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Art of the land in Western Australia

Works by many contemporary visual artists in Western Australia demonstrate a vital consciousness of the land. The largest Australian state with its remarkable biodiversity and geological variety inspires them.

Holly Story, Night walk #7, 2007, embossed lead, oil paint, embroidery hoop. Image courtesy of Turner Galleries.

Western Australian art traces a presence on the land, a cultural loss and, ultimately, a belief in the future. A distinguishing feature of art from this state is the urge to depict the vastness of the country, while simultaneously paying close attention to the details of the land. To this end, abstraction though the influence of modernism, and the emergence of an Indigenous painting tradition have both been influential.

Expatriate and peripatetic artists

Western Australia is often talked about as one of the most remote capital cities in the world. Far from being insular, many Western Australian artists have travelled or studied elsewhere, and many of them have come to settle in Western Australia from other states and other countries.

Artists working today can trace a legacy back to artists who, in the years between the First and the Second World Wars (1920s and 1930s), sought the inspiration of European culture. These expatriates were later joined by the next generation who remained in Europe after the Second World War ended, often retraining at United Kingdom art schools. These artists were influential in bringing modernist approaches to art back to Australia.

Indigenous art

Robert Juniper, The Forgotten Garden of Timothy D. Paynes Find, 2008, oil on Belgian linen. Image courtesy of the Wagner Art Gallery.

The emergence of Indigenous art in the 1970s, notably the use of natural ochres by artists from Turkey Creek (Warmun), Kununurra (Waringarri) and Derby (Mowanjum), not only established a successful art movement but affected the way non-Indigenous artists saw the land. The so-called bird's eye view characteristic of Indigenous art was aesthetically akin to the increasingly abstracted aerial perspective favoured by such artists as Melbourne-based Fred Williams (1927–1982).

Contemporary artists

Contemporary artists such as painters Sine MacPherson, Tom Mller and Valerie Tring, and photographer Tony Nathan, indicate just how diverse and vigorous the landscape tradition is in Western Australia. Gregory Pryor's and Holly Story's interest in flora keeps a botanical tradition alive that dates back to the first European contact with the continent in the mid-1600s.

From still life to herbarium

Western Australian botanical illustration has a history that dates from the earliest European contact with the western coast of the continent. English pirate William Dampier (1651–1715) has the honour of having first published, in 1703, illustrations based on observations made at King Sound in 1688. Later Nicolas Baudin (1754–1803) made extensive botanical drawings while on a French scientific expedition in 1800. A large collection of Western Australian specimens also found its way to the Botanical Museum in Vienna, established in 1879 by Anton Kerner von Marilaun (1831–1898).

Kathleen O'Connor

The young Kathleen O'Connor (1876–1968) studied art at the Perth Technical School before going to Europe in 1905 with her mother. She made a few brief trips back to Perth, but lived a mostly expatriate life in Paris where she exhibited and studied with other expatriate artists such as Frances Hodgkins and Emily Carr. O'Connor supplemented her income, and stayed in touch with Australia, as a newspaper correspondent for such publications as Perth's Town Talk.

O'Connor is best remembered for her portraits and floral still lifes (which did not especially focus on native flora) in the modern School of Paris' style, a genre that locates nature firmly within a domestic setting and one that was considered appropriate for women painters. She also, in the spirit of the times, designed interiors and experimented with fabric painting. She spent the last 13 years of her life back in Perth.

Holly Story

A background in textiles, and an interest in the relationship of embroidery with botanical study, drives the work of Holly Story (b. 1953 Zimbabwe; Perth since 1971). In Night walk #7 2007 the artist has employed a flower press to imprint found specimens of flora, from the south coast country adjoining Deep River where she lives, into fine lead sheeting. The region is noted as one of the most botanically rich regions of the planet'.

Celia Rosser

Banksia paludosa R.Br.

Celia Rosser, Banksia paludosa R.Br. - photomechanical reproduction, in: The banksias by Celia Rosser and Alexander S. George, (London: Academic Press in association with Monash University, 1981–88). Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Celia Rosser (b. 1930) was appointed Monash University Botanical Artist in 1974. Her magnum opus, the 3-volume The Banksias records all seventy-six species, most of which are native to Western Australia. Rosser worked closely with botanist Alex George and records that she sited many of the species in the wild during field trips to Western Australia. The folios are now regarded as one of the great achievements of botanical illustration in Australian history, prized alongside Banks' Florilegium.

Gregory Pryor

The extraordinary botanical diversity for which Western Australia is internationally renowned is deposited in various collections. Gregory Pryor (b. 1958 Swan Hill, Victoria; Perth since 2003) first worked with a 19th century collection of Western Australian plants he found in the Natural History Museum Vienna during a residency in 2002. Pryor made 200 drawings from that archive.

Gregory Pryor, Black solander (detail), 2005, ink, graphite on sugar paper. Image courtesy the artist and Lister Gallery.

Back in Perth, he made a parallel work, Black Solander 2005, with the support of staff at the Western Australian Herbarium. Pryor's imposing 10,500-sheet work eventually filled a room (floor to ceiling) at PICA where the work was first exhibited. The enormity of the work mirrors his experience of the WA bush:

When I first ventured out into the bush on the outskirts of Perth in the spring of 2002, I was overwhelmed by the floral display. I had never seen anything like it before in Victoria, where I had spent the previous 25 years. It was like I was seeing the Australian landscape for the first time'.
Gregory Pryor, Black Death: Species extinction in WA, Artlink, vol 25, no. 4.

