Art in America, October 2010
Oliver Watts at Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne Australia
Place, as subject, has gotten a lot of visual arts play in recent decades. Notions of identity and history often inform the topic, but the give and take of geographical sovereignty, a major definer of place, is relatively neglected.
Oliver Watts - whose group of ten paintings enlivened the larger of two galleries at Helen Gory - employed recent work to delaminate layers of proprietary interest that lies, like sedimentary overburden, on Australia’s landscape.
Landscape painting has long served prevailing ideology - from John Constable’s painterly ratification of elitist agrarian ‘reform’ to the populist westward-ho exhortations of Albert Bierstadt. Painters of the colonial period enticed new colonist by producing ‘civilized’ images of Australia’s terra incognita.
|Oliver Watts Leap, image courtesy the artist and Artbank|
Watts paints landscape near the seaside Australian town of Angourie (where he has familial ties) as aesthetic study and case study, of contentious forces claiming ownership of the region – from indigenous Yagel people, with first rights, to those whose claims follow. Crown, European emigrants, national park, and a cohort of surfers, profess ownership of the same lands.
Watts raises an extravagant curtain on his story of place with a heroically scaled (304 x 168 cm) acrylic on canvas diptych of Angourie’s quarry. Leap is a panoramically confrontational view of the quarry’s man-made cliffs – the rock’s light and graffiti dappled face darkly doubled in a long swimming-hole lapping its base.
The skins of Watts’ paintings are inventively puzzle-pieced – optically fitted with opaquely zoned passages (recalling Neil Welliver’s demarcations) and translucent overlaps of modulated tint. The artist coaxes a jewel-like tempera quality from famously stubborn synthetic polymer.
The painting’s title, Leap, is gotten from quarry habitués’ tradition of cliff-diving. Surfers, emigrant stock, and Yagel youth mutually participate in an equalizing (via shared mortality) rite of passage. Contributing to handwritten scrawls decorating the rocks is an assortment of native-Australian and European monikers. Aptly, the pigment used by locals to write graffiti is a local ochre – a pigment traditionally employed and historically bartered by the Yagel.
Culture as well as goods change hands when populations collide. Yaegl - a medium sized (102 x 122cm) painting with big ambitions summarizes how local, national and international signs blend and incarnate in unanticipated ways. The painting’s lone male figure is tattooed, across bare shoulders, with L.A. gangsta-style gothic script - the tattoo’s declamation and identifier is the proper noun Yagel.
Lawn Line (120 x 122CM) visually summarizes the exhibition’s overall project. A mono-cropped patch of greensward serves as manicured bulwark against surrounding native bush. It’s a comprehensible bit of old England, a verdant rectangle of empire set into an incomprehensibly complex native ecosystem, and all it represents. An uneasy peace reigns on either side of the line.
Equivalent détente plays out in the artist’s collected paintings. At their best Watts’ efforts envision a breathless summer moment – a prelude, before social tremors, subtly rumbling below the work’s languid formal choices, superficially bucolic images and tectonically shifting content, commence fissuring the pictures’ idyllic overgrowth.
Oliver Watts Crown Land (2010), 120cm x 100cm acrylic on canvas
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