Into the Light — Corbett Lyon, 2011

Louise Forthun has been painting the city with an uncommon passion and intensity for more than twenty years.

Alongside contemporary artists such as Arkley, Morton, Atkins and Wardle, she has found fertile ground for a sustained enquiry into that most ubiquitous manifestation of our urban condition, the contemporary city. It is city as social and cultural construct which interests Forthun, and as an artist she combines her intellectual rigour and conceptual clarity with an extraordinary facility as a painter.

Forthun’s images are made with painstakingly hand cut paper stencils which are over sprayed with coloured pigment to produce intricate patterns of shards and slivers which are overlaid on a background of pure colour. Her paintings do not resolve easily into coherent images; neither figure nor ground is forefronted so that the images hover between the objective and non objective, between discernible forms and fragments of the city and pure abstraction.

Forthun’s oeuvre is not easily classified but if one looks at her work over the course of her practice there are discernable groupings, and threads which weave in and out of the work.

One aspect of her practice concerns abstractions of emblematic structures from the world’s cities – the harbour bridge in Sydney, Paris’s Eiffel Tower, a construction site in central Melbourne, the forum of ancient Rome. In these works Forthun frames the image in tight single point perspective and in doing so draws us, the viewer, into the space of the painting. These works are deeply immersive and generate an implied spatial field around the viewer.

Other works in her oeuvre depict the city viewed obliquely from above. Here the artist positions us as the detached viewer, the voyeur, floating silently above the city, gazing with wonderment at the complexity and spectacle of the metropolis below. These works represent the city through abstractions of its topology – its building forms, open spaces and roofscapes. Curiously, or perhaps intentionally, the city’s roads and streets are hidden from our view and we are left to read the inhabitation of the city by implication, between the canyon like spaces of its three dimensional form. While these works acknowledge a connection to the photographic image they do not attempt to be realistic depictions of the cityscape. Forthun is concerned with representing the essence, substance and matter of the city through her unique process of abstraction.

One of the major works in this current exhibition, titled ‘Bright Light’ 2011, captures an oblique view of Forthun’s home city of Melbourne and it is one of her most ambitious works to date. The grain and texture of the city are rendered with an urban toughness with fragments, lines and planes of colour rendered in high contrast black and white over a high key orange, yellow and blue background. By reversing the stencils, Forthun creates a Rorschachian symmetry in the image which curiously duplicates Melbourne’s landmarks across an imaginary centreline.

The other major work in this exhibition, a monumental triptych of Melbourne titled ‘Into the Light’ 2011, and perhaps her most astonishing work, uses maps as its conceptual starting point. Maps are themselves abstractions of the city, tracing the patterns of human settlement across the landscape and holding within them the implied cultural richness and complexity of the contemporary metropolis.

In this work Forthun’s meticulously hand cut stencils erase the hierarchies between Melbourne’s freeways, urban streets and laneways so that the pattern of the city is rendered, through her process of abstraction, with a kind of equivalence across its vast expanse. Skeins of colour and line are layered one upon another at different scales to create a labyrinthine complexity which talks of the city but which is wholly new, and of the painting. This is not perspectival space in the classical sense but an enigmatic, layered spatial construction. Here Forthun renders the substance of the city with breathtaking confidence as a sublime filigree of colour, translucency and light.

In this exhibition we are privileged to share these new perspectives on the city through the mind, and eyes, of one of Australia’s most accomplished painters.

Dr Corbett Lyon