My art practice has been primarily concerned with the dynamism of architectural space. Created by spraying aerosol paint through handmade paper stencils, the canvasses convey abstract representations of the built environment. Melbourne, the city where I live and other cities I have spent time in, are seen obliquely from above or below. They became subject matter, reasoning that this method was a way to create a type of portrait, a mapping of a woman’s life as she moved through the city.
During the process of making the paintings, tangles of paper stencils piled up in the studio as they were removed, dripping with paint, from the painting’s surface. Days were spent untangling, wiping, drying, and mending tears, so that the stencil could be reattached to the surface to create a new layer. It was during the motion of attaching, spraying, removing, cleaning, and fixing that I began to imagine a more direct creation of a three-dimensional paper object.
Just before the pandemic I visited Tokyo to renew my interest in both the urban landscape and the wonderful Japanese art and craft traditions. On my return the sudden and forced isolation of the 2020 lockdown enabled me to work alone for longer, uninterrupted periods, allowing intense scrutiny and play.
During this time, I was able to develop a new trajectory to my practice where I found myself crushing, folding, and pressing paper into tight forms. The forms were then released and gently pulled apart to become an almost flat crumpled form. I was presented with an intriguing set of folds and patterns which communicated a variety of imagined landforms and structures reminiscent of topological views. Masking certain areas, I began to apply layers of colour to the textured paper illuminating the surface.
Wishing to emphasise the sculptural form of the crumpled paper, I began to experiment with ways to make a model for casting. After painting multiple layers of wax onto the paper’s surface, this model or carapace was taken to the foundry where the ‘lost-wax’ bronze technique was set in motion. The result is a solid, exact bronze replica of the waxed paperwork. Some sculptures stand vertically, hovering low in front of a small supporting base while others are presented horizontally on a plinth and are supported by a post from behind.
The relationship between the paper works and the sculptures – their fragility and strength refer to the idea of the city, where the city is represented by a screen of intersecting horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines jangling together and apart, inviting us in. The crushed and folded paper works, and the more solid, pleated, and crinkled sculptures are little essences of the wider city panorama.
Solid Air — Giles Fielke, 2022
If we can imagine that the wind, physical and immaterial, lends Louise Forthun’s work an otherwise obscure link to its environment, a number of new observations become possible. That these objects are not simply constructed, or her practice solely occupied with human-made structures, for example. A focus on cities, on views, requires immediacy. We must be there, projected in to it—but so must the air, or atmosphere, in which we are situated. This is not a vacuum, but a flowing, breathing space. Not unlike the space required to go out and see the cityscape, to take in the air, the gaps between Forthun’s hand and the paper support of these new works—or the viewer’s distance from the humble bronzes—are given over to the almost imperceptible fluctuations of their environment.
Like cities, the studio and the gallery exist in real space. Yet just as the city air once made us free, our urban centres today are nodes within a wider ecological frame of containment. Never was this more keenly felt than in our recent panic and the responses to the airborne contagion of the COVID-19 pandemic. Solid, impermeable materials, and their regulatory borders, are needed to construct the city as a monumental, living sculpture—even one still dedicated to freedom. As readers of these works we are removed again by their documentation, and by the orientation of the surface as it is presented to us by the book. It is as if they are remnants of a ghost story, for adults perhaps, but from a time before they were taken.
The paper works soak in the colours, collected and driven in by the contingent folds and ridges, a kind of violence is enacted on the support. Forthun’s abstractions are mostly on Arches paper, folded and punished, the blown synthetic polymer paints compete and dust the battered surface and also interact with the ambient light and proximity of the viewer. The Arches paper lends ground to this indexing of the wind, it is architectural as much as it is organic. The paper is dried in the air.
This application of paint from a distance, using a spray, invites a chance encounter with the environment in a way that extends upon Forthun’s earlier works on plywood sheets and other flat surfaces. Extraction is required, she tells me, even though it took her some time to adjust her work in the studio to the effects of paint particles not adhered to their targets. Perhaps because they look discarded, or rejected, the availability of the crumpled surfaces of the supports to be coated, or cast, is always surprising—it’s possible to read something in them, like the frustration of an idea.
In an essay from 1970, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” feminist scholar Jo Freeman aka Joreen writes with notable concern that even by this relatively nascent stage in the era of civil rights discourses and second wave feminism, ‘the idea of “structurelessness” has created the “star” system’.1 Coming from the women’s liberation movement and civil rights organising on the west coast of the US, this was a riposte to the burgeoning enthusiasm for so-called anti-authoritarianism at the time and was critical in the sense that it recognised formlessness as responsible for allowing the media to reproduce its “star” system for the movement— the solution was, frustratingly, neither one nor the other: there is always a structure. I am reminded of this while looking at both the sculptures and works on paper; the recognition of the formlessness of air returns us to the structure of the work.
