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Philip Wolfhagen
Noctiluca
21 May to 16 June 2004

 

I started to think about painting the pastoral landscape of the Tasmanian Northern Midlands in the autumn of 2002, just before my departure to Deal Island and the beginning of the ‘archipelago’ project.

That April I painted three small summer pastorals (it was a dry autumn and the yellow summer grass had persisted), which hung on the studio wall while I was painting the cold August light of Bass Strait. One of these paintings was particularly reductive: merely three horizontal bands or tiers of colour representing sky, mountains and grassland – a flag-like tricolour to signify place.

For years I have procrastinated about painting the pastoral landscape in which I live. There seemed so many obstacles. Not only the emotional relationship I have with the landscape of my childhood, but the weight of past representations, made it a daunting prospect. I am confronted by the history of Landscape Painting every day as I drive to and from my studio. In winter and spring when the westerlies blow an endless succession of fronts, scudding across the plain with patches of intense light illuminating a field in the distance, it is hard to forget Constable’s oil sketches of Hampstead Heath. Likewise in summer and autumn when the land is parched, the grass tinder-dry and overall colour bleaches but intensifies at the same time, memories of Streeton and Roberts loom. Although it may seem easy to paint this vista, it is equally easy to fall into endless cliché too.

It therefore made sense to abstract the landscape, to distil its vital elements to colour and texture and to liberate the image from the pictorial. The small flag-like study made in April 2002 proved seminal for the Landscape Semaphore paintings, which emerged some twenty months later in January this year. These form the basis of a sister exhibition, The Inner Edge at the Academy Gallery in Launceston in June 2004.

The works in Noctiluca (the Latin name for ‘red tide’, the phytoplankton that is the source of phosphorescence in the sea.) return to pictorial space in order to examine the effects of transitory light on the pastoral landscape surrounding our cottage.

I have sought to explore the mystery that comes at the cusp of day and night; those fleeting moments when the evening sky is glimpsed through a window, the colours intensified by being cropped and framed. In accord with the classical form of the ‘idyll’, these paintings represent crystallized incidents in life, ephemera made palpable.

Both the Landscape Semaphores and Idylls have shared physical attributes in the textural qualities of the paint and the attitude implied by its application. After two years of painting cold and clear, with smooth crispness for the Bass Strait paintings, I wanted these surfaces rough, like ploughed earth; rich, fertile, arable.

As with any long anticipated journey, it feels better once you have got started, and so it does with this painting cycle. Despite the historical obstacles it feels good to be painting a familiar place, to be able to refer to nature at any moment rather than being constrained by one’s memory of far-off and inaccessible places.

Philip Wolfhagen
April 2004

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