Luise Guest on Sarah Tomasetti’s new show at Janet Clayton Fine Art…
What is it about mountainous landscapes that so fascinate us? From the sublime vistas of the Romantics to Chinese ink painters obsessively repeating images of vast craggy peaks wreathed in mist, artists have wrestled with the metaphorical image of the mountain, so much so that it would seem impossible that this imagery could be represented in a new way.
Sarah Tomasetti, Tian Shan Glacier As recorded from the International Space Station, 2015. Oil and Graphite on Fresco Plaster Image courtesy the artist and Janet Clayton Fine Art
Melbourne artist Sarah Tomasetti provides a fresh take on an old subject in her exhibition at Janet Clayton Fine Art. The subtlety and restraint in her images of the Himalayas and other mountain peaks is partly due to her chosen technique of fresco. This unforgiving medium adds a sense of the ephemeral, as if we are looking at these mountains in a cracked and clouded mirror, underlining the artist’s concern for the fragility of remote and threatened places and the delicate balance of nature.
Journeying in mountains, of course, is always going to be a metaphor, whether it’s Caspar David Friedrich yearning for the sublime, the Chinese scholar seeing the unity of all things in the universe, or Picnic at Hanging Rock. Tomasetti explores ideas about the journey of three generations of women, their courage and familial relationships, the grief of loss and the consolation of memory. Her works also remind us of the forced migration of peoples traversing the globe today, far from home; of separation and loneliness. Works such as ‘Traverse Frieze A’ evoke the sense of awe we all experience in the presence of vast mountain peaks, whilst ‘Tian Shan Glacier as recorded from the International Space Station’ suggests impermanence, the melting away of ancient ice floes. ‘Traverse Frieze C’, its small figures silhouetted against rocky backgrounds, partially obscured by swirling mist, reminds us that life requires stoicism and endurance. And that we are small in the face of nature.
Sarah Tomasetti, Frieze C, 2015. Image Courtesy the artist and Janet Clayton Fine Art.
The exhibition title, Traverse, suggests an arduous journey. The works emerged from an extraordinary personal story. Both Tomasetti’s mother and grandmother travelled to China, long before her own recent journey to explore remote areas of that country in search of a subject. Her grandmother travelled in the 1930s, accompanying her businessman husband. Her mother, a folk singer, toured China with a group from Australia in 1958, a time when the Chinese wanted to show “foreign friends’’ from the west the glories of socialism. One suspects they may have visited a lot of showplace ‘’Potemkin” villages and factories, in addition to their performing duties. Both women kept diaries, a fascinating discovery for the artist, who felt that her own full-colour photographic images did not quite convey the elegiac sense that she was looking for. She says her body of work is an attempt to “capture that incoherence, to speak broadly of journey, memory and loss and an encounter with what is difficult and strange.”
Sarah Tomasetti, Family, 2015. Oil and Graphite on Fresco Plaster. Image Courtesy the artist and Janet Clayton Fine Art.
Seeking a way to represent these complex ideas, she returned to an old, treasured book by the Victorian traveller and adventurer, Isabella Bird, and her photographs taken with primitive, early camera equipment in remote places. These faded photographs provided the key to a body of work: the collision of past and present. Tomasetti has juxtaposed nostalgic images of people long dead with Himalayan mountain peaks seen via satellite technology, or glacial landscapes that may be all but unrecognisable a few years hence. ‘Family’ in spite of its source in a 19th century photograph, recalls newspaper photographs of fleeing refugees. These paintings are pale and ghostly, like the scenes recorded by Isabella Bird with silver nitrate and light sensitive paper. In Tomasetti’s hands, the painstaking antique process of applying her images in a mixture of buon fresco and fresco secco technique, finally adding layers of stripped back oil colour in the most muted shades of grey, cream, grey-green and pale ochre, ensures that the very materiality of each work is imbued with a sense of impermanence, a nostalgic longing.
Traverse, Janet Clayton Fine Art, 406 Oxford Street, Paddington, until November 22.