27. TIM STORRIER The Blue Plain
The Blue Plain is part of an ongoing series of works bringing together many of the fundamental motifs in the art of Tim Storrier. For decades he has produced work which sets out to do nothing more, and nothing less, than to define a fundamental need, the creation of works of art that satisfy both artist and viewer aesthetically, spiritually and technically. There are those who feel they must change the world with every mark they make, to create a focus for political action and to move humanity forward by challenging the very foundations of their world. Albert Tucker (1914-1999) was known to pronounce that art should be as difficult for the viewer as it is for the artist, whose struggles and inner torments in creating a work should not be glibly accepted, but met with a similar level of challenge and disquiet. Beauty does not equal truth, and truth in art is a hard won goal. For Storrier, the challenge has been to create works that speak to an audience who will be uplifted and energised by the sheer power and beauty of a skilfully conceived and exquisitely executed work of art. Works that will challenge and question the viewer, but not necessarily beat them down with some overt political message or call to social action. While Storrier might not have gone quite as far as Henri Matisse (1869-1954) in his oft-quoted and misunderstood desire for an art of peace and harmony, he would doubtless understand his thoughts and dreams of … ‘an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue’.1
Tim Storrier’s landscapes are quintessentially Australian in origin and feel, but they contain no stately gums, no Heysenesque ‘Lord of the Bush’, no sweeping plains of a golden summer. They are remarkably devoid of any traditional motifs, nothing triumphant in the Heidelberg mode, nor downtrodden and miserable as the hard-bitten farming folk of Russell Drysdale (1912-1981). When there is need for a human element, it is represented by some device or structure that speaks to an unseen presence, some action taking place offstage and out of picture. The surveyor’s theodolite and tripod, a half-filled water tank or the drover’s saddle, all meticulously rendered, but existing in a space barely touched by human hand.
Of all the motifs Storrier has made his own, the burning rope has become the icon most recognisable to his large and enthusiastic following. The burning rope can have many interpretations, but in the end it serves purely as an artistic and aesthetic device, the purpose of which is to activate and enliven a painting. That it had its beginning in a physical act, a performance piece where the simple device of a rope stretched between two poles and doused in resin, gives it a powerful presence – it does not require a deep philosophical purpose, just to be seen as a striking intervention into the landscape. Its moment is transitory and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but its rendering into paint gives it a permanence and life beyond its momentary flare of light and heat. The burning rope was supplemented by another motif that Storrier made central to many works, the dying log fire on the outback plain. At times it stretches the full width of the canvas, at other times just a smouldering pile of ashes pushed to the edge of the picture. It gives the contrast of colour and action to the great firmament of the sky above and injects a human presence into the vastness of the outback. We know that the fire is man-made, because the long straight trees that turn to ash are not the local scrub, rather something brought in from afar onto the wide and treeless plain. Is it the remnant of a lost homestead, or perhaps the dying embers of a tragic explorer’s journey, the campfire reached too late by the Burke and Wills rescue party?
These late works all have a number of elements in common, yet each is a different contemplation on the Australian outback. The dying fire is always present, a vast cloudy sky at times seen in the heat of the day, but more often at night when the moon becomes the main source of light. There is an element of theatricality about the works, the world as a stage set waiting for the actors to appear, or the moment just before the curtain comes down on an empty theatre. This feeling is aided by the extreme horizontality of the works, using a proportion of 2.27:1, something akin to the widescreen format of the modern movie. This has the effect that the viewer can stand well back and absorb the full scene in one take, or else come close to the canvas to contemplate the meticulous detail that the artist has brushed in with infinite care. One can even walk along the length of the picture and see it as a panning shot from a surreal movie, a matte painting perhaps, exhibiting as it does a similar level of exquisite technique.
The Blue Plain is perhaps the most mystical and ethereal of the series, a study of night infused with symbolism and power. At first glance we have the formal arrangement common to the series – a low horizon beneath a sky that makes up eighty percent of the composition. The fire is burning low, more ash than flame and the moon, out of picture to the artist’s right, illuminates the clouds. A meteor that streaks across the canvas from right to left, shooting to the far horizon, energises the image. Closer study reveals a more subtle story, for while this is a powerful image of the real world, every element is in a state of flux, a change from one form to another. The solid timber in the fire has been transformed to base carbon and to ash, the gas it emits to heat and light. The sky is half-filled with clouds, the water vapour sucked from the land below while the heavens are pinpointed with stars, bursts of gas and fire echoing the burning embers. The meteor is a blaze of light, but one that will last but a few seconds as it burns up in the atmosphere. On the horizon a bank of cloud sits above the blue line of a distant body of water, a desert lake that will disappear almost as quickly as its rare moment of fulfilment. In each of the works, tiny lights appear, cars upon the desert road with their headlights glimmering momentarily before they fade from sight. The meteor tells of a very specific moment in time, but one that disappears almost as soon as we grasp its presence. Storrier has given us a deep contemplation on the meaning of time and space, but one that occurs effortlessly and without pretence. Like the meteor, we might have our brief moment on the stage of life, to flash brilliantly before disappearing, or perhaps burn somewhat longer like the dying fire, but in the end still reduced to ash, the merest trace of an existence in the vastness of time.
Gavin Fry BA[Hons] MA MPhil