talent lies in his ability to pump his images with high levels of graphic
lost or gained, this gem of an exhibition has it all ways."
Neylon, (Art Critic for The Adelaide Review, June 8, 2007)
Series - Kurt
Brereton and Ken Orchard
by Ken Bolton)
Kurt Brereton and Ken Orchard’s pairing makes compelling sense:
both are preoccupied with the meanings that landscape and the environment
acquire—their use and how we experience them. But comparisons don’t
come down to one artist’s feeling for light or the other’s
broader or more controlled ‘touch.’ Even if Orchard and Brereton
were not treating such radically different landscapes their oeuvres would
have no difficulty standing apart.
Kurt Brereton’s work can be typified by its assumption of a lingua
franca—a commonality of visual experience, reference, signs and
knowledge. This has meant that through all its phases his art has never
been off-puttingly specialist. These phases have been many: photographic
sequences, conceptual performance and installation, painted and graphic
work. None of these modes is ever definitively relegated to the past for
Brereton and they can often seem ‘latent’ within and behind
each particular manifestation. The distinctly unusual virtue derived from
this is that Brereton’s work is able to make propositions with great
clarity and frankness and to assume the viewer’s understanding,
complicity even, in this communicative process.
The tone of Brereton’s work can be amused and cajoling, or brusquely
familiar and ‘user-friendly’—or less personable and,
caustic in, say, mockingly offering the unpalatable for our assent. Brereton’s
work is ‘semiotic’: its subjects are signs that show use of
land or the uncaring life lived within our environment. Much of the time
Brereton’s work captures the sensuous, embodied faith in—or
identification with—the physical world that these signs constitute:
the familiarity of motifs, images, mise en scene, being crucial. For Brereton
the liminal world of beach, coast, mangroves, of land meeting sea, and
of movement through its atmospheres—is grasped and reported as a
resource. It is celebrated as what supports us. The mere fact of these
recognitions is often its point. But it is also offered as itself tragically
vulnerable, as what we will lose, fluid and unstable. And it is posited,
often lyrically, as site of our own dramas and existential status, tragic
or exhilarating. The moods vary from the humorous, rueful, to lyrical,
and all the way to dispassionate. It is an exploration of our interaction
with, and definition by, the bodily world around us—of light and
dark, dry and moist, of water, land and air—making of it an avowal,
or drily exposed utilitarian attempt to treat the world as abstract commodity.
Brereton’s exhibition Art Realty (2002), to cite one example, showed
painted landscapes overlaid with real estate’s gridded apportioning
of property: nature and art similarly commercially evaluated by ‘lots’.
Orchard deals with vision and the making visible, or perceptible, and
of what is not immediately apparent in form, pattern and any number of
larger pictorial truths. Brereton’s work deals with the visible
as palimpsest—one overlain with signs, or as an abacus (a breviary,
a concordance, a lexicon) of our meanings, identifications and aspirations.
Orchard’s work is, by comparison, reticent and distanced.
Neither artist’s interest denies the other’s and in fact their
differences also work to suggest similarities—of a mark-making,
meaning-making and re-presentation—the contingent, propositional
nature of (all) art. No matter how visually acute Orchard’s work
is, seen in the light of Brereton’s we see that it is also notation.
Brereton’s work seems to operate at some second or third-order remove
from Orchard’s visual acuity, yet under the stress of seeing that,
we see also see that Brereton’s imagery depends upon and derives
its power from elements of accurate observation. Emotional effect and
tellingly identifications and recognitions are triggered by key accuracies
of detail—despite Brereton’s seeming to operate via abridgement
Both artists are inheritors of Conceptual art. Brereton, in that his work
is happy to forget pictorial landscape tradition for amalgams appropriate
to the semiotic modality on which he plays—collage, montage, assembled
works and studies offered as provisional as well as beautiful. Brereton’s
work analyses the land’s status—as endangered, and degraded,
as commodified product—or resonant sounding-board for cultural aspirations
Orchard’s practice reflects the conceptualist imperative in two
ways. The most often remarked is that his formats are of a serial nature:
often determined in size by their derivation from pre-existing and arbitrarily
chosen sources such as reference book pages. Arbitrary, but not inappropriate.
