Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Joe Furlonger The Balonne Breaks Out Crossing the Divide

The road from Brisbane to Warwick is a scenic route passing through the Fassifern Valley towards the Darling Downs and Cunningham’s Gap. We’re headed towards Warwick so Queensland landscape painter, Joe Furlonger can work on a series of ink drawings using Chinese ricepaper. The day before, we were in Furlonger’s Samford Valley studio (half an hour north-west of the Brisbane CBD) discussing framing, farming and other aspects of the upcoming exhibition of new South-East Queensland landscapes. They will be shown in Brisbane and Sydney. After a lengthy session addressing the paintings, we turn towards the end of the studio in which Furlonger works on his drawings. The traditional Ming dynasty style table, as ever is piled high with paper and crusted with ink and paint. Gouaches of all sizes, watercolours with feint but astute pencil markings and the obligatory pile of ricepaper sheets are in a frenzied state of Furlonger’s own organized chaos. The gouaches, we decide can be sent down in a box overnight for Ray, my father and Joe’s primary dealer since 1984 to cast his eye over. The last publication that I produced for Furlonger (Glasshouse Mountains, 2010) was in the process of being sent to our printer when my father walked in from the airport with a series of watercolours in his overnight bag that he claims I had missed during my visit (but which I contend the artist must have produced subsequently). These quite literally stopped the presses so that they could be included. As a postscript, some weeks later one of Furlonger’s key supporters scrawled his initials on those pages whilst I sat with him in his Melbourne office, indeed one of them found its way to my own wall at home. So, the Senior Hughes, we decide will lead the selection of works on paper. However, Joe is unhappy with the ricepaper works so far. Some of them have ‘been overworked, they’re a bit lost’. It is apparent that Furlonger has used some of these works, as a means to make decisions on how to describe the landscape in his new canvases. I am looking at four or five of the 43 cm square works that are layered with varying marks. He has drawn the ridgelines of Cunningham’s Gap using a mark that is about 2 cm thick in dark black ink. Along these are a series of smaller, more staccato marks, which populate the horizon with trees. Across this is a thin wash of ink, a shadow cast by Mount Mitchell perhaps, the craggy rise that looms along the Cunningham highway ten miles west of Aratula. Then with the same thicker line, an opposing range has formed, almost on top of the first. The trip we are to undertake is to get ‘another shot at these hill drawings’. 

Joe Furlonger, Ink XII, 2012

The next morning, about an hour or so out of Brisbane and we are winding up the steep incline of the Cunningham Highway, crossing the Great Dividing Range. Suddenly, from the passenger seat, Furlonger has spotted a gap in the treeline flanking the two-lane road and we stop where it is relatively safe to do so. Having gotten out of the car Furlonger has the top off the thermos for a coffee. This, I soon realise is only an excuse. ‘I guess this will make a good medium for the ink’. Without much fuss, he has his felt and ricepaper laid out and has mixed some of the black coffee with his Chinese ink. As a steady flow of lorries cross the Divide on their way to collect produce in the fertile Darling Downs, the artist works on about 12-14 views of a quite dramatic section of rocky outcrop bathed in early morning sunlight. There are patches of very pale light accentuating the shadows and shape of the trees on the side of this hill. After only about twenty minutes, Furlonger has worked hurriedly, we move on, not relishing the prospect of explaining the necessity of capturing that particular moment in that necessary spot to the Queensland Highway patrol. Back in the Studio, stapled to the wall is the last painting which has been finished by Furlonger and which has not yet found its way onto a stretcher. It is the final work in a series of four paintings depicting Cunningham’s Gap. The painting is composed of a series of green hills, balanced by a cream or greyish yellow expanse on the right side of the canvas that runs towards the horizon. This work and its three cousins are all punctuated by buildings, roads and features, which seemingly rise from the surface. This motif, which recurs in Furlonger’s paintings, is achieved through layering the acrylic-bound pigment in a series of wet on dry visits. Sometimes there will be more than one canvas receiving his attention, depicting similar views or scenes. He visits them simultaneously, working one, then the other. He will continue to work a number of canvases, returning to the first when it has sufficiently dried, and so on. I have watched him work in this method on paintings of Moreton Bay, effortlessly achieving the colours of those mudflats that transform the bay from a bright blue, to a military green depending on the angle of the sun.

