Essay for 2009 Exhibition Defining the Silence
And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive. - Genesis 6:19-21
It is more than a little difficult to envisage just how big Noah’s Ark must have really been, given that if you include insects in the mix we’re taking millions of paired species. It must have been big. Really big.
But The Bible is full of such mysteries and sometimes it gets it wrong. We know this because the original Ark was meant to have docked somewhere in the mountains of Ararat, in eastern Turkey. But Adam Nudelman has proven that part wrong. The remnants of the Ark lie in the golden grasses of the flood plains outside of Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria.
This body of work embraces three concurrent streams of Nudelman’s practice. There are his structural ‘survival’ paintings that embrace the Ark, Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome and the futuristic ark of space. There are his sumptuous and mysterious forest paintings rendered during a residency in the chilly mountains of Tasmania and there is his homage to one of Australia’s Modernist giants, Jeffrey Smart. An ever-restless artist, Nudelman refuses to be locked down into visual repetition. He is an explorer of both the arcane and the sublime.
Nudelman’s structural works are linked by notions of survival. Both Noah’s Ark and Fuller’s Geodesic Dome were creations manufactured to ensure the survival of nature. And of course a major part of early bids for space travel were based on notions of colonisation, thus Nudelman has also found the skeleton of a spaceship, its retro, 1950s shape calling to mind a time of giddy optimism. The ark, the dome and the spaceship were brilliantly co-joined in the 1972 film Silent Running in which Earth’s last nature reserve is jettisoned into space in a Fuller-like space vehicle with faint hopes of future regeneration.
But while these images call to mind notions of survival, there is also a whiff of nostalgia and melancholy at play here. These objects stand like rusting memories, distinctly solitary shapes, testimonials to stubborn futures. Indeed, Nudelman captures this eerie air when he titles one of these works Guarding The Silence. They recall the simple fact that most contemporary Australians are immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, that many fled wars to settle in this distant land.
But there is an oddity to these images, an almost stifling sense of space. This seems to be a uniquely Australian phenomena. Robert Hughes captured this fact succinctly when he said: “Americans have this contrary myth of space, because to them, space is freedom… In colonial Australia, space itself was a prison. You walk across the country, find nothing, then die.”1
This reality is captured throughout the Western history of Australian art. It is seen (or perhaps felt) in such Frederick McCubbin paintings as Down on his Luck (1889) and The Pioneer (1904). It is a sensibility that shudders its way through to today in the works of such practitioners as Rick Amor, Philip Hunter and Peter Booth and the dark Tasmanian paintings of Adam Nudelman. This is a Dark Eden, a place of shadows and odd blasts of beauty when, bursting out of the darkness, blossoms erupt, their luminous petals emerging in Towards the Distant South, a bouquet perversely proffered from the bush to the lost explorer.
Even when the land has been tamed and fenced a sense of wildness, of unruliness, remains. Nudelman’s fence posts emerge from golden sunburnt grasses like petrified teeth, timber posts bleached by unforgiving sun into shades of bone.
Space continues to be central in Nudelman’s clear homage to Jeffrey Smart. But while Smart’s world is largely one of cement, of cold sheer surfaces, Nudelman fast-forwards to a time when nature has begun to reclaim the world. In such works as Ode To Smart’s Directors and Finding the Markers the street signs remain intact, but the roads themselves have vanished beneath a tide of swaying grass.
Nudelman yearns for the vastness of space, the unhindered vista. Towards Eternity says it all – the unencumbered landscape, the horizon tempting us to move onwards.
These are stunningly evocative paintings, full of mystery. They are both beautifully rendered landscapes and simultaneously the stuff of dreams and legends.
What surprises us about these works is the sheer element of skill involved. Look closely and every blade of grass, every blossom is rendered with meticulous skill. In a day and age of moribund video art and lame conceptualism, Nudelman is a painter first and foremost. He admits that he had to unlearn much of what he encountered at art school. He was, however, lucky to have such tutors as Philip Hunter and Rick Amor and he has joined their ranks with this body of work.
These are all stubborn artists, uninflected by fashion. Landscape may not be fashionable, but it is what informs us as Australians. Nudelman has the courage to reach for the sublime and against the odds he damn well reaches it.
(1) Robert Hughes, Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore
Ashley Crawford, Arts Writer, Fairfax Newspapers Melbourne