Above: Burnt creek line from the handmade book, On the wing.
Review by KIERAN FINNANE
I was once lucky enough to fly at low altitude in a small plane along the watercourse that feeds Lake Woods, up in the centre of the Northern Territory. It was very hot and humid outside – I’d just sweated through a day’s work in the nearby highway town of Elliott. As we snaked along above this creek there were birds below us, many birds, doing the same thing, following the creek’s meanders. I imagined that they were keeping to a channel of coolness rising from the water. We soon left them behind, flying southwards now over the lake, jade green and shimmering, opalescent blue in its recesses, the earth creamy at the edges, or delicately fringed by the brown and green strokes of vegetation.
I’m reminded of this now in thinking about Deborah Clarke’s exhibition, Up in the air. How right she is to focus on this other way of looking at the country, this other-worldly way, where we’re no longer seeing to our measure but momentarily can take in something of the spaciousness and grand movements of the landscape. Ancient (diptych) and the handmade books, Above Ruby Gap, and Above Ormiston Gorge, encompass these very large views, with a beckoning perspective. You can just imagine a great bird, or a winged creature of myth or fable, swooping in. The river line has an even greater geographic spread but becomes more remote, map-like.
At left: Creek Line, Arakaringa Hills 1.
In other images, Clarke’s attention is caught by the curves of creek lines that push and pull the land into shape all around them. She’s used rust directly onto the paper in combination with ink and oil pastel, to find that central desert hue, in such contrast to grey-blue-green of the Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) series. Despite the contrast there is something shared in these images, a certain stillness, even flatness which seems to pull against the show’s theme of flight.
For me, the enthralling experience of the bird’s eye view is captured best in the photographs brought together in the handmade book, On the wing. Here we get a wonderfully diverse experience of the inland landscape, the many different ways that it takes shape, its many distinct and contrasting textures, its many lights, its rich colours and dense shadows. It feels alive, indeed heaving with life – even when smoking and burned bare, when sliced through by dead-straight roads.
Pursuing her aerial theme, Clarke is also showing a collection of taxidermied birdwings, cueing them to the tonalities of various works. For all the objective beauty of their form, pattern and colour, the illusion of flight remained for me frozen, the wings’ lifelessness heavy. Even her charming soundscape of birdsong couldn’t lift them. Her homage to birds begins to work better, I feel, when she incorporates the wings’ splendour into an image, as in the With wings series.
At right: For the kingsfishers.
There are a few works where Clarke’s bird’s eye drops down. In The lay of the land it is as if she is hovering, across the valley in face of a range, trying to make sense of its structure. This is a more austere work than the others, in colour, detail, stroke and is an interesting direction for her to explore. In For the kingfishers and On Whistleduck Creek, Davenport Ranges her bird has alighted in the microcosm, allowing the artist to revel in the detail of smaller forms.
This is Clarke’s third solo exhibition at the Araluen Arts Centre, all of them prolific explorations of ways of seeing the desert environment. It shows till June 30.
Below: Installation view. The central work is titled Moonlit river. All images courtesy the artist.