Joe Furlonger, Crossing the Great Divide, 2012 
Joe Furlonger, View from Cunningham's Gap, 2012
This method works less successfully when Furlonger employs it without a clear idea of drawing in his mind to begin with. Having witnessed the pace and excitement with which Furlonger has been applying lines in his drawing for this exhibition, I recognize that these paintings are enjoying a renewed sense of profound confidence that was certainly evident in the series of landscapes that were produced depicting the hills around Guangzhou in the China series in 2008. One particular work from that series, Traveling amid Mountains and Streams is an interesting point of contrast. The works, whilst exploring the same perspective favoured by Furlonger, of a steep downward angle, also share a dedication to the line. Furlonger produced a great number of the aforementioned format ricepaper works whilst on the ground in China. Then returning to the studio to work many of the paintings. The fascinating point of departure here is the light. At the time, my catalogue entry for the China show described in somewhat forrid terms, a ‘confounding but beautiful’ layer in the sky.  
Joe Furlonger, Travelling Amid Mountains and Streams, 2008 
John McDonald helpfully paraphrased in his Spectrum column at the time by way of noting that there is smog in China. A comparison of these two works, perhaps depicting different actual physical locations but certainly two that share a sense of perspective and place, reveals Furlonger’s dedication to light. It is a dedication which is often overlooked, but which is perhaps the most important aspect of his colour choices when mixing his pigments. The Chinese work is devoid of those sharp reflections that a piercing sun brings up, these new Australian landscapes are truthful to the point of fixation with regards light and colour. It is quite extraordinary that a demonstration of black and sepia drawing brought this to my attention, and of course they must be read in connection with the hundreds of gouaches and pastels that Furlonger makes in the lead up to any show. In regarding the dedication he has to drawing, it is his truthfulness that is most striking. He can capture the features of an entire valley, of several hundred acres of land, in a handful of lines. When Furlonger’s landscape is considered it can be the colours that are the most memorable moments. It is difficult to forget the generous words of John Olsen, who in 2003, when interviewed for a documentary on Furlonger broadcast on Channel 9’s Sunday Program, offered “you transport Joe Furlonger to a place and the place says colour me in, and that’s what he does”.
Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the importance of colour in Furlonger’s landscapes, however there is a strength to this suite of paintings which brings them above the landscapes of the last decade, beyond even the elemental success of China. This body of works boasts the strongest power of descriptive drawing, perhaps in his entire oeuvre to date. It is the accurate sense of location, the sense of directions and of landmarks that sets them apart. Furlonger is standing in a field with a brush, is looking out across at his subject and with a sharp eye is capturing it faithfully.
The entire suite was executed in a period of only about six months. Much of Queensland’s South and most famously the capital city of Brisbane were devastated by flooding in 2011 and then again in 2012. The La Nina weather pattern has transformed a region once affected by drought (and witnessed in the dry Furlonger paintings which climaxed in 2006) into one which has, in a short period of time, been literally drowned. The images of Brisbane’s CBD under water made their way around the world and for the 2011 Wynne prize exhibition, Furlonger executed a particularly strong image of the day the Brisbane River peaked.
 Joe Furlonger, Brisbane River in flood, 2011

The central subject in this exhibition is his series of canvases depicting the Balonne and Moonie rivers. These works ought be considered in the context of his Brisbane River in Flood painting. The serpentine river-lines produced by Furlonger are in some ways uncharacteristically disciplined. There are some unmistakable poetic flourishes, such as one river work (not depicted in a plate, but viewed in one of the supplementary images of the artist unrolling a work at the rear of this publication).
Joe Furlonger, The Moonie in Flood, 2012
Joe Furlonger, Channel Country, the Balonne, 2012
Joe Furlonger, View from the Campsite on the Moonie, 2012
Joe Furlonger, The Balonne Breaks Out, 2012
Joe Furlonger, Moonie River with Wheat Storages, 2012

This work is closer to zen calligraphy than the muddy unfolding Balonne in the cover work of the show. The most interesting point of comparison in these two works is their respective energy levels. The Brisbane painting is made up almost as a pastiche. It depicts a city scape at the bottom of the canvas, the water is a frantically flowing river that is laid in strips of paint of varying hues of yellowy brown. The three bridges are drawn from the work he had been doing between 2010 and 2011 of the bridge from Bribie Island to the mainland and in the distance is a series of hills, which are more recognizable from the 2010 Glasshouse Mountains series. The great benefit for me as a writer on Furlonger is that I am also his dealer, and I am made acutely aware of the audience’s reactions. I recall one viewer passing judgment that they couldn’t recognise what point of the river it was. They knew Brisbane and couldn’t recognize the bridges, where the high perspective point was and why there was a view of the mountains. For that paiting, the sense of place was less important than the sense of panic and urgency; the feeling of sheer chaos which the painting invokes and which the whole state of Queensland felt at the time.

