Light Years: William Robinson and the Creation Story

Art for William Robinson has always been an intensely personal exercise, from the early domestic interiors, suffused with love for his family, to the hard-won intimacy of his relationship with the wilderness in which he now lives. Yet the animating principle of his work in its ever changing fashion is its expression of faith. Robinsons landscape is unquestionably a God-revealed world; what is in question is the relation of man to that universe. As much as Robinsons art is a faithful reflection of his immediate environment, it is drawn from the memory of an experience in a landscape.

In trying to locate William Robinson within the context of Australian art, most critics resort to comparison with the romantic High Victorian landscape artists: von Guérard, Piguenit and Buvelot. Robinson undoubtedly shares much with von Guérard, not least in subject matter and attention to detail, although philosophically he is probably closer to eighteenth-century notions of the sublime professed by Edmund Burke than those of the Nazarenes and their followers.
Little attempt has been made to place Robinson within the orbit of contemporary practice, and understandably so. Robinson's art is certainly not easily classified: before the tags 'intimate' or 'naïve' or 'sublime' or 'comic' or 'monumental' have had time to stick, he has changed his style yet again and foxed his chroniclers. He holds the art world askance, most famously in his cheeky, self-mocking entries to the Art Gallery of New South Wales's annual Archibald Prize, and views himself determinedly as a regional artist. But Robinson is a maverick not because his brand of landscape art does not relate to the work of his peers, or because landscape painting itself is defunct, but because he is that most deeply unfashionable thing  he is a religious artist. This is not to say that his art can be reduced to an expression of faith alone; but to ignore the faith underpinning the work is to miss its animating principle.

For Robinson, painting is part of an everyday life that over the years has routinely included farming, playing the piano, bushwalking, eating, drinking and praying. He brings a gifted ordinariness to all these activities and, it seems, deliberately retains a spark of amateurism in everything he does. The amateur is, literally, the 'lover of'; one who practises his art for private pleasure. Art for Robinson has always been an intensely personal exercise, from the early domestic interiors, suffused with love for his family, to the hard-won intimacy of his relationship with the wilderness in which he now lives. The point here is less one of sincerity than of passion, both in its sense of private ardour and in its etymological and theological connotations of religious enthralment.

Robinson is well aware that to be a religious artist at the turn of the twenty-first century is an anachronism, and in discussing his works he is careful to use the word 'providence' rather than 'God' so as not to alienate the possibly unbelieving listener. For Robinson, most contemporary religious art, whether involving conventional Christian iconography or a generic spiritualism, fails dismally; he views Aboriginal art as the only possible religious art of our time. "It's about as close as you can get," he explains. "Because after all we're still trying to find that definition of what God is, and what the whole business of creation is."

Robinson's subject is essentially the first few chapters of Genesis. Earth, sky, sea, heavens: here are all the elements of the six days of creation. The artist's ambition, immodestly, is to trace God's exuberant creativity; his subject is nothing less than the sheer genius of creation itself. Yet the artist's aim inevitably far outstrips his capabilities  a necessary humility for any student of creation. Fallibility  failure  is an essential aspect of any endeavour: any replica of God's handiwork must be a caricature, a cartoon. For Robinson, Bach is the artist whose work most closely touches divine perfection.

Robinson's landscape is unquestionably a God-revealed world; what is in question is the relation of man to that universe. It is, perhaps, a greedy view of creation, in which the artist  impossibly  wants to see everything at once. Or perhaps it is a world in which the relation of God to man, and man to God's creation, is subject as much to the uncertainties of modernity as to the imperfection of human perception. In the works of the late 1980s and 1990s the often contrapuntal convulsion of the picture plane makes for unstable vantage points, as though one of Caspar David Friedrich's explorers had toppled off his perch, or the viewer herself had fallen into the reflective pond that is the artist's aperture. The landscape described in these canvases is often more grotesque than beautiful, as terrific as it is marvellous. This is a world in which God is manifest through pain as well as beauty, the arrows of his missives sharpened in both anguish and joy.

