Kaanarn: ‘There is Truth in the Landscape’
The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Shane Picket: Kaanarn at Mossenson Galleries in Perth from February 17 till March 11, 2006.
For three decades, Shane Pickett has defined himself as a painter of the landscape. “There is truth in the landscape,” he declares. “It is from the landscape that all our culture and beliefs come.” In recent years, this project has seen Pickett move from the delicate figurative landscapes of his youth, into large-scale abstract paintings of the type that have culminated in his current exhibition Kaanarn. The title of Pickett’s exhibition draws on the Nyoongar word meaning ‘true.’ Consistent with his statements, Pickett cites this move into abstraction as being part of his progress towards uncovering the illusive ‘truth’ in the landscape.
In the works I have made and the life I have lived I have been very much honest to nature. Nature is honest and I try to bring that out. My career has been a journey, expanding in scope; as I have grown in maturity, my work has become less like a photograph and has tried to explore the deeper meaning of the landscape.
I would like to begin this catalogue essay by asking the meaning of this transformation in Pickett’s work. In the history of Western art, the movement from figuration to abstraction has been a common one for many artists. Amongst Indigenous artists, however, it is a decidedly less common phenomenon. This question takes on an added pertinence when one considers Pickett singular role in inaugurating a revitalised tradition of Nyoongar abstraction as seen in the recent works of emerging artists like Troy Bennell and Ben Pushman. In order to answer this question, I would first like to return to the unlikely time and place of France in 1905.
Considering Pickett’s invocation of the ‘truth’ in nature, it is difficult not to recall Cezanne’s famous letters to Emile Bernard. In a letter dated 23 October 1905, Cezanne wrote to Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” In the letters that followed, Cezanne argued that in order to achieve ‘truth in painting’ it was necessary for the painter to absorb him or herself in the study of nature, and to “forget everything that has gone before us.” Truth in painting could not be achieved through imitation, but rather by learning to create paintings that worked like nature.
Through this distinction, Cezanne was attempting to establish a viable relationship between imitation and abstraction – between the desublimated, haptic act of being ‘in nature’ and the sublimated, mediated and perspectival act of painting. Sadly, Cezanne would die in 1906 without ever really reconciling this space between vision and representation, and the negotiation of this space would remain one of modernism’s defining problems.Whilst this may seem a digression, it is my belief that Pickett’s work presents a profound and critical response to the epistemic space created by this question – a question that might be seen to propel the course of Western modernism and its colonising claims toward universalism. In order to explore this connection, it is necessary to return to the very beginning of Pickett’s artistic journey where we might find the seeds of Kaanarn.
Shane Pickett was born in 1957 in the wheat-belt town of Quairading, east of Perth. From an early age, he was encouraged and inspired by artistic family members. By his late teens he was exhibiting regularly in a landscape style that was easily reconcilable with the Carrolup tradition of Parnell Dempster, Revel Cooper and Reynold Hart. And yet, despite his familial and cultural connections to this tradition, Pickett’s works were quite markedly different to those of his Carrolup predecessors. Unlike his cousin and contemporary Lance Chadd/Tjyllyungoo, Pickett did not appear to adopt the theatrical schemata that distinguished landscape painting of the South West. His approach to the landscape was considerably more lyrical and textured – characteristics that have led Brenda L. Croft to rightly suggest a closer affinity to the works of Albert Namatjira.
This comparison is illuminating. Like his cousin Tjyllyungoo and his elder brother Byron, Shane Pickett began painting in the 1970s at a time when young Indigenous Australians were finding a new faith in their Aboriginal voice. Whilst Shane’s work was never as politically explicit as that of his elder brother, its political dimension should not be dismissed. As Brian Fitzpatrick has noted, Shane has always exhibited “a quiet form of social activism.” The desire for recognition and respect of Nyoongar cultural values is a regular refrain of Pickett’s artist statements and interviews.
