Milestones: Ken Orchard 1980-2009 Red Poles Gallery, McLaren Vale, South Australia 29 August – 27 September 2009
Milestones comprised a selection of works created over a thirty year period, brought together on the occasion of the artist's fiftieth birthday. Given the compact scale of the Red Poles Gallery it was a tight selection. But with the aid of an equally compact but strategically illustrated and annotated catalogue it delivered in terms of exposing the artist’s key priorities and methodology over this period of time. Without question Orchard’s work and reputation has been built on drawings of landscapes which have been given a distinctive visual identity through their format, the most familiar being the extended horizontal either as single, panoramic views or sections of a common view set side by side. A feature of these landscape paintings is the use of pages taken from decommissioned Encyclopedia Britannica editions, as image ground. The origins of these pages/grounds were openly declared by leaving index headings exposed. This type of deconstruction was enhanced by dobs and lines of shellac brushed onto the sheets before the image was applied in coloured inks and pastels. This has the effect of quarantining the Britannica text from total erasure. The final result is that the works behaves as an amalgam of, as the artist describes: "text, texture and atmosphere".
Orchard’s conscious treading in the footprints of the colonial artist-traveller Eugene von Guérard and his use of vantage point strategies similar to those in vogue in the mid-nineteenth century inflects this work with a quasi-historical character and a sense of emotional connection with the past. Yet in grafting this line of investigation onto an existing rootstock of colonial landscape art (and also colonial photography) Orchard has risked overplaying his hand. In other words the 'deconstructive’ strategy of working on readymade text surfaces can be read as a too clever device to spice up conventional landscape imagery and create the impression that things are more than they appear. This possibility was picked up in critic Benjamin Genocchio’s review (The Australian, July 5, 2002) of Orchard’s Roslyn Oxley Gallery, Sydney 2002 exhibition in which he judged the books (the Britannica pages as grounds) to be (in some works) “nothing more than an armature - a prop rather than a serious reference point”.
The value of the survey at McLaren Vale is that it located this later body of work in the context of youthful, formative investigations and emerging mid-career self-confidence. The influence of early 1980s conceptual-based art was evident in early works such as the trompe l’oeil Labyrinth (1981) in which an illusionist maze (captured by the camera) declared an allegiance to a form of art which both seduced and questioned the eye as an arbiter of reality. Other works provided further evidence of mind presiding over matter, an intellectual bias that favours visual conundrums (as seen in the Disorient World series of 1985) and the power of language and texts to ultimately shape meaning.
The artist sees his response to the bushfires which burnt large areas of the Royal National Park near Sydney in 1993-94 as defining. He took to the field, swapping his printer’s apron for a knapsack, and began drawing directly. There was a taste of the travels of this sculptor/printmaker turned journeyman artist in this exhibition which included drawings linked to extended periods of work in areas as diverse as Lake Mungo and Hill End in New South Wales, and Palmer and Strathalbyn in South Australia. These apparently informal and seductive images were actually articulated with a raptor’s eye for detail.
Orchard’s practice continues to occupy a distinctive place within Australian landscape painting - intensely visual in its scrutiny but equally mindful of the need for restraint when trying to convey the idea of certain places (particularly those impacted on by early European settlement and mining) as cultural palimpsests. To do this, as evidenced in this survey, Orchard has become very adept at playing off elements of fixity and disruption to the point where viewers of his most recent work might hardly notice his agenda. I imagine the artist would prefer his viewers to remain more alert than relaxed so this fifty year milestone may have already begun to resemble another starting line.