Dis | stilled


Artist David Middlebrook draws and paints landscape. Straightforward, surely? Well, not really. It’s hard to use landscape as a subject in 21st century Australia. Landscape is loaded with a lot of baggage, even down to the very term itself (in the European sense it describes a scenic view, yet there is so much more than this). And how does a non-Indigenous artist make images of this country in the face of post-colonial guilt and the High Court rejection of ‘terra nullius’ (land belonging to no-one)?1 Why does the landscape continue to haunt contemporary generations of Australian artists? Middlebrook faces these dilemmas sensitively and thoughtfully in his artistic practice. But first, a brief revisiting of Australia’s artistic heritage may be useful in this context, to understand the legacy any Australian landscape artist has to wrestle with everyday.

It has become conventional wisdom that the history of Australian art since 1788 is primarily a history of coming to terms with the land. It is a history that includes early images of Aboriginal people in the landscape, either as part of a romantic, and past, arcadia, or, through lampooning, as evidence of the superiority of British settlers.2 We have had descriptions of early European artists finding it difficult to paint Australian trees or the colour and light of this land. And gradually Aboriginal people disappeared from European images.

Our artistic nationalism is said to have come of age with the Heidelberg School (with the likes of Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Fred McCubbin and Charles Conder) who painted what are now iconic images of Australia in high key colour, expressing the light, the dust, the heat, the dryness and the heroic spirit of the (mostly male) settlers – the ‘pioneers’. In the twentieth century some artists, like Margaret Preston, celebrated an Aboriginal aesthetic, while the generation of Nolan, Boyd and Drysdale envisioned both a harsh red centre and created their own ambiguous mythologies of the Australian bush.

Aboriginal art (only truly recognised as art in the past 30-40 years having previously been seen, at least by art museums, as the proper preserve of anthropology or ethnography) has now received major international recognition as both a contemporary art movement and as the continuation of a tradition expressed in ceremony and on the body. It has the imprimatur of the most authentic expression of Australian identification with land.

BMCC-Install-1So, back to my original point – how, in fact, do you make landscape new in this context? David Middlebrook always draws before he paints, and here we see both his ‘sketches’ (exhibited in multiples as an installation) and some spectacular monumental drawings, all done using a felt-tip ‘Sharpie’ (no chance for mistakes here), which offer us a new vision of his home, the Blue Mountains. These drawings aren’t about impressions, or changing weather effects. They don’t present us with a sense of the picturesque scene; they are not ‘views’. They are not about finding a national language or about bush mythology. To me, they are about ‘presence’. This landscape has an architecture of its own. It exists, it has a ‘being’ if you like. You cannot fail to be aware of it. It’s impact is so strong (and Blue Mountains residents and visitors alike will understand this) that it inhabits the soul of this place. At risk of a cliché, it is timeless (literally). There is no evidence here of human impact on the land. Nor does Middlebrook draw the trees, the bush, even the air (in fact, it’s as if the air has been sucked out of these images so that they almost exist in another dimension). He draws the very structure of this land. There is a powerful sense of geological time here. We don’t see soil here – this is rock, bedrock!

Sometimes artists have tried to express the ‘emptiness’ of the land. Writer Murray Bail once described this (referring to Arthur Boyd) as ‘about the difficulty of creating something of value out of barrenness, remoteness, a newly-settled place…a place where not a lot has happened.’3 For Bail, this is the dilemma faced by both visual artists and novelists – attempting to insert a narrative into the land (though, of course, there are many Aboriginal stories). He comments – ‘the painter is wearing a European ruff representing some sort of distant sensibility. Outside is the Australian landscape – glaring, pitiless, empty, uncultivated. That’s here. That is us. Landscape is always viewed through culture.’4 In Middlebrook’s case, I think he has managed to step outside this dilemma. There is no sense of anxiety in his images. They are calm, their stillness is reassuring. Of course, he cannot avoid viewing landscape through culture – that is impossible. He is an artist of his time and place – 21st century Australia. But Middlebrook seems to have come to terms with this.

In his practice he has made many trips to central Australia and outback NSW. He has spoken about boundless horizons and of, at first, seeing the outback as isolated, alienating and silent. But Middlebrook experienced something else in central Australia. He met and collaborated with Ada Bird Petyarre and realised that what he saw as silence was not so much about the place, the land itself (for it is anything but silent), but that the silence is about an inner response, a personal sense of alienation. Perhaps this is the crux of the whole dilemma for non-Indigenous artists today. The artist (as do we all) has to understand the layering of experience on this land, experience that pre-dates European apprehension of it by thousands of years. Even his technique, using a form of stippling or small ‘staccato’5 marks (he calls it almost a form of pointillism) suggests the sedimentary build-up of mass and volume (geologically and artistically). It is at once delicate and nuanced, and yet also a macro distillation of the land. It is the pith, the sap, the spirit of the land.

So when Middlebrook comes to reflect upon his own home environment it’s with a sense of knowing, rather than silence. It is not a narrative laid over the land that Middlebrook gives us. Rather, it is a sense that the earth, this ancient earth, has its own geological narrative and that, in comparison, ours is rather insignificant.

Perhaps that is why his works always retain a sense of the horizon. Indeed, that is what tells us they are landscapes. Yet the horizon also has another role here. Horizons are what we look to, what we use to assist our sense of direction. They suggest land/pastures beyond where we currently are. They imply distance. They offer the possibility of movement into that ‘beyond’ space. Perhaps, psychically, that is what Middlebrook is offering us. Perhaps there is the possibility of redemption yet?

Dr Angela Philp
Lecturer, Art History and Theory
University of Newcastle
January 2015

  1. In 1770 Captain James Cook took possession of Australia’s east coast under the principle of ‘terra nullius’, acting effectively as if Australia was uninhabited. The High Court’s Mabo judgement of 1992 recognised that native title predated British sovereignty and that Indigenous people had rights over land.
  2. John Glover, Joseph Lycett and S. T. Gill spring to mind
  3. Murray Bail, ‘Landscape and Emptiness’, a talk given at the National Library of Australia, 2013. No pagination. [available at: www.nla.gov.au/content/landscape-and-emptiness -accessed 14.1.2015]
  4. ibid.
  5. Middlebrook’s own term