Louise Feneley is a consummate painter of the Australian landscape. Her work is uplifting and inspirational. Her latest exhibition, Viewpoint at Hillsmith Gallery is breathtaking. Louise’s treatment of light, atmosphere and landscape together, take the viewer on a journey. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask her a few questions about her work.
Your latest exhibition is titled ‘Viewpoint’ and features work from Arkaroola; could you explain what it was about this place that inspired work such as “Where the lizard lay sleeping” and “The mountain remains still”?
Arkaroola is a place of mystery, of power, and of an ancient atmosphere where humans can rightfully feel small and insignificant and humbled in the truest sense of the word. I’m sure this is a balm for us, living as we do in the foolishness, and fascination, of our contemporary world.
The underlying foundation of the work that arose from this experience has been the vain attempt to grasp, to substantiate, and bring into material form, an atmosphere of the special mystery of this outback place that one senses but can’t see, that one feels but can’t describe satisfactorily in the usual ways – that’s why I paint, because words can’t express these things adequately.
As I began painting it I re-experienced this country as ancient skin of the earth, cracked and eaten away by those substantial forces that have relentlessly played upon it over time – the heat and cold, the wind, dust, rain and storms, the intense light and the cool shrinking of the night. 500,000 years of it!
Arkaroola is an awesome place, with an awesome feel, and I couldn’t resist trying to find it in paint!
Light is a significant feature of your latest work, could you explain why this is?
Light has always been the central pivot of my paintings, as much when I was an abstract painter as now that I am painting in a realist way. I’ve noticed that I naturally and even subconsciously seek out a sense of radiance in a painting, whether in mine or someone else’s. Light to me is a metaphor for the numinous or the sublime, for an internal essence of who we are and without which we could not exist.
Has your background always been in the Arts? Have you always been a painter?
Yes, when I was four years old I said I was going to be an artist. I never wanted to do anything else. The arts have always been the dominant presence in my life… my mother had trained at Art School, was an artist, a potter and art teacher so I began to co-teach in her classes whilst I was at art school. And I kept on teaching painting or drawing most of my life. I tended to be a dreamer, with an active imagination, and was constantly making and creating things. We lived on a farm when the children were young, and hours of concentration on painting was not possible, so I did weaving, dying and embroidery, and made wooden toys, dolls and story books for them. After that we ran a business doing hand-painted silk cloth, garments and scarves, which was very successful.
All the time, painting and drawing constantly wove themselves through it all, like the presence of a close friend…but I wasn’t able to return full time to my painting until the late 90’s.
How do you like to work?
I like to work hard – even though it doesn’t feel as though it’s hard – it feels more like focussed.
How has your practice changed over time?
When I first went to Art School in the 60’s, and subsequently painting in the 70’s, even though I drew a lot, from life, I was an abstract painter, probably because ‘hard edge’ was the fashion then. Although I continued to draw, I had a 21 year break from oil painting (I had to stop using oils because I couldn’t cope with the turps) but I continued with pastels and watercolours.
When I returned to oils (having worked out how I could paint without using turps or smelly mediums) I simply wanted to paint realistically because I found the physical world so intriguing and amazing when I took the time to really observe it.
Now I am working full time, which was not an option during a particular period of my life.
What work do you most enjoying doing?
I simply love painting.
I love being alone in the studio working on a painting.
I find the process of painting immensely satisfying.
I relish the questioning that takes place, and solving the puzzle of how I am going to evince the feeling that I’m sensing.
I relish looking and observing.
What themes do you pursue? What is significant about your latest work?
In my work I have never been into the push to appear to be at the forefront …perhaps that’s a bit too transient a position for me, being someone who has the tendencies of a hermit. I tend not to make social or political comment, or be engaged with current issues; and don’t attempt to appear witty, or clever, subversive or sensational in my approach.
Instead I alight on themes as I encounter them naturally in life. There was the drapery series (I saw possibilities in left over white silk cloth from our business), then a small group of paintings of glass (I’d inherited a 50 year old preserved seahorse in a glass jar), and objects on plates (doesn’t food look good!), portraits (often friends or people whose faces are interesting to me) and recently the paintings stemming from Arkaroola (following the field trip).
You could say the significance of my latest work is that these paintings are a meditation on an exterior world – on earth, air and light, using the forms of rock and sky – whereas the drapery paintings were a meditation on an interior life – on filtered light, atmosphere, and gesture using draped silk.
But the real theme is light and shadow, pinned on a variety of subjects.
Describe a real-life experience that inspired you?
You know, I think life itself is the ‘real-life’ experience! It compels me to try to comprehend what is going on – who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? – and to seek out an enigmatic Presence that seems to exist just below the surface of reality.
For me, part of the magic of painting is in bypassing rational thinking, where I can function in a preverbal state of awareness.
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
Apart from a stint in a dress shop (which was awful) and teaching swimming (which I loved) I have usually taught painting or drawing.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
To have someone cry in front of the paintings was very surprising and moving.
Perhaps this gave me a sense of relevance, because, living in a culture that reveres ‘the footy’ and devotes pages and pages of the newspaper to sport, an artist can easily become disheartened by a seeming lack of care for the visual arts in this culture.
Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.
That’s a really interesting question because there are so many artists I appreciate and respect and learn from, but would not necessarily feel the need to be compared to, for a variety of reasons.
And then there are Old Masters such as Piero Della Francesca, Rembrandt, Durer, Vermeer and Velazquez, amongst others, whom I couldn’t presume to be compared to but whose mastery I aspire to.
Perhaps there are certain qualities in the following three contemporary artists that I would hope to measure up with…
Antonio Lopez Garcia, because of the sincerity and depth, and that X factor, in his work and life;
Bill Viola (the video artist) because his work moves me and because he comes from a spiritual sensibility similar to my own;
And Vincent Desiderio, because of the mystery and enigma of his work, and the depth of his understanding, which I truly respect.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
There has been so much valuable advice that I can’t recall now, but Godwin Bradbeer, in an artist talk said he doesn’t care if he’s ‘hot’ or ‘cool’, (i.e. fashionable) because it’s better to be honest to yourself.
Chuck Close said: ‘You don’t have to have a great art idea – just get to work and something will happen’.
A couple of years ago I attended a painting master-class in New York City with Steven Assael. Watching him paint was an extraordinary experience and the best (non-verbal) advice I could have been given.
‘Always remember the art world is the enemy of art’, Robert Hughes.
Louise Feneley’s website