In this series of multifaceted etchings and drypoints by Bronwyn Rees, the Australian bush becomes a space riddled with unfolding narratives and symbolic cues. In these prints sensual pleasure, emotional fortitude, threatening darkness, and paranormal occurrence are all bound together by the twisted yet pervasive beauty found within our forests, lakes and scrublands. While the bush can be a scary and threatening place, as is sometimes evoked within this body of work, with correct knowledge its profound ecological systems make it a source of everything humans require for physical and spiritual nourishment. So it is fitting that in order to explore that pivotal relationship between two people which is supposed to do the same thing – a marriage – Rees chooses to represent our native flora and fauna. These images from the natural world are brought to life through her expressive mark-making and vibrant use of colour.
In 1976 Rees moved to Brisbane, the same year that the Wivenhoe Dam was constructed in response to the massive 1974 floods that damaged the region. While supplying Brisbane’s drinking water, the dam has also become a haven for an important recurrent motif that feature in this exhibition, the Lungfish. As a location the artist has often visited Wivenhoe for quiet reflection and communion with nature, and she first responded to the region in her 2000 exhibition Floodland. However it was not until the raging Brisbane floods of 2011 and the spectacular sight of gushing water over the dam wall that provided the impetus for the recurrence of the Lungfish and the Wivenhoe’s surrounding bush-land, as motifs within her work.
For years Rees has been fascinated by the Lungfish, a rare species that can survive in murky, unclean water through its unusual ability to rise to the surface and gulp down a breath of air into its single lung. Often called a living fossil it has remained virtually unchanged for over 100 million years, and despite major disruptions to its natural environment, the lungfish of Wivenhoe Dam are in better numbers than ever. Resilience and survival – for Rees this unlikely animal with its ungainly eel-like appearance perfectly reflects the ideal attributes of an old marriage, and as such they populate this exhibition, swimming through etchings and arranged in unique installation elements.
A major approach behind Rees’ art is the recognition of events that have over the course of her ‘old marriage’ become almost mythologized, fundamental to shared personal history. Every human relationship – familial, friendly, or romantic has such shared joys and tragedies that come to define the ‘us’ that two people make. In prints such as The Long Dark Tea Time, the voluminous form of QLD Bottle Tree becomes a sentinel of memory – perhaps tied to a proposal, an argument, or the destination of a journey. The artist’s recurrent imaging of the Bunya Pine captures a more joyful sentiment. Through ceremony and ritual Aboriginal people in certain parts of QLD would traditionally celebrate the bounty of huge nuts from Bunya Pines every five years. It was under such a tree that Rees enacted a different form of ancient ritual, her marriage ceremony, and throughout this exhibition these trees appear fused with vibrant layers of colour and texture, and the outline of the ever-present Lungfish. In Reedy Lagoon the artist expresses the more sensual aspect of physical relationships. The smooth white form of a tree echoes the curves and undulations of a body, upon which a snake is curled up absorbing the afternoon heat. Its languid lines create an erotic subtext for the sensual entanglement that binds two people together.
Rees also draws our attention to the unease present in the bush – manifested in strange urban folklore and the many dark secrets harboured by small rural towns. Certain prints allude to this shadier reality, Australia’s dark past of backpacker murders, serial killers, and the dastardly events hidden by a dense cover of scrub. A sleepless night spent in a small caravan on a property in Nanango in rural QLD, listening to the strange 3am antics of neighbours and imagining of all manner of Wolf Creek inspired scenarios, provided the inspiration for Dark Heart in the Wild Woods. Amongst the swathes of scratchy vegetation, a cow hovers above the scene suspended by a spaceship that seems to be pulling it skyward with its tractor beam. This hilarious vision is inspired by the numerous local yarns about alien abductions and disappearing cows that are rife in this part of QLD. This whimsical vignette diffuses the otherwise claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense of human vulnerability of those within the caravan, with nothing but thin walls to shield them against the rising night and all the strangeness and menace it conceals.
Throughout this exhibition Rees reveals personal mythologies that have become invisibly fettered to places and creatures from the natural world. The artist employs etching techniques to tell tales from a lifetime of shared experiences, at times profound, playful or plaintive. There is wisdom in nature and Rees draws from this infinite well to reflect her own getting of wisdom, and the understanding of life’s richness and complexity acquired through the steady progress of time.
Curator, Firestation Print Studio and freelance arts writer
Firestation Print Studio, Armadale, Melbourne AUS.
29th May – 22nd June, 2013
Text © Marguerite Brown 2013, Images © Bronwyn Rees 2013.