Like much of the history of non-Indigenous Australian art, Robinson's oeuvre represents an attempt to come to terms with the Australian bush  with this unwieldy, wildly variable continent, in which desert coexists with rainforest, the pastoral with the coastal. The bush is something that is literally difficult to see, a multiperspectival thicket of immensity and detail in which foreground and background seemingly become simultaneous. Like all explorers, Robinson is attempting to make inroads into this apparent impenetrability. "When we first came here I didn't have any idea how to paint this landscape; it was just too complicated", Robinson has said of Canungra. "I had to go through ten years of finding out how the landscape worked, and it came out almost diagrammatically in the first place . . . because I didn't have the ability to produce it in a seamless way."

Robinson's farmyard and early wilderness series are more allegorical than mystical. These works can be read as a celebration of the Biblical injunction to "Be fruitful and multiply"; to "fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky, and every living thing that moves on the earth."

More chaotic than idyllic, however, Robinson's farmyard scenes are far from utopian. "It wasn't a racehorse stud or anything," he says of the family farm at Beechmont, "It was a disaster." Peopled not only with goats and cows and chickens but also with abandoned cars, broken armchairs, old bathtubs and stray pieces of corrugated iron, these paintings have a two-dimensionality like a Japanese screen, an unperspective in which objects are disported haphazardly about the canvas, piled one on top of the other as in a child's drawing. There is a comedic, cartoon-like quality to these domestic vignettes which the artist likens to "a sort of Ma and Pa Kettle landscape", or a scene from a Laurel and Hardy movie in which the po-faced protagonists  in this instance either human or bovine  offer up the same bemused stare from the midst of their chaos.

The early wilderness scenes, painted during the family's first years at Beechmont, are full of the creeping things of the earth and creatures of the sea of Genesis. In William and Shirley, flora and fauna 1985, the artist and his wife sit surrounded by galahs and emerald doves, kangaroos and goannas. The representation in this painting is at once more detailed and more stylised than the expressive impasto of the farmyard series, and at times almost naïve in its simplification. These were "days of wonderment", says the artist; and looking at the hopeful figures of Bill and Shirley perched amidst the arboreal splendour of the forest, one cannot help but think of Adam and Eve first marvelling at their Eden. Implicit, of course, in the enchantment of what they behold, and in the delight of the painting that describes it, is their fated vulnerability, and in this  as for the original lovers  all the sadness of the world.

Many of Robinson's canvases contain discreet Biblical references; the 'Creation landscape' series more straightforwardly addresses the narrative of creation itself, as indicated by the titles: darkness and light, water and land, man and the spheres. Robinson is not interested in literal readings of the Bible, however, but rather interpretations that enter into the mythic imaginative universe of its text. As he explains, "I've never tried to show any of these things in any of the creation pictures with any medieval storytelling or great Renaissance drama, but rather references more like gentle reminders." The art is informed not so much by religion itself as the artist's personal religious experience.
Landscape with extinct volcano ('Mountain' series) 1992 and Green mountains ('Mountain' series) 1992 belong to what Robinson describes as his dark period. Gone are the genial, folk figures of Bill and Shirley: instead, the shadowless, full sun of the farmyard images has given way to the dark uncertainty of a metaphorical Biblical wilderness. Sombre and shaded, these images lay bare the terrible intimacy with God that suffering affords. The absence of figures in these works has sometimes been taken as a sign of spiritual abandonment or desolation. One might consider the contrary: that God is closest to his subject in desolation, and that in these works the artist in fact finds himself through his pictorial absence. In other words, the observant figure is absent because he has been absorbed in the total perception of the scene.

For Robinson, 'finding himself' as a painter, understanding the landscape and becoming closer to God are part of the same movement. The disappearance of the figure is congruent with the development of an attempt at a simultaneous perspective, in which the artist, like the viewer, inhabits the painted landscape. Inspired by a visit to Chartres Cathedral, Robinson's last 'Creation landscape', Creation landscape – the ancient trees 1997, describes the experience of walking through a forest of 2000-year-old beech trees near his property at Springbrook. "I wanted to show the presence of God in that picture somehow, not only through the mystery of walking though Chartres Cathedral and walking through this forest, but also something about the nature of providence." Robinson invokes the story of Elias, to whom God was revealed not in great winds or earthquake or fire, but in a still small voice, represented in the painting as a falling branch in the right panel. For Robinson, God is encountered as much through the incidental as the magnificent. Vastness is only permitted by the minuscule, or the barely substantial  a spider's web, a pool of light on the forest floor, a gentle breeze.

