Catherine Cassidy

Catherine Cassidy has been making trips to regional and arid regions over Australia for many years, painting en plein air across the landscape. Her works – increasingly “abstract” and always interested in the gestural mark, and the authority of paint itself – don’t look like what you think a plein-air painter’s works look like.

In a recent statement, Cassidy described her interest in deep ecological time, as it changes and sculpts the land on which she works. Travelling as far north as the Gregory River, in to the Finke River, and out to Lake Eyre, Cassidy observes the marks that the passage of millennia leaves around her. “I find lingering after-images,” she says, “in places where deep time has long had its way with the landscape . . . where it has converted a once teeming with life Cambrian Reef into a showering cascade over the top of a lonely pink mesa, somewhere where I can roam along the original, ancient rim of what was once a vast inland sea . . .” As she travels, Cassidy must observe the incremental, and inexorable, shape-shifting of the earth: the way that rivers carve out valleys as they move, the crushing together and breaking apart of bodies of stone, and the work of wind and water to erode the edges of the land. 

Cassidy’s paintings reflect this observation of time’s passing not through “mimesis”or direct illustration, but through the iterations of her mark-making, and the echoes and impressions of forms on her canvases. In Pink Lake I, 2022, the canvas is divided evenly into two square fields, each the visual inverse of the other (like a Rorschach test in an inventive mood, or the front and back of embroidered fabric). Moving across the field in wavering streams are repetitive, earnest strokes of paint; they’re translucent enough that their layering over each other can be clearly seen, but also highly pigmented, so that their colours each sing vibrantly and individually. The whitened centre of one frame echoes, in inverse, the pink centre of the next, as if each “lake” bore the footprint of the other. When we look “into” the painting – which refuses the receding perspective that is traditionally part of landscape’s vocabulary – what we see is the iteration of Cassidy’s marks over and over, and the way that the painting has informed itself through a subtle, almost ghostly, logic of creation all its own. 

Expressing an interest in what holds the landscape together – in her own account, “Air and Light and Energy” – Cassidy has developed an approach to abstraction which references the “world” but not necessarily the “things” within it. It is tempting, and often not incorrect, to think of abstraction’s materials as physical, formal things: line, shape, colour, ground. Certainly Cassidy’s paintings can be seen in this way; but they can also be seen as bodying forth the abstracted qualities of lightness, spaciousness, warmth, and energy (as Cassidy puts it, “these unnameable, nebulous things”) which don’t index so easily onto either other world around the painter, or any of the painting’s visual “features.”

This approach to abstraction carves a good middle road between a claim of “oneness” with the landscape which can often feel disingenuous, if not ill-informed, and the sense of “alienation” from the land which has become a worn trope in painting about regional Australia since colonisation. Rather than sit within either of these camps, Cassidy’s engagement with landscape is divested of the “personality” of the artist and their encounter with land, in a shift towards something like compassion with the more-than-human world, without presumed mastery. In works such as black sky, black water, white cockatoo, 2022, Night Tables and Dunes, 2022, and End of the River, 2022 – as, really, with all works currently showing at Defiance Gallery – Cassidy’s senses of attentiveness and expansiveness offer extended moments of fresh air.

black sky black water white cockatoo
4 – 25 June 2022
Defiance Gallery, Sydney

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