For Black Solander each botanical specimen has been copied' onto black sugar paper, the artist following faithfully all elements of the sheet: naming, dating, fixing devices, collection stamps and the dark, ghostly silhouette of the plant. Through the process the plants are reinvented, and the collection reborn in another context.

Land and weather

Howard Taylor

Howard Taylor's paintings reflect his belief in landscape as a subject matter for modern art. His awareness of atmospheric effects was recorded through his life-long habit of sketching everyday, recording the nuances of the environment around him.

Howard Taylor, Study for Daytime Moon, 1997, oil on masonite. Image courtesy of Galerie Dusseldorf.

On his return to Western Australia in 1949, after his involvement in the war, he settled in remote Bickford. He wrote of his impressions:

I think the first jolt you get is a change in climate conditions, the sun is straight up, it tends to flatten things out. You miss that half covered sky or the diffused light you get in Europe.
Gary Dufour, Howard Taylor: sculpture, painting, drawings 19421984, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1985, p 13.

Taylor applied the lessons of abstraction to this traditional genre. He was based for the last decades of his life near the great karri forests in the south of the state. The images he made of the bush he so loved have an elemental power: the sun and moon, massive forest forms, and images of regeneration. He observed when interviewed in 1986:

Because I am involved with nature, light becomes perhaps my greatest concern. It can be rendered just using colour or without colour, but it pervades the whole of the work.

Robert Juniper

Robert Juniper (b. 1929, Merredin, Western Australia) can be seen to have had a major influence on the agenda of the 'key literal picture plane', or spatial flatness, as well as representing flora and geological colour. In Juniper's works, where the horizon is high or lost, human markers punctuate a terrain that is suggested with colour and texture.

Juniper's exploration of an aerial viewpoint recalls east coast artists such as Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams, but equally they echo the composition now associated with Indigenous works which map' and record travel through the land.

Robert Juniper grew up in Merredin, Western Australia, on the Golden Pipeline, before his family relocated to the United Kingdom for a period. He returned to Perth in 1949 where he quickly gained a reputation for the archetypal quality of his landscapes. He rarely sketched, but composed his works from recollection, which emphasised the poetic nature of his impressions.

Juniper says:

I started painting the landscape distressed by the recent arrivals who took what they wanted and then departed, leaving the detritus of their works and lifestyle, showing the same disdain for the land as they had for the Aborigines.
Trevor Smith, Robert Juniper, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2002, p 97.

Valerie Tring, Ruinscape XLI (after a bush fire), 2006, watercolours on leather. Image courtesy of Galerie Dusseldorf.

Valerie Tring

In contrast to Juniper's tendency towards generalisation, Valerie Tring (b. 1960, Lower Hutt, New Zealand; Perth since 1978) employs the flat picture plane to record specific dramatic events in this land of droughts and flooding rains'. Tring's compositions locate points of disaster with GPS accuracy - which house in a street was under threat, which road impassable, etc. She works on leather, giving these small, intense watercolours such as Ruinscape XLI (after a bush fire) 2006 an intriguing texture and a sense of permanency in the face of chaos.

Tony Nathan

The ambiguous quality of spatial flatness is exploited by Tony Nathan (b. 1962 Malaysia; Perth since 1970). In a series of aerial forest images such as Untitled 001 (2006) the usual verticality of tree trunks is absent, but the essential character of the bush is still beautifully described. Density, colour, foliage habit, are all revealed in intricate detail, along with a sense of sheer, borderless expanse.

Tony Nathan, Untitled 001, 2006, ink jet print on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mapping ochre from the land

Kukatja/Wangkajunga artist Rover Thomas was born near the Canning Stock Route and, like many of his generation, spent much of his life as a stockman. He was based in the latter years of his life at Turkey Creek (Warmun) in the north west of the state where he began to paint in 1975. Thomas is credited as being the artist who established ochre painting as an important contemporary Indigenous genre. The ochre used is the very stuff of the land, and represents' place in the most direct way. Like the pioneering central desert artists, Thomas and his successors paint the land in a map-like format: with a perspective as if seen from the sky.

Systems of understanding

The urge to quantify, compile and systematically collate data is central to the work of Sine MacPherson (b. 1952 Canada; Australian citizen 1986; Perth since 1995).

In a recent work, Four day forecast (2007), MacPherson has adopted the graphics of weather symbols used in daily newspapers from Australia's eight capital cities. Any day can theoretically have any one of nine forecasts, so for four consecutive days there are 6,561 possible Four Day Forecasts', MacPherson writes. She has painted 84 unique sets, each titled with the place and date, highlighting the distinctions between the states.

Tom Mller (b. 1965 Switzerland; Perth since 1990) also adapts graphic devices to quantify information. He compiles systems to make visible such immense quantities of data such as the volume of water in the world's river ways, or landscapes reduced to linear abstraction, as in Skylines (2007).

The most enduring quality of all of the work considered here is a sense of the sheer, magisterial vastness of the land.

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Last updated: 9th December 2008
Creators: Merryn Gates Services for Arts, Kathryn Wells