Looking at Forthun’s paper works and then the bronze sculptures inverts the process of the illusion. Here the weight of the object is withdrawn by its delicate balance, upright and un-oriented to real space—the topological indeterminacy of both the paper works and the bronzes, their proximity to industrial materials like tinfoil or plaster, is exacerbated by their documentation in camera.
The abstraction away from their environment, like floating signifiers, means they are unadorned or marked by a specific anchor in the real world. The legs on the bronzes are like the buttress for a picture frame, connecting them through the downward force of gravity. But the image is shattered. Instead, we are made aware of our presence in relation to the work, momentarily similar to Robert Morris’s or Donald Judd’s minimal sculptures, specific objects. Rather than a mirror, their surfaces are organic and a contingent encounter with the environment, one that is fleeting and difficult to detect.
For nearly four decades, Forthun’s intense engagement with the application of paint—from a distance—has usually aimed at scaling up. These new works remain illusory, and intoxicating, yet in real space they jut out into three-dimensions. This reminds us of their application. The works are small—most often displayed in a vitrine or on a plinth or pinned to the wall with magnets and allowed to tremble slightly with the changes of atmospheric pressure. Yet they remain uncontained, they transcend the city—through the air—and might travel or be blown in the wind.
1 Jo Freeman aka Joreen, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” (1970). Retrieved from https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm accessed 21 October 2022.
My Collecting — Leon van Schaik, 2019
“The writer is envious of the painter; he wishes he could make sketches, take notes, but if he does, he is lost” (Michel Proust)
In a way Victoria Newhouse has said it all in the title of her book: Art and the Power of Placement. Or rather I could parse this (and its contents) to make it stand for what I think I have been doing. I’d place the emphasis on ‘place’, on ‘placing’. Of course, something is being placed, and that is both me and the art, the architecture, the music and the writing that captures my imagination. The conversations too. No surprise to those who know my thinking about spatial intelligence and the way in which each of us develops spatial thinking from the workings of this intelligence, our shared capability, as it grinds up against the places that we inhabit and have inhabited.
Looking back rather more idly than concertedly, I recall images in places. The watercolour of haymaking made by my father on the fields of my grandparent’s farm, framed in pale honeyed oak to match the settle that my father also made as he pursued his love of William Morris England. Or the Hunting Prints in my grandparent’s house: “The Reverend Taking It Coolly” showing a portly body in red falling into a stream… framed in lacquered black and one amongst several in the white-washed dining hall, reflected in the French polished surface of the huge table… Or up in the mountain lodge, watching clouds sheath and unsheathe the cliffs, and poring over old copies of Country Life, marvelling at the image of two men in Oxford bags on the veranda of the Mount Nelson Hotel, the Lions Head visible beyond, captioned: “In Cape Town They are Saying that my next car is a Morris.”
These images, a handful out of hundreds, possibly thousands, are part of a collection in my mind’s eye that shaped the world, as I then knew it. My mental collection, still accessible.
Translated to Buckinghamshire there were new images for me to assimilate. Few of them outside major or minor monuments lived up to their forebears in Country Life or Field magazine. But, “Now as I was Young and Easy…” as I recited Dylan Thomas in English class, school brought about a new way of looking at things through the minutiae of nature: the Barbara Hepworths in the geometry of ‘swelling buds’ of Sycamore trees, the Henry Moore swaddled figures discernible in worm-castings picked up on the sports fields, the Grahame Sutherlands in the flints and hawthorn bushes, the John Pipers in Hedsor Church windows… It was rather looking at nature through the works of artists!
I escaped this tweedy craftiness by heading north, attracted by Richard Hamilton’s “Just what is it that makes today’s home so appealing?” With its satellite photo of the surface of the moon, its film-posters, its extendable hose vacuum cleaner and its Charles Atlas muscle man… Here, swayed by the camp glamour of Mark Lancaster and David Sweetman, I began a collection as such: a treasured work-in-progress print of a Hamilton work, a scattering of tiny Stephen Buckleys, and, on my twenty-first birthday, a large painting by Bryan Ferry. In London, I met Kate Heron, my first and enduring as it has turned out, work collaborator. A Patrick Heron Print and some Suzannah Heron jewellery, and an Ossie Clark dress came into the orbit of the partnership that Cath Stutterheim and I built and maintain.
