Sam Field

In a catalogue essay for Sam Field's current show at Despard Gallery, Hobart – "I thought I saw Eden" – our International Writer, Pippa Mott, follows Field's search for something beyond lost innocence through Far North Queensland.

I thought I saw Eden brings together a suite of paintings produced in the aftermath of Sam Field’s journey throughout Far North Queensland. Interrogating the act and impulse of travelling, Field contemplates the assumptions, projections, and mythologies that permeate our experiences of “othered” places. Embedded within the series is a reflection on innocence lost: the idea that over time, it becomes more difficult to access the thrill and magic that encounters with unfamiliar territories once yielded. Field observes that “I can’t work out if the internet has oversaturated and desensitized us, or if things lose their gloss as you get older. I think it’s probably both.” Despite this, Field continues to search for “a piece of the puzzle that tethers me to my own existence,” throughout his Australian pilgrimages.  

Throughout the series, Field’s idiosyncratically playful but restless style is charged with the dualisms of naivety and cynicism that drive the work conceptually. The compositions, which radically subvert traditional perspective, incorporate Field’s interest in physiological optics. Amazed by the richness of insect life within the region – “moths and beetles and all sorts of odd, but colourful little things” – Field found the closest thing to Eden within these details, prompting considerations around ways of looking and the existence of worlds within worlds; “​​We can see grand vistas of mountains and oceans but also minute detail like the pattern on a snail shell or the skeleton of a leaf – and often they mimic each other.” The wide-angle, totalising view is not necessarily the most sensational or true; it is a cognitive construct that compensates for our bi-focal shortcomings. As such, normative scale is abandoned and artificial framing devices hone in on the theatrics of viewfinding, whilst some paintings self-consciously suggest the mechanics of our visual field. Two large scale works on charred panel, Night garden (dunk island), 2021, and Two waterfalls,2021, visualise the rainforest at night. Field was interested in both the physiology and experiential effect of night vision: where our rod photoreceptors capture surroundings completely desaturated, in spectral grayscale. 

Despite their overarching existential musings, Field’s paintings revel in the complexity and variety of terrestrial ecosystems that comprise Far North Queensland. Like a “finely woven tapestry,” rainforest, mangrove, and savannah exist in improbably exquisite balance – deftly captured in all their splendour through the application of colour theory. Elsewhere, unnatural interlopers abound and the balance is manifestly out of whack. A number of works are populated by the outright invasive (cats), agriculturally sanctioned (brahman cattle and dragon fruit), or imagined (an axolotl). Whilst the majority of these creatures were drawn from direct observation, Field notes the influence of Jungian philosophy and “the weight of history – the responsibility and tension of existing on this continent as an introduced species in my own right” – which perhaps contributes to occasional anthropomorphisation. Cows in a dragonfruit orchard, 2021, depicts brahman cattle with remarkably intelligent eyes tenderly fucking. Bird over marble quarry, 2021, features a ginormous cockatiel mid-flight and an ambiguous blue bird-man rooted to the earth. Three mining scenes, Sunset over mineshaft #1, Sunset over mineshaft #2, and Sunset over mineshaft #3, all 2021, further demonstrate Eden’s interrupted equilibrium. 

Notions of disruption and chaos stand in equal measure to moments of circularity and cosmic connection. The limpet, the lotus, and the paperpark tree, 2021, captures a scene from the Rinyirru National Park, where land and sea are enmeshed in a seasonal rhythm of coalescence and dissociation. During the wet season, the waterways swell and fuse the entire area with the ocean. Field renders the drier months: the billabong, though still brilliant and blue, has shrunken, the lotus flowers thrive, and a single limpet is a saltwater relic. We are reminded of Cretaceous Era Australia, a period throughout which much of the extant far northern coastline was submerged. In The moth and the green ray, 2021, a gargantuan Hercules moth is endowed with its own mythology – eternally chasing the green flash sunset, thus bound to the earth’s rotation. Field wanted to elicit the “yin and yang, or cyclical nature of the earth and everything on it.” The work gently returns to themes of optics and experience, too – the mirage of the green flash being an optical phenomenon of the rarest order.

Throughout I thought I saw Eden, cynicism and chagrin give way to epiphany. Reflecting on the genesis of the series, Field recalls a conversation with a former boss – a builder who whilst tucking into a laksa remarked, “Mate can you imagine being a sailor in the East India company, you’ve eaten nothing but shit tucker like salted pork and turnips your whole life and then you arrive in Batavia and get a proper good spicy curry, it would have rocked their fucken world!” Field opines – “I’m looking for that spicy curry. Maybe the works are about not settling for lost innocence – but pushing past it, seeking magic, looking for something more.” 

I thought I saw Eden
2 – 26 March 2022
Despard Gallery, Hobart

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