Land by Water
Catalogue Essay by Elli Walsh 2017
Susan Baird’s lyrical landscapes are, paradoxically, portraits. The artist sketches the complex physiognomy of place as a constellation of personal, physical and historical coordinates. Working largely en plein air, Baird solders tangible topographies to her own psychological landscape in a painterly waltz that invokes the tradition of the picturesque, wherein personal perception colours representation. Feathery strokes of effervescent colour, sensory light and transient atmosphere construct a kind of optic memory that filters the sensations experienced out in the field through her memory and emotions. This mnemonic and tectonic construction of the image conjures a quiet liminality that feels like a fractal dream or faraway memory lingering just out of view.
By welding the objective with the subjective, the works in ‘Land by Water’ explore the vicissitudes of time. Ten years since first visiting the gold rush town of Hill End and two residencies later, Baird created the paintings in and of this regional place, enriching its iconic artistic legacy. An ethereal palette straddling dusty lavender, powdery blue, antique fuchsia and moss green kindle revenant visions of the town’s former glory via a nostalgic air of timelessness. It is as though time froze long ago, fossilising the landscape in virginal splendor. And yet simultaneously is the acute sense that time is unfolding before our very eyes, the cool hues of dawn merging and mingling with dusk’s tender embrace. There is a slowing down of time here, a moment where the accelerated pace of our modern lives ploughs into the still nobility of nature. Standing before these eternal landscapes we stop and listen, forging a surrogate affiliation with the artist as she too once stood in our place.
This poignant coalescence of what is experienced and what is imagined; what is seen and what is felt, trickles into the motif of water used throughout the series. Baird’s waterholes, ponds and dams divide the canvas to create compositional harmony, uniting land and water in a symmetrical pendulum of endless reflection. More than a mere aesthetic device, however, water in the works functions as a kind of visual mise en abyme or ‘story within a story’, for beneath their crystalline surfaces is an elusive alternate reality, a subterranean truth. Just as Hill End has endured the slings and arrows of time, Baird’s aqueous worlds seem to hold some unspoken secret to survival. They are founts of life upon which the landscape relies. Here, the artist deconstructs perception on multiple levels: the implied reality deep below the water’s surface; the reflected reality on its skin and the represented reality of the landscape. This ontological layering is given body by Baird’s brisk brushwork and raw contours, which reconstruct the landscape in a whirl of revelation and concealment. Energetic tableaux of suggested forms appear to be spinning, as if glimpsed fleetingly from a car window, and in this movement we catch moments of truth – the serene rustling of a eucalypt, the silent migration of clouds at dusk, the powdery scent of wild wattle or the sonorous hum of a dragonfly as it glides through the air. The face of the landscape gradually comes into view, its benevolent countenance beckoning us to stay a little while and bask in the soothing rhythms of the natural world.