Living my “life on a line” and in “remote occasions” (how often I humiliatingly misspelled this as ‘ocassions’) between London and Johannesburg for a decade mostly I crafted works that explored that experience, poems and coloured ideograms, exhibited at ArtNet in the early 1980s. The poems are in “Eidetics” a limited-edition artists’ book done with Peter Lyssiotis through his Masterthief imprint (2016), the ideograms are in private collections. During this time straddling two continents and thus, as Afrikaners had it, with my genitals in the sea, I was a ‘soutpeil’. Pivoting between cultures, part of neither perhaps, part of something else, a hope for betterment for people long disadvantaged.
Then Australia. Melbourne. Reading my way in through Australian books. And thinking about how to ‘get’ a sense of being in this place and deciding to get it through the art of the place. Inverting Newhouse’s argument about how art is made or unmade by its placement, by making myself through my relationship to works that I put on my walls. I started insignificantly and small. Buckley small. A false start. Wrong to replicate a previous experience. As I realised this, Louise invited me to her studio. This was the result:
FORTHUN, LOUISE, 1520 X 2280, 1992, REMEMBERING SYDNEY, OIL / LINEN
For some years the only wall big enough for it was over my bed. Not being very fond of Sydney as a city, it amused me that I was sleeping under its bridge, for which there was a quarter full-size model across the Tyne at Newcastle… Thus, the picture became part of my life-line…
All my collected works do something like this. Situate me here, then swing me on parabolas to other works and other worlds. They are magic carpets… grounding me here as do the few rugs that I have on my black floorboards; the Persian paradise garden mat on which I do my daily workout, palms down onto a pencil pine and a peacock, toes on a peacock and a pencil pine, both anchors me and floats me off into the history of gardens: as was said of Alcibiades: “… among Persians he matched his hosts’ luxurious tastes and love of gardens…”
Something of a garden in the undulating field of my next purchases from Louise, the first of which is in a folder in my mobile art storage unit, and the second of which lives with my coloured ideograms in Cath Stutterheim’s collection:
FORTHUN, LOUISE, 500 X 500, 1995, SKETCH PAPER, $ XXX, ARTIST
FORTHUN, LOUISE, 1000 X 710, 1997, MALE YUKATA PATTERN, $XXX, TOLARNO GALLERIES
Before Male Yukata pattern, ‘Remembering Sydney’ was joined by
FORTHUN, LOUISE, 1150 X 1150, 1995, GLASS, OIL / LINEN, $ XXXX, TOLARNO GALLERIES
a lyrical work that had been on a tour through Asia and that transports me into the blue, so to speak. A more recent work of Louise’s in my collection is
FORTHUN, LOUISE, POLE, 2007, SIEVX Memorial Project, GUMPOLE, $XXXX, SIEVX COMMITTEE
This brings politics bang into the room, as it was sold to part-fund the Canberra memorial to this maritime disaster, a memorial arranged by SueAnne Ware, then my research collaborator here at RMIT. That disturbance takes me back to my work for the Urban Foundation under the directorship of Cyril Ramaphosa and Rick Menell, and my years of collaborating with Hope Ramaphosa. Working to ameliorate the conditions of the disadvantaged in and around Johannesburg.
And last year (2018) this arrived:
FORTHUN, LOUISE, 715 X 560, 2018, SOLAR, Acrylic/Canvas, $XXXX, BLOCKPROJECTS GALLERY
‘Solar’ glows across my writing desk, leading my thoughts to the construction cranes of this so rapidly changed city, in which I have a toehold…
So, I think, as is said of Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, each picture lifts me into a “particular affection for works – like my own – that appear personal but contain entire worlds.”
Each work – I could append a schedule, but will not – says to me, as Gabrielle Josipovici says of Pierre Bonnard’s paintings: “… this is life, this is what my life is; we can’t look down and understand (completely); but what a miracle to be alive.”
