The Art Gallery of Western Australia 11 September - 21 November
The Art Gallery of Western Australia is currently hosting a substantial retrospective of Robert Juniper's work from the nineteen fifties to the present. The exhibition is free, an indication of the financial support for the show by local institutions and an indication also of the popularity that Juniper commands as an artist. Indeed, so valued is Juniper's contribution to Western Australia's cultural life he is one of a handful of State identified 'Living Treasures'. It could be argued that Juniper, in his role as one of Western Australia's well known landscape artists, occupies a position that is both enviable and problematic. For despite the current critical privileging of the subjective, the critical celebration of lived experience is still a very selective one, and the line between the acceptance of cultural difference and the dismissal of the parochial is one that continues to be confusingly drawn.
Juniper is amongst a small group of artists who were key figures in the development of post-war Western Australian cultural modernity, that much is incontrovertible. When he returned to Perth in 1950 from London, his art school education had exposed him to an art practice that was modelled on pre-war European aspirations for an amalgam of design and the fine arts. The aesthetic elements that made work by British artists at this time transferable from canvas to tapestry and book illustration were to a large degree an examination of the decorative and, as such, distinctly different from the aspirations to a universal, aesthetic absolutism current in American modernity at the time. This decorative quality is still evident in Juniper's work and is both a strength and a weakness.
By the 1960s and 70s Juniper had established a reputation for landscape, particularly desert, painting that used surface and colour in a vivacious and accessible way. However, in conversation with Trevor Smith, the curator of the show, Juniper remarks in the catalogue that he doesn't want to be known "just as a landscape painter". Juniper's own sense of place goes beyond the landscape, into the figurative. It is at this point in his work - where the landscape ceases to be unpopulated, where there is an evident struggle to make the landscape human, and to allow figures to exist in his paintings with the same intensity that inanimate objects do - that the gap (a disjuncture perhaps), between his personal artistic intention and a wider sense of aesthetic coherence starts to become evident.
Where Juniper's best landscapes have a decorative elegance that encompasses for the viewer both the known, and the unknowability of the enormous North Western deserts, his figurative painting has a too readily identifiable stylisation. His facility with composition and design reduces the complexity of human experience into an overly formal, easily digestible format. His steel sculptures have a similar quality of familiarity that make legibility easy and immediately satisfying, but which lacks that tense awkwardness of his best landscape painting. Juniper's desert landscapes have a relationship to those of John Olsen and Fred Williams in that all three painters play with the literalness of the picture plane and the illusionistic space that lies behind it. Marks and material are scattered across the surface and only achieve a conceptual coherence when one realises that they further exist as markers of literal objects and as signifiers of spatial relationships. These marks are both abstract and naturalistic; they both simultaneously denote and connote in an engaging way, taking what is already understood and recontextualising it. In Juniper's work, this spatial and conceptual ambivalence is developed further, leaving the rigorous austerity of Williams' practice and playing with decorative elements by introducing stylised motifs of flowers, plants and leaves.
These surface decorative elements are sometimes scattered fragments, sometimes framing devices (a small cluster of leaves in one corner), sometimes the central focus (a circle of grass trees). The stylisation of these objects is usually two dimensional rather than formally illusionistic and because of this they lie on the surface of the picture, reinforcing its physicality. Sometimes the surface of Juniper's paintings has a physicality that is sensuous and sensual, other times it veers towards the formulaic. When this happens, the enjoyment to be gained is more connected to seeing the picture as a representative of its time and place of creation, than something that at other times transcends it. It is this dialogue between the particular and the generic, between our connection with a sense of place and how that defines us, which makes this show worth a long look.