John Wolseley: The Quiet Conservationist & Ann Greenwood: Following Threads

When John Wolseley arrived in Australia in 1976, he was already a well-trained and well-established thirty-eight-year-old English painter and printmaker with numerous exhibitions to his credit. He had trained at art schools in London, Byam Shaw and the St Martin’s, then worked with S.W. Hayter in Paris, and later at the Birgit Skiöld’s print workshop in London. He was primarily a landscape artist, a modernist and passionate environmentalist.

He came to Australia as much to escape Europe as to try a new beginning in a new country. After a short spell in Newcastle as an artist-in-residence at the local CAE, he gravitated to Gippsland in Victoria, where he found employment at the Gippsland School of Art at Churchill. Unlike Europe, where every bit of the landscape had been “seen” through artist’s eyes–Claude, Constable, Turner–the Australian landscape appeared virginal and largely untouched by the European artist’s gaze.

Reflecting on this time, Wolseley later noted: “Within a few days of coming to Australia, I realised that what I had been trying to do in England was something I could do here. What I would have liked to have done in England, but couldn’t because the English landscape has been so much painted, has been so much explored, that it’s very difficult to be in a place, and experience it in a full-blooded way, and describe it in a new way. It’s very difficult. Whilst here, I go to places where no white man has ever been. Sometimes, even where white man has never painted. So this is extraordinary to me.”

Simultaneously, while Wolseley was discovering the Australian landscape, he became aware that various forestry, farming and bureaucratic interests were rapidly destroying the local environment, logging old growth forests and baiting the countryside with poison 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) that, apart from killing rabbits, foxes and feral animals, also indiscriminately killed the local wildlife. The 1970s was a period of environmental and political activism amongst Australian artists, including the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania, and Wolseley inspired his art school students to take action through demonstrations and political posters.

The exhibition at the Gippsland Art Gallery assembles a collection of primarily Wolseley’s Gippsland artwork and some of his other overtly environmental pieces and, in a separate exhibition, “Power to the people!” that of political posters by some of his students.

In some ways, it is difficult to separate in Wolseley’s oeuvre work that is generally concerned with environmental issues and work that is overtly an environmental protest. While back in Europe, he was concerned with environmental issues and this was clearly reflected in the prints that he made. In Australia, the struggle intensified and has continued through to the present day. This concern is evident in virtually all of his art.

Although there are occasional pieces that fall into the category of a clenched fisted protest that simply cries, “Stop, before it is too late,” most of Wolseley’s art involves us on an intellectual journey where we are called on to confront the bigger picture and come to our own realisation that what is happening is unsustainable and catastrophic. As an artist, Wolseley has always been somewhere between a prophet and poet, where the seductive beauty of his work powerfully projects a message that is both a prayer and a confession.

Wolseley may not be a particularly quiet conservationist, but a very articulate and persuasive one, an artist whose love for nature and its preservation shines forth in this strong exhibition studded with many rarely seen gems.

A separate exhibition at the Gippsland Art Gallery presents a retrospective of the textile work of Ann Greenwood. Although she is a year younger than Wolseley, born in 1939, her art does not enjoy the widespread acclaim of Wolseley. Greenwood until 2018 was based in Gippsland, when at the age of seventy-nine she moved to Berwick, on the outer fringes of Melbourne.

Initially trained as a schoolteacher, Greenwood took up weaving to manage post-natal depression and proceeded to make large-scale wall hangings that were well received by the general art audience and in publications dealing with fibre art. She was also an inspiring teacher of textile art. Her work in the exhibition from the early 1990s frequently employed simple, colourful emblematic shapes and in their titles drawing on pagan mythology and Christian themes, including the Seven Days of Creation. In this, one is reminded of the emblematic symbolism that one associates with Leonard French’s monumental panels and stained glass windows of several decades earlier.

While there are few relevant formal parallels between Greenwood and French, there is a parallel in the exploration of spiritualism and symbolism, where the desire is to embrace a transcendental realm that is not firmly anchored in the literal and material worlds.

In some ways, Greenwood is an “accidental artist,” one who did not set out to be an artist, but fell naturally into her medium, like a bird falls into song. In 1995, illness prevented Greenwood from weaving on a loom and rather than abandoning fibre art altogether, she commenced a new career as an embroiderer and created small intricate usually circular abstracted pieces with a rich palette and occasionally employing silver and gold thread to add to the vitality of the surface.

When you encounter her work for the first time, you enter an enchanted world that one could perhaps associate with Indian miniatures rich in detail and story telling potential. The viewer is introduced into a world of peacocks, octopuses, mandorlas, pearls and roses. It is a fantasy world where Jungian symbolism holds hands with a fairy tale-like imagination. While technically they are quite simple embroideries, compared with such Australian textile artists as Alison Cole and Meredith Woolnough, Greenwood’s embroideries possess the quality of an enchanted fairly tale that creates its own reality and sense of preciousness.

This retrospective exhibition, invites the viewer into a private journey of exploration where the boundary between reality and a daydream dissolves and we are introduced to these personal luminous gems.

The Gippsland Art Gallery, for a number of years, has been punching above its weight as a small regional art gallery, and has been mounting significant exhibitions that carry much more than a local significance.

John Wolseley: The Quiet Conservationist & Ann Greenwood: Following Threads – A Retrospective 
Gippsland Art Gallery, VIC
2 December 2023 – 18 February 2024 

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