Sometimes late at night or early in the morning when the city is quiet, I sit and drift into the worlds that each of the works in the collection holds in its arms …
Later… the writer realizes that he … has been filling his notebook with sketches all along, without even being aware of it. (Marcel Proust)
Leon van Schaik AO, Emeritus Professor of Architecture, RMIT University, Melbourne
1 Marcel Proust, Cadenza, in Caroline Weber, Proust’s Duchess, Knopf, 2018, London, p 493
2 Victoria Newhouse, Art and the Power of Placement, The Monacelli Press, 2005, New York
3 Richard Hamilton, “Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing?’ 1956, Collage (260×250) collection of Edwin Jans Jr., Thousand Oaks, Calif. Printed in catalogue for exhibition ‘Richard Hamilton’, The Tate gallery 12 march to 19 April 1970, published by order of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery, London. p21
4 Peter Green, ‘I want to be a star’, review of ‘Nemesis: Alcibiades and the fall or Athens’ by David Stuttard, 2019, Harvard, London Review of Books, Vol 41, No. 2, 24 January, London p 18
5 Andrew Martin, Personal Chile: review of Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell, London, Fitzcaraldo in New York Review of Books, Vol. LXVI No. 4 March 7-20, 2019, NY pp 8-11
6 Gabriel Josipovici, To be here, now: Pierre Bonnard and the dialogue of solid and fluid; review of exhibition, Pierre Bonnard-the colour of memory, Tate Modern May 2019 and catalogue, Matthew Gale, ed., in Times Literary Supplement, No. 6046, February 15,2019, London pp 20-21
ZINC — Gerry Bell, 2018
Hero Image: WIRE ASSEMBLAGE (2018) 150 X 116 CM ACRYLIC/LINEN
The show comprises seven works in various sizes displayed in the gallery’s main room; all acrylic on linen canvas with the exception of a work on paper. The gallery’s smaller room is devoted to the works of Will Cooke. The show’s title, ‘Zinc’ alludes to the Nyrstar Zinc Works in Hobart, a vast riverside complex now commonly observed on the ferry ride from the city to MONA, the city’s destination art museum. The factory serves as the source for the imagery used in the paintings. But it is really the isolation or perhaps refinement of the metal to the title that subtly evokes the artist’s characteristic process of using spray stencils, with their high contrast reductions of photographic sources refining the image into an icon of severe geometric construction. The show mines a rich seam on a number of levels.
A feature of the present work is the greater use of a ground upon which the image is arranged, decidedly flattening or abstracting perspective. The choice of a metallic grey obviously adds to the theme, but as with all of the artist’s work, distance is more a matter of detachment than a dogged attention to detail. The work dismantles tonal continuities in order to concentrate on underlying structures, exaggerates conventions inherited from photography and printing in order to reconsider their content and value. In so doing, the work grants painting a new reserve and subtlety. An air-brushed treatment of stencils becomes a discreet gesture to compliance, as naggingly diffident as a Jasper Johns’ stencil or Andy Warhol silkscreen, here amplified through the choice of common architectural imagery. Unfortunately this delicacy rarely survives reproduction and in the artist’s larger works can be distinctly misleading.
Excavation, at 150 X 357 cm, unquestionably the centrepiece of the show, is a case in point. It uses a mis-registering of black and white layers to the stencil (the white dropped perhaps two centimetres below the black) to create what looks at a distance (or in reproduction) like embossing and a slick or smooth use of mid-tones. In other words, it looks like perfectly respectable graphics, at a distance. It is only on closer inspection that the image floats free on gentle clouds of overspray, blurring and wavering consistency to lines and truly comes alive as a disembodied spectre.
EXCAVATION (2018) 150 X 357CM ACRYLIC/LINEN
DETAIL OF EXCAVATION (FAR LEFT)
While the ground creates new ambiguities amongst the architecture, it also accents basic geometries of line, grids and triangles that are as much a part of the twentieth century history of abstraction in painting. In this respect the work ‘excavates’ the foundations of say, Paul Klee or Constructivism while tracing the functionalism implicit in industrial architecture (indeed, commercial design). Excavation is a deceptively elegant audit of foundations.
This detached, contemplative approach has been at the core of the artist’s work for most of her career. It arose as a reaction against the Neo-Expressionism of the eighties during her studies at the VCA. Her interest in urban architecture was already in place, but toward the end of the decade she adopted aerial views, implicitly derived from photography and a more objective genre and a technique at pains to avoid standard facture and drawing,
ST KILDA ROAD (1987) 183 X 122CM ADHESIVE ON WOOD [NOT IN SHOW]
Precedents here might run to Pop Art, as indicated, but it is the debased, abstracted quality to a familiar Melbourne landmark that flags a new voice, less an expressive or ironic attachment than a retreat to process, a defusing of experience into stages or layers. She then adopts simple spray stencils using card and spray-cans on a varied, colour ground in works such as Orange Building Site (1989) where stencil modules are varied in colour and placement, adding to the layered, diffuse image.
ORANGE BUILDING SITE (1989) 214 X 214CM OIL ON LINEN [NOT IN SHOW]
Other works from this time use a vertical view of the Eiffel Tower, which may be seen as looking up or down upon it, compounding the ambiguities in a deliberately photographic ingenuity, but effectively renders the landmark as a dense, overloaded asymmetry, a skewed, crystalline jewel.