If artists like Bryron represented a very visual and politically explicit side of urban Indigeneity, Tjyllyungoo and Shane Pickett were more concerned with the spiritual and metaphysical side of Nyoongar culture. Their political defiance lay less in activism than in the reclaiming and preserving the long held spirituality of their Nyoongar people. One of Pickett’s earliest works in the Art Gallery of Western Australia quite literally encapsulates this spiritual dimension. Entitled Waagle – Rainbow Serpent 1983, the work presents a fantasy-style representation of the Rainbow Serpent in the act of creating the Nyoongar people.
It is in this context that the attraction and influence of Namatjira must be understood. For although Namatjira’s landscapes were depicted in the realist Western mode of watercolour painting, by the late 1970s the hidden cultural depths of these paintings were beginning to be recognised. In the subtle differences between Namatjira’s paintings and those of his tutor Rex Battarbee, critics began to see a critical space in which Namatjira used mimicry to present a concealed Indigenous view of the landscape. Through this tactic, Ian Burn and Ann Stephen argued that Namatjira created a ‘double vision’ that articulated “a crisis of authority” in which the hierarchy of Western vision was disrupted. In Namatjira’s art, they declared, “for the first time, the landscape looks back at us: it meets and deliberately crosses the viewer’s gaze of possession.”
For an advocate of ‘quiet social activism’, this strategy must have seemed an ideal way of slyly reempowering Nyoongar cultural values. Certainly it offered a culturally specific way of exploring and representing the ‘deeper meaning’ of the landscape. And yet, by his abandonment of figurative landscape, we might presume that this was a tactic whose usefulness Pickett soon exhausted. A clue to his reasoning can be found in Pickett’s comments regarding one of his first tentative explorations into abstraction.
In 1988, Shane Pickett was commissioned to produce an image for the Fifth Marcel Grossman conference at the University of Western Australia. Whilst the choice of the art of a young Nyoongar artist to represent a conference of international physicists might have seemed incongruous, Pickett took the conference’s theme ‘Views of the Universe’ as an invitation to explore the possible intersections between his Nyoongar spirituality and the conference’s focus on universal phenomena. Entitled Supernova, the painting Pickett produced combined dappled areas of texture with brilliant bursts of colour in a symbolic depiction of an exploding star. Speaking on the work, Pickett commented:
I see the supernova as a natural force that is the source of all energy and all life. Some people might call it ‘God’ but I see it as a spiritual creator with no name.We try to tie everything down with a title, but when we do most people mistake the title for reality.
Whilst Pickett’s comments rearticulated the metaphysical and spiritual concerns of his earlier works, they also signify one of his earliest articulations of a suspicion of the space between nature and representation – precisely that space that preoccupied Cezanne. That this acknowledgement of this space occurs with his first moves away from figuration provides a telling insight into the motives behind Pickett’s move from figuration into abstraction and reveals the conceptual limits that Pickett found in the strategy of mimicry adopted from Namatjira.
The strategy of mimicry is a typically postcolonial strategy of resistance. And yet, as a strategy it is forged with difficulties. The most central of these is that it necessitates difference and therefore repeats the very structures of otherness that it attempts to subvert. In an incisive article on the problems of postcolonialism, Rasheed Arareen notes that in this situation, cultural difference is not situated as a site of continuity, but rather as a sign to maintain difference. Namatjira’s work then, gets caught in an inescapable circularity in which it can only be defined by its similarity and difference to the dominant cultural paradigms. Namatjira’s art can only be critical in so much as it assimilates Western art, but at the same time it can only be critical in so much as it is incomplete in this assimilation. In a passage that helps shed considerable light on Pickett’s move away from the allegorical landscape style of Namatjira, Rex Butler comments:
If in one way the first [desublimated, tactile, preceding vision] precedes the second [sublimated, panoramic, perspectival], in another way it can only be perceived within it, it is only a retrospective effect of it … it is lost in being found, and thus found in being lost. It is not a blindness opposed to sight, but a blindness within sight or a blindness that allows sight … The problem set by the painting , therefore, is … how do we pass from a seeing without reading (that first, haptic experience of the landscape, that of the explorer making his way through it) to a reading without seeing (that second, exclusively visual experience of the landscape, that of the art historian)?
