‘In ‘Monument’ I hope to utilise dreamlike imagery, a montage of nature and memory, an exploration of water and clouds, light and shadow, reflecting a sense of time passing, time lost and the moment beneath the moment,’ Max Berry tells me. ‘I’d like to evoke romanticism but not stray into sentimentality.’
‘Monument’ presents paintings that investigate ‘the border between nature and humankind, putting together an array of imagery and introducing the viewer to a place generative to spiritual and metaphysical themes,’ he says. ‘Simple observations, a shadow moving across landscape, running water, motifs of dreams and memory each can rouse these reactions on a monumental scale.’
The choice of venue came via a trip Berry made to Broken Hill and its gallery with artists Gabriella Lo Presti and Jarryd Lynagh. Having been a finalist multiple times in the Pro Hart Outback Art Prize – including in 2020 – he decided to submit an application to exhibit at the gallery. When we spoke, exactly how many works would be on show in ‘Monument’ was unknown to him, but I am told that all will be new works exhibited for the first time.
Keeping his show unfixed in its lead-up is part of Berry’s process. ‘I tend to make much more than I need and once finished cut it down to size,’ he explains. What is known is that a number of works will be drawn from his Australian travels as well as international and local residencies – that include Bundanon, New South Wales in 2019 and Alajärvi, Finland and Skopelos, Greece in 2018. ‘My work has fundamentally benefitted from each individual residency,’ he tells me, ‘their influence is omnipotent and inescapable.’
In fact, Berry describes the examination of drawings, notes, photographs and studies gathered from these journeys as ‘the beginning’ of his studio process. Place, and more particularly, the landscapes of place, feature prominently in Berry’s practice. And there is a refreshing diversity of place-scapes to be found in his work. ‘The relationship between places, regardless of their physical proximity, is intriguing,’ he says. ‘Northern New South Wales, it’s the most recent excursion however that’s not to say it’s the most referenced.’
‘I continually find myself returning to details from earlier and distant locations, and even more interestingly older places that once seemed dull, over time, often have become striking,’ he says. ‘I think the commonality between each of these experiences is isolation and, at least for me, a commitment to a regimented and reductive routine.’ Crucially: ‘It is times such as these where it becomes possible to exploit a heightened level of synthesis where a new mode can be switched on.’
‘Landscapes,’ Berry says, ‘have profound effects on the human psyche, painting is a way to study my own movement through space and time.’ But ‘Monument’ includes works that fall outside the landscape category, too, inclusive of figures and still-life. On venturing beyond landscape, Berry says: ‘I like to resist this kind of categorisation, it has little purpose for me, I enjoy painting and the subjects and techniques used are unrestricted. Works for the show will cover several subjects, the intention being, to communicate on a more universal level. When I am making something there are no limitations for me, I don’t find it needs to be recognisably ‘this or that’ or fit within any expectations. I hope that the viewer can also enjoy this relaxation of restrictions.’
‘The selections for this show are a mix of repetition and opportunism, places that can insist upon your return and those that are completely impromptu but reveal to be no less poignant,’ he says. He collects drawings and photographs of unassuming and otherwise everyday locations during his travels, hoping that in time or with hindsight they ‘will reveal their power’ to him.
Stepping back, taking in the range of painterly propositions Berry brings forth in ‘Monument’ as it currently stands, it strikes me that here – and indeed, in Berry’s broader project – are works that show us on the canvas how the eye and hand can reproduce the world and its wonder. It’s a view that aligns with how Berry himself speaks about his practice; he uses a concept – fantasy of daydream – to help describe his particular type of representation of the world’s wonders. ‘I’m not trying to be photo-realistic, so a ‘fantasy of daydream’ is in some ways appropriate,’ he says. He tells me he enjoys ‘a certain playfulness to creativity’, ‘jumping between ideas, not getting bogged down, or too hard boiled.’
Despite his paintings’ gesturally curved edges, there is a straightforwardness to Berry’s work that I find compelling. ‘It’s easy to be consumed by details, exhaustingly pouring over the details,’ he says. ‘My intention is simply to stimulate feeling, to trigger an emotional response.’ Berry’s chosen medium is uniquely suited to such an intention. ‘Paintings can act as a filter for your imagination or your fantasy,’ he says. ‘I want the paintings to be inviting, something you can climb into or alongside. The serpentine or enveloping line work, the ‘plasticine-like imagery’ is a way to do this.’
To my eye, there is a fluid, colour-swirled mysticism to Berry’s works – but a truth, too. ‘Real landscapes,’ he says, ‘ones with earth, bugs and smells effect the mind in profound ways. They have the power to become the room you’re in, like the imaginative potential of a book. I will be satisfied if ever I’m able to capture some of this kind of magic.’ In a pinch, he tells me: ‘I hope the exhibition will direct attention to subjects of everyday and universal wonder.’
To accompany ‘Monument’, Berry intends to have a publication printed, which in addition to inclusion of works from the show, will also present sketches and photographs that resonate with the gallery-space paintings. Such accompanying publications form a key part of his arts practice, offering viewers another avenue along which to reach the real and the daydream of the people and places painted. ‘A real image, once generated, resists its disappearance, it remains present and engaging,’ he says. ‘In this way, an image can change from object to agent. It can speak to you. I’m not into the clever, chess game roundabout. Think harder and feel deeper.’
Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.
Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery
20 November 2020 to 20 February 2021
New South Wales