One of the many issues which concern me as an independent arts curator in this part of the world is the lack of a visual arts critical culture.
Despite eminently qualified individuals employed by institutions such as the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and the Charles Darwin University, not to mention those in the various community arts organisations, artists in the NT vary rarely get written about, nor is their work subjected to a contextualised art history, nor are they subjected to critical feedback by their peers.
There is a sense of urgency with which I approach the art of my time and the art of my place. I am mindful that my practice as a criminal law barrister with its own urgencies and setbacks can derail promises and reviewing deadlines. If I do not write about the artists of my town, they along with most contemporary culture will simply be forgotten.
As such, in alerting everyone a few months ago to Linda Joy’s Stone Country exhibition at Paul Johnstone’s Gallery on social media, and urging friends in this town to go, and in making a promise to myself to review this exhibition, I am committed to carrying this out even though this exhibition is over.
I do so, not to just stem the tide of forgetting, but to pay my regards to an artist whose body of work about place and belonging needs to be acknowledged and remembered. I do so to stem touristic and transient memory which compounds the erasure of history in this post-colonial frontier town.
I am clearly aware of the contested space I inhabit, of being confronted by works in the landscape tradition, by a non-indigenous female artist in a commercial gallery. I am aware of my own taste and perceptions governed by conventions and a historical context laden with the values of my time. I am also mindful that landscape is perhaps the genre most reviled by a post-modern sensibility privileging conceptual art practices.
Landscape is perhaps the most value laden of genres within which to peel back the layers of influence in post-contact Australian history. Landscape in Australian art history and in particular “pastoraphilia” as the leitmotif of Australian nationhood and identity, mitigated the harsh historical realities and made palpable the strange and un-picturesque landscape for European eyes. Landscape is infused with the legacy of (and in this part of the world the ongoing) dispossession of land and wholesale destruction of people and culture.
This review is not an apology, nor does it wish to erase history. It intends however to highlight and support Chip Mackinolty’s acute observation back in 2011 when he articulated a phenomenon happening in Central Australia, namely “in central Australia where non-Aboriginal artists- the vast majority of whom have worked in various forms for and with Aboriginal organisations- have stopped giving a flying paranoid toss about being whitefella artists … and are producing what I believe is amongst the best visual art in the Northern Territory.”
Linda Joy is a Darwin artist and one of these white-fella artists whose landscapes attest to the legitimacy of lived experience and with her recent exhibition Stone Country at Paul Johnstone’s Gallery in Harriet Place, can now be regarded as having produced a body of work in the landscape tradition which is worthy of being regarded as amongst the best visual representation of Northern Territory in the landscape tradition.
Linda Joy studied photography at the Queensland College of the Arts. She moved to Darwin in the mid-1990s and continued her studies in painting and printmaking at the Northern Territory University. Landscape overwhelmingly cries out to an artist with photographic sensitivity to and need for representation of place.
To non-locals, places like Kakadu, Litchfield Park conjure up tourist brochure images, the touristic memories of most visitors from the back of a moving bus. However for some people who have made a home and a history in this place, the regularity and ease of accessibility to such places leave a rhythmical impression on memory, so that the vastness and exotic strange otherworldliness of this space becomes familiar and interesting subject matter for artistic self-expression.
In Linda Joy’s works, we get a sense that the artist is depicting a place and a space that she has spent many hours in on site, camping, walking, and swimming or in plein air sketching her impressions. It is not chance that generates an overwhelming affinity for the sublime. Her acute awareness of the phenomenon of place stems from constant observations that repeat, on loop, a silent conversation between artist and the land. The habitual ritual of entering and exiting the land and the impressions made by such intensity is captured in her materials, forms and studio practice.
In the same 2011 speech, Mackinolty referred to artists becoming captives of the extraordinary Australian landscape. The state of meditation has commenced even before the watercolour or inks are applied. By taking her sketches and works and reworking these back at her studio Joy relives hypnotically the spell cast on her by the land. The canvas is sanded; the gessoing makes it smooth and illuminating the whiteness and brightness of the unfiltered light. The work dictates the amount of layers of gesso and polish with some works requiring 8-10 layers.
Marking the canvas with the intensity of memory of this land, we feel her presence is in every rock, every tree, and every strip of pandanus. We trace the silent vastness of the bush. In this silent meditation we follow each line, each form. We can hear incantations inhaling and exhaling affirmations that speak of love for rock and crevice, love for waterhole and waterfall, love for escarpment, bush, tree, grass, leaf.
Calm, clean, pure, again and again. It is evident she is seeking with such determination to justify her presence in this time. The repetition of ink marking the canvas speaks in form of the artist’s drive between inner and outer resonance; the invisibility of her subjectivity tunes in with the invisibility of nature and through her interpretation, the landscape becomes an apology for her body and for her presence in this time.
Paul Johnstone has described her as a romantic in a harsh landscape. Her work certainly captures the tension between the melancholia and sacredness that a romantic, in the face of nature’s eternity, finds sublime. However, In an uncanny fashion she overcomes the romantic tendency towards sentimentality by asserting the modernity of her time. Linda Joy paradoxically illuminates inside the most ancient of landscapes, the most modern of forms, superbly exposing the contemporary relevance of the landscape genre.
By highlighting the geometric forms inside the land, serendipitously inherent in the stark blotchiness of black ink, she rescues the landscape tradition from anachronistic atrophy. Experimenting with this approach she has developed a distinct contemporary visual language that has now added to the broader corpus of the visual representation of Northern Territory landscape.
Her obsessiveness to detail and insistence on articulating her presence lends her work to a sensibility beyond a romantic pathos. Her repetitious pen strokes, and her distinct style, assure me at least, as an anxious purveyor of the Top End’s fleeting culture, that constancy and consummate exposure to the land not only invests it with the legitimacy of representation but also acts as a way to stem the culture of forgetting as it arrests the touristic gaze which we in this frontier town have all been rendered so superfluous by.
 Chips Mackinolty, extract from opening speech, ZING! An exhibition by Sarah Brown, CCAE Gallery, Darwin 8 July 2011.