The Brisbane flood painting is only a starting point for the St. George paintings. The series of canvases are defined by their bold, muddy snakes of riverbend. The river runs through an active landscape in nearly all of the works. The light distinctly changes from canvas to canvas. The beautiful purple horizon in The Balonne Breaks Out is so clearly the product of preparatory work with gouaches. Furlonger explains that the time spent camping by the Moonie was a productive period for his works on paper. The trip took him to that river west of St. George where he camped (see Plate 26) and also to the Balonne river. It was the first extended period of travel to a ‘landscape location’ for Furlonger since at least China or the time he spent in the Arcadia Valley in 2002/3. That process of being outdoors for the various phases of the day is important for Furlonger who famously starts such days with ‘coffee and watercolours’. Not only did the period of travel to more remote landscapes benefit his attention to the activities of the light, it allowed for reflection on the unusual. When he painted the subject of his immediat environs, such as around the Samford Valley, or previously, when he lived in Palm Beach on the Gold Coast, there was a tendancy towards a comfortable approach to the physicalities of the place, conscentrating on more esoteric aspects of shape and rhythm in the works. This produced some quite beautiful work, such as the harmonious colorist Samford Valley series of 2009 or his rhythmically inclined musings on the Glasshouse Mountains of a year later. However Furlonger’s recent travels through not particularly lyrical landscape, through weatherbeaten ‘working Australia’ is a return towards of the paintings of 1995 - 2005. The notion of ‘working Australia’ as a subject is not new to Furlonger, past works have featured the geometric assignations given by irrigation and property divisions. One classic piece is a rich ochre base where a bright blue tractor is the immediate focus. Similar inclinations occur in some of these works, most memorably in Moonie River with Wheat Storages, where the river bend is flanked by what first appear to be pools or dams of water. The artist explains these are in fact the representations of a novel way of storing the excess what produced by the recent bumper crops underneath blue tarpaulins. They keep them there ‘waiting for the dollar to go down’ and the International market to return. It is here that one recalls that the landscapes that have been produced are not the attractive renderings of idyllic spots, but a documentation of the Land as a concept. Of the Cunningham Gap group, I enquired whether the grey underpainting on the face of the Mountain represented rocky ground. No, I was informed, ‘it’s roundup’. Roundup-ready Field is another of these brutally honest paintings of the herbacide being applied to commercial farming land. Yet, like the beauty that was evident in the smog-blanketed valleys of China, there is a similar attraction to these fields, whether because of their aesthetic finish in Furlonger’s fine powdery surfaces or an air of pride in the land. Furlonger has more knowledge of the workings of agriculture than any landscape artist I have worked with. I was too young to have spent much time with William Robinson when he exhibited with my father, but his own cultivation of animals certainly made more sense of the Farmyard paintings than many others who have attempted such things. Lucy Culliton is the other artist who has an immediate attachment to her land through her animals and daily work. Furlonger has been involved in rural labour, applied herbacide, worked slashers and has a fascinating knowledge of the history of farm machinery. It is quite difficult to imagine John Constable tilling the Fens atop a Chamberlain Champion, but that is an Australian-made tractor after all, Furlonger informs me.

Joe Furlonger, Round-up Ready Field near Dalby, 2012

The final important group of works from this series are the figurative ones. Furlonger has put figures in the landscape before, notably in Broome and Moree. The livestock paintings here are sometimes drawn from times where he is doing ink paintings on the side of a road beside a cattle farm (as was the case about 10 kms outside Warwick). Others might be aided by photographs of (Queensland Senator) Barnaby Joyce behatted and striding bowlegged through Roma. Furlonger can not escape the figure in this series. So integral to his subject is the people who impact upon it. So much of the landscape tradition is the depiction of what nature has given us.
So much of Furlonger’s painting is the deciphering of what man makes of it.
Joe Furlonger, Applying Herbicide, 2012


Copyright © Evan Hughes, 2014

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