WHITELEY, Brett - The River at Yass, NSW image
Nov 2023


by menzies

1977 proved to be a fruitful year for Brett Whiteley’s landscapes. It was the year he first won the Wynne Prize for his master work The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour) and the successful culmination of a decade spent largely rediscovering the Australian environment after returning from abroad in 1969. Lavender Bay was the locus of this effort, however the towns of central New South Wales – Oberon, Yass, Bathurst and Carcoar – were also vital and nostalgic for Whiteley as a link to the work of Lloyd Rees. These agricultural scenes, for Sandra McGrath, are a ‘romantic celebration’ of Whiteley’s schooling in Bathurst.1 Many of these rural pictures gravitate towards a serpentine river weaved through paddocks, swelling hills, and arcadian sprawl; the river's continuous flow disciplined by a remarkably sweeping line. It is here Whiteley’s mark finds its parallel form in nature.

The River at Yass, NSW 1977 is a brush-and-ink drawing, another example of the fused East Asian and Western influences that defined Whiteley’s practice in the 1970s. Poplar trees, a modest river, not-so-dramatic hills, and dotted paddock fences; it is a sort of Antipodean shan shui painting. Negative space – blank, unpainted paper – contributes to the image’s considered simplicity and reveals an artist not pressured to over-analyse his subject. The fluency of a Chinese brush dipped in ink allows for dynamic applications and suggestive forms, a composition not weighed down by the details. The medium complements an already improvised hand of the artist whose observations appear urgently onto the paper. Whiteley favoured ink, musing ‘I find that the big sloppy Chinese brush, if I can crack a drawing in that medium, [can be thought of] as my highest drawings.’2

Swashes of ink inject an expressionistic element into the landscape, pushing the scene onto the threshold of the imagined and real. They are painted en plein air, observed at the vantage point from where Whiteley sat, yet retain an unpredictable quality. One might draw a historical link to 18th-century artist Alexander Cozens’ ink ‘blot’ drawings, imaginary landscapes that affronted the then strict European conventions of faithful reportage. For Whiteley, they served as field-work studies for his larger studio paintings. They are not studies to be formally transferred directly into his paintings, but rather investigations into a landscape’s ephemeral affects and idiosyncrasies that escape the capture of analytical description.

1. McGrath, S. Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p.206
2. Klepac, L., Brett Whiteley Drawings, The Beagle Press, 2014, p.12

Tim Marvin
Tim Marvin is an emerging curator and art historian based in Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Art Theory (Honours, First Class) from the University of New South Wales, and currently holds the position of gallery registrar at Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney.

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