My Icelandic heritage and the travels of my childhood and subsequently in Africa, China and Papua New Guinea, have fuelled my search for the exotic and “the other”. I have always been a sojourner, an avid collector and a visual story teller with a strong sense of place.
As a sculptor, in 1983 North American Indian culture and functional objects became my point of departure from the formalist welded steel tradition in which I was trained. I started researching the ceremonies and artefacts of the Navajo, Sioux and Apache peoples and from that branched out in a range of media (wood, sand, glass, bronze, steel, paint, fabric, found objects etc) to tell a narrative about the importance of place and ceremony in their traditions.
The Africa and China experiences were as pivotal to my development as an artist as the American Indian influence in the early 1980s. But whereas the American Indian work was more historical, the paintings and constructions I produced in Africa and China and back in Australia are about the intersections of past and present, and entrances and exits. They are a visual witness to the vivid peoples, art forms, textiles, street scenes, colours, landscapes and architecture I encountered in my travels, as seen in my letters from Somalia and Zanzibar and other works. East Africa is a particularly eclectic mix of Swaheli, Arab, Indian and Portuguese influences. But my images are not literal — rather, I seek to convey spirit and “the feeling” of place.
My training as a sculptor has provided me with a strong technical foundation in construction, design and form which I hope comes through in my paintings. The move to painting has enabled me to make much greater use of colour and light in conveying the texture and ambience of a place. Technically, my style is a multi-media mix of the three-dimensional (3D) and semi-abstract. My 3D work is partly about illusions which start, for example, with the physical fact of a viewer looking at one of my topographical maps of Beijing. The roads are designed to draw the viewer into the environment and discover aspects of fact and fantasy. As with my early sculptures, my 3D paintings are hands-on and tactile, a medium I can manipulate which comes from my sculpting days.
In Kenya, I developed a particular technique which I have used extensively in my Africa and China series. I use pen and ink in a range of colours with shellac to create fine lines to produce an image. I then use a sepia-tone wash which adheres to the paper but not to the image thus creating a richness of colour. This is similar to a wax resistant technique and the effect is not unlike an etching or tapestry. The work is highly structured and detailed.
The landscapes of Papua New Guinea took me in new directions. From the Highlands to the coast, the fjords of Tufi, the New Guinea Islands and Rabaul — in the shadow of the smoking volcano — the landscapes of PNG are extraordinary. I used colour, paint and canvas on a bigger scale and the work was freer in form, reflecting the raw energy and physical beauty of the environment. In “Rain Spirits”, for example, I have captured the moment when the rains come and are about to bring the barren landscape back to life and colour. The rain is sinking into the soil for rejuvenation and re-birth. In “Gunfire over the Owen Stanleys”, I can hear and see the gunfire over the Owen Stanleys during World War II — the cracking sound of gunfire and the tracer fire lighting up the sky expressed in paint.
PNG re-awakened my boyhood fascination with ships and navigation, as can be seen in the more formal three-dimensional maritime constructions on canvas involving vessels and navigational aids. From my studio window in Port Moresby, I had a birds-eye view of the harbour and ships coming and going. The inspiration for “Melanesian Navigational Chart” was the stick charts constructed by early Melanesian navigators to remind themselves about specific features of sea and land they would encounter on their journeys. The form of the stick charts was not fixed — so I was free to play with ideas — and the exact significance was known only to the makers. “Remembering the MacDhui” shows the skeletal remains of a fine ship that was sunk on 18 July 1942 in Port Moresby’s harbour. It honours the crew and their rescuers.
I remain intrigued by what the found object or artefact, such as the stick charts, tells us about the culture and anthropological history of a place and of its people. But at the same time, the object has an aesthetic and value of its own. I would describe this as a coming together of meaning and aesthetic. Traditional arts of PNG are internationally acknowledged and collected by galleries all over the world, but to me art encompasses not just masks and carvings, but the weave of more utilitarian thatches and walls, of fish traps and baskets. Such forms and patterns can also be seen in my work.
Back in Australia, my continuing fascination with Pacific navigational aids was seen in my exhibition “Sojourns” at M16 Artspace (2016). These were multi-media constructions depicting the often fragile vessels that transported people across the vast Pacific Ocean.
I have also produced new work on the themes of the Australian environment and animal habitats. The two multi-media installations “Random Selection” shown at M16 Artspace and the Tuggeranong Arts Centre (2017) are examples of this. They were a response to distressing footage shown on television of the culling of kangaroos in the Australian Capital Territory. The kangaroos were herded and panicked before being shot. The installations depict this scene. This is not a protest against responsible and humane culling of kangaroos, which is necessary periodically for environmental reasons. However, it is a protest against the way this culling is currently conducted. There has to be a better way.Updated May 2017