Shape of the wind: pattern & chaos in Sue Lovegrove's island art

Head of Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania and writer Peter Hay describes the recent paintings of Sue Lovegrove made from her experience of different islands off the coast of Tasmania - Maatsuyker Island, Egg Island and most recently Tasman Island. Lovegrove began with painting clouds but has moved on to paint the shape of the wind.

Sue Lovegrove The shape of the wind No.483 2011; acrylic and gouache on linen; 90 x 130cm. Photos: Peter Whyte.

If you head for Pelverata on one of those great old roads, winding and unsealed, that still abound off Tassie's beaten track, if you travel this road away from the lush river flats of the Huon River and into the western foothills of the Snug Tiers, you will come to an unpainted house of simple design, steeply gabled. It sits in paddocks backed by dry sclerophyll forest with E. ovata dominant, rich habitat for eastern barred bandicoots, Tasmanian native hens, eastern quolls and healthy Tasmanian devils, as well as the obligatory abundance of wallabies and brushies. Here, on 20 acres of 'horrible clay’, Sue Lovegrove lives and works. Her house, indeed, seems to be one large, expansive studio.

Sue grew up in Adelaide and roamed the country before washing up in these distant Tasmanian hills. She has had a long, ongoing love affair with Central Australia and the far north of the continent, and she has travelled extensively in Asia. She has been crucially shaped by her engagement with these geographies. Dealing with the nuances of inter-cultural aesthetics impressed complexity and subtlety upon her - as a basic condition of this richly configured world, and as a principle to guide and shape her art practice.

A decade ago Sue was applying the finishing touches to her PhD dissertation, an analysis of Emily Kngwarray’s Big Yam Dreaming (1995). From Kngwarray’s work Lovegrove took an interest in ‘between’ spaces, the space beyond the surface of the painting and pictorial devices that oscillate the viewer between the depths of pictorial space and back to the surface.1 With this interest, and the insights derived from the landscape engagements noted above, Lovegrove embarked, in the mid-1990s, on a period of intense productivity, a level of output that shows no sign of abatement.

But I wish to concentrate my remarks on Lovegrove’s work since relocating to Tasmania.

She has become an island painter. I do not mean Tasmania – I mean instead smaller, outrigger islands where the wind weaves pattern and chaos – simultaneously – from light, water, reed and dune grass. Sue was an Antarctic Arts Fellow, and she stopped over at Macquarie Island. She was an artist-in-residence on cliff-walled Maatsuyker Island off Tasmania’s wild south coast. She has taken her easel to Egg Island, an elongated, species-rich riverine island in the Huon River’s tidal reach. And as I write, she is planning and packing for Tasman Island, itself sheer-walled, but standing beneath the commanding presence of Cape Pillar and the highest sea-cliffs – they do say – in the Southern Hemisphere. Sue has been here three times as a WildCare weeder, but this trip is ‘all art’. Not that she failed to put her earlier visits to good creative purpose. At the time of writing her latest exhibition, Glimpse, is hanging in Gallerysmith in North Melbourne. This is the latest instalment in her The Shape of the Wind series, and it "explores the patterning and rhythms of the island through the complex linear structure of the island’s grasses."2 It is a long way, geographically and artistically, from the Northern Territory to Antarctica, but, as this quotation reveals, a thematic consistency threads the works of the 1990s to the works of the 2000s.

An interest in white, the default colour of space, took Lovegrove to Antarctica, and it is a thread that remains within the weave of her work. White became its base colour, though you need to look deep within some of the paintings to realise this. White is the wind. It is there, in semi-transparent layers that let the image through, even in the later grass-dense paintings. Light and air and expansiveness predominate. Even as the gaze upon light and cloud came to be populated by cross-cut intersections of grass, the one echoed the other. The lines are to do with how you feel the air – how grass might brush across your face.

