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(IMAGE: Bicheno 2022 JOHN WALLER oil on linen 152 x 152cm)

Exhibition dates: Feb 14 – Mar 13
Private opening: Sat, Feb 18, 5pm – 7pm (RSVP essential, catered event)

John Waller’s Sunburnt Country

How to enter into John Waller’s landscape based paintings, these visual distillations of the Australian scene? I have written on his compositions several times before, looking at his painterly technique; his use of geometry and planar space; his trips to remote locations in aircraft, erasing perspective by looking down from on high; his allusions to major artists and what he incorporates from the landscape tradition; his relations with certain Aboriginal artists; his environmental awareness. These are all subjects Waller raises if asked about his work, indeed, it’s worth chatting with him about how they will enter into a composition.

What has been overlooked is how Waller often refers nostalgically to aspects of a landscape he has encountered and felt a connection with. For him, a painting is a distillation of a remembered place, the composition summarising pictorially what the artist experienced there: the space, the terrain, the light, the textures, its atmosphere, the horizon, the heat, plus more. Due to his rural childhood, Waller especially identifies with certain forms of country, the recent paintings coming from his efforts at visual recall.

This particular exhibition immerses us in Waller’s personal memories of the landscape around Mildura in the early 1960s. Growing up in the Mallee, he still feels for that sun bleached, seemingly limitless country, feels deeply for her. These view paintings reverberate with sights and visual impressions lingering from his childhood. Due to his age the scale of things was different, seemingly larger and charged up. The land lacked those limits it took on in adulthood. Heat was inseparable from sunlight, of course, and with that the immensity of space, but over it all was the stillness, a dread stillness. How the intensity of the beating sun meant nothing moved outside. A noise might carry in from the distance—a crow’s cry, perhaps, or a diesel engine—but that intense light pinned things to the spot on the landscape. All was still; so the moments dragged out, stretching away like trees at the horizon, a line of dark blobs shimmering in hot haze.

The artist’s subject is not landscape, but the experience of feeling himself in it. He tackles this by using an elemental vocabulary of line, plane, tone and colour to set down different times of the day, different seasons, different places. A luminous slender bar conveys the distant sky. Scuffed paint denotes clouds coming in. Nervy lines read as fences. A fat tongue of ochre pigment is part of a rocky outcrop. So much is suggested. Dusty creek beds, vast paddocks of dried grass, a salt pan, even morning frost. In painting after painting, each of them a memory of a moment in the landscape, John Waller emphatically states his deep love of that wide brown land.

Confident, technically sophisticated, historically informed with an understated yet serene beauty, we see in these paintings all the indicators of a major landscapist in top form. One suspects this is because the subject is so personal. John Waller is working for himself here, tapping his memories of landscapes that formed his painter’s eye. No wonder these compositions offer such pleasure, which is surely the primary duty of art; a deep, sustaining, quite cosmopolitan visual pleasure. And that is why they succeed.

— Dr Christopher Heathcote