tough(er) love: art from Eyre Peninsula

Curator: John Neylon Flinders University Art Museum 28 February – 28 April 2013

Cindy Durant Objects of Desire 2012, glass, kiln formed pâte de verre, dimensions variable.

Tough(er) love: art from Eyre Peninsula brings together twelve Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists who live and work on the Eyre Peninsula, including John Bailey, Beaver Lennon, Cindy Durant, Amanda Franklin, Siv Grava, Joylene Haynes, Karl James, Elma Lawrie, Verna Lawrie, Leith O'Malley, Pungkai and John Turpie. Its curator John Neylon defines this exhibition as the result of a journey about developing artistic practice, not a thematic exhibition or a survey of Eyre Peninsula artists. This distinction is important in that it extends our understanding of the collection of works which, while being firstly defined by the geographic location of the artists, is also tied together by shared sentiments and the way in which the artists engage with their environment.

Unpeopled landscape plays an important role in this selection, providing the primary subject for the artists. These landscapes take many forms ranging from the photorealistic landscapes of Indigenous artist Beaver Lennon whose canvases seem to radiate a light that can only be found in this area of the world, through to delicate sketches etched into glass by Cindy Durant. She describes her works as "haikus", each one a quiet and restrained reflection on the environment of her property and studio. Lennon and Durant’s works demonstrate a love and respect for nature, a more significant connection between their work than a shared subject. Many of the artists involved in this project have worked closely together in the past, whether as family members, mentors or partners. These connections subtly strengthen the show, pulling the artworks together by what can be described as a shared feeling or sensibility.

Many of the exhibitors demonstrate a restraint in their practice, a “less is more” approach that possibly reflects the sensibilities and lives of the people who choose to live in this remote area. John Bailey’s seashores in subtle stone greys, pale greens and delicate blues contrast yet complement Kokatha artist Amanda Franklin’s pale cream spiral, patterned with orange dotted lines.

With a focus on landscape it is somewhat jarring to see human figures in the frame, and it is with varying success that they are included. Leith O’Malley utilises a tongue-in-cheek approach in re-telling of the story of Edward John Eyre (EJE) and his exploration of the peninsula. The artist re-casts EJE as a misled adventurer at odds with his surroundings, not the gentleman explorer as he is more frequently portrayed. O’Malley recreates landscape beautifully, walking past these pieces you can feel the heat of the plain radiating from the surface of the canvas, the dry earth captured in reds, yellows and oranges. Within these paintings landscape is privileged over and above the story, and treated with far more respect. In essence the human figure is incidental, a foil for the real story of the land.

Welsh artist Karl James, now based in Whyalla, disregards the landscape completely in his work and focuses instead on the contradictions inherent in his life as both artist and labourer. His prints show humans at their worst, brought to life with bold thick lines, and his self-portraits, rendered in a dark palette with highlights of vibrant colour, continue this exploration. This focus sets his work apart aesthetically and thematically, making them an odd note in an otherwise cohesive show.

As with any exhibition that relies primarily on geography to define itself, there are going to be oddities. However, the range of styles, mediums, and approaches to subject, ensure that there is continued interest in the work as the viewer moves through the space. It is evident that there is not a style characteristic of this region, but a propensity to make art with a similar feeling, a certain sensitivity to the environment. Ears to the ground: tough(er) love by John Turpie ties these ideas together. This ground installation of abalone shells forming a human ear draws the viewer’s attention back to the earth that supports us, highlighting the need to listen carefully to what the land is telling us, particularly in an area as remote and scarcely populated as the Eyre Peninsula.

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