Amelda Read-Forythe: Under the Storm
winner of the John Leslie Art Prize - 2016
oil on wood 60 x 90cm
I’ve been away from my blog for a while and was contemplating presenting a recent work from day one to completion but this picture by Amelda Read-Forythe has infiltrated itself into my mind in such a big way that I feel it takes precedence.
The John Leslie Art Prize is held every two years at the Gippsland Art Gallery and just like every time before, prior to the prize announcement, I and many others attempt to pick the winner. This year I did and it surprised me because it was the kind of painting that I wanted to win but felt that other more obvious blockbuster entries may overpower it.
And as I try to work out what’s going in this picture and why it’s a puzzle to me I start to realise that it may be because it’s a work that only a woman could make, and I find that very exciting indeed.
There are two distinct components in this picture, the way it is actually painted and the historical precedents that it alludes to.
In terms of technique it has a very large dose of the, “how the hell did she do that”, that’s always a major suck-in, its surface is perfectly flat and eggshell smooth; there’s no evidence of actual brush strokes, they just seem to be embedded in the picture’s ground! The physicality or is it material quality is truly arresting. Possibly more interesting is the fact that this surface takes our memories to places we don’t expect in painting. For me it’s directly to my Mother and Aunt, decorated porcelain and nice silk scarves.
I have to admit I love art that can trigger me to think of other places, times and artists and it is this area that Under the Storm really excels. Way beyond my childhood memories of the scent of my Mother this picture has taken me to the first colonial efforts to comprehend what they thought was an alien landscape comprised of formless fauna and impenetrable space, the artistic nightmare that confronted our ancestors. Where they tried to shackle that amorphous and maybe hostile landscape into the Western tradition Read-Forsythe simply accepts it and lets it live.
Once I had traveled back to John Glover and the colonialists the dominoes of time rocketed me past the Rococo all the way back to Roman frescos. Once there I was pointed forward to Milton Avery, Arthur Boyd, Vincent Van Gogh, some Symbolists and maybe the Nabis.
The strongest reaction I had to this picture was emotional; It reminded me of a strange short story by Raold Dahl about a canoe trip on the Danube where the paddlers were being brushed by hanging willows, making them feel as if the trees were the spirits of some malevolent ancestors, intent on their destruction.
Under the Storm, under which storm I ask? The storm of the artist’s daily existence? The storms that shape the future and on we can go, not bad eh! for a sparsely painted 60 x 90cm piece of wood.