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Thresholds: Images from Music, Reverie and Place
Margaret Wilson’s work is multi-layered, in appearance and meaning. On one hand her paintings and works on paper are luminous and transparent, while on the other, they are configured/veiled with passages that suggest depths of feeling. She engages with the senses: seeing, hearing, even tasting; these pictures are richly sensual. Indicative in the exhibition title, Thresholds, the imagery also touches on liminality and how human experience encompasses entrances, boundaries, peripheries and limits. The selected works included in this retrospective range from the early 1980s to 2012, for the most part in series, and include paintings, both in oil and synthetic polymer, drawings in watercolour, pastel, graphite, black and white linocuts and multi-coloured screen-prints. In the accompanying catalogue, curator Anne Kirker writes ‘The formal and emotional register of her paintings, drawings, artist’s books and prints, ranges according to external stimuli…’.1
Wilson’s ability to externalise her internal responses to place and its specialness is perhaps due to a working process identified by Kirker as a form of visual poetry. In a process similar to ‘mind-mapping’ the artist elicits and then distils the myriad associations she brings to landscape, be they rhythms, sensations of light and particular colours and elemental structures. The artist’s physical response to moving north to Townsville from Sydney in 1982-83, was immediate. As is evident in works such as Red in the morning (1985), Wilson describes her first experiences of ‘flying over huge distances in the shimmering heat of the Gulf’, and the immense space of outback cattle stations, as feeling that one has ‘a fleeting presence in a land of infinite continuity’. In Station Drawing 1 (1985) the parched landscape is manifest in the media used: graphite and pastel over a red wash. Similarly, in hot dry landscapes and stretches of aqua water, screen-prints Norman River (1986), Normanton (1985), Breaking Day (1985), Magnetic Blue (1990) and Morning Reef (1987) express her sense of infinite space and a consciousness of the wet and dry that distinguish seasonal change in the Tropics.
Grounds of undulating tones, over-painted by shimmering geometric structures, traversed by lines, characterise the soft atmospheric works on paper of 1989 (Core 1, Edge II, Margin II), and are given drama and authority in the large synthetic polymer paintings that follow in the next decade. Vivid blues and greens, for instance, provide a strong base to Passacaglia Reflections I and III (both 1990-91). As in the structure of the musical form referenced in these paintings, ‘tonal layers working over the base or ground are to be read visually as depths in space as well as linear progression’. The contrapuntal, ‘push-pull’ effect similarly occurs in Psalm for Rainforests (1990-91) where animated impasto brushwork projects forward from a drier, higher keyed expanse. In part, this expressed Wilson’s deep concern for threatened rainforests of the world. In one of the didactic quotes placed on the walls in Thresholds, the artist states,
My intention in the early 1990s paintings was to visually trigger a recall that went beyond the limits of the works themselves. It was the reason for their minimal, pared back style as though reaching for a spiritual core.
These quotes, placed below selected groups of works, flowed through the exhibition at Perc Tucker, giving the impression of the artist herself accompanying the viewer as they sought to engage with the abstract vocabulary.
In following the different groupings, the viewer becomes conscious of a decisive shift in mood. Unlike the large intense Townsville canvases (168 x 244cm), the change of location from northern Queensland to Brisbane in 1996 brought with it its own palette and range of formal structures in response to place. An interim series of smaller works, the Limina series (183 x 152cm) show how Wilson articulated the idea of a threshold or passage in coming to an entirely new body of imagery. This time, it was based on Peregian Beach, interpreted in pearlescent oils, close-toned almost ‘white on white’. Whilst retaining a connection to the landscape, through the subtleties of Etude Blue and Etude Grey and Bel Canto (all from 2011) one could imagine the musical styles the titles suggest. These oils on linen, matched by watercolours with graphite, evoke rhythmic patterns corresponding to the movement of currents, the ebb and flow of the water, the shifting shoreline. These later works, with their pared back nuanced colour and ethereal reminders of the elements, resonate, perhaps, with a coming of age in the artist.
The catalogue provides a broad overview of Margaret Wilson and her work over three decades. Kirker’s ‘Introduction’ offers insights into the sources of inspiration and philosophy behind the studio practice of this senior artist. There is a range of colour plates with pithy quotes and a biographical ‘Illustrated Timeline’. Aptly, the ‘Foreword’, by Frances Thompson, explains the artist’s contribution to the North and subsequent attachment of Townsville to this painter who steadfastly states, ‘I develop paintings and drawings from the landscape, not of it’.
Margaret Wilson, Passacaglia Reflections I, 1990-91. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 168 x 244cm. Courtesy the artist.
Margaret Wilson, Interplay, 2009. Oil on canvas, 122 x 183cm. Courtesy the artist.
1. Anne Kirker, ‘Introduction’, Thresholds: Images from Music, Reverie and Place, A Margaret Wilson Retrospective, ex. cat., Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville, 2012, p.3. Other quotes here are by the artist, published in this catalogue.