Mary Tonkin

First exhibited at Australian Galleries the year it was completed, the extraordinary Ramble, Kalorama, 2017–19, is Mary Tonkin's largest painted work to date. It was shown in Victoria for extended periods at Whitehorse Artspace in 2020, and in 2021 at Burrinja Cultural Centre, and will make its interstate debut at Sydney Contemporary in 2022.

One of Australia’s pre-eminent landscape artists, Mary Tonkin’s practice is centred around Kalorama, located on the outer-eastern fringe of Melbourne, adjacent to Mount Dandenong. Her grandfather established a farm there in the 1930s that still supplies rare bulbs and cut flowers. She knows the environs intimately, having made it her artistic focus for the last twenty years. 

Tonkin works en plein air, a process documented for the first time by the National Gallery of Victoria for their web series inspired by the exhibition She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism, 2021. The stereotypical notion of the smock-wearing artist perched imperiously on a hilltop, or ponderously surveying a vista, is anathema to Tonkin’s robust practice. 

“I’m right up in it, I need forms to be within my physical space, the closest forms I can usually touch. What I like about the Australian bush is the unruliness and messiness of it. I paint in relation to the presence of those forms . . .  it’s kind of a mysterious process for me, I just figure out what makes my pulse beat faster.” 

In 2002, Tonkin was awarded the now-discontinued Dobell Prize for Drawing, and was selected to participate in the inaugural Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial, 2014. She presented the charcoal on paper work, Between Two Logs, Kalorama, 2013–14. Spanning twenty-six sheets, it is a tour de force at fourteen metres long, and took over nine months to complete. The immensely ambitious Ramble, Kalorama, at twenty-one panels and almost nineteen metres long, focuses on the same area of the bush as its earlier companion. 

The project began when Penelope Gebhardt, co-founder of Silver Leaf Art Box, Merricks, Victoria, asked Tonkin to participate in a curated exhibition, resulting in the two end panels. “Having established the composition with a drawing, I initially put it aside; it was going to be absurdly long. As I completed the end two panels, I realised I needed to make it,” Tonkin recalls. “I wanted to convey the immersive, episodic experience of looking – how it feels to be enfolded in the sensual envelope of that bush for long periods of time. When I stand with it now, I think it would be good to have some more height, to better convey the soaring grandeur of the forest. I don’t know if I’d make something that large again: it’s a question of time, funds, storage . . . bursts of insanity.”

A finalist in the recent Hadley’s Art Prize, and the winner of the Holding Redlich People’s Choice Award at the 2022 Salon des Refusés, Tonkin’s solo exhibition at Sydney Contemporary will also feature five new larger-scale works, smaller paintings and drawings, and wall-mounted ceramic reliefs. Most of these pieces were nearing completion before the Dandenong Ranges were hit by a catastrophic storm on 9 June 2021. After, Kalorama, 2021, is Tonkin’s response to the upended landscape. “In many ways it’s a celebration of the glorious, chaotic mess of felled trees. It is a compulsion similar to that which made me draw my father as he was dying, a need to be present and bear witness to the beauty, the grief, and horror. To be present and look unswervingly.”   

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2021.

Australian Galleries at Sydney Contemporary
8–11 September 2022
Carriageworks, Sydney

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