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Anita West

When I met Anita West, as this summer just gone was in its dwindling days, we walked through some scrub on the outskirts of northern Sydney to see her works in storage. As we passed gradually through the eucalypts, West peered through them, looking for traces of chalky white and particular greens in the leaves. She commented to me that being in this environment – "this" being the bush that covers much of the east coast of Australia – asks us to inhabit different, more enlivened, ways of seeing. When West is in the land, she is a landscape painter after a long Australian tradition: looking at the light, the textures of our foliage, and the lives we people live amongst our natural surrounds. When she is in the studio, however, she is just as interested in abstraction, in formal game-playing, and in relinquishing control to her materials. 

West works now in a studio in Brisbane. She’s surrounded in this environment by concrete, traffic, glitz. Many of her works recall beloved landscapes: the Blue Mountains on the Country of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples, or the land around the Redlands home where she lived for almost fifteen years with her family. “It backed onto a bush reserve,” she says, “with serene views from my kitchen window across the liquid blue pool through the gum trees and across the river. In the summertime, the bauhinia trees came to life with their large heart-shaped leaves with delicate white flowers. Every day I would walk past them with my son’s border collie. In the winter months, the dawn mist would soften the snowflake bushes surrounding the water and I filled my days in my home studio with this constantly changing bush outlook.  After we sold and moved away, I felt that I had to honour the memories and the place that gave me so much joy.” One look at her immersive works, though, will tell you that straightforward visual mimesis, in a “realist” framework, is not the kind of recollection that West is interested in. She paints after the feeling of being in the bush – and from this feeling, a work emerges through its own moments of happenstance, rules of play, and formal demands. 

She often works on two paintings at once. As she explains it, this is a matter of expedience: once she’s working on a particular recalled landscape, the conversation she has with her canvases can generate too many ideas, too many possibilities for visual elaboration, for one frame. Working for a period of three weeks or so on each piece, she begins by collecting resource material: “Photos, thumbnail sketches, text, images, writings, and a basic conceptual plan.” Once these are collected, she describes, “I use transparent colours mixed with lots of medium and water, and brush the colour over the horizontal linen stretcher frame. I can then manipulate the surface layer to create blended colour and textural effects. At this stage I am looking to create enough interesting ideas and patterns so that I can map out a pathway for the creation if a landscape . . . This early process is mostly intuitive and very loose.”

From here, the work becomes more representational; trees, leaves, waterways, and flowers enter the frame. These are, however, by now in service of the work’s own rhythmic demands. They function as paths for the eye to follow. In Bauhinia Lagoon and the Snowflake, 2021, for example, the eye is whipped around the canvas by splashes of light: white flowers which become almost marks of pure gesture are woven through with vibrant orange, before our attention is thrown across to a field of blue. Our gaze doesn’t recede back into a horizon line, as it would in conventional landscape painting, but rather chases a flattened field of line and colour around the length and height of the frame. Recently, West has moved more and more towards square canvases, primarily because she likes a challenge: “I’m never quite sure how to balance things, where to place forms or how to unify parts into the whole. I like to have a sense of flow in the works so the viewer’s gaze stays wrapped up in the movement of ideas . . . and the square format pushes my abilities.” 

“I search for a landscape within the layers,” says West, when describing the literal “actions” that make up her painting process. Perhaps we might think of this as a broader philosophical description of what she’s doing, as well. Layers of paint, layers of memory, and of feeling: landscape is, in her hands, a complete way of seeing, and of being with place and each other.

EXHIBITION
Listening to the Bush
29 April – 10 May 2022
Harvey Galleries, Sydney 

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