Juliet Stone paintings and pastels Gomboc Gallery Perth 1-22 November 1998
Juliet Stone is a member of the Bunbury Regional Artists Group, the best known member of which is Mary Knott who is much admired for her poetic meditations on simple objects which often embody a powerful and moving sense of the rural landscape in which they originated.
Juliet Stone, who lives in Brockhampton in the South West of Western Australia, shares this capacity to embody in her painting a sense of the presence and emotional power of the landscape. In one sense her straight-forward landscape paintings are quite "old fashioned", in that they are traditional landscape compositions without pretensions to any other overt content. However Juliet Stone has the ability to evoke feeling in these landscape images. In her most successful work, the landscape becomes a viable metaphor for human emotion, capable of supporting the intensity and passion of the internal drama.
At her best, as in four small studies of a dam, Stone makes robust, cogent and economical images of landforms, simplifying the space and controlling the formal composition with ease. On this small scale she uses light and colour with conviction and intensity. Another set of small, strong works deals with bushfires. Here, the essentially monochromatic palette gives a compelling distillation of the drama and pathos of the burnt surface of the land.
A small view of the Thames is a similarly potent image, full of ambiguous distance, illusive space and mysterious light. In these small, fervent paintings the intensity of the colour becomes almost suffocating. Fire Moon, for example has an almost Munch like sense of repressed passion.
It is in this small format, in a scale that is natural to her hand, that Stone is at her best. Her gesture is natural and her use of colour in this tight arena is intuitive and incisive. However when she moves to a larger canvas, the drama tends to lose its intensity and the sense of natural control is gone. In Straw Coloured Paddocks with Blue Dam, the strong, natural perspective, of the smaller works is lost. The space becomes confusing rather than ambiguous. The simplicity and austerity of the small pictures does not translate into the bigger scale.
Stone's work has a very attractive quality that comes from an eye and a hand really trying to grasp the nature of the landscape as she looks at it, of striving to capture the essence of what she sees. She maps what she sees in an almost verbal, descriptive dialogue with herself. She describes, with careful intent, a softly folding land form, a conical hill or a repetitious line.
Occasionally, this struggle to describe a form accurately becomes a more layered struggle and produces a very fully realised metaphor. On the Edge is a visual description of vertical coastal cliffs descending sharply into the ocean, the land backed up behind. It reminded me of Robert Frost's poetic cliffs bracing themselves against the might of the Atlantic, of humanity steeling itself against storms to come.
At the end of the twentieth century, after decades of being caught up in the energy of some particular cultural upwelling in the next art movement, there now is no centre. Much of the most interesting art is about a place which has come to fill the consciousness of an artist.
West Australians currently see this in Howard Taylor's meditations on the forest in which he lives, near Denmark, on the south coast. He explores this landscape so completely, and with such a quiet and serene gaze, that the painting, which might seem abstract, really has the pared down simplicity that comes from a sense of oneness with what is seen. One fleeting moment of reflections of trees in a lake is enough for a whole series of paintings because the artist's response is so finely honed that it is completely absorbing to follow a sequence of slightly differing recollections of the original moment.
Juliet Stone, while not in the same league by any means, nevertheless has a little of this power to capture something essential about the act of looking at the landscape. But what is a bit unnerving about this exhibition is that she can do it anywhere and in places where landscape has such different implications for the looker. The south west of Western Australia, London or provincial France are all equal as subjects for her. The experience of looking at this collection of "landscapes", each with such unique cultural baggage, makes the painting seem more superficial than individual works deserve.
On the other hand, it is in the sets of images from a single place that Stone is at her strongest. The best work in the show, in my view, was the group of small oil pastels of fields and vineyards in regional France. Something about her grasp of traditional European perspective, combined with an expressionist sense of colour, released a natural energy and directness that is in tune with both the landscape and with a pictorial form that grew from it.
Velvety, intense colour and the hovering energy of almost naive, geometric perspective lines gives these small landscapes a sense of richness, vigour and completeness. It was only after consulting the catalogue in detail, that I realised that I'd been caught out again in this confusion of medium and ideas. Trapped in the middle of provincial France are two little pictures of Knott's property in the south west of WA.
This exposes the crucial, contemporary issues about painting about the landscape. Awareness of the ecological, environmental and political implications now make our "view". The act of representation is itself coloured by many complex ideas.
The traditional European model for landscape painting no longer rings true in our landscape. Its very form imposes ideas about the land which we no longer accept. Many artists search for new ways to represent the physical reality of this continent, often, like John Wolsely, using entirely traditional means.
We are in a very different place. A far more complex and satisfying insight into the essence of a landscape might be called a sense of place. This encompasses more ambitious and resonant concepts of both the land itself and the response to it by the artist.