Rebecca Rath

Rath's 'Mountain Songs,' on show at the Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre, play out the resistance of the landscape to the mastery of the painter's brush.

The oils streaked across the canvases in Rebecca Rath’s ‘Strange and capricious land’ series are robust; resistant. They hold their shape, appearing just like what they are – streaks of oil – rather than like the features of the landscape to which they refer. In The strange and capricious land ii, 2021, a streak of cobalt blue dashes, zig-zagging, through the strokes of earthy green and orange. The strange and capricious land iii, 2021, this orange recurs piled down the right side of the frame, both rendering a rock face and obscuring it beneath the texture and movement of the paint itself. These are paintings about the ways in which landscape, too, can be resistant: to mastery, to mere comprehension, to constancy and comfort – especially in a colonial context. This is not to say that this ‘capriciousness’ which Rath identifies in the land is necessarily some contrarian coldness in an environment which simply does not wish to be known. Rather, her landscape’s evasiveness – its tendency to give a hint of itself and then slip away before our eyes – is a kind of enchantment. Rath’s landscape is rendered with deep affection, and, ultimately, with humility. 

Clearly, these works emerge from time spent within, and deep attachment to, the landscape in rural and regional New South Wales. Rath, who is based in Pokolbin, often paints en plein air through the Hunter Valley, observing the light as it  falls through the rises and dips in this environment. In some instances, Rath’s paintings at the Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre are named for the specific locations in which they were painted, and which they represent. In others, ‘strangeness’ of the land is carried through in Rath’s decision not to name the place in and of the painting. Rath’s relationship to these landscapes, then, is embodied, and the paintings foreground the haptic experience which is their basis. Her brush strokes are gestural – broad, free – and her colours expressive. They emphasise the painter (and the paint), rather than insisting on power to represent the painted land.

Though this way of working stems from her lived engagement with her environment, we can also see it as an historically informed practice. Rath takes up a baton passed to her by a number of modern Australian landscape painters. The late Geoff Dyer, with his emphasis on colour as a conduit for emotive and imaginative experience, sets Rath a clear precedent, for instance. And, yet, this work is particular, and entirely Rath’s own. The palette, for instance, is distinctive in its oscillation between full-throated blues and soft pinks. There is a sense that Rath’s landscapes are always seen in sunrise or sunset: when the light is on the move, and the forms of the environment shift in and out of our perceptive grasp.

The enchantment with which Rath approaches and renders the land is a strong ontological statement about our human dependence on, and interwovenness within, our environments. It might even be an interestingly gendered position: the woman painting the landscape not as its keeper and master, but as its student, its caretaker, and its companion.  It also presents an ethical imperative. It commands us, as the audience, to look, to attend, and to listen to the painted ‘Mountain Songs’ around us both within the gallery and without.

Rebecca Rath: Mountain Songs
10 May – 26 June 2021
Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre, NSW


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