Mitch McAuley is no stranger to snow. In 2001 he sailed to Antarctica and in 2005 it was the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia that captured his artistic imagination. The more civilised pace of Whistler drew the artist in 2005/6 and the Victorian High Plains in July this year. While the works in Snow are the most figurative in McAuley’s oeuvre, they also represent a continuing interest in the formal elements of painting – colour and line.
His latest offerings feel like plein air paintings, despite the fact that they were created in the studio using sketches and photographs as aides-mémoires. Like the artists of the Barbizon school, the best known advocates of the plein air approach, McAuley emphasises effects of light and of the elements. He captures moments in time and the essence of place.
For McAuley the attractions of snow were manifold: its stillness and density, the simplified landscape, and above all, its colour. McAuley acknowledges his enduring interest in colour as a motivation for Snow. “It’s not an easy thing to extract or capture the different colours in those environments – you have to dedicate time to the process. I think it makes you a better colourist to paint snow – more subtle.”
One of the youngest members of Sir Robert Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, noted the chameleon quality snow:“
A white day is so rare that I have recollections of going out from the hut or the tent and being impressed by the fact that the snow really looked white. When to the beautiful tints in the sky and the delicate shading on the snow are added perhaps the deep colours of the open sea, with reflections from the ice foot and ice-cliffs in it, all brilliant blues and emerald greens, then indeed a man may realize how beautiful this world can be.”
South Georgia presented different artistic challenges to Antarctica as it had hosted several whaling stations and consequently multiple ruins. Due to its sub-Antarctic situation the island is home to an abundance of flora and fauna, cut through with waterfalls and streams that criss-cross the peaks. The tombstone of Ernest Shackleton provided the adventurers with a stark reminder of how readily life can be taken in such extreme environs.
McAuley’s first and subsequent trip to the Antarctic region were made in the company of other artists and inspired by an enduring fascination with explorers. “I have always had a great interest in adventurers – I admire their bravery and the honesty of their existence during their expeditions.” McAuley and his companions tasted the wildness of both weather and environs. Two of their number chose to walk across the Antarctic peninsula to Charcot Bay – an adventure that resulted in one falling into a crevasse and requiring an airlift rescue. Between a Rock and a Hard Place remembers the event and conveys the isolation and scale of the peninsula.
His High Plains series is an exploration of colour. The Australian landscape proffered its greys, reds, and greens, tempered after the recent bushfires had left blackened trunks that protruded from the blanket of snow. By contrast Whistler portrays the populated snowscape. The strong diagonals of the slopes have an inherent dynamism and are dotted with blurs of skiers in motion.
A recurring theme in McAuley’s work is the relationship of humans to the landscape: our eternal tussle with the elements, our temporary taming thereof and the ultimate fragility of our imprint. McAuley explores the dramatic possibilities of huts in his Antarctic, South Georgia, and High Plains works.
The iconic huts of the High Plains captured the artist’s attention for an additional reason – their rapidly diminishing number. In 2003 eastern Victorian alpine bushfires destroyed many huts - some of which had been in existence since European pastoralists settled the area in the 1830s.“
The reason the huts feature in my works is because of their importance in a landscape which is so inhospitable. I was also interested to depict huts which are falling into disrepair, and to note how in some cases the elements overpower man’s endeavours and yet, in others, man’s footprint remains for a long time.”
In Refuge Hut (2001) we feel ourselves snowbound. Claustrophobic peaks dominate the canvas, dwarfing the foreground hut, threatening to engulf it and elide man’s imprint. The tussle between man and the elements appears more evenly matched in High Plains Hut 1 & 2 (2007). The structures appear to nestle into the surrounding bush, presenting a solid, inviting aspect to the viewer. The palette in the latter works, with its smattering of soft pinks and mauves, entices, unlike the forbidding blue hues of Refuge Hut.
The predominance of abstraction in his previous exhibitions has ceded ground to the landscape and portrait. McAuley believes the two genres share common elements: “People, like landscapes, have ridges and valleys, shadows and lines. At the end of the day it is about the challenge of representational art – I had become so confident with abstraction that I knew where my picture was going when I started it.”
On one occasion during the first Antarctic expedition, the artist’s party found itself trapped when a sudden gale drove icebergs into the cove at Cape Herschel in which they were anchored. The rawness of the experience impressed McAuley. “I found I had to return to the fundamental. No rules or regulations, just pure survival. When you spoke to people in that environment you got to the heart of them. I believe that’s why I started painting portraits. I felt my subjects were stripped back to their most honest.”
McAuley notes The Ornithologist as a key work in the exhibition. It was one of his first portraits and shows Martin King – the keen bird watcher and fellow traveller – sketching in adverse conditions. The diagonal slashes of rain effects coupled with McAuley’s trademark, distinct brushstrokes, evoke movement amid the stillness of the snowscape. It pays homage to the mood of Caspar David Friedrich’s rueckenfiguren. In the 19th century German artist’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, the painter becomes a protagonist, seated facing away from the viewer, mediating our experience of the austere scenery. As in McAuley’s works, Friedrich’s paintings are meditations on trees, hills, harbours, morning mists, and light effects based on a close observation of nature. Both artists structure reality for dramatic effect.
The self-portrait also features in McAuley’s most recent offerings. High Plains Piss reveals the artist in an intimate moment, ‘communing’ with the bush. He glances back to find he has been caught-out, exposed to the viewer. McAuley relishes the challenge of placing figures in landscape. “The pose in which you put a person can reflect or affect the landscape. They start to work with each other. I have a preference for natural poses – but uncommon ones. The uncommon has always attracted me.”
He cites the self-portraits of Lucien Freud as an inspiration. Freud described his practice thus: “I paint people not because of what they are like…but how they happen to be.” Similarly McAuley tries to capture the inherent qualities of the sitter which, in the case of the self-portrait, becomes an exercise in introspection. “Freud often poses himself undertaking everyday tasks. My poses are a more theatrical version of the everyday. In that way they’re a reflection of me.”
Snow has so fired McAuley’s imagination that he is already contemplating another snowbound expedition, this time to Greenland. He will continue to extrude and refine the colour and character of white landscapes, offering his unique vision for our delectation.