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essay

peter simpson - the troubled landscape
simeon kronenberg

In keeping with all significant artists, Peter Simpson paints within an acknowledged historical and cultural context. He relishes his place in the grand history of the landscape tradition and invigorates his Australian subject - via an exploration of new levels of seriousness - through a highly sustained and diverse practice.

Simpson's work is characterised by the sharp and fervent belief in the contemporary validity of landscape painting itself, honed through a sophisticated understanding of the history of the genre. His sources remain diverse and perhaps even surprising, including as they do the lesser known and mid 19th Century American artist Martin Johnson Heade, a painter of light and shadow in the Romantic tradition, and the masters of 17th Century Dutch landscape painting. Jacob van Ruisdal, Peter van Santvoort and others, as well as (more obviously) Arthur Steeton, Sydney Nolan and Fred Williams. This while not necessarily a fashionable heredity, is one that is shared in part, by some of the finest painters working in Australia today, including John R. Walker, Philip Hunter and Andrew Browne.

To locate the critical significance of Simpson's work and see that which fundamentally informs and motivates the artist, we need to look at the painting titled, metaphorically enough, Bruised Landscape. Here, in what at first appears to be a benign work in the pictorial tradition, is a painting that on closer examination reveals an apprehension of something more disturbing -- threatened ecological disaster. Bruised Landcape represents a terrain littered with dead trees, standing as silent, accusatory sentinels and representing a long gone fecundity. Whether through salination, overcropping or simply neglect, the trees have now mostly died, only their stark, white bones remain in bare, sruffy paddocks, like shards of discarded pottery. They occupy our view, yet remain hauntingly and strangely irrelevant to the implied activities they once inhabited so majestically. The artist reminds us here that this degradation of a once fertile place is the inevitable result of human intervention and by implication Simpson sheets home the blame to indifference and greed. Further, this troubled landscape points to a broader understanding, reflecting eloquently as it does, a kind of current cultural sterility, made manifest through continuous (but never strained) symbology.

Simpson's work forces us to come to terms with the impact of colonial men on the Australian terrain. Indeed, the very landscape he responds to most immediately is that of the long settled pasture lands south of Sydney, around Crookwell and Collector and similar grazing country surrounding Canberra and in Victoria. He does not paint grand vistas of rock and cliff -- or seas crashing -- his is a much quieter and more ambitious (and certainly less romantic) vision, which celebrates sometimes extraordinarily subtle tonal shifts in passages of light and shadow over gently undulating pasturelands. But, like Streeton, Williams and other Australian painters in the landscape tradition (past and present) he is not content to simply present a benign pictorial view -- his purpose remains much deeper and more demanding. While celebrating the sometimes breathtaking beauty of the landscape -- and light -- he nonetheless remains a painter of metaphoric darkness. While not being in any sense decalmatory or strident, his sensitive and tender landscapes inhabit a world that is at times melancholic and apprehended within a deep sense of loss.

In Crookwell Landscape with Cloud and Dark Shadows (2003) Simpson presents us with a profound work that inhabits a complex and subtle world. At once a painting of great seductive beauty, it also expresses a warning. Generally suffused with light, the painting is marked by deep shadows in the middle ground and foreground, which encourages us perhaps to reflect on the presence of death in life or the inevitability of destruction and loss in a once natural terrain. While the painting also clearly celebrates the regenerative powers of the natural world (the blue sky and scudding clouds) there is an undeniable sense of foreboding as well. The dark clouds move away certainly, soon to be replaced by dazzling light, yet they remain potently present nonetheless. The conceptual underpinning of this strong work is investigated in another Crookwell scene, Stormy Landscape Near Crookwell (2004), a work that again reflects on questions of mortality.

Peter Simpson is a contemporary artist whose subject is the Australian landscape. In dedicating his artistic life to the pursuit of the genre of landscape painting, through ideas to do with place and terrain, he has provided us with a framework though which we can read a great deal about life on a conflicted continent. The beautiful -- and apparently benign -- is often in his view fraught and ambiguous, never simply pictorially attractive. His contribution to a deeper understanding of the meaning and poetry of the Australian landscape is considerable and exigent.

Simeon Kronenberg, Sydney, 2004
Catalogue essay, Brian Moore Gallery Sept-Oct 2004