Mary Tonkin: Ramble

Cocooned by a thicket of trees and branches, our escape obstructed by a fallen trunk and overgrown ferns; in the forest, we remain. Amid the dense and impenetrable landscape, there is comfort in a small pocket of sky casting light on the foliage below; it’s characteristic viridescent hues replaced with autumn shades of red, orange, yellow, blue and brown, accentuated by a splash of white. These saturated colours, alongside painterly application, deliver a sense of depth, perception and exploration as we begin our journey through this new, warm and inviting wilderness, with our companion: artist Mary Tonkin.

Mary,Tonkin, Ramble, Kalorama, 2017-19, oil on linen, 180 x 1890cm. Photograph: Matthew Stanton. Courtesy the artist and Australian Galleries, Melbourne & Sydney

For her latest body of work, Tonkin has returned to her family farm at Kalorama in the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne sowed with cultivated flowers, rare bulbs and perennials, and surrounded by national parkland. ‘It enfolds me,’ says the artist of what she affectionately terms as ‘her gully’, where she has been working periodically amidst the open landscape and in her studio for at least 15 years. ‘I’ve been playing with this idea of making a very long work for about ten years now; a piece that reflects time spent moving through a place, being with it,’ says Tonkin. The result, Ramble, Kalorama (2017-19) composed of 21 panels, stretching almost 19 metres across the walls of Australian Galleries, Melbourne in an exhibition titled, ‘Ramble’ – alongside drawings, ceramics and a handful of smaller paintings.

Tonkin primarily completes her work en plein air, capturing the forest environment – a living organism, constantly changing, and frequently challenging. As the seasons change, so do the colours of the leaves on deciduous trees, flowers wilt and die, plants grow, and branches, barks, logs and bristles litter the once clear forest bed, covered by a resilient layer of moss; altered further by the temporal daily light.

Mary Tonkin, Ramble, Kalorama (detail), 2017-19, oil on linen, 180 x 1890cm. Photograph: Matthew Stanton. Courtesy the artist and Australian Galleries, Melbourne & Sydney

Ramble, Kalorama is the culmination of more than ten years of drawing and painting around the problem of how to make a work that conveys the immersive and somewhat episodic experience of being in the bush,’ says Tonkin. ‘Even if I’m standing in one spot to draw or paint I move about, my point of view, relationship to forms, light and seasons all change. The previously seen impinges on the present and all the internal stuff I bring to it is in flux. I ramble about and try to make sense of it all, in a kind of ecstatic reverie.’ Nevertheless, Tonkin steadies to bring beauty and intimacy to the space as gestural brushstrokes and rhapsodic colour form a poetic representation of an emotional connection and appreciation of motif and place; almost autobiographical. Each application of paint, each stroke of the brush, represents visual fragments of memory – a series of interlinked and layered experiences.

Mary Tonkin, Ramble, Kalorama (detail), 2017-19, oil on linen, 180 x 1890cm. Photograph: Matthew Stanton. Courtesy the artist and Australian Galleries, Melbourne & Sydney

Enclosed by three large fallen trees, for this series of work Tonkin’s open-air studio is roughly 8 x 10 square metres in area, situated in the bush a short distance from a spring-fed dam on the property. Through intermittent painting sessions and different canvases, Tonkin focuses on distinct areas of vegetation and undergrowth: meticulously documenting each cortex of a tree, the cluster of leaves, or network of branches. In her precision, she constructs an ecosystem of physical and philosophical responses, interfaced by active form and depth. ‘This painting is not a continuous panorama,’ stresses Tonkin, ‘but rather it loops through the space, doubling back and repeating forms, overlapping various points of view, ending with what is, in reality, the entry to this little haven, a kind of somersault of tree ferns.’

Tonkin’s work, without question, embodies the fondness felt for this place she calls ‘home’; ‘I love this bush. I love its particular chaos and mouldering smell, I love its intimacy – how it envelops and embraces, and its grandeur – the sense of a tree time-scale and natural rhythms beyond human ken. I love that sometimes it sparkles and dances, at other times, is quiet and almost withdrawn. I’m not sure where or what I’d be without its sustaining presence. We all need these natural wellsprings.’

Australian Galleries
23 July to 11 August 2019
Melbourne