DIGITAL (1989) 230 X 151 CM OIL ON LINEN [NOT IN SHOW]
The choice of the Eiffel Tower also declares an artist not content with merely local content or tone contrast as stencil’s principal asset. Her work then experiments with a dark or coloured ground against which her sprayed edges to a stencil register as blends or gradations, but otherwise surrender a more recognisable image, as in Mesh (1995)
MESH (1995) 115 X 115 CM OIL ON LINEN [NOT IN SHOW]
Forthun has occasionally explored other subjects, such as flowers, a cemetery and more abstract compositions, indeed more traditional print forms. But in general her focus remains on the urban panorama and the intricacies of stencil technique, of light over dark, loosely secured or sharply registered and modular assembly. A work such as Heat (2006) is a good example of the artist’s growing sophistication with what is generally considered a primitive or amateur form, increasingly the province of graffiti or street art.
HEAT (2006) 95 X 150 CM OIL ON LINEN [NOT IN SHOW]
Here the aerial cityscape yields spatial coherence for something like a time-lapse busyness or blur of activities, yet is still in some way a street plan with buildings, lights and shadows. Forthun’s patience and planning carry what was initially a technique for quick and crude summary into unexpectedly subtle permutations and this growing command sees her switch to an air brush rather than the crude nozzles of spray-cans and greatly increase the subtlety of edges and blends.
The artist has refined her process in other ways, commissioning particular aerial photography of Melbourne and taking advantage of digital advances with the flow onto digital graphics in Photoshop. This enables not only higher quality source imagery but the means by which to convert them into high contrast of ‘tone dropout’ versions, greatly adding to the precision and detail at her disposal. The Photoshop file is then printed onto a large polypropylene sheet which the artist divides into modules and removes shapes with a scalpel. The process thus retains the artist’s hand, in decisions over which shapes or tones are to be discarded, but offers not only a more durable plastic stencil but a greater range of edges or outlines.
Works over the past decade thus feature far finer lines than had hitherto been evident, as in Love Story (2011) where an aerial image is exchanged for an eye-level perspective on an old steel bridge, (based on the Story Bridge in Brisbane). Here the painting no longer derives from a distinctly photographic perspective but rather assembles silhouetted modules, by dark or light, with fine detail in intricate layers, pacing digital graphics somewhat.
LOVE STORY (2011) 157 X 210 CM OIL ON LINEN [NOT IN SHOW]
Her 2013 show at Blockprojects, ‘Room 131’, offered a surprising departure in subject matter and style, taking a display case at the Victoria and Albert Museum as another kind of distant contemplation and concentrating on rendering glass transparency and reflectance. A work such as Soda Siphon and Glassware (2013) arrives at something closer to a wood or linocut in its treatment and interestingly dispenses with layers and modules for a more straightforward picture plane. The work is interesting in extending the range of subject matter and theme but so far remains an isolated foray into more complex surfaces for objects. These works do not suggest digital graphics but may yet pave the way for other Photoshop refinements.
SODA SIPHON AND GLASSWARE (2013) 173 X 125 CM OIL ON LINEN [NOT IN SHOW]
Returning to’ Zinc’, smaller works such as Airy Stairs (2018) feature some of the layering of earlier work but in general the show plays off black and white treatments of the stencil in continuity and counterpoint as in Double Zinc (2018)
AIRY STAIRS (2018) 90 X 75 CM ACRYLIC/LINEN
Here the frontality of the image again rehearses various lessons in traditional design and abstraction.
DOUBLE ZINC (2018) 150 X 116 CM ACRYLIC/LINEN
The show is not the first time the artist has used the Zinc Works as subject matter. In 2016, working in collaboration with printer Stewart Russell, she produced several works based on the plant, one of which was a finalist in the Glover Prize in Hobart of that year. But typically, the process is a slow one, from initial snaps taken on her phone while on the ferry to MONA to higher resolution photography developing those sketches and then further processing in Photoshop. Forthun proceeds in careful stages with considerations that continue to carry her stencils into original and intriguing refinements.
As featured in ‘Melbourne Art Seen’, Gerry Bell, 2018
ZINC — Steve Cox, 2018
The paintings in Louise Forthun’s exhibition take their inspiration from a large zinc factory in Tasmania. These are industrial works, depicting multi-tiered factory levels, zig-zagging props and struts, pipes, chimneys and scaffolding, which are all placed-down via an arduous process of meticulously-cut stencil layers. There is a sense that, as well as building up the images, the artist is also embarked upon a sort of ‘excavation’ of them also. We see the buildings ‘skeletonised’ as their construction is laid bare and revealed.
