‘Posy’ is a series of paintings exploring the role that the landscape plays in Australian identity. Through still life paintings of indigenous flowers, birds, and insects, Guthleben uses the traditions of vanitas and its messages of the transience of life to present a painted vernacular that spans humour, kitsch, and historical and environmental themes.
She reinterprets the delicate floral masterpieces of Dutch Golden Age painting by amping up the colour and light in response to the Australian environment and emphasising the texture and diversity of indigenous flora in brushy impasto. Guthleben has, in particular, referred to the work of 17thCentury Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch, who famously painted for European royalty (as well as having 10 children). Ruysch was acclaimed not only for her painting but also for her skill in composing the asymmetrical arrangements favoured in the late Baroque period. Guthleben remakes the work of Ruysch, substituting local blooms in the place of European ones. She sees echoes of the late Baroque period that spawned Tulipmania in Holland – a speculative bubble in the prices for tulips, which appeared in many Dutch masterpieces – in the boom–bust mentality of 21stcentury Australia.
The works in 'Posy' comprise many small studies of sprigs gathered by Guthleben on daily walks in her bushy Sydney suburb. She uses the studies to construct large floral arrangements that would be almost impossible to recreate in real life. Parrots or insects sometimes roost amongst the abundant foliage, and kitsch such as locally made, mid-century ornaments or souvenir pottery add a certain familiarity and humour to the compositions.
'Posy' shows a domesticated and stylised view of the Bush – flowers are plucked, wrangled and tamed into an arrangement that is a proxy for the landscape. They sit in empty coloured space, representing a psychological void or non-place; all foreground and no background. Guthleben uses this not only to contrast with the busy detail of the arrangement, but also as a nod to European attitudes to the Australian interior and environment, and the historical wrongs of terra nullius. For non-indigenous Australians, how do we imagine the interior compared with the verdant coastal fringes where most of us live? How can we relate to a place we so clearly identify with and yet hardly ever enter?
The idea of being a stranger in the Australian landscape/sublime has been tackled under the unofficial banner of the Australian Gothic by many artists, writers and filmmakers. Films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Jindabyne, and Wake in Fright, books such as The Secret River, and plays such as the The Drover’s Wife traverse the uncomfortable beauty and terror of our landscape. Yet our genuine affection for the archetypal blooms seen in 'Posy' shows we have come some way in 200 years towards understanding place and our identity.