|2009 Chasing Tumbleweed|
Metaphors for the fragility and elusive qualities of life are combined with imagery sourced from our colonial history to explore connections to land. Influences came from reading James Lovelock's book on Gaia Theory and excerpts from The Upanishads. The Upanishads are the rote-learned prayers/chants of the Rishis, priests of the Vedic Civilization 7-5,000 years ago in the Saraswati Valley, India. They are the basis of Hinduism and Buddhism is an offshoot, they are beautiful spiritual poems that seem so relevant now. e.g.
‘All is consciousness,
Consciousness is all there is.
Still like a large tree on a windless day,”
Catalogue essay: Chasing Tumbleweed
The common perception of deserts as arid, largely featureless expanses where life-forms struggle for survival is offset by their mythological status as sites of spiritual transformation: it is from deserts the prophets come, and in one grain of sand the mystical poet William Blake saw infinity. This ancient, numinous sense of the earth as a living superorganism, within which animals, plants and humans interconnect and form a collective consciousness that spans the universe, is at the heart of Gabrielle Courtenay’s recent series of paintings. While science has for decades been warning us that this unseen web of interconnectedness is no mere primitive, irrational belief system, but rather the ecological reality of the world we inhabit, it has taken the recent devastating events associated with climate change for us to wake up to the terrifying impact this interdependency can have on our individual lives. But human beings, as T. S. Eliot reminded us, cannot bear very much reality, and in our culture of denial and ineffectual politicians, it is the artists who invoke nature and environmental issues in new ways who are reminding us of what is at stake. Gabrielle Courtenay is one of these artists.
Courtenay spends periods of time immersing herself in remote places. Through these solitary experiences, as well as her intellectual engagement with the ancient cosmological/self-realisation texts of the Upanishads and heightened awareness of the long history of humans’ relationship with the land, she creates distilled, engagingly enigmatic images where even the humblest of plant forms – saltbush, tumbleweed – have an intrinsic poetic beauty. Metaphors for the ephemeral nature of life they may be, but the bristling energy of their intricate linear forms speaks of a tenacious will to survive in the harshest of environments.
Courtenay’s own history, too, inhabits these works. At the core of her work is the investigation with the process of painting and abstraction, as attested by her works’ quietly radiating, metallic-wash surfaces with their simple forms signifying the cosmos. Three years ago, she did what few of us would have the courage to do. Awarded an Iliri Artist Scholar Program Residency, she spent a month in complete isolation in the remote desert landscape of Fowlers Gap, 100 kilometres from Broken Hill, a place of intense heat and furious winds, yet one to which over time she developed a deep sense of connectedness. As she recounts:
The reduced kangaroo and emu population, and the stark remains of the oasis this property had been in the 1890s brought home to me the fragility of our land and its destruction. The force and howling of the winds made me very conscious of global warming and I began to closely observe the saltbush, which is made up of many plant lines holding themselves together against the wind. I noticed it all seemed to be dying or dead and not regenerating. I collected samples of it and began drawing it.
Spending her nights looking at the stars and the infinity of galaxies, then rising at dawn to avoid the debilitating heat and producing drawing after drawing of its intricate forms, the saltbush heralded the new direction her work was to take. It has now reached a maturity where the symbolic power of its images tantalises us to think about their possible meanings, and so, in a sense, her paintings reconnect us, too, with the natural world.
In one of Courtenay’s Ephemeral Tales of Gaia paintings, a saltbush and a pleated period dress are engaged in an enigmatic encounter. It seems in a very understated way to be erotically charged. Is it an embrace, a dance, or a courtship? Is it culture – represented by the dress – and nature forming an attachment? Or is nature carrying [i]the burden of culture? In this magical realist world it could mean any or all of these things. It is a world animated by birds: they emerge, half-hidden, from branches; they peer out of mirrors, perch on floating worlds, levitate in snow domes. Birds, Courtenay reminds me, are everywhere. And what they perhaps allude to in these resonant, exquisitely executed paintings is the divine essence invoked in a saying by the ninth century Sufi, Abu Yazia, in reference to the Upanishads: He takes the form of a bird with the tree of oneness, its soul roots and branches, and shots and fruits, and then rejects all deceits.[ii] Courtenays’ painting, The Tree of Oneness, with its golden light, Gaia trunk and irradiated, burgeoning branches, seems a perfect complement to these lines. The sombre Prophesy seems its opposite: a stark shoreline, a distant world on the horizon, tumbleweed on the sand. But this tumbleweed dances like a dervish, redeeming the picture with the sense of hope that comes with expectation. There is something mysterious about tumbleweed: it comes from we don’t know where and blows on to some equally unknown destination. It has a life of its own, driven by an energy we can’t fathom. Which is another reason, perhaps, that Courtenay is attracted to it, for this metaphysical aspect of tumbleweed is a metaphor for art itself and the process of making it.
[i][i] Gaia was the Greek earth goddess; ‘Gaia Theory’ is expounded by the environmental scientist James Lovelock.
[ii] Quoted from ‘Mystical Islam ‘ by Julian Baldick.