There is a heavy-metal colour scheme employed across the exhibition, which reflects the subject matter. Flat slabs of zinc-grey butt against areas the colour of lead, over which, sooty blacks are used, sometimes in sharp focus, sometimes in a ghostly ‘misregistration’, that almost resembles embossing and suggests that the structures are on the verge of disintegrating. This gives some of the images a surreal, dream-like quality, as if they are a snapshot from a fluctuating memory. The shifts between sharp- and soft-focus gives a sense that the structures are perhaps wreathed in smoke or other fumy effluvia.
In one instance, the structure is stamped out in a toxic-looking yellow, recalling the poisoning of the landscape around Tasmania’s Queenstown or Zeehan during their mining history.
In this exhibition, Forthun has explored the significance of empty spaces, which she uses to great effect in isolating the structural elements. This results in the ‘opening-up’ of the areas around them, suggesting that these painted forms are but sections of a larger abstract world beyond the edges of the canvases.
Forthun’s abstract factory-structures stand sombre and elegant in their metallic swathes. They are entirely contemporary images, and yet they also arguably remind us of the great Victorian age of steam.
Landscaping — Rosemary Hawker, 2016
Louise Forthun’s paintings and works on paper have always foregrounded the tension between the material and formal properties of image making. Through the uncompromisingly hard-edged, cut line of stencil paired with the fine atomised, close to weightless dots of sprayed paint, they deftly bring together painting and photography; printing and painting; positive and negative; the mechanical and the handmade; mass and void. As Forthun explains, while describing the source images of these impressive new works, they also disrupt conventional dichotomies of the city and nature:
In an earlier series of paintings–Into the Light–Melbourne was seen from west to east and while these dense aerial views gave me a springboard to tackle the dynamic city, for Landscaping I specifically wanted to look at its relationship to its environment. So I asked Ken Rae to photograph the city from east to west, in the hope of capturing the greater landform of the bay and mountains. I was delighted to find an image that perched the mountains and bay high on the horizon with the city fanning out and dangling below. Falling toward the viewer the city looks as if it has been poured from a vessel. The streets blurred to rivers and back again. The idea that landscape and city are oppositional did not seem so clear.
In responding to these aerial photographs Forthun’s stencils mask air-brushed paint in lush saturated colours. The paintings are built up from multiple sprays of paint using the same stencil and this layering is further complicated when Forthun moves the stencil between paint applications. The resulting blurred or visual stutter, technically most like a misregistered print, is visually more akin to a disrupted video image or pinched film. It is a curiously mechanical and screen-based rather than a painterly effect and it pushes the works away from their documentary source imagery towards the fictional and mythic.
Forthun’s use of a meticulous and laborious stencil process has at times seemed perverse–the image twice deferred: first as photograph, then as a vast and intricate stencil, finally realised in paint. Having now persisted in this process and its technical and aesthetic challenges for over two decades, this exhibition shows works that have arrived assuredly at a grand scale. While this scale could easily be overwhelming and chaotic, given the complexity of Forthun’s hand-cut stencil mats and her layering technique, the scope and vigour of these works instead draws the viewer into a close and prolonged looking at a seemingly endless array of marks and forms that are at once figurative and abstract.
As Forthun addresses the city across this series her strategy changes a little with each work. A building is repeated or mirrored, the Yarra is broken in its flow across the cityscape, panels are reorganised so as to refuse the visual cohesion that a conventional representation of place would stress. Different visual rhythms are set up across the expansive images, resisting easy visual coherence yet anchored to the recognisable objectivity of the Melbourne city grid settled into its terrain.
While Forthun uses a number of strategies to deliberately disrupt her panoramas and resist the straightforward label of landscape, her title for this exhibition, Landscaping, reminds us of the making and scaping of environments as opposed to the simple finding, representing and viewing of forms. We know something of Forthun’s labour of cutting and painting through this simple reference to making that plays on a territorial scale and has the heft of soil and rock being moved as the city was built.
It is unusual to see such large scale works on paper and Forthun’s control of her medium and process is evident in these ambitious panoramas that are impossible to take in in a single look. These works offer up an enormous, whole environment that we can sample from and isolate out sub-compositions, just as Forthun has done in the smaller works included here. We scan across the larger works and dip in to identify parts of the city, or enjoy the treatment of marks in a delightful play of colour and form. Our eye snags on intriguing areas of paint as it might on the details of an expansive view.
The stencil itself can be understood as both the means of generating these images and the subject of the works. Each stencil, used over and over again in layering paint, becomes stretched, slumped, distorted, and eventually, torn and spent. Just before this point, Forthun very deliberately makes one more painting, one specifically designed to register this degraded and increasingly organic form. Sprayed paint marks out the peaks and troughs of the exhausted stencil and articulates an experience of place all the more emphatically due to increased tonal variation and depth of field impressions that result from tracing the paper’s distortions as it lifts and falls away from flat.