On Macquarie Island Sue encountered herbfields and meadows of grass – but no trees. It was as if the bones of the living island had been bared to the scrutiny of space. On elemental Maatsuker Island, where she lived "a monastic life", the artist “talked to the island as if it was a creature, not just a thing with a lighthouse on it.” An advocate of what she calls ‘cloud time’ – the patience to sit, watch, listen – here she painted plein air ‘cloud paintings’.

But this was also a transitional time. She moved seamlessly on from ‘cloudwork’ to painting “the belly of the island – the dark damp vegetation”. It was, she says, a process of “leaving ice behind and finding grass”, a process that seems to have begun with her encounter with those intricate and infinitely complex micro-worlds of the Macquarie Island herbfields and grasslands. Now she “travels looking at the grass. Some people look at the view – I look down to where the lichens are, and the little creatures that no-one sees.” In these microworlds, worlds entire unto themselves, worlds of endless, distilled complexity, the shape of the wind finds delineation, its white dance taking on tints of delicate, mute colour, a play of warm and cool so subtle that you don’t realise what you are seeing. And as it is, so she paints.
For this transition the artist sought a visual language of grass. She doesn’t want ‘grassiness’ to be rendered literally, but she still wants to keep faith with place. She seeks a visual language that can convey dimensions deep beyond surfaces – abstraction, but not so abstract that the subject becomes a purely cerebral event.

There is tension, too, between the white depth of space and the detailing line – also white – that the grass supplies. She wants the eye to flicker from surface to inner deep to surface to inner deep. On first encountering Sue’s work my eye tended to stop at the flat of the surface, seeing each canvas as alike to a photographic close-up. I soon came to realise the inadequacy of this, but it is true that the opacity of white makes it difficult to use, and it is a challenge to achieve a sense of depth. (White is also, in indigenous aesthetics, the signifier of ancestral power and energy.) Sue shows me the painting she deems her best – The Shape of the Wind No. 495 – and I see, or rather half see, the dynamism she achieves through the weave of lines and the hint of pattern within the random that lies at the heart of things – what the physicist, David Bohm, called ‘implicate order’. It is an aesthetics of the glimpse – of things not gazed at, but held at the edge of perception, half seen, half intuited, but palpably there.

Sue Lovegrove seeks to convey the emergence of implicate pattern within the chaotic complexity of the life of her wind-shaped, unpeopled islands. She has devised a way of working to fit her intent. She paints on the floor of her home/studio, completely immersed, working the painting up in tiny, soft lines of gouache, using an extremely small brush. She strokes the canvas into life, the end product taking its rhythm from the rhythms of the process. If it’s not to her liking “I take it down the paddock and hose it down with rain water. It doesn’t all come off – it leaves a ghost. Lines sit over it. And the canvas itself acquires a story.” The painting slowly emerges. And within the painting a pattern, ephemeral, glimpsed at the edge of the eye, also emerges, lurking within the chaotic complexity of crosscutting lines. It is a tension in the scheme of things – a tension between the pattern of self-organising systems that constitute living organisms and entire ecosystems, and the disorder, the pizzazz, in the chaos of its endlessly varying morphologies. Just now Lovegrove seeks to paint these tensions within the complexity of Tasman Island’s wind-moulded grassland ecosystems. You take the landscape inside yourself, she says, “feel its pattern inside your body.” Thus it is that you learn to paint the shape of the wind.

Pete Hay, Tasmanian born, bred and based, is a poet, essayist, social commentator and a scholar of place and place activism. His most recent publications are 'Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought', 'Vandiemonian Essays', and 'Silently on the Tide' (poetry).

1 Sue Lovegrove, Studio Report, unpublished Ph.D. report presented in part fulfilment of the requirements of the Doctor of Philosophy in Visual Arts, Australian National University: National Institute of the Arts, Canberra 2002 p14.

2 All quotes from this point are from a personal interview between Sue Lovegrove and the author on 5 Oct 2010.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.