As state borders reopened after their viral hiatus, artist Jane Guthleben found herself visiting two starkly different landscapes half a continent apart in a short period of time. One arid, the other lush, each salved the jaded eye after months of covid isolation and government travel restrictions. What followed is the series WOLLEMI TO WILPENA, 33 paintings that serve as a visual diary transcribing both places, a record of two diverse landscapes perceived through observation of flora and fauna and conceptualised in imaginary compositions and impossible arrangements.

The first excursion was a (covid postponed) month-long residency in Sydney’s Blue Mountains at BigCi in Bilpin, where much time was spent walking through the rainforests, hanging swamps, heaths and sclerophyll bush in Wollemi National Park.

Immediately afterwards came a long-awaited road trip from Sydney via Broken Hill to Ikara-Flinders Ranges in South Australia for a hike in the arid Wilpena Pound and surrounds. In these two regions recognized by indigenous names the historical presence of First Nations peoples was keenly felt, as we learned about art, foods and stories about Country.

Guthleben made small studies of birds and flora she experienced, using them to compose larger formal still life arrangements and gargantuan bouquets bursting with species. The largest piece is a 4 metre immersive floralscape, that is neither a landscape – though it is in format – or a still life but rather a chronological collage of flora diarising her encounters in the landscape. The large floralscapes have no focal point or horizon and direct the eye to this twig or that bloom, just as you would when passing through space.

Guthleben is obsessed with how Australia would have looked at the moment of contact with Europeans, recorded first around the early 1600s when Dutch Still Life flower painting was highly prized and prominent in Europe, particularly tulip painting. Using this genre as her starting point, she reinterprets the Australian landscape in formal floral arrangements, willing the indigenous blooms to communicate their language to the European eye. If a rose means love or a lily means the Virgin Mary’s purity in Western floriography, what does a banksia say, or a wattle sprig, an epacris or a xanthorrhoea?

In recent series, when making work about a place, Guthleben has tried to reimagine it by turning to written historical accounts of flora or paintings by botanists, convicts or other artists to collate lists of what was there and how it appeared to the colonisers. In WOLLEMI TO WILPENA she presents her own accounts of flora and fauna as she experienced them first hand. She would like to acknowledge elders past and present in and the incredible environments that she has travelled through and where she lives in Cammeraygal/Sydney in creating this body of work.

July 2022