Melbourne’s famed art scene, like its metro area, keeps bursting its banks and flooding out into the provinces. The La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre, opposite the Bendigo Art Gallery, has been pumping out contemporary art shows of some seriously killer quality. It seems that artists are moving further afield to secure larger working spaces, bringing urban contemporary art culture with them. The immediate connectivity of the internet and the improvement of rail services are reducing the sense of separation between urban and regional. The larger spaces afforded by gold rush-era architecture are also providing opportunities to exhibit on a scale not often possible in the inner city.
Michael Needham of Kyneton is an example of the new breed of artist working in this geographically blurred zone. His show “Long Shadowed Land” pairs a series of landscape drawings with a collection of organic abstract sculptures. The two halves of the exhibition are bound together in their exploration of the relationship between body and place, and in particular a form of historic melancholy for life dissolved into the great expanse of the Australian landscape.
Oppressive and weighted skies bear down on wide-open plains in the very large drawings. This sense of unease is heightened by the way in which they’ve been executed. Needham’s tight draughtsmanship slips nervously into abstraction in parts of the work, then scrambles back into refined precision again. A rich palette of greys lends the works a photographic sense and a nostalgic quality. Flashes of yellows, rose reds and ochres manage to bleed both a sepia tone into the work as well as a charge of flickering energy.
Dark stripes of shadow plunge across the grassy paddocks, thrown behind heroically forlorn trees by the setting/rising sun. Shallow horizon lines sweep panoramically left and right, pushing your gaze along the walls of the gallery and foreshortening the landscape’s inner reach. Scratched surfaces in the heavy skies directly reveal the artist’s mark, an abstract gouging into the charcoal that echoes mythologies of lonely men pitting themselves against nature, desperate to leave their own mark on the land. And framing each drawing is a thick, severe black boundary. It’s a hint at the way in which we territorialise the landscape into fence-bordered fields and, with the other sculptural works in the room, it draws comparison to the gravesite and the coffin.
For the sculptural series, Needham has taken a casting of the depression left in the ground when a gravesite sinks into the earth. This is absence made present, a void made material. Needham's use of dental plaster to make the castings reinforces connections to the human body. It’s common practice to turn to dental evidence when attributing an identity to a body, and as the castings are taken from unmarked graves, thoughts of identity are intensified. The sculptures become not just a material translation of a hole in the ground, a sort of landscape art, but a form of portraiture. And to what purpose is the Australian landscape most often turned? To produce food for eating, for survival, whether meat or wheat. Production, consumption, eating, teeth, death.
The plaster itself evokes the landscape, with its bubbling, rippling and eroded textures mirroring Australian coastlines. The sculptures become like clouds, heavy bodily memories. This tension between landscape and portraiture begets ideas about belonging to the land, of being part of the land, and as we all inevitably must, returning to the land.
“Long Shadowed Land” at La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre, Bendigo
Exhibition dates 27 June to 29 July, 2012. Open Tuesday – Friday (10am-5pm) and weekends (12pm-5pm)