Collecting ash from Western Australian and Tasmanian fires and layering it on to canvas, artist Nigel Hewitt reveals his latest body of work in Recinder.
Having always found time spent in the bush an inspiration for his practice, Nigel could often be found mountain biking through John Forrest National Park. It was one ride in particular, seeing the aftermath of a fire, that reminded him of a memorable work constructed out of incense ash by Zhang Huan, which he had previously seen at the Saatchi Gallery in London.
“The forest that was so magnificent a week before had now been reduced to blackened trunks and smoldering pools of ash. As a strange ironical twist this blackened landscape was both devastating and inspirational. Those pools of ash were so aesthetically pleasing I had to find a way to use it as a medium. Ash is a medium that humans have used in art and culture since we started using fire, marking our bodies with ash for ceremonies for example. This is not a unique medium in that sense, it is an ancient one. I just think it was an interesting way to express my concerns about the way our environment is treated.”
With each piece taking 3-6 months to complete (and the full body of work 6 years to finish), it would be appropriate to assume that Nigel’s Recinder is the epitome of precision. Yet, he’ll be the first to set the record straight.
“I think it’s more the illusion of precision, because the way I apply the ash to the surface of the canvas is actually quite crude. Although over this six-year period I have found a way to create some sort of refinement. The driving force behind the motivation to use a material such as ash is that it is a medium that is already loaded with inherent meaning, so it is a matter of finding a way that I can exploit this to speak about my concerns about the way we exploit our environment for material ends.”
In order to apply the ash on to the canvas, specific conditions are required. Nigel’s studio has to be wind proof and the avoidance of moisture is vital in allowing the ash to flow. There’s also the necessity to apply the ash from above.
Initially applying ash with paper cones, tapping the sides to drop it over the canvas, Nigel soon realised the near complete lack of control resulting in the inability to build the surface how he wanted. “After many trips to the hardware store with a combination of bits and pieces from the reticulation and plumbing section, I managed to build a device. It has taken years to refine and I’m still not completely happy with the process, but at least I can now draw fine lines with the material.”
Functioning as a metaphor for the disappearing landscape itself, along with the many endemic species of flora and fauna it supports, Recinder was born from a growing desire to find a way to speak about the environmental issues that were happening in the place Nigel was born – Tasmania.
“By taking a material such as ash from some of these areas that have been devastated by fire and reconstructing that landscape, then reinserting many of the endemic species that are now extinct or on the endangered list back into this landscape, hopefully it raises questions about the treatment of our environment as a whole.”
In three paintings Nigel has recreated iconic landscapes painted by Heysen, Roberts and Glover. Positioning them on easels, it places the viewer in a duality of viewpoints separated by 200 years of development, the first being the colonial artist painting from the time of settlement.
“This I have represented in colour, stated with the smooth, shiny surface of oils and wax. The other artist is myself, where my view point is the one of reflection which is stated in ash. To help emphasise the changes that have taken place between these two different viewpoints, I have juxtaposed two mediums that are the antithesis of each other.”
Nigel’s work has always been predominantly landscape. It is through this subject that he explores his own identity as a white Australian living in a colonised country.
“Reading history through the pictorial representations of the Colonial artists I have now placed myself in a similar position to them where I am painting the landscape. But rather than seeing the prosperous times ahead, I am now looking face on at the implications of those attitudes of reshaping and exploiting the land to suit the individual needs of these free settlers, and how it has impacted so powerfully on the way our landscape is shaped today.”
Recinder – exhibiting April 30 – May 19, 2018
North Metropolitan TAFE
12 Aberdeen Street, Perth, WA