Clifford How’s previous paintings took us on a journey to the Tasmanian Central Highlands. In these new landscapes, 'Takayna – The Edge of the World', he takes us on another journey, to the dramatic coastline of Tasmania’s north-west Tarkine region.
But ‘journey’ is a word suffering from over-use. It suggests that paintings are like picture postcards which, like some hypnotist’s accessory, can transport us imaginatively off to some other place. Well, actually they do. But perhaps there is a more significant journey involved.
In the 19th Century, photography liberated painting from its evidentiary obligations, so that a portrait or a landscape could be far more interesting than just a document. Not that painting had ever been just documentation, but it could now focus more on triggering an experience than on optical reproduction.
This is true of How’s landscapes which are less about representing the landscape than the experience of being in that landscape. Key to this is how he builds up the surface using a palette knife.
This process employs what he calls “minimal touches”, creating a kind of abstraction, which the viewer has to ‘read’. The viewer is a participant, constantly responding to the tension between what is being represented and how it is represented. In this way, we don’t so much see a reproduction of the landscape, but experience it directly.
Of course, realism is itself an illusion – first explored by the Barbizon school and the Impressionists whose landscapes changed as the light changed. How is also fascinated by this mutability – in this case by the mercurial weather of North West Tasmania and how it constantly transforms the landscape.
The previous landscapes had a Corot-like stillness. Despite their inherent drama, nature comes across as a nurturing embrace. Not so these new paintings which depict the wild collision of land and sea. Mediated by the volatile weather of the Southern Ocean, the fractious sea confronts the timeless resistance of a rocky coast, a drama leavened occasionally by a protected rock pool or secluded beach.
Key to this drama is the palette knife. Its directionality, materiality and edginess serve to embody the dramatic tensions portrayed.
Usually the palette knife is part of an expressive technique. In How’s case it is more about building up an abstract matrix of marks which he then selectively strips away so that the inner heart of the painting projects out, creating the illusion of surface highlights, the classic abstract ‘push-pull’ tension between foreground and background – in these new paintings between the verticality of the rocks and the horizontality of the sea, between the surface and what lies beneath, between the energy of the moment and monumental stillness. We are invited into this process. There is no sleight of hand: this is a painting, not an illusion. The landscape, which we feel as much as see, is just the occasion of the painting.
So, the real journey is in the painting itself as it discovers what it wants to be, not in what it depicts. And the value of any journey lies in the new experiences it offers. Hence, How’s shift in location. With the previous landscapes he was, he says, “getting a bit too comfortable”. The best journeys are always fresh and a little uncomfortable.