Louise Forthun’s stencilled paintings and works on paper have always foregrounded the tension between the material and formal properties of image making. Through the uncompromisingly hard-edged, cut line of stencil paired with the fine atomised, close to weightless dots of sprayed paint, they deftly bring together painting and photography; printing and painting; positive and negative; the mechanical and the handmade; mass and void. As Forthun explains, while describing the source images of these impressive new works, they also disrupt conventional dichotomies of the city and nature:
In an earlier series of paintings–Into the Light–Melbourne was seen from west to east and while these dense aerial views gave me a springboard to tackle the dynamic city, for Landscaping I specifically wanted to look at its relationship to its environment. So I asked Ken Rae to photograph the city from east to west, in the hope of capturing the greater landform of the bay and mountains. I was delighted to find an image that perched the mountains and bay high on the horizon with the city fanning out and dangling below. Falling toward the viewer the city looks as if it has been poured from a vessel. The streets blurred to rivers and back again. The idea that landscape and city are oppositional did not seem so clear.
In responding to these aerial photographs Forthun’s stencils mask air-brushed paint in lush saturated colours. The paintings are built up from multiple sprays of paint using the same stencil and this layering is further complicated when Forthun moves the stencil between paint applications. The resulting blurred or visual stutter, technically most like a misregistered print, is visually more akin to a disrupted video image or pinched film. It is a curiously mechanical and screen-based rather than a painterly effect and it pushes the works away from their documentary source imagery towards the fictional and mythic.
Forthun’s use of a meticulous and laborious stencil process has at times seemed perverse–the image twice deferred: first as photograph, then as a vast and intricate stencil, finally realised in paint. Having now persisted in this process and its technical and aesthetic challenges for over two decades, this exhibition shows works that have arrived assuredly at a grand scale. While this scale could easily be overwhelming and chaotic, given the complexity of Forthun’s hand-cut stencil mats and her layering technique, the scope and vigour of these works instead draws the viewer into a close and prolonged looking at a seemingly endless array of marks and forms that are at once figurative and abstract.
As Forthun addresses the city across this series her strategy changes a little with each work. A building is repeated or mirrored, the Yarra is broken in its flow across the cityscape, panels are reorganised so as to refuse the visual cohesion that a conventional representation of place would stress. Different visual rhythms are set up across the expansive images, resisting easy visual coherence yet anchored to the recognisable objectivity of the Melbourne city grid settled into its terrain.
While Forthun uses a number of strategies to deliberately disrupt her panoramas and resist the straightforward label of landscape, her title for this exhibition, Landscaping, reminds us of the making and scaping of environments as opposed to the simple finding, representing and viewing of forms. We know something of Forthun’s labour of cutting and painting through this simple reference to making that plays on a territorial scale and has the heft of soil and rock being moved as the city was built.
It is unusual to see such large scale works on paper and Forthun’s control of her medium and process is evident in these ambitious panoramas that are impossible to take in in a single look. These works offer up an enormous, whole environment that we can sample from and isolate out sub-compositions, just as Forthun has done in the smaller works included here. We scan across the larger works and dip in to identify parts of the city, or enjoy the treatment of marks in a delightful play of colour and form. Our eye snags on intriguing areas of paint as it might on the details of an expansive view.
The stencil itself can be understood as both the means of generating these images and the subject of the works. Each stencil, used over and over again in layering paint, becomes stretched, slumped, distorted, and eventually, torn and spent. Just before this point, Forthun very deliberately makes one more painting, one specifically designed to register this degraded and increasingly organic form. Sprayed paint marks out the peaks and troughs of the exhausted stencil and articulates an experience of place all the more emphatically due to increased tonal variation and depth of field impressions that result from tracing the paper’s distortions as it lifts and falls away from flat.
As much as of Forthun’s process is unique and resonates in her work, this knowledge pales when experiencing the extraordinary energy of her paintings, their visual excess based in a frenzy of forms that responds not so much the appearance of the city as its tempo. While we see the organising grid and the web of urban infrastructure, iconic buildings and the signature flat plane of Melbourne between the mountains and the bay, Forthun’s landscapes resist the rationality that these would normally bring. They are both grounded by their figure/ground process and freed to suggest a mythical Melbourne that dazzles and implores us to engage with it while maintaining a daunting density and complexity. It is at once familiar and other worldly.
In Forthun’s paintings the Melbourne of engineering, architecture and town planning is never quite tamed by perspective and the familiar expectations of fore, middle and background. This relation of subject and treatment is perfectly analogised by the solid ground of Forthun’s stencil as it is overtaken and over sprayed by the finest atmosphere of paint propelled by air that pushes the city into another register all together.