Tim Olsen Gallery
Guy  Maestri

Guy Maestri


Recent works in the
landscape by Guy Maestri


Landscape is the central
medium of the impossible. This must be the reason that Cezanne painted Mont
Saint Victoire over and over in his dogged meticulous assault. The scale of
landscape, the physical solidity and the mass is impossible to compress into two
dimensions. The impression, the stain left on the eye by the view, is forced
into a creative distortion, a magnificent reduction of the whole. Unlike
cartography or wide-angle photography or even satellite surveillance, which all
lend an illusion of possession, the act of representing the spatial reality of
nature in paint remains a stubborn entity. The scene continues where the canvas
ends and the mutability of light and the illusion of perspective only serve to
loosen our grasp.

The experience of the landscape
in Australian painting contains some of these knots of impenetrable
dissatisfaction even though we have been led to believe the terrain is simple
to recognise and easy to celebrate as an epic scene or a signature palette. 

A shorthand in terms of
spectrum has been developed for the different zones of a huge terrain. The
coast is green. The centre is red and the sky, harbours, rivers and lakes are
every shade of violet and blue. Such conventions have given rise to an
artificial sense of the familiar. By virtue of landscape painting dominating
most other genres in Australian art we have internalised a Fairweather mangrove
or a Williams outcrop as the ‘actual’ terrain. Abstractions of the most famous
landmarks as oddly the reality of the Australian outback has been made more
famous by paintings than photography. 
We know
the bush as much
from a Russell Drysdale one horse town in red ochre as we do from a completely
psychedelic rendering by James Gleeson. Most of us have to admit it doesn’t
matter where the line melts from fact into hallucination, we’ll never go there.

Expeditions to the desert
used to be mediated to the general population by the journals of explorers. So
many of these smacked of pain and futility. If a lingering reluctance to probe
our interior (for curiosity or even leisure) persists it might owe to the hard
tales etched into our history. Who would follow Sturt with his long boat
dragged by a dray across the rocks and sand searching for an inland sea? The
compulsion to see Australia is limited by the perception that there is ‘nothing
out there’, a fact upheld by the physical size of the central desert and a
general ignorance about what this terrain contains.  In this century we no longer look to explorers to mediate,
furnish or satisfy our ambivalence, fears or vague curiosity about the bush and
outback. This role instead falls to writers and artists and each generation
brings a very different view. Some painters interrogate one landscape over and
over and make it their griffe. Guy Maestri is not on this trajectory. A
passionate ecologist with a dispassionate relationship to media, his connection
to the Australian scene is not literal. He doesn’t pretend to forge an integral
or iconic image by connecting with the land. If anything his most successful
paintings convey a vague discomfort, a very real sense of not belonging at all
and instead simply watching the scene in a state of apprehension, static
wonderment and doubt.

When Maestri drove into the
Tanami desert his initial impression was one of emptiness and monotonous
grandeur. For a coast dweller the desert represents a confronting lack of
shelter and almost zero sanctuary. For a painter there is equally nowhere to
hide. The pictorial conventions offered by furrows of foliage, cloud and
shadow, hillocks, valleys and glades all seem evinced by an earth that seems to
erupt with a violent enormity of scale and smother with its dinosaur hum of
silence. Nothing leads to nowhere, as the artist puts it: “you drive for eleven
hours just to get the beginning of where you might be going which all looks the
same to start with”.

Maestri describes his
encounters with the Central desert as simultaneously ‘completely alien’ and
‘overwhelmingly familiar’. His response was to create hundreds of small works
on paper, tracking the enormity into smaller fragments. The drawings were not
preparatory; no paintings were based on them. And instead they may have
operated as a journal, providing a map to an environment the artist was slow to
relate to.

This journey was one of
several Maestri took into the bush over two years of travelling and painting.
And each terrain created subtly different work. The works from the Tanami
desert were deliberate exercises in simplicity. A reply in part to the story
telling process of indigenous painting, Maestri was impressed by the rough
immediacy of painting in desert communities and he applied (if not the
mythology) then definitely the speed of local style to his work. And so, a
magnificent ridge (in a painting like “Mount Wedge 3”) becomes as abbreviated
as a child’s drawing of a breaking wave. An eternity of scrub is indicated by a
scumble of lines and colour is anti-literal, the sage green belly in the body
of a desert landscape could infer the dry grass beneath your feet or miles and
miles of raw vista.

