Fremantle Arts Centre 26 September – 22 November 2009 Curator: Jasmin Stephens
In Giotto's wonderful fresco cycle of the life of St Francis the expectant birds, awaiting his sermon in one of the most famous images from the series 'Preaching to the Birds', emerge from the paint-saturated plaster of the Basilica like ghostly images, emphatically present but fragile, brittle and hovering between a state of fixity and transience. In an obvious homage to Giotto’s representation of the scene and of St Francis’ philosophy, Paul Uhlmann’s paintings of birds at the Fremantle Arts Centre, have a similar sense of being embedded in a surface. In his series of large paintings and smaller studies, deployed rather than hung throughout the upstairs gallery space, the fields of paint he creates both support and trap the delicate birds. Tiny within the large canvases their message suggests freedom and constraint, both the potential to fly high into the sky and the great difficulty of breaking free. The soft blue atmospheres of colour are so beautifully rendered and the birds created with such finesse that the resulting paintings are immediately convincing, yet for those very reasons also perplexing. Like all significant art they keep us on the edge of knowing.
Spread throughout the gallery at different heights and in surprising juxtapositions to their companions, our experience of engaging with them is both fresh and reassuring; fresh because so unexpected, reassuring because the artist’s intention is revealed with definitive confidence. They are not prescriptive, but offer up the potential for conjecture, they ask questions and give only partial answers. As a result the smaller studies and the larger works together have a deep resonance for those of us trapped in the bustle of the twenty-first century, constantly demanding more while somewhat perversely seeking the calm and space to meditate, as St Francis preached.
The result of a residency within the grounds of the Fremantle Arts Centre, Uhlmann’s exhibition connects directly with the site, with the tall pines, the filtered light and the birds cutting through the sky and landing in the nearby trees. Echoing St Francis’ belief in the interconnectedness of all living beings he has created a group of works that subtlely unite to speak eloquently of that magical process of connectivity. His small studies, created with the aid of a portable 'camera obscura', and the larger paintings of birds, are connected visually to a pavilion in the Centre’s garden. Colour establishes a sightline link, like a bird’s flightpath, to a small chapel, painted a distinctive pink, and sited next to the demountable studio where the works were made. Through the roof of this plywood construction we can view the sky, a tree branch overhead and the passing birds that skim over the circular hole in the ceiling. Acting like a lens, like that of the 'camera obscura' he uses elsewhere, it focuses our attention on the activity around us, on the small things we so often miss and on the life that surrounds us.
Uhlmann is a painter’s painter who now has total command of his medium. The work has an authority that compels attention and provides great rewards for those prepared to engage. Already an accomplished printmaker this move into installation exhibits the same sensitivity and care in the fabrication of the birdboxes and the chapel that is evident in his plates and painting surfaces. Like all great artists his assured touch gives us the confidence to move into his world and to become attuned to his concerns and beliefs. Both the controlled gallery space containing his paintings and the outdoor chapel offering an ever-changing field of activity, resonate with his core message that we all need to connect again with the natural world. Through his paintings and objects he provides another gateway to engage with nature and hopefully, as St Francis urged 'to hear the language of birds’.