Where nature begins: The art of Neil Taylor
According to legend, a bushranger named Govett rode off the cliff rather than be captured alive. And while one hopes this rebellious act can only be true, Govett’s Leap, the falls sitting near the highest point of the Blue Mountains is actually named after William Romaine Govett, an assistant to the Surveyor General, Sir Thomas Mitchell, who first came upon that spot in 1831.
Prior to Govett’s survey of the old Bathurst Road, it was Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth and William Lawson who navigated the once impassable mountains by following the ridges, leading an incursion into the lands of the Wiradjuri people that culminated in bloodshed.
Although now effortlessly crossed by car in a few hours, the mountains still hold a strong sense of impassability. Much of the area is still trackless bushland. The Greater Blue Mountains is World Heritage listed for its diverse habitat, protected for the most part by the difficulty of the terrain. The mountains are not tall, but the ravines do seem bottomless. Indeed, they are not mountains at all, but a high plateau worn down by time into serpentine valleys.
William Romaine Govett Photo: NSW State Library
The Wollemi National Park, about half the Greater Blue Mountains, stretches north from Bells Line of Road to the Upper Hunter Valley. It is still Darug, Wiradjuri, Wanaruah, and Darkinyung country. And like most of Australia, this ground means different things to different people.
To many who now live there, the mountains remain a kind of border, a great dividing wall. But for Blackheath artist Neil Taylor the Blue Mountains are less of a barrier and more of a meeting point between the expanses of eastern and western plateaus, a place of encounter, with a natural history that stretches back millennia.
Govett's Leap, Blackheath Photo: NSW National Parks
While it is inevitable that Taylor’s immersion in this environment imbues his painting, the artist brings a sense of being at ease with the landscape and its history without feeling a need to artificially overlay his own experiences, constructs and viewpoint.
Writer John Berger wrote that modernism arose in part from ‘confusion about where the artist’s experience stops and nature begins’. Taylor knows well where to draw this line.
While the works are unmistakably a montage of intricately painted images - both of European and of Chinese influence - brought together to form a single, coherent pictorial representation of a tamed and untamed wilderness from the fixed viewpoint of the detached artist as observer, they are none the less modern.
The paintings are not didactic, as with traditional art. The artist leaves room for the observer to take what they will given their own experiences. The paintings are an invitation. An invitation into an ancient, pristine world. A world that lies within reach on our urban doorstep. But a creation that cannot be claimed as at any point in time.
Neil Taylor, 'Driftless' (2019) Photo: Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Neil Taylor, 'Night Comes to the Valley II' (2019) Photo: Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Neil Taylor, 'Storm over Balackwell Glen' (2019) Photo: Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Here Taylor elevates the landscape, casting an eagle’s eye across the mountains he paints, unveiling their granite prehistoric structure. Here he brings to his work an encyclopaedic knowledge of the geology, mythology and history associated with the Greater Blue Mountains, which combined hint at how landscapes are ordinarily constructed in the mind.
Where place is a gathering of images, of evidence: what we decide we know about it, what we learned without realising, what others have told us, and only then what we see. Where our perceptions of place are, like our perceptions of people, bound up with memories and agendas, narratives, projections, assumptions we are only partially aware of making.
If landscape is a construct, then the notion of an authentic landscape becomes elusive. (Jennifer Mills)
Recognising this, Taylor adds a new dimension by portraying nature as unwavering, generative, defying the vicissitude of time and attempts to be manipulated to suit a human purpose. He strips the landscape of human edifices.
Neil Taylor, 'Ice Age' (2019) Photo: Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Describing his latest body of work ‘Driftless – Paintings of Stone and Mist’ at Wagner Contemporary in Sydney Taylor says,
When we experience the bush (or ocean or desert or wilderness) every idea we have about it and pretty well everything we feel about it is an additional artificial layer - coming not from the bush itself but from our own ideas and emotions.
