Opposite the Bendigo Art Gallery, where lines of eager patrons wait to feast on the variety of mini-blockbuster textile based exhibitions that keep cropping up, the La Trobe Uni Visual Arts Centre has been pumping out regularly consistent contemporary art shows of some seriously killer quality. It seems that Melbourne’s famed art scene, like it’s metro area boundaries, keeps bursting its banks and flooding out into the provinces. Artists are moving further afield to secure larger working spaces too, bringing urban contemporary art culture with them. The immediate connectivity of the internet and the improvement of rail services condenses any sense of separation of urban and regional. The larger spaces afforded by Victorian/gold rush era architecture is also providing opportunities to exhibit on a scale not so easily available in inner city environments.
Michael Needham, a relatively new Kyneton resident who commutes to the city in order to lecture at two art schools, is an example of the new breed of artist working in this geographically blurred zone. His show, ‘Long Shadowed Land’, is an exhibition of two parts. A series of landscape drawings are paired with a collection of organic abstract sculptures. The two parts bound together in their exploration of the relationship between body and place, and in particular a form of historic melancholy for life dissolved into the great expanse of the Australian landscape.
Oppressive and weighted skies bear down on wide-open planes in the very large drawings. The sense of unease heightened by the way in which they’ve been executed. A tight draftsmanship in the drawing slips nervously into abstraction in parts of the work, and scrambles back into refined precision again. Richly tonal depths of greys lend the work a photographic sense, and a nostalgic quality. Flashes of yellows, rose reds and ochres manage to bleed both a sepia feeling into the work as well as a charge of flickering energy.
Dark stripes of shadow plunge across the grassy paddocks, thrown behind heroically forlorn trees by the setting/rising sun. Shallow horizon lines sweep panoramically left and right, pushing your gaze along the walls of the gallery and foreshortening the depth of the landscape’s inner reach. Scratched surfaces in the heavy skies directly reveal the artist’s mark, an abstract gouging into the charcoal that echoes mythologies of lonely men pitting themselves against nature, desperate to leave their own mark on the land. And enframing each drawing is a thick, severe black boundary. Perhaps another hint at the way in which we territorialise the landscape into fence-bordered fields and, with the other sculptural works in the room, draws comparison to the gravesite and the box coffin.
For the sculptural series, Michael has taken a casting of the depression left in the ground when a gravesite sinks into the earth. This is absence made present. A void made material. Each lumpy, rock-like form looks not unlike a chrysalis – a symbol of transformation. Michael’s use of dental plaster to make the castings reinforces connections to the human body. While the sculpture is a material translation of a hole in the ground, a sort of landscape art, it’s also a form of portraiture. Of course it’s not uncommon to turn to dental evidence when in need of attributing an identity to a body, and as the castings are taken from unmarked graves, thoughts of identity are heightened. And what purpose is the land almost always turned to if not to produce food for eating, for survival – whether meat or wheat. Production, consumption, eating, teeth, death.
The plaster itself, with its bubbling, rippling and also eroded feel to it, evokes the landscape. Like sandstone or limestone you see at beaches and along Australian coastlines. Some of the sculptures sit on the floor while others are mounted to the walls, tying the two media together. The sculptures becoming like clouds, heavy bodily memories. This tension between landscape and portraiture spinning off ideas about belonging to the land, of being part of the land, and of course, as we all inevitably must – a returning to the land.
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