Mitchell McAuley is a landscape artist who uses the language of abstraction to express his unique relationship with the land. In art historian Bernard Smith's seminal book Australian Painting he discusses landscape painting as a privileged genre in Australian Art. While common in the 19th-century European and American traditions, it has remained a distinguishing feature of contemporary Australian art. McAuley's work responds to dialectical tensions between the mutability of the landscape and its intransience; and between mimesis of landscape through building layers on the canvas and the paring back of a composition to its essential elements.
McAuley cites Fred Williams as an influence but notes that Williams was primarily concerned with structures or elements on, not within, the land. 'I am not a traditional artist; I feel the landscape, its texture, colour, smell, and light which causes things to fade and shift. I look into the land: the structure of sedimentary layers and fault lines. My interest is geological.' Yet, as in Williams's later landscapes, McAuley's paintings explore the materiality of paint and pigment, acting as a "real metaphor" for the land. The older painter's work was derived from direct contact with the motif - for over thirty years Williams spent at least one day a week painting en plein air. McAuley also spends a significant amount of time in the landscape. His work is a conversation about direct experience and memory or mood. 'I don't consider the landscape a place you visit, admire, and leave. It is an integral part of my life. And when I look at the Australian landscape I see a plane of horizontal and vertical lines.' The lines in his paintings echo sedimentary lines in rock, crop and plough lines, fence lines, tracks, roads, tyre marks or thin lines of cloud. These marks can be ephemeral, geological, or shadows of previous inhabitants and seasons. They order the landscape and the viewer's consciousness; the strength of his line anchors us in the composition.
McAuley conceived the Landlines series during a journey to the Kimberley region and executed it in the aftermath of a fire at his farm in northeastern Victoria, in 2002. He travelled by boat in the Kimberley region noting marks left on the banks by tidal change. 'I could see the impact of the elements on the rock-face. First the water line, then the dark tidal lines, green algae, white bleached areas from salt and light, and above that the ochre of the rock itself. Emerging from this was the twisted sedimentary rock that had fractured into shards.' The fire trucks left tyre marks in the dark, charred ground. The use of crushed charcoal from the fires seemed a natural addition to his innovation of acrylic powders dropped into the composition.
McAuley begins with sketches either directly from the motif or from his memory of the landscape. Sometimes a sketch is transposed directly onto the canvas but McAuley is emphatic that each composition is worked at its own size. The coloured powders and an acrylic wash determine the palette. The most important part of the process is the final stage, overlaying oils to form lines or grids. He uses cards made from mounting board, edged with ridges, that are dragged across the surface.
The Landlines series reflects McAuley's innate sense of colour and balance. His landscape arises from and subsides into bands of colour. 'The colour in my pictures usually comes from recall of the landscape and its mood rather than direct observation. Sometimes it is a panacea. I often find myself painting summer hues in winter and vice versa.' McAuley rarely uses colour straight from the tube, preferring to mix his own. The planes of colour within his paintings do not form grids or equivalent blocks, but reflect his concern with the relative weight and strength of various colours.
McAuley is as concerned with procedure and ritual as he is with aesthetics. 'My paintings are like me, they are formal. I am a very structured person.' Like influential American artist Sean Scully, McAuley rejects the minimal and didactic traditions of abstraction. Scully saw his own work as a departure from the New York school: 'I wanted to put back into painting its ability to communicate my work is unabashedly compositional, it's got all these different colours in it, different paint surfaces, overt colour, it's decorative, it's full of pleasure in a fairly frontal way.' Similarly McAuley's paintings evince his respect for texture, pattern, and design. His creative approach is dualistic: he depends on both a rational and an intuitive translation of his perception into two dimensions.
'When I paint a picture I put a lot of things on the canvas. Then I begin eliminating, getting rid of, reducing the picture to its essential elements. When we look at a landscape we unconsciously clean it up. The eyes see a few key elements. I record a lot of information but then decide what is essential to this particular painting - we don't need to see every element that signifies landscape within one work.'
Chance is integral to his paintings. McAuley explores the randomness inherent in the arrangement and rearrangement of landscape motifs but retains control of the process. 'I allow "mistakes" to occur. I am not strict with the composition or colour in the process. If I change one element I may rework the rest because the balance of the composition must be reassessed.'
If one part works but the rest doesn't, even if I consider it beautiful, I will sacrifice that one beautiful part for the sake of the picture. I believe you have to be careful that your work doesn't become too methodical or repetitive. I don't want to create a static signature style or to feel like I know exactly where the picture is going before I get started.'
Stylistically texture is the most striking aspect of McAuley's paintings. Charcoal and powder as well as the layers of paint give body. He builds the landscape through an aggregation of planes and dynamic pentimenti. As in the collages of Robert Rauschenberg and ripped billboards of Mimmo Rotella, you can sense the passage of time in Mitchell McAuley's landscapes.
Art has been his passion for as long as he can remember. He can still recall his first 'resolved' painting - a portrait of a clown - from when he was about ten years old. McAuley acknowledges his good fortune at having studied under Howard Arkley at Prahran College. In 1982 he moved to the Victorian College of the Arts where he was in the company of artists Gareth Samson, Phillip Hunter, and Peter Booth.
During the mid-eighties, when he held his first solo exhibitions, McAuley noticed the convergence of the commercial and art worlds. 'I saw artists printing their work onto t-shirts and thought, as a joke, I would hang an exhibition of painted boxer shorts.' The exhibition was the genesis of Mitch Dowd. His intended four months in the fashion industry became a decade. Creative interludes in textile design punctuated these years but the business was all-consuming. He found it impossible to run a successful business and maintain an art career. His first love - painting - triumphed.
In 2005 he will settle with his family in the Strathbogie Ranges. His keen observations of colour, texture, and line in the landscape will continue apace. McAuley reduces the landscape to its essential elements. In doing so he invites us to experience it afresh as a place that is captivating, elemental, and integral to understanding our Australian identity.