Pamela Kouwenhoven and John Hayward

Gallery 25, Mildura
2 December 2005 - 2 February 2006

The venue/context of this exhibition is significant: a dealer gallery in a remote regional city backed by local business people who are also arts activists, a dealer gallery with a considered approach to its regional situation and a sustained commitment to showing contemporary work. The Gallery 25 program is a mix of local and visiting artists’ work. Visiting artists most often have links with the area through their work or family and friends. It is not surprising then to find recurrent explorations and ideas appearing throughout the program. The semi-arid Mallee landscape, the brave folly of irrigating and farming the desert and the wild places beyond are among the abiding themes which engage numbers of artists. This exhibition by Pamela Kouwenhoven and John Hayward is no exception.

Adelaide, not Melbourne is Mildura’s closest capital city and both artists travelled the long straight stretches of road from the South for this exhibition. For several years now Pamela Kouwenhoven has been making work using malthoid, a tarry fibrous material once commonly used as a moisture resistant membrane. The artist scavenges for weathered malthoid found beneath rusted-out iron water tanks. The surfaces revealed are richly patinated, made up of sombre colours ranging from coal-black through to silver-grey over which rich rusty ochres bloom and seep. Kouwenhoven selects the most evocative sections, often with an embossed line or band bisecting the surface to suggest a horizon line or a physical division. A white mat and a simple black frame isolates and magnifies the resulting glimpses of the infinite, geological time, or a bleakly beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape. For several works in this exhibition the artist has removed and replaced a geometrically regular section of the malthoid surface, a triangle for instance. This intervention has immediately formalised the image declaring for abstraction over the ineffable, breaking the tension inherent in the un-modified surfaces.

The exhibition also included a series of larger unframed works which venture into new territory. These are ragged banners of malthoid with crudely collaged sections. These unmediated flags of clumsily layered malthoid evoke Arte Povera’s drive to industrial rawness rather than the atmospheric fields and planes of the artist’s carefully framed works. This dichotomy sets up tension and unease in this exhibition of Kouwenhoven’s work as the artist apparently searches for a way forward with this compelling if treacherous material.

John Hayward makes his sensual sculptural objects by taking casts from the bark of venerable trees, both native and exotic. The impressions become discrete objects in fibreglass finished to a high degree of realism.

The objects are hung on the gallery wall in groups of two, three and four. Some are like-with-like, most are a mix of varying and contrasting surface textures and colours.

The most striking element of the exhibition, which lifts it above earnest verisimilitude, is the artist’s use of brilliant synthetic colours, magenta, cyan, vivid yellows and scarlet in the crevices and fissures of the more rugged bark sections. The effect is surprisingly subtle though it lends the objects a sense of having been made by computer animation rather than any mundane manual techniques. The result is sequences of attractive objects making obvious reference to the natural world but given a deft tweak which saves them from the inevitable disappointment of attempted faithful realism.

The viewer’s perception is toyed with here, we can simply enjoy these aestheticised representations of the natural world on a gallery or board-room wall or we can question our media-jaded imaginations and our need for novelty over simple observation.

Hayward takes the natural and makes it curiously synthetic, Kouwenhoven uses a synthetic material and evokes the natural world and universal themes. In Mildura on the edge of the desert the work has resonance.