As much as of Forthun’s process is unique and resonates in her work, this knowledge pales when experiencing the extraordinary energy of her paintings, their visual excess based in a frenzy of forms that responds not so much the appearance of the city as its tempo. While we see the organising grid and the web of urban infrastructure, iconic buildings and the signature flat plane of Melbourne between the mountains and the bay, Forthun’s landscapes resist the rationality that these would normally bring. They are both grounded by their figure/ground process and freed to suggest a mythical Melbourne that dazzles and implores us to engage with it while maintaining a daunting density and complexity. It is at once familiar and other worldly.
In Forthun’s paintings the Melbourne of engineering, architecture and town planning is never quite tamed by perspective and the familiar expectations of fore, middle and background. This relation of subject and treatment is perfectly analogised by the solid ground of Forthun’s stencil as it is overtaken and over sprayed by the finest atmosphere of paint propelled by air that pushes the city into another register all together.
Dr Rosemary Hawker
Senior Lecturer in Art Theory
Queensland College of Art
Glass and Light — Ashley Crawford, 2013
Louise Forthun has always been something of a surveyor, a mapper of strange civilisations, amalgams of major metropolis’ morphed as palimpsests of landmarks, fictional topographies worthy of a Borges novel, detailed, aerial views of non-existent cities yet layered with recognizable landmarks.
Forthun has always been fascinated with the architectural and the grid-like patterns that constitute contemporary living. Her works have hinted at the cyber-worlds of William Gibson (Neuromancer) and she has blurred the distinctions between such major conurbations as Tokyo, Manhattan and Melbourne.
But in her most recent work she has gone from the hovering aerial view to below. She has moved from urban-planner to urban archeologist, digging beneath the megalopolis to discover the detritus of past empires. In doing so she has unearthed fragments that hint at ritual and ceremony, an archaic – or perhaps futuristic – array of carefully assembled vitrines and glassware frozen in time, awaiting discovery. Arrayed in stasis for future sacrament.
We are, inevitably, reminded of the patterns of ancient hieroglyphs and simultaneously of the glittering bar array in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Magical grails for the Blood of Christ or decanters for hundred-year-old whisky. We have always viewed Forthun’s work from a distance, the glittering lights of towers and apartment complexes seen from afar. Here Forthun has zoomed in, piercing her exteriors to reveal a world of glittering accouterments and dazzling appurtenances.
She has moved from the stringently external to intimately internal. There is something strangely sacramental in these tableaux, these patterns of glass and light lying in wait for ritual and celebration. While she is equally adept at portraying organic forms – indeed, at one stage executing a series of sumptuous flowers – it was the architectural grid that remains the cornerstone of her practice. That sense of the formalized grid remains, but now it contains multitudes, mysteriously beautiful goblets, vases, siphons and fragments. A treasure trove, hidden, until now.
Dr Ashley Crawford, 2013
Local Colour — Kevin Murray, 2012
We approach Forthun’s work initially as an architectural plan. The titles instruct us to consider the paintings like maps that might guide us through space. ‘Through the Heads’ directs our eye to the connection between harbour inside and ocean outside. The world laid out on a horizontal pane commands our gaze.
Within these plans themselves there is an unsteady oscillation between presence and absence, land and water. Is it a map of the harbour or the land surrounding it? Like the famous illusion, is it a vase or the outline of two faces? Such ambiguity is striking giving the Melbourne grid that has so often featured in Forthun’s work. The Cartesian Melbourne eye is more easily disrupted by the confusion of river, harbour and freeway that snakes through the orderly rectangles.
But there will come a point when our eyes are arrested by the wash of colours that lies underneath these plans. The bold cadmium gradations lift our eyes up along the vertical axis. In ‘Travelling in the Eastern Direction”, we have colour proportions resembling the horizon line, marking off the blue earth from a yellow sky with a horizon that bleeds green. These ‘local colours’ respond more to our own verticality as upright bodies standing in the gallery. Their bands are parallel to the lines where floor meets wall, and wall meets ceiling, which structure our gaze in this space. The reference in ‘Green Belt’ to the environmental movement of Jack Mundey evokes the collective endeavour otherwise invisible from maps, yet intrinsic to place.
