“The trees, they whisper”… Capturing the dual elements of our native Australian bushland perfectly, Archibald Prize winning artist Fiona Lowry subtly highlights with her work not only the beauty of the landscape, but the darker events and secrets that form part of our history. On display from December 8 at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery…
Hi Fiona. We’re looking forward to welcoming you to the Glasshouse Regional Gallery in Port Macquarie in December! What are some of the artworks you’ll be presenting in your exhibition?
Thank you! The works will be landscapes from different series that I have done over the last five or so years … From time spent in Bundanon at Arthur Boyd’s property to the high country near Jindabyne, where one particular story caught my attention, after a friend mentioned a tree near his place that has wild dogs hanging from it. I had never heard of anything like it and had to see it for myself.
The drive to the tree takes you past the Gungarlin River, a popular picnic spot for the early settlers and then on to Snowy Plain Road, where the landscape is silent until you see the dogs hanging in different states of decay; some are mummified and remain hanging for months, before falling into the heap of other bones that scatter the ground.
Dog trees go back to the earliest days of European settlement, and this old Eucalypt has been in use for more than 60 years.
The tree, on a remote road in an otherwise magnificent landscape, operates as a flash frame to the dark side of the Australian psyche, reflecting the foundational trauma and pushes against a romantic vision of the Australian landscape.
I’ve only seen photos of your work online (I’m looking forward to viewing your works in person!) but something struck me. You capture the Australian bush magnificently in your landscape work, reflecting the beauty and tranquility perfectly – but there’s also a dark edge to your paintings … isolation, vulnerability. What messages are you hoping to convey with your work?
I think for me painting the landscape and specifically at the moment painting the Australian landscape allows me to talk about ideas that are connected to all of our experience here. Recently I have been reading Turcotte’s essay, Australian Gothic, and he talks about Australia even before it was ever confirmed as a place; it had been imagined as a place peopled by monsters and then with the transportation of convicts, it became embedded as being this dark underworld.
So historically, the landscape in Australia has always been animated with these hidden energies, harbouring criminals, bushrangers, serial killings and massacres of Australia’s Indigenous, but it also holds a great beauty, and I am interested in this duality – not just within the landscape, but also within ourselves.
So for me, growing in a deeply religious environment I was very tuned in to the possibilities that a beautiful place could also hold something quite dark or foreboding within it. All of my painted landscapes are an attempt to articulate this anxiety, but also this idea that on the one hand there is pain, but there is also comfort from that pain.
Describe the airbrushing technique you use in your work …
I use a fine airbrush that’s connected to a compressor. The airbrush has a small lever that allows you to control a fine mist. This technique allows you to seamlessly drop the picture in and out of focus, creating a vibration on the surface of the painting that ends up helping to carry the content of the work, making the viewing a disorientating, ambiguous experience.
And for me, making work is often about deepening one’s doubt about the situation under discussion.
Before you begin a painting, how much research do you do regarding the location/history of where the painting is set?
Recently I did a residency in Murwillumbah. It was an opportunity to revisit a landscape that I spent some time growing up in. My work often explores my own memories of place but also the history of place, and this was a unique opportunity to immerse myself in my own history but also to understand the history of this landscape.
I spent some time visiting the places that held potent memories for me and started to think about the ties that bind you to a place and also how the history of a place is intrinsic to our own experience of that place, even though it may be unspoken or unacknowledged.
At the Minjungbal Aboriginal Cultural Centre I learnt about some of this history, and it amplified and translated some of the voices you can hear whilst travelling through the landscape.
The complex mangroves that look out to Ukerebagh Island, an Aboriginal heritage site, and the landscape of tall Bangalow Palms on the road heading out to Mount Wollumbin resonated … What also resonated was a sense of self-consciousness that being in this landscape evokes and the idea that if we don’t acknowledge our own history, a sense of isolation, separation and melancholy can occur.
You’ve achieved a lot of recognition for your art – being awarded the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2008, you were a finalist in the Archibald Prize in 2011 and 2013, and winner of the Archibald in 2014 with your portrait of Penelope Seidler. As an artist, how does this type of recognition make you feel?
I have been watching the Archibald Prize since I was a young girl, and it really was one of my first experiences of what was happening in the contemporary art world – a world very distant from my own growing up.
So, in one respect it’s a fulfilment of a thought I had of being in the prize a long time ago, but it is also wonderful to be recognised in this way and to be part of this history. I think every artist wants people to see the work they are making, and the prize highlights your work to a much broader audience.
Where can we see more examples of your work/find out more about you?
I would normally say my website, but I’m having trouble with getting it back online, so: martinbrownecontemporary.com/ArtistFLowry
Interview: Jo Robinson.
Fiona Lowry is represented by Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, and Jan Murphy Gallery, Queensland.
Artist Talk December 8, 11am.
The trees, they whisper exhibition – December 8 – February 10.
Exhibition opens on December 7 at 6pm.
Visit glasshouse.org.au for details.