Shadowlands — Ian McDougall, 2008

In 2004 Google acquired a company that had developed a program that could allow you to see any city from above and zoom in, even see your own house. We all know it as Google Earth. I love it. You can have a holiday by panning to Lubliana and looking for famous buildings from this virtual Mt Olympus. I am constantly distracted by the aerial views of famous cities. I love bird’s eye views. I have a book called “Ciudades del globo al satellite”. It is entirely in Spanish. Unreadable to me, but it is a book of aerial views of cities from1500 to 1990. I love books called “Above…” or “…from the Air”. In the pictures in these books, I dream I can see the history of the city, human endeavour writ in the spaces of the city, forces that shape it, an instant diagram of growth, resistance and change. The views transfer you to the time that the picture was taken.

In Australia, that time was often the 1930s or the 1950s, when the wars were still on people’s minds, and taking military photos from planes was paid for by the government. And flying was not generally an everyday experience. Aerial views are allegorical of the modern condition. The capacity to fly, and the capacity to build tall buildings, is an invention of the modern technical world. The plane and the high-rise apartment fulfil the desire for the high overview. The aerial panorama is a view of power and also of detachment. It generates contemplation and wonder. So a black and white aerial photo of Melbourne taken in the mid century catches my attention. Such grey views of our cities are spellbinding. Alluring – like a real memory. 

Some of these pictures blur when you don’t concentrate. High altitude photos can look like atlas maps. But ones taken lower down, those where you can almost see the buildings, they transform into wall rugs or tapestries, where the buildings look as though they are made of bits of cut up fabric. In these old pictures there is too much detail for the camera and the shaky handed photographer. They fuzz nearly into abstraction. 

Abstract, but intermittently recognizable as figures of city things. Louise Forthun understands this. Abstraction and representation are two conditions of the mind and the world. In the twentieth century, we ripped experience apart and polarised its exhibition as either abstraction or mimesis. In theory, there was rarely a blurring of the two. In the 19th century, sometime after the daguerreotype (that gave us Nadar’s balloon photography) and before Malevich’s “Black Square”, artistic anxiety focussed on the condition of both abstract and figured, both operational and representational, both “is” and “not”. The allure of Louise Forthun’s paintings is a re-establishment of this fusion of the figurative and the abstract. She physically engages with the history of the view, through the photograph, and creates these free and glowing puzzles of line and edge, almost recognisable, almost abstract. 

Louise’s method is crafty. She is a stencil artist like no other. Her pictures are painstakingly constructed but look immediate, fresh, and excited. Their energy is urban, like their subject. In the past she has used multiple layers of colour. But more recently she has restricted her palette to a few, sometimes a single hue. Here she is mostly using black and it exaggerates the blurring of view and abstract composition, with a sense of past seediness and secrets. The Melbourne view is particularly agitated; the detail of shapes and lines dancing around what might be the State Library. This optical flippery, abstract/real, makes it hard to distinguish figure from ground. In the Sydney views she creates shapes that make you ask is that a space or a building? It could be a city of ghost structures. The edges look like they are irradiated. There are black shapes, like deep shadows. There are fuzzy zones and bright Cartesian arrays. Are these offices in night time, glowing and distant? Can we see in? Will we see clandestine activity, secret meetings? The city overview constantly attracts, tempts me with potential stories. That feeling of power and detachment, the voyeur’s eye. And this is where Louise succeeds – through her exploitation of these characteristics of the urban overview; wondrous and contemplative and excited and intriguing.

Prof Ian McDougall
Professor of Architecture and Urban Design
University of Adelaide
Ashton Raggat McDougall