By KIERAN FINNANE
Not much bitumen, much more dirt – of the rusted earth kind – infuse Wayne Eager’s survey exhibition, Bitumen and Dirt, now in its last weeks at Araluen.
The show looks back over Eager’s three decades in the Northern Territory. An early work, titled simply North Melbourne, 1989, with some large patches of bitumen black blocking in its urbanscape, marks the jumping off point. Thereafter, his paintings leading us to follow him northwards, warm desert hues predominate as he settles into life in the Centre after an alluring excursion into the lush greens and blues of the tropics (at bottom, installation view).
Black recedes to wavering lines through sections of the paintings, tentatively holding the section down or loosely enclosing it; to lightly sketched motifs; and perhaps to the start of thoughts that then lose themselves in paint. One motif that reappears over the decades may allude to fences, railway lines, ladders, all of which make sense in the context – a decades-long journey away from the city, to big landscapes, desert communities, Aboriginal cultures, all the while grappling with the language of paint, in particular as it was shaped by movements in Western art, particularly Western European art, in the early to mid 20th century.
Eager was steeped in this culture, growing up as the child of artists, surrounded by art and classical music. He trained in the late ‘70s at the Victorian College of the Arts (formerly the National Gallery School) but, together with a group of like-minded others, rejected the prevailing art trends of the time, popism and conceptual art, in favour of expressionist painting that hearkened to earlier modernisms.
These artists formed Roar Studios, and Eager exhibited with them throughout the ‘80s, but the north was calling. He travelled to the Centre in 1986 and again in the early ‘90s, venturing on to the Top End. He shared an interest in the Aboriginal art coming to the attention of artists and art lovers in the cities, alongside his growing political understanding of the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal people and country. All this cemented when in 1992 he moved to the Central Australian Aboriginal community of Haasts Bluff with fellow artist Marina Strocchi – they’ve been each other’s life companions ever since.
The impact of the desert environment was quickly apparent in Eager’s work and several of these landscapes – recognisable ranges, including the distinctive bluff Ulumpawarru, under big blue skies – are included in the exhibition. Interestingly though, despite the dramatic change in his surroundings, expansive spaces and forms, even in abstraction, did not persist in Eager’s work. It’s not often that you see a big sweep, for example. An exception is Through the Gap, 2003 where the long movement of river / highway / railway sweeps up the canvas from bottom to top (through Heavitree Gap as alluded to in the title).
Otherwise, while you sense the traveller and his travels, they manifest more in accumulations of motifs – whether the immediacy of impressions upon the retina before they are strictly decoded into bounded and named things, or the persistence of memories, like the embers of a fire, that make up the thick fibre of being. Eager summons them to the canvas without reducing them to the specificity of event or anecdote.
The movement from more clearly representational work did not follow an orderly chronology. He was working with abstraction at the same time. Ochre Figure, 1988, for example, predates North Melbourne. And Morocco, 1988, which like North Melbourne is clearly responding to a densely inhabited human-made environment, pares down its representation to the simplest, cleanest of forms and their repetition.
Colony, 1990 (above left), depicting, after he read Alan Moorhead’s The Fatal Impact, the imposition of European title and construction on the native landscape at Sydney Cove, adopts a more diagrammatic or mudmap-like strategy. This kind of organisation of motifs underpins many of Eager’s more abstracted works in the coming decades and might also be significant to their meaning. Place is the artist’s subject (mostly), but he is under no illusions about pristine lands; the country, even in its most remote corners, is colonised.
In the surveyed works, Ochre Figure, which reflects the early impact on the artist of Aboriginal art, is unusual in its relative spareness, for Eager is mostly not a ‘less is more’ artist. For him, it’s usually ‘more is more’. And the ‘more’ could keep going for years, as he worked and reworked a canvas. One such is the large Gadgets, 2002, where the extensive reworking has led to a distillation. While it shares some of the character of many works where the effect is accumulation, such as in Sandhill Country, 1995, (right) certain motifs have floated to the top, the ‘gadgets’ of the title. They span the territories and cultures that Eager has been moving among, from the distinctly Indigenous to the industrial, the whole held together by his peripatetic lines through the time and spaces of years.
Another spare work, lovely for the lightness of its touch and unusually expansive forms, is Desert Dawn #1, 2008 (below). In the gallery it hangs alongside a work that shares its rosiness, Wildflower (Pink), 2017, but that is the opposite of spare, perhaps even overworked, a risk that Eager’s practice courts. In his artist’s talk of 27 March he spoke of never knowing what he’s doing as he starts, of never really being in control, and of his paintings as never finished, pointing to some that had been worked on over years and even decades, like the small Line Work No 1, a gouache on paper that adorns the cover of the book published to coincide with the show.
How do you start? he was asked. Easy, he said, “you just destroy the white surface”, and then mark by mark, find your way. It’s a journey without end although there does comes a point when he won’t touch a work again.
This survey show allows us to to glimpse something of that process writ large over a prolific output: an artist committed to keeping on finding his way, leaving his alluring way-markers as he goes. And so we journey with him.
Photo at top: Wayne Eager in front of Cool Breeze, 2008.
Bitumen and Dirt shows until June 14. (The conversation with Russell Goldflam previously mentioned has been cancelled, due to restrictions around Victoria’s Covid-19 outbreak.)
Last updated 4 June 2021, 9.25am.