In 1967 Raymond Arnold left suburban Melbourne on a school walking trip in Tasmania. He hiked for days to arrive in the rocky, desolate mountains surrounding the mining settlement of Queenstown, Tasmania. As the artist describes it, this trip was something like an initiation. “This place,” he told me, “is where I first felt free.” Few artists have a relationship with landscape so profound that it forges their life path, but this is definitely the case with this master printer. Since his first encounter in Western Tasmania, he has walked, cycled, camped and studied almost every mile between Hobart and Queenstown, forging a formidable international art centre there and continuing to chronicle its strange beauty.
Driving into Queenstown with Raymond Arnold is like receiving a scenic tour of rural Tasmania in photo-negative. The retreat from settlement is gradual. First there are fewer houses, then none at all, then, after passing through intricate forests the trees begin to thin and the ground turns to stone. Gradually you begin to wonder how the sky and earth managed to merge into a single monolithic seam. Over centuries, the slicing hand of man has dug deep, re-shaping whole mountains. Rounding a high ridge under a wild, grey sky, the artist asked me if I would like to see the open-cut mine first. I did not. The entire vista looked like a raw knuckle or a skinned skull. Here is the Australian landscape as anti-sublime, where vast mountains stand stripped of foliage, the King River flows in a yellow stream that is the most polluted in the country, and the town itself sits beneath a heavy layer of asphalt, treeless and stark.
Then, in the heart of town, stands a black and bright tangerine structure. The former headquarters for LARQ (Landscape Art Research Queenstown) and atelier to Helena Demczuk and Raymond Arnold. After hosting over 17 artist’s residencies in the past decade, 41 exhibitions and the forthcoming “Unconformity” Arts Festival this October, this creative place makes me feel like something of a latecomer. Tables lay heavy with books and artworks, paintings by Helena document their remarkable visitors and personal expeditions, and the coffee is on. Laid out in the studio are 70 gleaming copper plates for the recent (and still growing) series ‘Elsewhere World’. The work (which exhibits at The Art Vault in Mildura from July 20 this year) functions almost like a song cycle, it is written and it is still being written. “There is,” Arnold concedes, “an obvious poetic to the material, the process, the source and the setting. I am working here on copper plates, in the foothills of mountains gauged by copper mining. I am here because I want to be here and I am here because I am bearing witness.”
The tension between vigil and idyll simmers in his work. Drawn with tender care in ‘Elsewhere World’, native flowers like the white waratah are tentatively re-entering the landscape. Across plates that function like a vast letter, clouds intersect with tree networks, and stone, bark and dirt merge. Here is a terrestrial realm so well suited to monochrome, each stroke of the etching plate resembling the deep tear of the pickaxe and blade. Weeks after I leave, Arnold is still reworking a single plate, bearing down day after day. Every time he exhibits this work it has transmuted and, in turn, the installation changes: “I’ve got that format of the aggregated panorama and the audience of the field of the disintegrated sections. That’s like an equation for me and I’ve always wanted the print, or my work, to play out as something like that, as something active – this balancing between two elements, between the positive and the negative.”
Settling in Queenstown in 2006 was the culmination of a long road. Arnold came to Hobart to teach in 1983 and immediately applied his skills to ecological activism. From the beginning his landscapes were frenetically alive, complex and anti-picturesque. Nothing he drew, printed or painted was arbitrary, and at the height of the Franklin River blockade, Tasmanian art was fully loaded. “Perhaps my earliest print work had a mature look,” he conceded, “because I was a late starter, almost 30 at the time.” The irony and didactic thrust of political art in the 80s failed to submerge his highly individual riff. The hundreds of screen-printed posters he generated for Chameleon Artist Co-operative were both experimental and exquisite.
In the drawn line, Arnold’s hand has always been tremendously steady. Of all Australian artists, he is the one who has brought landscape closest to the intimacy and rich sentience of portraiture. His intensity is sustained by a natural sense of scale and the daring to break etching out of the single frame format. His eight panel multi-plate etching ‘Imaginary Landscape – Eighteen months on Tasmania’ (1984) sprawled over eight metres. In this early work, the Queenstown mountain range of Frenchman’s Cap is viewed from the base, steep, harsh and degraded. The smudged surface of the paper evoked a toiling polluted sky. It also serves as a prelude to his commitment to the west.
This was a landscape he would return to after more time in Hobart and another decade in France working most frequently at the esteemed Atelier Lacourière et Frélaut in Paris. Arnold’s work of the 90s delved into social history, subtle eroticism and memoir, with forms as disparate as armour and lace. Yet landscape held sway. Prevailing also was a steely discipline.
Arnold says that printmaking centrally is about time. The process is contemplative, painstaking and sometimes porous. Walking from the plates to the vast imprint of ‘Elsewhere World’ laid out on a huge studio table is breathtaking. Arnold’s masterstroke is to merge humility of detail with grandeur of scale. The image is relentless, embedded in his chosen habitat but also driven by his line. Few artists draw as he does. This is important given that he does not draw in the field or allude to notebooks. Everything happens on the plate. And the mutations are slow.
“My marks and the way I draw with the points and needle tools has changed. I can see that transition on the plates. The lines circle, zigzag, thicken, deepen, swirl and coalesce across the copper surfaces and their character has subtly changed. This, I guess also connects to the time issue. In one sense my little ‘nest of cross hatched grass blades’ and curving arcs of thin line are not unlike an encephalographic monitoring of bodily function tracing various pulses and rhythms.”
To explain his process, he draws a long bow of lineage from the intricate carvings on 15th-century German armour to contemporary printmaking. He also tells me a parting story. Long ago, overseeing the copper mine that stripped the land of trees and eroded the earth with sulphurous waste, was a cultured metallurgist called Robert Carl Sticht. Inside a richly panelled library in a mansion on the hill overlooking Queenstown, Sticht collected rare books, paintings, drawings by Canaletto and most notably the woodcuts of Dürer and the etchings of Rembrandt. In almost total isolation and overseeing a devastated landscape, Sticht hoarded the artefacts of European culture. Orson Welles could not paint a sadder portrait of cultural wealth and environmental poverty. Yet Raymond Arnold redeems the tale. For here he is; stationed in a self-created outpost, an aesthete and activist, a practical polemicist. And, so unlike Sticht, he does not turn inwards but gazes each day straight into the wound. Bearing witness, making his mark and inviting the world to join him.
Words by Anna Johnson for Artist Profile Magazine