Reviews/Visual Art

Rethinking the landscape

4 October 2017

Review: Looking Glass, Gregory Pryor ◆
Art Gallery of WA ◆
Review by Phoebe Mulcahy ◆

Hear “landscape” with reference to the visual arts, and it’s difficult not to think of a deft little Arcadian scene — a gentle sky, a winding road and soft branches reaching across as if to frame the vista. Not forgetting the variations on this theme — countrysides dotted with windmills or haystacks might be more readily summoned up for another person — it’s nonetheless clear that these kinds of paintings signal a period and style that has long been consigned to the past. Gregory Pryor’s newly commissioned landscape for the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), by contrast, is monumental and immersive, bringing together the fine detail of landscape painting with the three-dimensionality of contemporary art.

Despite landscapes’ apparent unpopularity in leading contemporary art markets today, the genre evidently still offers a compelling means by which to explore notions of place and belonging, especially when that sense of place has been marked by dislocation and flux, as in Australia. Stretching almost from the floor to the ceiling of AGWA’s WA Now Gallery, Looking Glass is an ambitious work that draws on multiple themes and materials. Yet with its enveloping installation format, it’s also highly accessible, at first giving the rather wondrous impression of having entered an enchanted forest or quiet glade.

Looking Glass’s landscape is comprised of over one and a half thousand separate sheets of paper, all roughly of A4 scale, and was created with the assistance of students at Edith Cowan University, where Pryor lectures in fine art. It’s striking to notice how much each sheet is dependent on every other — as though pixilated in large-scale, the vast picture that ultimately takes shape can scarcely be discerned taking each sheet individually. Unfolding from the minute to the monumental like this, the “re-assembled landscape” we see stems from Pryor’s own conviction that landscapes should be based first and foremost on the smallest details of a given terrain — that the landscapist should in effect be a kind of botanist as well.

Expansive themes similarly arise from this grounding in fine detail. With the regenerative powers of the Australian bush as its central motif, the work stands as a testimony to death and rebirth. The sites of Esperance’s 2015 bushfires were the principal influence behind the work, and the sense of loss and devastation, at an environmental level, is communicated with great sensitivity. Yet even in the blackest and most desolate-seeming sections of the panorama, new growth is indicated by the little glass beads which are dotted throughout the work, apparently symbolic of dew drops or resin. Together with the gradated blue tones at the centre of the gallery, where every bit of this landscape’s sky has been compressed onto two adjoining vertical panels, we are reminded of the cyclical yet forward-moving presence of nature. In this way, Pryor’s Looking Glass not only gives expression to the complex after-effects of bushfire but can also be seen as a significant reorientation of West Australian landscape painting, as recorded throughout the years at the State Gallery.

“Looking Glass” runs until 15 January 2018.

Top: Detail of Gregory Pryor’s ‘Looking Glass’.

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