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Patrick Grieve
On the edge of an open landscape
15 May to 09 June 2009

 

Simplicity and directness of the sentiment

It’s the colour that strikes you: specifically, its intensity. Few places in Australia are so saturated in colour. Having left a grey, sunless Melbourne on the Bass Strait ferry the previous evening, you emerge, bleary-eyed, into a crystalline Northern Tasmanian dawn and the transformation is palpable. The sudden greenness of its pastures, the almost unnatural red of its newly-ploughed soils, the drama of its distant horizons and overarching skies, make this a world in which everything exists more keenly, with more clarity and vividness. After a time, of course, the impact of difference wears off; extraordinariness becomes normalised. Patrick Grieve’s mission, therefore, is to rekindle wonder. And it speaks of his power to evoke the particular qualities of this landscape that ex-Tasmanians living interstate are among his greatest admirers.

He has said that ‘one of the best things you can do is to get off the highway and drive up through Cressy, through the country lanes. It’s slower, the roads are narrower but you get a much more interesting look at the world. People have busy lives but they just need to stop.’ The identification of the specific locality is key. These paintings, despite their abstractions, are very responsive to place. (When a Tasmanian journalist referred to Grieve recently as ‘a local painter’, he was perhaps being more profound than he knew.)

Also key is the simplicity and directness of the sentiment. Sometimes the deepest insights arise from the most innocent and apparently naive endeavours. Think, for example, of Thoreau in his hut by Walden Pond, of Emily Dickinson peering out at the world from her bedroom window, or Proust conjuring up an entire universe of memory from his sickbed.

At a time in which the study of nature, and of human interactions with it, has taken on a fearful philosophical complexity, there is something refreshing about Grieve’s innocent looking. Here, he says, is something beautiful, something worth noticing, and he asks us to give it our attention, free of rhetoric or blame. These are paintings about the pleasures of the visual, and Grieve highlights these pleasures, concentrates them, distils them and transforms them. In a word, he poeticises nature.

You might complain that this does not suggest any practical outcome, any strategy for change. Yet, without the element of poetry - the uncomplicated appreciation of beauty for its own sake - our plans, schemes and policies will be drained of human meaning and vitality. Imagination must underpin action, something too little understood in these materialistic, goal-driven times.

Grieve’s avoidance of moral instruction or theorising, his concentration on what’s there in front of his eyes, makes his paintings Realist in the nineteenth-century sense of the word (in the way Courbet might have understood it). But of course they are not realist in the aesthetic sense. They are not like photographic records. We read the big swirl of white in Study 1, for example, as a bank of cumulus cloud billowing above the horizon, but we read it first and foremost as an exuberantly-applied swathe of paint. And, while the energetically-dotted foreground of Farmland Series: Poppy Field suggests a mass of flowers, it has, like so many of this artist’s views, been drawn up parallel to the picture plane, denied its natural perspective, as though it were a sign or cipher.

It is in this carefully-calibrated disjunction between picturing and abstracting – between soil, sky and grass, on the one hand, and sheer painterly energy on the other – that the poetry lies. You can appreciate it best by concentrating on the edges where one solid slab of paint bumps up against another. A lot happens at the edges: it’s where the paintings’ energy is released.

Being constantly reminded of the physicality of the paint leads us to think of other art, other ways of seeing: of Aboriginal dot painting, perhaps, in the case of Poppy Field, or (with regard to the Farmland Coastal series) the cool, detached abstractions of the American, Richard Diebenkorn, another painter of light and space.

Yet, while we shouldn’t be looking for overt commentary, there is one sense in which Grieve is defying orthodoxies, and that is in his choice of subject matter. Significantly, he avoids the awe-inspiring wilderness with its promise of salvation. The countryside he depicts is lived in, productive, divided into fields, planted with crops, ploughed and fenced. It is a thoroughly domesticated landscape.

After all, it is not necessarily those lands that present the most spectacular scenery or those that are most remote from human influence that are closest to our hearts, but rather those in which a history of adaptation between people and their environment has brought out the best in both; in which the land, in being shaped by people, has shaped them in turn, so that each has taken on the character of the other. The countryside we respond to best is that which is inextricably bound to our stories.

Perhaps if there is a message in Grieve’s paintings it is that what matters is how we use the land, how we respect it and work it, nourish it and are nourished by it: how we interact with it in a fruitful and productive way. Paradoxically, perhaps, these are unashamedly humanist paintings.

The American writer Robert Finch wrote, when he arrived back in the city following a period of isolation in the New England forest: ‘I had expected to feel a certain letdown upon returning, but the effect is just the opposite. Somehow the fact of human existence strikes me as miraculous, as though never seen clearly before ... I want to cry out to those I pass and who pass me the simple wonder of us all being here together in this lovely place under sky and shade and sun-dappled yards and the song of birds. I know that inevitably I will sink back into the dulling effects of routine, into possessiveness, into trivial irritation, into the short-sighted pursuits that hobble and frustrate so much of our short lives. But for a few hours I am granted a fresh look at what I have left, which, if not, as T S Eliot claimed, the sole point of all our journeying, is reward enough.’*

Peter Timms
Hobart 2009

* Robert Finch, ‘North Beach Journal’, in Antaeus on Nature, Collins Harvill, London, 1989, p. 149.

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