ethos and spirit of outback Australia in the 1940s to present relatively small-scale paintings charged with a symbolic presence.

Spirit in the land is a visually exciting and refreshing exhibition where old themes are given a fresh reading and works of art of exceptional quality, drawn from many different state, national and private collections, present a number of different ways of thinking about our natural environment. The show presents different artistic voices, but these are expressed in harmony.