Bush continues Mitchell McAuley's abiding romance with the Australian landscape. The idea for the exhibition arose from his apocalyptic painting Bushfire' which depicts the artist kneeling in a charred landscape. Painted well before the recent, devastating Victorian bushfires, it is both harbinger of what is to come and reminder of the cyclical nature of fire in bush. Whether city or country dweller, McAuley beckons us into an elemental relationship with the bush.
The exhibition addresses the bush generally, and bushfire specifically. We experience spring in the Strathogie Ranges, a charred Toolangi State Forest and regeneration in Healesville - a journey most readily seen in the 'Burnt Bush' cycle. Fire in landscape is a recurring theme in McAuley's oeuvre. In fact the marks left by fire on the land could be considered a leitmotif in his painting. McAuley continues to return to the theme because he understands fire as another season in the landscape. "I live in an area notable because it is the most fire-prone in the world - it is part of my existence:'
McAuley moved permanently to the Strathbogies in 2006. Bush emphasises that he is no longer a visitor to the landscape. "When you have time to walk in the bush you see it more as you would an individual - like seeing a person in a crowd:' He wanders through the open woodland to his straw-bale studio set amongst native vegetation. "It takes that time, years of walking in that bush landscape, for your eye to see the colours, to acclimatise, to go through the seasons?' He says that the exhibition slowly seeped out of him. "I haven't had to imagine the bush to produce a picture - I'm capturing what I can see out of my studio window."
McAuley populates several of his canvases with kangaroos. In 'Bush, Three Roos' we find the strong diagonals exerting a centrifugal pull. Our eyes, drawn to the centre of the composition, meet the direct gaze of the kangaroo-cum-artist substitute. The figure at once emerges from and blends effortlessly into the surroundings. The world about is dappled with light falling through the broken eucalypt canopy. We know that we are the interlopers and before us is the master of this bush domain.
Few modern Australian artists - with notable exceptions such as Clifton Pugh and Sam Fullbrookallowed native fauna to roam through their painted bushscapes. The commercial realm has appropriated Australian fauna making it more kitsch tourism icon than rural reality. For McAuley the kangaroo both stands in place of the artist, and reflects his working reality where kangaroos roam freely outside his studio. "I am not an artist who dictates to the landscape how it will be portrayed. I'm happy to let landscapes dictate to me - each in its own way:' He argues that to denude the landscape of these animals would be an untruth. "Kangaroos exist in the landscape and it would require as conscious a decision to leave them out of my work as it would to paint them."
McAuley sees the landscape in terms of colour and form. A masterful colourist, his palette appears to have more in common with the intensity of Fauvist Andre Derain's than with the dreamy pastel shades of Australian Impressionists like McCubbin and Roberts. In fact, his palette reflects his intimate relationship with the bush. "You get an immense amount of colour; you get trunks changing from ochres to deep chocolate browns, salmons, reds, pinks, sap green, and the white of the bark. The colours change through the seasons. Leaves die off, ochres turn to grey. All these colours can be seen in one tree over the course of a year?' He credits his time spent painting snowscapes, which resulted in the 2007 exhibition Snow, for his increasing appreciation of colour. "Painting snow is a challenge because you are compelled to see the subtle colour variations in the landscape. It made my eyes more attuned to the range of colours. I would have to say that Snow enabled me to see colour?'.
Form is carefully considered in the Bush paintings. McAuley has noted how fire clears out all but the most solid objects in the bush: rocks and tree trunks. This leaves a scene of great starkness before regeneration begins. His decision to crop the landscape was not a conscious one; his interest in line and structure dictated form. By eliminating the higher parts of the trees McAuley succeeds in creating an intimate experience for the viewer. The shallow picture plane further circumscribes space and encompasses us. We are not on a lofty perch surveying a landscape, as in a Von Guerard painting; we are in the midst of it. Hence the title of the exhibition Bush, not the more detached Landscape.
We can trace the freshness of Bush to a variation in McAuley's method of working. Watercolour became the medium of choice for experimentation. The resultant works inspired the oil paintings which followed. The return to watercolour occurred, in part, because of an arm injury which made it difficult for the artist to paint with oils. The injury proved fortuitous. "Watercolours are more subtle and the use of the brush lends itself to the curving lines of the trees", says McAuley. "Watercolours are where I get to play. I like to expose my process in the exhibition; to show the freshness that remains when you capture the moment." The group of works titled 'Reach for the Sky' are exemplars of his watercolour style: vivid expressions of the way in which light can strengthen and, conversely, dilute colour and form.
McAuley's commitment to capturing the veracity of the bush carries through to his process. He insists on working during daylight hours, arguing "if you're going to paint this Australian bush the light is very important and you need the light to bring the colour out. In a sense the colour is in the light. Studio lights always look wrong in a landscape painting':
His works reflect McAuley's formal training, with many hours spent perfecting his craft, and his battle with the canvas. He must bend the disparate elements to his painterly will, and in doing so, create harmonious compositions. His slow but inexorable shift from abstraction to representation has been a conscious one. "I moved towards representation because it pushed me harder", he says. The process of struggle and triumph so necessary to Mitchell McAuley's practice is also a reflection of his personality. He is a driven man, in and out of the studio. As in the landscape itself, through adversity and struggle comes growth. And Bush is born.
A Bush Fire, oil on canvas 75 x 190cm