Pamela Kouwenhoven Anamnesis, 2008 Palmer Sculpture Biennial. Photo: Sue and Trevor Rodwell.

With the passing of Pamela Kouwenhoven, South Australia has lost one of its most significant and distinctive regional artists. Pamela Kouwenhoven was born in Moonta, South Australia and completed tertiary studies, first at the South Australian School of Art / Western Teachers College (Diploma in Teaching Art) 1964 and a Diploma in Art, North Adelaide School of Art, 1989. She taught art in various secondary schools and adult education classes and in the later 1980s worked as a painter in the Royal Delft Factory in the Netherlands. She began exhibiting around this time and held her first solo exhibition in 1993. From then on Kouwenhoven continued to actively exhibit on an annual basis with over 10 solo exhibitions to her credit and regular representation in group and prize exhibitions. Recognition of her talents came in the form of many awards, exhibition selection and prizes including the Barossa Art Prize (2007). Her work is represented in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, regional galleries, university, local government and private collections.

Kouwenhoven recently commented that her art practice had grown from unconventional materials and the detritus of ‘human scapes, street and land.’ To this she added that her work “focuses on environmental issues, the changing global landscape of the 21st century, a landscape scarified by our plundering of the earth, our cities and freeways, the fault-lines of rampant consumerism: all encapsulated in the metaphor of the malthoid.” The creative journey that took her to this considered assessment of intent was characterised by a gradual transition away from painting and towards mixed media constructions, basically as she stated, “finding stuff and assembling it together.”

From the early to mid 1990s her practice revolved around the big themes of memory, love and loss. Questing for suitable materials took her to small graveyards in the Adelaide Hills where cast-off items such as abandoned bereavement cards, ribbons and plastic flowers were pressed into metaphoric service. Critical response to work at this time commented on perspectives associated with women and their prescribed roles in society. Kouwenhoven’s own insights supported this interpretation. “This work,” she commented, “is not about death but finding ourselves in life — about the struggle to find ourselves from within.” This was a richly inventive period for the artist. Various formats such as memorial plaques and wedding cakes implied emotions, particularly of grief and loss, mediated through ritual. Around 2000 she discovered the ‘fossicker within’. The chance discovery of an old corrugated tank with a corroded malthoid base set in motion an emphatic shift in direction. The protean character of this material prompted her to investigate the possibilities of other ‘elemental’ materials in addition to malthoid (bitumen), including ash and earth. Experiment with format led to the formulation of a grammar of expression that many viewers associated with landscape imagery. The characteristic earthiness of palette and the robust materiality of found materials suggested that such landscapes referred to the dry, marginal landscapes of rural South Australia and perhaps the remote West Coast of her childhood experience. From around 2006, her exploitation of abandoned water tanks as a symbol of lived experience came to dominate the public’s perception of Kouwenhoven as an artist of poetic insight into not only a particular kind of regional landscape, but also the inescapable cycle of life, decay and death. Exploration of the possibilities of cast-off industrial materials then extended to wet-plate battery casings. When such items were assembled into wall and plinth units they inspired responses ranging from abstractions of arid landscapes to visions of a post-apocalyptic world. For others, the haunting visual aesthetics underlying both tank and battery casing explorations reflected less of a conservation perspective and more the evocation of a kind of landscape, commonly found in, but not exclusive to, South Australia – bare-boned, even unforgiving, but possessing for those who can sense it, a unique beauty.

Amplifying this is the artist’s own comment that “I don’t even think in terms of my work in the context of landscape ... What I endeavour to do is refine, refine, refine.” From this perspective, Kouwenhoven’s art slides into the orbit of Zen Buddhism. It embodies a haiku spirit of celebration of the commonplace and the marginalised.

Pamela Kouwenhoven’s contribution to a sense of connection to place was remarkable. Her ability to allude to this through renditions and evocations of nuanced primordial landscapes begging for recognition in a twilight zone of coalescence was born from a fierce determination to coax ‘dumb’ materials into telling stories worth listening to.