While standing in Forthun’s studio, I asked myself what it means today to experience the kind of dizzying shifts that occur in her works. Talking about the process of creating stencils, she told me that her phone has become a useful device for referencing GPS maps. This reminded me of the comment I heard about GPS navigation systems in cars. Some of them have a setting that allows you to change orientation. Does the map point up to the north or to the direction in which you are currently heading? Apparently there’s a strong generational difference in selection. Older people are more familiar with the static vertical axis, while younger drivers take their bearings according to their own trajectory. I thought of this with the orientation of ‘Green Belt’ where the north-south axis is reversed. Technically the painting is upside down, though aesthetically it makes perfect sense as it is.
In the past, planning a trip used to be a matter of studying a map to the point where the journey could be internalised as a series of turns. Now it is possible to avoid planning, but instead to regularly monitor progress through a GPS phone or car device. But this has its own skill as we must quickly orient our currently position in this space. One of the skills we’ve had to acquire to inhabit these new augmented realities is a capacity to make the kinds of shifts that we experience in Forthun’s paintings.
I realise this may seems a reductive reading of art works. Certainly they can stand up as autonomous experiences. Baxandall’s analysis in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy accounted for Renaissance masterpieces as opportunities for merchants to exercise their skill in calculations. As our orientations shift vertiginously in Forthun’s paintings, so our readings of the words can alternate between pure optical play and practical exigencies of navigation.
With Local Colour, Forthun continues to evolve her shifting processes. Ian McDougall found a fusion of the figurative and the abstract in her Shadowlands (2008). Rosemary Hawker noted the way her show Urbania (2010) moved between painting and photography. And Corbett Lyon identified the interpenetration of ‘freeways, urban streets and laneways’ in her Into the Light (2011). Forthun’s work continues to provide a marvellous by-product of the urban gaze, producing canvases that exercise our phenomenological capacities for their own sake.
Dr Kevin Murray is an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University
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
Urbania — Rosemary Hawker, 2010
While it has never been possible to separate painting and photography, it is equally true to say they are impossible to combine. This paradox is more apparent now that photography is ubiquitous across the arts. While painting and photography are drawn together by related processes, subjects and compositions, they inevitably spring apart into the irreconcilable difference of medium and disciplinary formation. That is, when photography and painting borrow from each other there is always something of the borrowed medium that cannot be carried over to the other medium– something untranslatable and idiomatic.
Louise Forthun makes the idiom of painting apparent when she takes the processes and appearances of photography into painting while maintaining its out-of-place-ness, its lack of fit. This is particularly so in her paintings of cities produced through an unusual combination of stencilling and painting. Since the mid 1980s, Forthun has used this process in addressing the city as subject. It is an effective means for making a bridge between painting and photography and one that opens up a number of complex and productive comparisons across mediums that make these works all the more affecting in their immediacy.
These paintings register the trace–the founding principle of photography. They begin in photographs of great cities or mundane urban life. These images are cut into stencils and then marked out onto a canvas already prepared with paint. This ground of painting is expressive and spontaneous, even explosively gestural unlike photographs and in stark contrast to the controlled form of the stencil. Yet, while Forthun’s painted ground is insistently painterly it is overlaid with signs of the mechanical and technological. Through this process the positive/negative relations inherent to photography as medium are emphasised at the same time that they are translated into painting and overwritten by its weight as substance. The ground takes this photographic double trace of photograph and stencil but as paint applied to canvas, the painting as trace, also asserts itself. Its substance as physical stuff on canvas takes over the image at the same time as maintaining and emphasising the photographic effect.
Forthun extends this cross-mediality still further in her use of the colour, more particularly the colour of photography. This is not however the colour of naturalistic photographic verisimilitude but rather the confronting separated high tones of primary red, yellow, blue–the colours behind the naturalism of photography that we only see in colour matching strips and print separations. We might say that the energy of these paintings as based in colour is borrowed from the technical palette of new media and yet delivered by the older, low-tech medium of painting in an immediacy that is perhaps only found in a substance that suggests the direct gestural expression of the artist.
Our expectations of photography and painting are also inverted when Forthun’s paintings slow the time of the photograph–supposedly the instant–through the considerable labour of making the stencil image. Isolating positive and negative she cuts huge sheets by hand over long hours, making them more and more fragile and further away from the robustness and cohesion of seemless photography with each cut. This crafting of the photographic image makes the painting all the more speeded up by comparison. Splashes, rapid brush marks, and haphazard dribbles give form to immediacy and spontaneity. This is painted form as an instant in time, like and unlike the instantaneousness of the photograph.
Even as Forthun insists on real places as her subject, the refusal of these images to coalesce into a single coherent surface or subject opens the space between painting and photography. We know Melbourne or Brisbane, Rome and Tokyo quite differently when they are charged by the immediacy of both painting and photography, their drawing together and springing apart.
Dr Rosemary Hawker
Senior Lecturer in Art Theory
Queensland College of Art