Typically these layers can take the form of a scientific understanding, or reminiscences of past experiences, or fear of unknown dangers, or analysis in preparation for a painting, or looking for a good photo, or a search for flora and fauna, or a search for food and water, or any of the other countless ways we can pass the time in the bush. We can make a layer that analyses the contrasting attitudes of indigenous, 19th Century and 21st Century attitudes to “ownership” – as pointless and superficially clever as that may at first glance appear.
But it’s only when you’re aware that the origin of all of this is you (rather than the bush itself) that you can start to peel back these layers of meaning and feeling to arrive at the real bush and not the artificial. And when you get there all that’s left is an enormous spiritual abyss-like depth where the notion of “you” is gone as is the notion of “bush”.
Neil Taylor, 'Shadow from the Permian Dance' (2019) Photo: Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Neil Taylor, 'Burragorang' (2019) Photo: Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
As John Olsen says (paraphrasing Ming Dynasty painter Shitao) “I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me”. To make paintings from this place is possible but it’s a very elusive place. Some of our best indigenous painters have done it. Painters like Lloyd Rees and Fred Williams have also attained it.
One of the first things you notice with these works is that they are what Francis Bacon calls “areas of sensation rather than illustration” – they tell no stories, they illustrate no theory, they spring from no ideas – and so they are much closer to the “isness” of the bush. They’re in a place not easily described in the words of intellectuals and art critics but closer to the physical world of paint.
A great painting to look at in this regard is Yukultji Napangati's untitled painting which won the Wynne Prize in 2018.
Yukultji Napangati, 'Untitled' (2018) Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Neil Taylor, 'The Barricades of Heaven' (2019) Photo: Neil Taylor
While the didactic panel mentions a story associated with the “place” of this painting there is no attempt at all to show this story or any other in the painting. Instead there is a purified and extremely basic patterning which evokes the desert area in countless different ways. The writer (unlikely to be Napangati herself) mentions sand hills and tubers but these patterns are also reptile skins and wind patterns and muddy water pools and woven grass and human wrinkles and sound patterns and maps of tracks and contours and on and on as endless as the desert itself – only limited by your imagination.
It’s worth mentioning that Napangati is one of the “Pintubi Nine” – the last group of indigenous people to make contact with white culture back in 1984 and so her painting is extremely uninfluenced by European art.
Pintupi Nine in 1984 Photo: News Limited
Painting in its purest form like this is “Creation Celebrating Creation” and as such reaches far back to the first paintings we know on cave walls many millennia ago. The more layers of ideas and concepts and emotions and theories we place onto a landscape the more this pure form will be obscured. In fact to do so takes the first steps towards a very real abuse of this landscape. It’s so much easier to destroy the bush if we’ve developed an attitude that it’s not “me” but it’s “that”. And in the end to use it to make (obscure) points by layering idea upon idea is just as cynical as using it to win a seat in parliament or mining it for jobs or starving it of water for offshore dollars.
The Greater Blue Mountains cast a shadow across a swathe of New South Wales, yet remain in no small part untouched. Much of the land is unable to be claimed or made less powerful and easier to control. In Taylor we find an artist celebrating the very inviolate nature of the rugged reaches of this ancient wilderness. And that satisfies. In fact, it does much more.
Without preaching, berating or seeking to persuade the viewer, Taylor succeeds in portraying a landscape that stands on its own - deconstructed, without requiring added layers of explanation. Here, in his latest work the once impassable mountains are now etched with highways, paths and worn tracks built on the early work of an enthusiastic William Govett. But the road to understanding their intricate beauty is best travelled with an uncluttered mind. Taylor's breathtaking art provides that release, shining a candescent light on the soul of the natural world - the place where nature begins.
Neil Taylor, 'Night Comes to the Valley I' (2019) Photo: Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Dawn on the Blackheath Wall (2018) Photo: Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Neil Taylor 'Driftless: Paintings of Stone and Mist' runs until 17 July at Wagner Contemporary, Sydney
Main Photo: Neil Taylor installing his recent paintings at Wagner Contemporary, Sydney Photo: Andrew McIlroy
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia