Ghost Forests

After a year of painting and utterly wonderful distraction, Ghost Forests was completed and opened last week. I've spent the last few months hermited away and happily so, looking up from time to time to notice the beautiful sky. Ghost Forests grew out the conversations Eugenie and I had as we walked and drove and explored the hidden places of Canberra. It was Eugenie's dad who first showed us the redwood grove. I asked her to write an essay to accompany the paintings because her involvement has been fundamental in the creation of this body of work.Catalog

In 1918, Walter Burley Griffin planted 122,000 giant redwoods in the grassland plains near Pialligo. Griffin was dreaming of the High Sierras. He wanted to give his new city a towering wilderness, a majestic forest reminiscent of America’s Pacific Northwest. Over the course of a few summers, Griffin and his horticulturalists watched as field after field of seedlings turned orange, shrivelled, and died. The advice they’d ignored was right. Canberra’s climate was both too dry and too hot to sustain a population of sequoia. Of the original fledgling forest, in five years over 98% had perished. Only three thousand trees survived.

These survivors are still around. Almost a century later, Jon and I loaded up his car with a paints and a picnic and drove out, past Brand Depot and Duntroon, along the hot flat stretch of highway by the airport. The redwoods appear as a clump of spires on the horizon. Pulling up in the car-park feels surreal. Sequoia have bright, warm needles, distinct from the deeper shade of Canberra's plantation pines. There’s a little trail that winds off into the distance, marked by baby blazes on two foot poles. By the path at the entrance is a stand of rocks. They’re embossed with bronze plaques: Gary Trayton Bryant, 21.3.34 – 1.9.91. In Memory of Ruth, 13.6.67 – 4.8.94. Both are stamped with the ACT ParkCare logo. Under the first name it reads, Sadly missed by Joanna and all who loved him. Beneath that there is the epithet, He loved these redwoods. As you walk further into the grove, the air stills. Heart-beats slow. The trees are so tall. Sequoia can live for thousands of years. In parts of the glade they grow so closely that the light dims. Potential age hangs in the silence. The world expands, as you move through the breathing of a vast, surrounding forest. Until the sky booms and a Qantas jet rips through the treeline - and you emerge, as Jon and I did, to face brown fields and crackling mountains. The occluded bush, always waiting. Always on the other side.

Canberra is full of strange places like this. It is a city of multiple realities. “The Bush Capital” is metropolitan and wilderness. It is millions of years old and now celebrating a centenary. It is eucalyptus grassland spotted with thickets of birch, poplar and pine, pockets of European and American sensibilities. The ashes of the burned down pine plantation feed the National Arboretum. The closer you get to Parliament House, the greener the suburbs become. Scattered across the grey Canberran bush are streaks of bright foliage, spirits of foreign experience transplanted into Australian soil. This manipulation of the landscape raises immediate questions. What is the tension between the imagined and actual realities of a place? How does a mysticised perception of nature colour the reality of urban life? Why do Australians feel disconnected from the bush? Why do we implant other realities into a landscape that already has its own history, its own stories, its own beauty? How do we supplant Aboriginal histories only to evoke cultures and memories we have never been a part of? Australia has always existed within these contentions. As walkers pass through Canberra's tiny forests, multiple resonances jut against one another for integrity, space and prominence.

In Ghost Forests Jon addresses these questions. The need to approach these spaces on their own terms guided Jon's choice of two new mediums for the show: ceramics, and painting on found wood. Wood is a unique surface. Jon says that the grain functions like a natural underpainting. It's necessary to work with this form, even when imposing an image. Painting on wood also continues Jon's on-going interest in dissolving the distinction between the work, the studio, the environment and the act of making images. A couple of years ago Jon went out and painted directly on trees. Bringing wood into the studio reverses this trajectory. Still, the hours of walking, searching, sanding and glazing that go into preparing each wooden surface are obvious in every piece. All of these moments are equal parts of the work, as is the changed understanding viewers will bring out of the gallery and into the places Jon depicts.

The show's collection of ceramics also makes use of found objects. For Jon, wooden material corresponds to a process of personal exploration. These ceramic pieces are designed to evoke the tea-sets of colonial Australiana, place-based souvenirs which manufacture a distorted, sentimental attachment to the landscape, modelled on the English countryside. Jon's work does the opposite. In making images on cups and saucers his aim is to cut through habitual complacency and bring an expanded awareness into the patterns of every day life. While ceramics may make the point most explicitly, all of the paintings in Ghost Forests share this intention. By entering Canberra's glades and plantations Jon has attempted to open himself completely to the huge reality of what they are. The introduced forests of Canberra are the product of an invader culture, a symbol of the agenda to supplant and obliterate the rightful Aboriginal owners of this land. At the same time, they are living beings. They have their own existences. They can be loved. Canberra doesn't have an easy history, or a magnificent beauty. Attempts to give it these things have failed. What remains is uncertain and demanding. But between the redwoods and the bush there is a difficult richness. Open, and it will fill you.

Eugenie Edquist, Canberra 2014


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Ghost Forests is showing at ANCA Gallery until the 27th of April. 1 Rosevear Place, Dickson ACT 2602.