Opening one year on from the start of the tragic bushfires, Laura Jones’ exhibition ‘The Garden’ at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum explores the tension that was left behind in vivid, gestural paintings.
This series of works began as Jones navigated the Hawkesbury, Ku-ring-gai and Blue Mountains regions after the destruction of the fires. Observing the landscape, ‘The Garden’ muses on 2020 – from the devastation that directly affected her close family to time in lockdown during COVID. Finding a sense of reflection from this concentration alone time, Jones approaches the exhibition in Manly with fresh energy.
Growing up in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, Jones has ever-been inspired by nature. As such, her oeuvre directly relates to her own experiences working from the landscape – painting with the palette of the bush. But this connection runs deeper than the aesthetics; instead, Jones reminds us of what we are losing to climate change – environments that will never return. From the burnt bush, scorched to the ground, to the coral reefs, also burning as the earth slowly heats up.
‘Artists have, historically, looked to nature as muse, yet today we see it shifting into the role of martyr. It is silently suffering, burning, melting, dying,’ Elli Walsh writes in her essay for ‘The Garden’ catalogue. This ideology stands out to Jones.
The concept for ‘The Garden’ began with the Arcadia series at the Glasshouse in Port Macquarie. ‘The show was made during the bushfire season that we had last year. My uncle’s place in the mountains was badly burnt by the fires; he had all this charcoaled debris, dead trees and Banksia around,’ shares Jones. ‘I collected them and put them on fluorescent plinths which I thought represented the new growth – when you see the green coming out of the black bark, it always looks fluorescent.’
Placing them within vessels covered in powdered charcoal, Jones builds the idea of walking through the burnt landscape – yet, when the visitor arrives at the Arcadia (2020) painting they see Nature’s floor. Sitting at 183cm high and 396cm wide, the diptych draws you into its aura with flowers scattered around, parrots and butterflies fluttering through the foliage. For the artist, she hopes this work can represent a symbiotic future that’s more at harmony with nature than we are now.
Alongside it, Symbiosis (2020) is inflected with the bright hues of wildflowers, cicadas, and even a slice of watermelon. Again, a large piece, this time hung from the gallery’s ceiling reaching up to 366cm high in two stacked panels; the bright, colourful paintings are alive with texture and abstracted nature. It’s a powerful work that forces you to take stock.
These works are juxtaposed by a series of ten smaller paintings that capture the other side of the landscape – the charred branches against the Blue Mountains’ sandstone cliffs. Burnt banksia #1-4 (2020) feature earthy greys and blacks, though on closer inspection pinks hint through the darkness, the rebirthing in the landscape. ‘They’re quite abstract and topographical,’ Jones says. ‘They have a lot of texture and contrasting thin and thick sections, and the idea is that they’re negative and positive space – equal in a way if you look at the surroundings.’
Jones combines a range of techniques for ‘The Garden’ – drawings and observations but also collected imagery from books, her mind and memory, photographs she’s taken, and bushwalks she’s explored. The artistic result is a compilation of these images into her invented landscape. In the second, smaller, room of the gallery, Jones reveals her process in quick, fresh paper works in vivid colours, bright pinks and greens, alongside a large screen featuring the artist working in the studio with a contrasting video of the burnt bush.
Titling the exhibition, ‘The Garden’ leaves the concept open for interpretation. It invites the sense of the humanmade, and yet the areas of untouched. ‘I wanted to show these wild landscapes, but also point to the fact that everything’s connected and that they have been affected by men,’ Jones explains. ‘I want people to walk through the show and feel like they’re in an immersive space and to come to their own conclusions about how that space makes them feel. I hope it feels really beautiful to be in there and hopeful – also it’s kind of a quirky and dark exhibition as well. It’s open to interpretation.’
The artist has spent the year observing the regeneration of the landscape. ‘I’m curious to see what comes back; there are a lot of trees that will never come back in the mountains,’ Jones reflects. ‘There’s certainly a sense that parts of the fire that were very unnatural. There were failed back burns with disastrous consequences. There are still parts you can visit, where you don’t even see an ant. And then some parts have grown back beautifully.’
Working with the regrowth of the landscape and the stark reminder of humankind’s destructive approach, COVID has forced us all to slow down and take stock. The striking works stand out as a beacon of hope. But the dark, ash tones of the branches jutting out into the gallery are warnings that parts of the bush will never grow back as before. The damage is long-lasting.
Manly Art Gallery and Museum
4 December 2020 to 14 February 2021