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The prosaic title of Dena Lester’s exhibition of photographic works belied the complexity of her engagement with both the landscape genre and the photographic medium. Her images traversed both the familiarity of local vistas and the anonymity of more distant landscapes, whilst exploring the formal and conceptual possibilities of photographic representation.
The local landscape loomed large in the sixteen panels of Lost (After McCubbin) 2003, a photographic update of Frederick McCubbin’s iconic nineteenth century painting of a child lost in the Australian bush. Lester’s expansive black and white composition—almost ten metres long and two and a half metres high—allowed the viewer to take a walk alongside the trees to encounter a man who had taken the place of the frightened girl in McCubbin’s original. Dwarfed, but not overwhelmed, by his surroundings, Lester’s naked subject suggested a changing narrative concerning our relationship to the land. He seemed ready to walk into the distance of his lush surroundings, replacing the sense of human vulnerability of McCubbin’s earlier painting with one of expectancy. In Lester’s installation, the bush had become an environment full of fascination and quietude rather than one to be feared.
Lester would have travelled further from the city than McCubbin in order to find her unblemished landscape, as the suburban sprawl has swallowed his once rural sites. This sense of time passing, and of a continued conversation with earlier modes of representation, pervaded the exhibition as a whole. Some works suggested the geographically distant history of photography itself. Lester’s monochromatic depictions of unidentified ancient ruins, castles, chasms, trees and lighthouses recalled photographic landscapes taken by early experimenters with the medium in Europe. In contrast to the direct connections of place and composition made in Lost, these images—with their generic titles and simple compositions—drew on a history that was familiar, but also foreign. They had the feel of places once visited but whose exact locations had long since been forgotten.
Lester’s photographs of recognisable Victorian landmarks—the coastal walkway at Point Ormond in inner-suburban Melbourne, and the recently installed wind turbines that stand like sentinels along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road—provided an interesting parallel to the images described above. All had a slightly desolate feel, aided by Lester’s concentration on black and white or monochromatic imagery. Because of this, Point Ormond 2002-2003 had a nineteenth century feel to it, whilst the modern technology of the wind turbines stood as firm in the landscape as the ancient castles of other compositions. Specifics of time and place became confused by an overriding photographic mood.
To speak of Lester’s photographs only through narratives of place and history, however, is to ignore the intense physicality of their surfaces, most of which were embellished with tiny glass beads that the artist had painstakingly glued to the surface of photographs printed on canvas. This labour-intensive process transformed them into gleaming, bejewelled spaces that were quite captivating. The selective application of the beads allowed Lester to emphasise different aspects of their compositions. In some, jet black beads defined and solidified the outlines of trees and the edge of the land, forming dark silhouettes. In others, heavy clouds were dotted with trails of translucent beads that were reminiscent of droplets of rain. Gluing the beads to the surface of the photograph also caused some of the ink to dissolve from the print onto the bead, culminating in tones that could not be anticipated in advance. This added an intriguing element of chance to the final appearance of the works, despite the precise nature of the technique.
Quite apart from its seductiveness, the beading technique offered new ways of seeing the photographic image. The trope of the landscape could be read as a vehicle through which Lester’s experimentations in beading—and looking—were implemented. In some, such as Tree 5 and Tree 6 (2003), the entire surface of the canvas on which the photograph was printed was covered in beads through which a hazy image could be discerned. Lester’s varied choice of bead size also allowed for variations in depth, and the normally flat surface of the photograph became a three dimensional space. The temptation was to ‘read’ the image with the fingers, as if the beads were a kind of Braille.
This changed engagement with the photographic image made for an interesting experience on the part of the viewer. If they were not seduced by the decorative gleam of the beads, they would surely be intrigued by the obsessive discipline required to complete them. There was also a meditative aspect to engaging with the works, as the beaded areas encouraged the viewer to linger over various aspects of the composition, echoing the artist’s own experience of the image.
Lester’s Cityscape 2003—a bird’s-eye view of Melbourne’s central city—along with a 1993 version of Point Ormond consisting of manipulated photographs on wood, were less engaging. The painterly manipulation of these photographs seemed too literal an engagement between the two mediums, and they had neither the seductiveness and conceptual complexity of the beaded works nor the melancholic romanticism of Lost.