The Horizon

SAM FIELD

“Art doesn’t alter things. It points things out, but it doesn’t alter them. It can’t no matter what a painter wants to do”.[1] These unceremonious words spoken by Arthur Boyd come to mind when musing over the latest series of work The Horizon, by emerging Tasmanian artist, Sam Field. At first glance, Nolan-esque landscapes in the vein of the Australian modernist style initially spring forth. The aesthetics are undeniably Australiana, in both spirit and intent. Scratch the surface however and the cracks begin to appear, exposing the seedy underbelly of true intent. This is not merely a collection of pictures romanticizing the rough and tough Australian land, (although this can be apparent) rather, these paintings aim to unpick certain elements of national identity that are often exaggerated and celebrated, in the process questioning possible mistruths for which have been woven into the fabric of Australia’s recorded history.

The artist has described his work as “neo-history paintings” and this is as good a description as any. Impressionist renderings of early 20th century Australian rural landscape combine with stark, mid 20th century expressionist figuration in most of the artists work. Field utilises a choppy and raw style, reminiscent of the rebellious avant-garde Australian modernist painters of the 1940s (Angry Penguins) who often mimicked the harsh Australian land though a distinct, ochre palette. Field’s figures and forms are primitively child-like, seemingly created in haste, while the landscape terrain is rough, striking, semi-abstracted. The composition deliberately awkward.


Oil Paint is applied to solid panel boards in chunky layers; the act of painting is used as a tool to describe the artists intentions and overall allegory. And just as the medium fulfils it’s purpose; the end justifies the means. Deliberately chosen hues contrast and converge, while thick, painterly scrapes spread across in sharp waves to create sunburnt, drought stricken scenery. Clunky figures are always simple, bleak, ghost-like; yet wise with purpose. Always alone. At times you get a glimpse of Sidney Nolan in the landscape. Not necessarily in aesthetic, but rather the stark desperation in the paints application. The loneliness, the sense of mourning, the loss of freedom. These notions are injected into the narrative, not by accident. 

 
Sidney Nolan, Pretty Polly Mine, 1948,  enamel on board


Field has stated that “the paintings are nascent forms full of colour and energy which are built up with multiple layers.” Gritty, yet contrastingly sensitive terrains are loaded with a sense of forebode. Whimsical figures, for which could be considered uniquely Australian, take shape in the form of lone human figures, iconic animal wild life (predominantly local bird life), and bush scenery. You can practically hear Down Under by Men At Work being casually whistled by Field as he slaps on another layer of burnt umber across the canvas to compliment the cerulean blue outback horizon. If only things were that simple. The overall aesthetic could border on trite until you dig deeper and question what the artist is truely commenting on with these scenes.


In the reading of these works, certain elements of Australian history are pushed into the spotlight, skewed, sometimes exaggerated and then picked apart. Romanticism gives way to imperialism. Once familiar stereotypical iconography, now speaks of trauma. The image of general ‘Australiana’ begins to look recycled, worn out, desperate. Gone is the beautiful picturesque country side, replaced is a post- apocolyptic hypocrisy. National identity and inherent cultural mentalities, such as the typical Aussie battler with his laconic underdog status, is cliched in these paintings. Cultural mythologies of this country; it’s romanticism, it’s masculinity, it’s checkered colonial origins, are surely questioned by Field to the point where a genuine discomfort rears it’s ugly head. Take a look at Erased Portrait of A.B Facey with Dessert Rose and Tobacco, where the typical Australian archetype and way of life is put into focus. Field writes “although this narrative has passed, the archetype still exists. Apparently as young men we’re still all about mateship and courage, larrikinism and sport, but are we?”

 
Sam Field, Erased Portrait of A.B Facey, 2020, oil on board

No matter how commitedly Australian these pictures feel, there is a level of frustration bubbling beneath the surface. Just like the Angry Penguins[2] before him, who were “forthright and unapologetic, demanding to be heard and seen,”[3] Field is critical of the status quo and wanting us to look further.


Through a hardened contemporary lens, Field unapologetically puts forth some uncomfortable, if not risky, propositions. In the process, injecting his own personal journey and hyper-critical thinking into the narrative. Carrying the heavy weight of sensitive subject matter, these “colonialist postcards”[4] have the benefit of hindsight and the power of persuasion. Yarns told with the right balance of sarcasm and discomfort, always voiced with a touch of hope to go with the cynicism. Tongue in cheek has always been apparent in Field’s work and this series is no different. Instead of retelling folk tales of Aussie mate-ship, Field presents warped stories of human fallibility. Rather than depicting tired scenes relating to one-dimensional rural serenity, we get multi-layered interrogations relating to the “inevitability of imperialism”.


From the guilt-ridden and raw scribble of Portrait of David Gulpilil as Fingerbone In The Movie Stormboy, to the fantastical plein air terrains of View of Rwetyepme (Mt Sonder), Field transcribes his own suspicious ideology and “locates strategies in painting that are able to question how we narrate contemporary colonial relations.”[5] While Fernando do Campo does not read the paintings “as attempting to depict a failure or a trauma of this country”[6], it can be forgiven for anyone that does.


Sidney Nolan once said that “painting is an extension of mans means of communication. As such, it’s pure, difficult and wonderful”[7]. Through a jarringly honest brush, Sam Field’s revelations are both difficult and wonderful. These paintings do not alter the past, they just point it out.

 

PHANTASM review

 

[1] David Langsam, ‘Beneath the Landscape’, Independent Monthly, Dec 1995/Jan 1996, Surry Hills, 1995

[2] Angry Penguins were a modernist literary and artistic movement that sought to shake up the entrenched cultural establishment of Australia in the 1940s

[3]  Hayward Gallery, ‘Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s‘. London: South Bank Centre, 1988.

[4] Art Guide Australia. See https://artguide.com.au/sam-field-have-one-on-me

[5] Fernando do Campo. 
Fernando do Campo is an artist and academic based in Sydney where he is Lecturer at UNSW Art + Design.

[6] Fernando do Campo

[7] Sidney Nolan. Quoted on website for’ Sidney Nolan: a new retrospective‘, AGNSW, Sydney,2007; see http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/sub/nolan/home.html