Lake Triptych, 1989
Oil on paper on canvas
81 x 175 cm
Let’s go back to 1989, the year I had my first solo exhibition, Ornamental Gardens, at MCA in Gertrude St, Fitzroy
Lake Triptych was the result of many months wandering the Royal Botanic Gardens in search of something – a subject, an idiom. I was in my late twenties. I walked all the winding, forking paths, new vistas revealed at every turn, so beautiful were Guilfoyle’s concepts for the gardens. The ornamental lake at the bottom of the gardens reflected all the masses of foliage of the trees around it and the masses of cloud and patches of sky above. Whilst I felt an urgent sense to create, I was inwardly at a loss.
In the studio I experimented with numerous approaches to painting and drawing – anything was possible but nothing seemed to mean anything..…until one day I painted a dark little smudge of a painting of trees in the gardens at night. I was imitating Milton Avery’s abstracted landscapes.
The edges were soft and merged. This was how I saw things, literally. My vision, myopic since birth suddenly became a gift – I saw that everything was connected, a visual representation of my deepest belief and sense about life. I was also much enamoured of another myopic artist, Pierre Bonnard. In his domestic scenes, he made colours connect on a canvas in a way that released them from their subject, so that they had a symphonic unity – yes! That was it! I had found it. It had been right in front of me all the time – the gardens!
The gardens were abstract enough to convey this. All of a sudden the gardens held possibilities as a subject. The winding paths, the dappled light through the huge Moreton Bay figs - a camouflage of patterned shadow, the magical reflections on the ornamental lake, the black swans – all these elements seemed to be loaded with symbolic meaning for me.
This was the beginning of a life’s journey towards looking, sensing, knowing, trusting. At the time I was overwhelmed by self-doubt. Lake Triptych was created on the floor of the studio.
I remember well the level anxiety I felt as I worked. The paper stretched over canvas made a smooth surface for my brush. Using a wide house painting brush I covered the whole surface with a layer of very diluted burnt sienna. This was the earth from which all things grew. While the paint was wet, I used rags to wipe out areas for patches of colour; the trees, the water, the lily pads, the sky. The colours blended here and there with the base colour and edges became soft and blurred through this wet on wet method. It was messy and hard to control. I had beside me my sketch book which I took on all my walks to the gardens – in it a little pen drawing of the lake. The colours I used were as I remembered them from my walks. I added canvases left and right to form the triptych – yes. I could see that I had found something. In the middle of the picture a bright yellow shone like a light. A beginning.
I lived in a flat (The Greylings) in Park St, South Yarra with my husband, artist Howard Arkley.
Melbourne Contemporary Art Gallery (MCA) was run by Max Joffe and Lorraine Finlay.
Lorraine also worked at Tolarno Galleries at the time. Georges Mora was still alive and was Howard’s gallerist. He was more like a father to Howard. I spent a lot of time helping Howard in the studio.
I was also working at Dandenong and Prahran TAFE colleges teaching drawing and other subjects.
Our studio was in Windsor, a small first floor factory space. We would lock ourselves in and work. In those days there were no mobile phones, no internet. There was a red phone box nearby. If people wanted to see us they had to call from the phone box. We did not always answer the phone.
reflects on a life in the arts
copyright Christine Johnson