Darkness and light, the origin of all creation, are the fundaments of Robinson's art. However he is interested not only in the contrast between darkness and light, but also in degrees of contrast, such as that between the diaphanous rays and lead white sunlight of The sunshine painting 1990, or the phosphorescent moonlight and bush-bright stars in Landscape with night and day 1989. Since many of the multi-panelled works describe the passage of time, darkness and light often appear simultaneously. In many images light can be seen only from the vantage point of darkness, as though the viewer were standing in a canopy of shade looking at the sunlight playing in the treetops. Yet, no matter how dark, none of his pictures is ever without illumination, and several works, such as Creation night, Beechmont 1988 or William by lamplight 1990, involve a kind of night vision. Signally, Robinson never uses tube black, preferring the luminosity of a complex, chromatic darkness. Colour is of course a property of light, not objects, and just as the gloom of the forest floor is illuminated by pathways of light, so the dowdy tones of the bush are enlivened with wisps of tomato red, emerald green, yolk yellow and ultramarine blue. "Colour is everything," the artist has said, and in its refractions he finds a metaphor for the glorious spectrum of God's creation.

Robinson has become increasingly interested in the detail of the bush and topographical accuracy. His recent works are more naturalistic than stylised: were it not for the topsy-turvy trees inverting the picture plane, After the storm, from Springbrook 1998 might be a faithful depiction of a bush vista in the tradition of Hans Heysen. Nevertheless, despite this more descriptive style, Robinson has also introduced an element of the fantastic in his late canvases (such as The sand ziggurat, Kingscliff 1995) as though the more familiar one becomes with the landscape the stranger  or more mysterious  it becomes.

In works such as Clearing storm to Fingal 1996 and Late afternoon, the sea and Mt Warning 1996, Robinson concentrates on the tremendous power of the elements themselves. Roiling seas, empyrean skies, magisterial trees  this creation, like the universe of the early Old Testament, is full of wonder, awe, terror and glory; devastation always lies in wait. The Bible is full of natural disasters and miracles, not least the great flood and the parting of the Red Sea, and Robinson's point is not so much that the natural world is impervious to mankind but that, in the hands of a munificent providence, its power will withstand man's worst degradations.

Non-Indigenous Australia has virtually no tradition of religious art; what it does have, as Tim Bonyhady has explored in his recent book The Colonial Earth, is a tradition of environmental art. Bonyhady traces a genealogy through Glover, von Guérard and Tom Roberts. A twentieth-century heritage might include Marion Mahony Griffin, Jessie Traill, Margaret Preston and, more recently, John Davis and Rosalie Gascoigne  strange bedfellows, perhaps, for Robinson, but all artists who have sought, contra to the modernist tradition of alienation, an intimate relationship with the land. Successfully depicting the bush has defeated as many artists as it has inspired; one thinks of Grace Cossington Smith's middle-period bush pictures, seemingly dreary and perspectiveless, which rather than failures might be seen as an attempt to learn to see the bush as it actually is rather than as an idea. A degree of failure, in other words, is the mark of successful engagement. This constant working out of a relationship with the land  which falls under the rather unyielding rubric of 'landscape art'  is as protean as the nature it depicts.

"I make works in the same way that we make a home," Robinson has said; and from the embrace of the four walls of the family home at Beechmont to the curved panoramas of the 'Creation landscape' series, his art has always been about finding and painting a home  both literally and metaphorically  in the landscape he inhabits. The Australian landscape, for Robinson, is revelatory, a residual if not conduit of God's grace. As much as Robinson's art is a faithful reflection of his immediate environment, it is drawn from the "memory of an experience in a landscape". Like Wordsworth's emotion recollected in tranquillity, the process of painting is about "contemplating things remembered". Wholeness resides in the experience of the landscape itself, and the paintings are at once approximations of, and tributes to, the sacred moment in which the physical and spiritual become synonymous.