Beyond the Opening

-- Demystifying Contemporary Art --

Fred Williams | Mark Dober

The contrast between Fred Williams and Mark Dober’s work is exhilarating. Fred finds beauty and rhythm in a drought stricken sunburnt country, whilst in the gallery next door Mark immerses us in a lush tangle of vegetative growth. These two exhibitions share many commonalities yet are equally different: depiction, approach, investigation, use of medium and presentation. Fred Williams in the You Yangs is a poignant exhibition showcasing his rigour and material investigation, whilst immersion into the fluid and fertile large scale landscape by Mark Dober is like a gasp of fresh air. Brilliant.

I went to the You Yangs in preparation for these exhibitions. It was the first day of spring - the sun was shining, the bush bursting with new growth and wattle in bloom. Ignoring the crowds hiking, cycling and picnicking, I wanted to get a feel for what Fred found so compelling in this environment. This is one of the driest parts of Victoria and when Fred was painting it in the early and mid-60’s the land was in drought. It is, and was, a scruffy kind of environment dominated by grassland, granite boulders and scrubby trees, however this winter’s rain sparked an abundance of growth.

Fred Williams

Fred Williams’ career pivots in the mid 60’s: he finds a landscape that resonates, he finds his signature style, he defines his investigation, wins support and acknowledgment - and this exhibition showcases that moment. Fred changed the way we view the Australian landscape: he makes the monotonous grass plains, scrubby trees and grey boulders jump with life.

Temporary exhibition space

There is a row of about eight large works in oil lining the far walls. Each dominates my field of vision as I stand in front. They have a relatively flat tonal background that undulates gently with depth and intensity. Applied using quick back and forth, up and down brush strokes, the strokes create varied sheens and atop this Fred expertly layers fine glazes of colour onto the composite wood or canvas support. The landscape is viewed from above, the compositions have no horizon. Dense blobs of paint are arranged sparsely, in clusters or lines, so aptly representing the whole object whether it be tree, boulder, shadow or pond. And the clumping of these make patterns across the surface - perhaps trees around a waterhole, or crosses and corners along paddock fencing. The landscape has become abstracted, but is completely identifiable as Australian.

Fred uses a tight earthy pallet of siennas, burnt umbers, some black, white and soft pinks with the occasional dab of iridescent red or blue. He makes these nondescript landscapes jump. In the density of activity he produces a focal point, exquisitely drawing the viewer into the landscape and eloquently leading them out.

Smaller works of gouaches and watercolours line the opposite wall – and these works mostly have a horizon. There are works of rocky hillsides with trees silhouetted along their ridge, others looking down the hillside to a flat plain with nothing but a few dark bushes or a small fire and immense smoke cloud.

The works are mostly hung in chronological order grouped within their like mediums. Because of this it is quite easy to identify a shift from representational to a more minimalist and abstract style from the mid-sixties onwards.

The way these works have been arranged also guide us to identify Fred’s investigation into medium and composition. Working in pein air and his studio Fred shifts fluidly between oil painting, watercolours, gouache and a myriad of master printmaking techniques. There is an interplay between the works executed in various mediums, one informs the other spurring a new series, and new investigations. This is evident in the first instance: two black and white prints, poster size, at the entrance clearly relate and inform the adjacent oil painting. And this investigation and way of working is even more keenly represented in Myer Gallery.

Myer Gallery

This gallery is dominated by black and white abstracted landscape prints with a few coloured gouaches and oils dotted about. The works here are at times double hung1, there is a nice density to the space which duly represents his prolific practice. Two oils paintings hang at the end of the gallery: small hills thick with rocky scrub against grey skies. The ground in one is muddy green with a linear cloud pattern stretching up and out of the composition, the other has a ground of warm browns, pinks and ochres with a white tree in the centre of a distant hill. Dark vegetation and tree trunks alongside thick and darkly outlined large boulders are punctuated by the gentle application of pure colour into parts of both murky landscapes. Up close these works are pretty challenging – grey, mucky, impasto splodges, thick lines and seemingly unrelated splodges of pure colour. But take a few steps back (squint your eyes) and you’ll see that the bright blue and red and gump disappear and the essence of our environment appear - the sparseness, the sun bleached timbers and deep shadows.

In this gallery the etchings in particular feel more and more experimental as scrapes, punctures and gouges make trees, boulders and ponds. The etchings are worked over with various etching tools and methods. Many of the prints are exhibited in a range of states. You can identify minor changes and alterations to compositions between states. Seeking to achieve the perfect compositional balance, Fred even crops from a larger landscape a section ‘that works’ and recreates smaller compositions as a print, in gouache and oil. Technically this is such a great example of the effect of each medium, but really this demonstrates Fred’s discipline and investigation into materials, mediums and composition.

Mark Dober

Max Bell Gallery

In contrast to the long view and broad sweeps of sparsely vegetated country the work by Mark Dober is within close range, the pattern he finds in the vegetation is dense, whirling with vibrancy – life. Walking into this smaller squarer gallery, I enter the You Yangs in a different year, in a different season. Bright optimistic golden and lemon yellow, sky blue and a multitude of green watercolours are expertly applied clear and un-muddied to large sheets of paper that are pinned together along the gallery walls to form broad sweeping views. There are four landscapes, one for each wall, reflecting the size of each wall; and I am immersed into the environment of a pond, a walking track winding through low bush, an open grassed area with trees and a rocky hillside. The result is an exquisite immersion into a vibrant and diverse environment, void of drought stricken character.

Mark’s use of watercolour is exquisite. In his confidence, he captures in large scale the character of the You Yangs whilst demonstrating his continued investigation into space and materials. After the intense study of Fred’s pivotal landscape abstractions Mark’s work is completely uplifting.

1. When artworks are exhibited in two rows along a wall they are referred to as ‘double hung’.

Find more information about Fred Williams.

Find more information about Mark Dober.

Both exhibitions are Geelong Gallery exhibitions.

Fred Williams in the You Yangs

19 August to 5 November 2017

The You Yangs - Mark Dober

14 August to the 15 October 2017

Mark Dober Fawcett’s Gully 1 2016

watercolour and gouache on paper

Courtesy of the artist

Photographer: James McArdle and Lorena Carrington

Mark Dober Fawcett’s Gully 2 (detail) 2016 watercolour and gouache on paper Courtesy of the artist Photographer: James McArdle and Lorena Carrington

Fred Williams

You Yang Pond 1963

oil on composition board

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Gift of Godfrey Phillips International Pty Ltd 1968

© Estate of Fred Williams

Fred Williams You Yangs landscape 1963

oil on hardboard

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Purchased, 1980

Photographer: AGNSW, Brenton McGeachie © Estate of Fred Williams