The confusion of scale gives
the sense that the only way to maintain purchase on an endless horizon is to
collapse perspective altogether. Indirectly the very distinct relationship to
time engaged by the elders of this landscape bears some relation on this merge
of perception between near and far. As Maestri tells it: “When we drove through
the Tanami the community elders who were hosting us pointed out many landmarks
that told important stories but these stories were not mapped clearly, they
could have happened in dreamtime, ancestral time or real time. No one asked. It
remained unclear.”

The outback at Mutawintji
was something else again, set on the precipice between far western N.S.W. and
central Australia this is the territory of Burke and Wills and a far more
fertile desert landscape studded with wildflowers, gorges and snaking river
tributaries. The challenge for an artist here was in fact all of the many
signposts to the sublime: violet sunsets, red river gums, sparkling waterfalls,
bush arcadia. To avoid the re-creation of picture post cards Maestri cleaved
into the scene with thick paint and a high Modernist abbreviation created by
striated colour applied straight from the tube to the canvas or sliced on with
a rapid brush or swiping palette knife. 
These work seem wetter, literally, but also more graphic and
geometrically violent. Many were painted in the studio simply because materials
were impossible to transport so deep into the bush and because Maestri had no
intention of painting “portraits of trees and rocks”.

As an artist who began in
large-scale abstraction, the foundation of most of his works is rooted within
compositional dynamics, a matter of paint first and subject second. This is
especially true of the Mutawintji landscapes where the dramatic rock formations
and gushing streams of water (“Fall No.6”) seem to owe as much to Hans Hoffman
and Clifford Still as they do to Tom Roberts.

In a spirit of ongoing
experimentation this new collection of paintings also includes works created on
an easel in the landscape. Those rendered around the riverbanks near Hill End
bear the humid intimacy where rocks meet water with deep shadow and trees drain
the sky of light. The compositions Maestri created in this terrain are more
immediate, compressing the view without a liberating strip of sky, and the
prevailing feels like a cold dusk. It’s an atmosphere that seems uncomfortably
close. And this sensation increases when small forest and river scenes are
studded together in inverted duets. 
Playing with the idea of a reflection in a body of water, the small
double canvases throw up different facets of the same view: hazy, abstracted,
simplified or roughed up into cruder tones.

It’s in these small
works  (such as “Pool No.2”) that the
conventions of landscape get thrown about, the sky falling in the river bed,
the mountain diving beneath the clouds, tree-tops forming root networks, and
horizon be damned.

Modern landscape painting
has to interrogate classical conventions, or at the very least toy with them to
retain traction. The challenge of painting a scene considered traditionally
beautiful (like a meadow in a butter commercial) is to shatter the potential
for the merely pleasing image. The Southern Highlands of N.S.W. is exactly the
sort of pastoral that soothed a colonial eye and continues to represent rural
Australia in the general imagination. Maestri’s response to such sodden turf is
to use the bare canvas to indicate light, bodies of water and sky (in works
such as “Burrawang No. 2” and “Burrawang No.3”) and, unlike Constable, the
paint is thick, fast, raw and impatient. The vertical scale of these works
creates a static feeling, more like a painting from a blurred photograph and
the distance between the viewer and the scene is uniform in each image,
creating a formality and random sense of sequence.

These works owe something to
European art but not in the classical sense. There is some element of
detachment at play here, like a Richter portrait, that obstructs the strong
chance of kitsch evoked by familiar scenes.

In this vein the palette
Maestri utilises is cold, almost muddy, anti-lyrical:  A grunge alternative to Watteau’s glade or Frederick
McCubbin’s hazy gum forests.  
Paint, on the central palette of his studio, has mounted up and grown
dirty, like our memory of the ‘real bush’ and the painter seems reluctant to
bathe each stilte scene in faithful tones “Green” says this artist “is the
hardest thing. Green is bloody impossible.” But of course we accept this as

Landscape, is also
inherently impossible. And that is why it will always pose a taunting challenge
to painting and remain critical in every sense.


Anna Johnson, Sydney, 2012

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