It is precisely this difficulty that we can see in Pickett’s frustration at the ontological space between nature and representation articulated in his comments about Supernova. When I pressed Pickett on the meaning of these comments, the artist provided a fascinating and thoroughly unpredictable response. “Naming’, he declared, ‘has done a lot of damage to Indigenous families. It has caused a lot of struggle hurt and hate.” Pickett’s direct association of this passage between nature and representation as being inherently colonial provides a direct answer to Butler’s question of how one passes between this space. As Butler continues, the problem is the missing ahistorical kernel that propels the whole system – that allows this system of Western vision to take place in the first place. For Pickett the answer is stunningly obvious. This whole process, from Cezanne to Namatjira and beyond, is propelled by modernity and its attendant bugbears of imperialism, capitalism and colonialism.
It is this system that Pickett seeks to evade in his transition to abstraction. Signalling a move away from the ‘photographic’ (synecdoche) to the ‘deeper meaning’ (totalised), Pickett attempts to entirely evade the paradigm of modernism by entering an entirely different temporal zone. Pickett achieves this through the metaphysical nexus of the ‘Dreaming.’ In a symbolic rejection of the notion of modernism’s progress, Pickett adopts the supposed peak of modernism’s progress (abstraction) while at the same time using this abstraction to refer to an older origin (that of pre-colonial Nyoongar culture). In entering into the secret and sacred cosmology of the Dreaming, Pickett distances himself from the problematic space between seeing and reading, and instead places the emphasis on a hierarchical system of information and learning. In a gesture that completely confuses Western teleology, Pickett creates a new tradition from these origins, while at the same time abandoning another tradition (that of the Carrolup painters.)
This temporal zone of the Dreaming is however, intrinsically linked to the world of the present. As David Abram has noted, the Dreaming “was never wholly cut off from the sensuous world of the living present. They were not projected entirely outside of the experienced world, but were felt as the mystery and hidden depth of the sensuous world itself.” It is this secret ‘truth’ that Pickett uncovers in the landscape and it is this truth to which Pickett refers in two of his most majestic works included in Kaanarn. In the paintings Campfires of our Yesterday’s People at Closing Day and its companion piece Embers of the Dreaming during Wanyarang, Pickett allows the glimpse of fire on the horizon. “In the Dreamtime’, he tells us, ‘the properties of fire were stored in a number of places: the Balga and Banksia bushes, harder timbers such as Jarrah and Redgum, and the flints of certain rocks.” Pickett has defined his aims as a painter as being the ‘rekindling of cultural strength’ amongst young Nyoongar people. In this context, the metaphor of the balga and the banksia bushes is a powerful one, for it reveals the emergent possibilities of the Dreamtime. This fire is always within the Dreaming, ready to rekindle and renew to those who know where to look.
 It is a remarkable fact that in 2003 when the Art Gallery of Western Australia surveyed Western Australian Indigenous art from the South West for their landmark exhibition South West Central, there was an almost complete absence of abstract painting. Pickett was included with eight works spanning his career, of which only one – the monumental triptych Traditional Story 2001 could be considered truly abstract.
 Ian Burn and Ann Stephen,“Albert Namatjira:The White Mask”, in Rex Butler (ed.), Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2005, p.231.
 Shane Pickett quoted in Alex Harris, ‘This artist brushes up on science’, The West Australian, 18 June 1988.
 Rasheed Arareen, ‘Come What May: Beyond the Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), Complex Entanglements, Artspace, Woolloomooloo, p.138.
 Rex Butler, A Secret History of Australian Art, Craftsman House, 2002, p.116.
 David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books, New York, 1996, p.220.