Article: Two Landscapes
Much of the controversy surrounding Sam Leach's recent Wynne prize centres around the issue of whether the painting is an Australian landscape. Although the source is clearly a Dutch 17th c painting, I would argue that it is indeed an Australian landscape and in a way that profoundly reveals contemporary conditions.
What is landscape? There are at least two landscapes. One is the actual palpable landscape in all its majesty and banality; the other is landscape painting where actuality is rendered into representation. Since this last form is not the thing itself but a representation, it is not simply an unmediated depiction of actuality. Rather it accords with a series of conventions and cultural assumptions that the actual landscape is filtered through. As the Cubists demonstrated, painting is not simply a rendering of the subject itself but of an experience in consciousness. This is a selection that includes memory, aspects of language, the intrusion of other media that intersperse the picture plane. Each landscape painting makes reference to all those that have gone before. They are never simply an innocent depiction and all landscape refers as much to the tradition as it does to the objects depicted - often more so since even in selecting a subject there are a range of decisions that go on about it suitability. When the Heidelberg school painters popped out to Box Hill on the train, they did not turn their easels back to the city but toward the bush. And yet, why wouldn't an urban scene - the primary experience of these painter's lives - be any less of a landscape? Tradition, convention.
For most of Western art, landscape was not considered a worthy subject in its own right but employed as a backdrop to other fore-grounded narratives. Only around the 17th century (the period referenced by Leach's painting) did landscape emerge in its own right. Leach's painting directly evokes the beginnings of a tradition that was to have such centrality to painting in Australian.
Yet, what is the Australian landscape? Is it the bush, where less than 15% of the population live, or is it the ground most of us experience everyday? In this broader consideration of landscape, and of representation itself, our primary landscape is urban and indeed, increasingly, a virtual landscape of media images, advertising, TV, radio and internet information. We see actual landscape - both the urban landscape and the bush - not in isolation but through these cultural constructs. When I look out at an actual landscape I see it through all these things and the tradition of landscape painting that precedes it. Leach's depiction of a "proposed' landscape drawn from the very start of the tradition signals that the experience of landscape is not a simple, unmediated, direct experience.
And what of the actual landscape? It too is not simply innocent or unmediated. Most of the habitable landscape in Australia has undergone an incredible level of reordering on European grounds. Indeed, the source and inspiration for this remodelling were the landscapes of Europe, both actual and painted. When we look at the Australian landscape, we are most usually looking at a hybrid form. Either something severely worked over and reshaped, or (unless we are First Australians with traditional knowledge of the landscape) then through European eyes and cultural frameworks. These still apprehend and understand the landscape in ways that are not native to the place. Leach's painting depicts this sense of remoteness.
The actual Australian landscape, and the landscape painting tradition here, is a European hybrid. It is an imagined landscape, indeed, a re-imagined and re-worked landscape based on European conventions nascent in 17th century Europe. So too is Leach's painting. In this sense, it is a much closer depiction of Australian landscape as it is currently experienced by the common Australian city dweller than those nominally painted in situ. It is an experience of the landscape as a remote, abstracted, mediated form primarily understood as a genre, rather than an actuality. While Leach's painting is no less artificial than any other depiction of the landscape taken directly from the site, it demonstrates a powerful truth of contemporary conditions - that for most of us, actual landscape is experienced in alienation. Superficially a picture of 'then', it is actually a picture of now - as such it is a more than worthy winner of the prize.
Dr Stephen Haley
Coordinator Graduate Research MFA
The Faculty of the VCA