The closely observed landscape carries references to the land’s
use (directly showing through on the art’s surface beneath the applied
paint) but also makes reference to a systematic, workaday method. The
scars of earlier farming and book-keeping which parallels that of the
artist himself, choosing a task and putting his head down to its methodical
completion. Orchard’s base link to conceptualism is that, while
aware of joining the great tradition of landscape painting, Orchard is
also driven by the notion that art might provide knowledge. Though seductively
rendered, the work is not formalist in motivation. The pictures use the
tradition’s means and format as vehicle for a close and searching
reading of the land. Repetitions of a given figure or motif—of knowing
that today’s perspective will make the tradition’s and formats
sensitive to different issues than they were a century or fifty years
before. Issues related to ecology, urban spread and climate change. They
also raise a less sanguine view of ourselves as colonisers for the last
200 odd years.
Locality is of prime importance here. Of being in the country. Both artists
deal with landscapes in which they are immersed and which they have studied
and absorbed over a long period. In Brereton’s case it is the Illawarra
coastal escarpment. Orchards’ work is the product of intensive and
repeated visits to inland areas around Lake Mungo, an escarpment of another
kind, which feeds gradually into the Murray in South Australia. Arid now,
it was under the ocean millennia ago and can still suggest its marine
formation. In Orchard’s Kitticoola series, we can see a slowly dynamic
geography: of hills meeting plain, of rain shadow, salinity, climate change
fault lines, colonial mining and aboriginal preserves. The overall flat
horizontality allows us intermittently to imagine a seabed with water
rather than sky above: a parallel world and a continuity.
Brereton deals with an environment that surrounds and is less able to
be taken in at a distance. Brereton’s Illawarra is felt up close
as an almost fluid medium in which human life is suspended. Brereton’s
landscape teems ungovernably. The history of time depicted is not that
of geographic time but of rapid, more recent despoliation. Where Orchard’s
sites are, to a degree, abandoned or are part of large, not very populous
settlements, Brereton’s Illawarra is kinetic with crowded life.
In Bulli Escarpment Estate houses spread virally amongst the rainforest
trees of the escarpment.
Ken Orchard’s pen and ink notations capture a cruelly reductive
light that bleaches all against shadows sharply black, with forms suggested
by the briefest silhouetting on their undersides and folds. Orchard’s
ink line often denotes the wiry curl of low-lying scrub and saltbush,
recalls the same intense line that characterised his earlier woodcuts.
Where the viewer searched those as containing narrative clues to a mystery,
here we search for accurate visual registration of form, be it watercourse,
fault-line, or road. Orchard’s line has the bite, still, of the
print medium, a sharpness and definition that equates to the sun’s
in these scenes.
Kurt Brereton creates a shallow depth in which the real shifts in the
surface signs of our prior evaluations, politicized visions and estimations.
Or it may be that the signifying level is foremost with the other reality
riding, moving underneath, like a base pattern carrying a melody of ornamental
motifs. These latter motifs can be repeated, appearing as singular, main-feature
scenes or vignettes, only to reappear in another work, or another part
of the same work, as a note quietly voiced among others, a phrase keyed
differently, or subliminally noticed. In Cabbage Tree Palm Dump they are
cultural: abandoned burnt out cars, hieroglyphs against the picturesque
view. In Bulli Escarpment Estate we recall Japanese wood-block prints
and modern digital graphic equivalents. Interestingly, both artists at
times employ a format akin to Japanese scroll paintings.
Where Brereton’s pictures are awash with human presence, Orchard’s
are devoid of it. The pairing of the artists brings about this thought,
but brings also a reserve realization. That is, in Orchard’s work
the viewer is the presence, a witness arriving after, who interrogates
the land for signs of change and development over time – to indigenous
and settler communities’ views of the land as sustaining, as harsh,
as home or whatever. Orchard dives beneath signs of Australianness, barrenness
or monotony to a real of perceived detail, for its quickening effect.
Hairs rise on the intellectual neck of the viewer as the actual is sensed.
By contrast, Brereton’s pictures deal a higher-revving emotional
charge, generated from another topographic perspective (current and coastal)
yet engaged with many of the same territorial issues drawn into sharp
relief half a continent away.
© Ken Bolton
Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide (2005)