There is a mighty theme in Australian art: our perception of our landscape. Styles may change, yet the rural environment has continued to fascinate so many local creators. This absorption is not limited to those working within a Western tradition, because setting down one’s understanding of country has driven Aboriginal art for millennia. Other differences aside, so many black and white artists have sought to portray their deep—at times, spiritual—experience of this land. How they feel implicitly connected to it.
John Waller’s paintings mirror this pursuit. Having grown up in a country town, far from any city, Waller knows what it is to live with the land and its rhythms. His awareness is broad. By chance, in youth, Waller found nearby indigenous remains of great antiquity; then later, in adulthood, he became an art advisor at an Aboriginal community in central Australia, forging friendships with tribal painters and gaining insights into their work. By this time Waller had absorbed the Western tradition at RMIT’s art school; and he had also soaked up great landscape art during a formative spell as an education officer at the National Gallery of Victoria. These experiences, and more, shape his creative decisions.
Waller’s chequered sources are apparent when contemplating his landscape paintings. He uses a pictorial framework inherited from Paul Cézanne by way of Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams, running a bar across the upper part of each planar composition to indicate a distant horizon. Beneath this he sets a flattened field to show the land’s immensity, conveying its daily cycle and longer term phases.
As for Waller’s distinctive geometry, this is distilled from travels in light aircraft, sometimes in North-West Victoria along the Murray River, but particularly flights to Lajamanu and Mungaroopna near the Tanami Desert. His shapes will echo fence lines, roads, tracks, homesteads and settlements seen from high above; and also creek beds, rocky outcrops, areas of differing vegetation, as well as outlines made by cropping, erosion and, sometimes, salinity. So in visual terms each work testifies to intersecting patterns of nature and human presence.
Then there is the artist’s palette. Waller talks of a light in the Australian interior so intense during the day it is near blinding, and one squints if trying to make out colours; but this is also when most animals, and people, withdraw into shade. What he prefers to paint, instead, is the land as it comes alive from late afternoon through sunset then when night washes in, a transformation erasing the hot hues of bare earth, dried grass, and salt pan. These are hours when ruddy brown tones, luminous ochres and pulsing whites shift into cooler, more elusive shades of violet inflected with pink, of numerous dusky greys, and of blues easing into shadowy black.
Of course, Waller has always been a tasty painter. Working with brushes, scrapers and painting knives, he applies each section of pigment so that colour, tone and texture play off against or harmonise with adjacent sections. Most telling is how Waller employs thin glazes (a demanding technique used by Lloyd Rees and Sidney Nolan) which makes certain passages appear to glow from beneath—seen up close the very paint surface speaks of an absorption in artistic process. This is more than craftsmanship. It is authority. Which is why the viewer’s experience when savouring a landscape by John Waller might be likened to hearing a musical passage performed by a virtuoso soloist.
So much is embodied in these works: love of our homeland, delight in nature, empathy for environment, most of all an enjoyment in translating into visual art these levels of understanding. There are depths here, sustaining depths we as viewers can connect with and take pleasure in.
—Dr Christopher Heathcote