Lorikeets cavort, herons wade and finches chatter in charms. It’s BIRD IN HAND, an exhibition of 35 paintings by Sydney artist Jane Guthleben, continuing her ongoing project which reimagines formal Dutch Still Life painting with Australian flora and birds as the subject. Guthleben imagines an alternative Tulipmania – a boom for tulips and Still Life paintings in 17th Century Holland – where banksias and wattle are celebrated over tulips, lilies, and roses. Then might we reevaluate our unique flora and fauna so perfectly adapted for our harsh climate.
Guthleben goes back in time to create her large floral works, mining historical accounts of Australian flora and birds contemporaneous with the heyday of the Still Life painting boom in Europe.
For BIRD IN HAND, Guthleben researched the earliest accounts of flora and birds made immediately after British colonisation of Australia in 1788. These include paintings by anonymous convict artists, known collectively as “Sydney Bird Painter” or “Port Jackson Painter”, held in the State Library of New South Wales. She has also drawn from written accounts of flora and birds encountered in the first days of the colony. Using these as a starting point, she combines the species in large arrangements that loosely approximate traditional Dutch floral Still Lifes. In some compositions, endangered birds stand in the place of flowers, and in the background lie parched arid planes or windswept coastlines. In some cases the species she references are now extinct.
Birds and flora are selected around themes, such as Novae Hollandiae, in which all the birds included have the descriptor New Holland or Novae Hollandiae in their name. Raper’s Arrangement includes birds that were painted by George Raper, one of the colony’s first professional artists. Hawkesbury Gentrification includes birds from the Hawkesbury River first mentioned in written accounts by Europeans in the early years after 1788.
Other paintings in BIRD IN HAND are purely floral arrangements such as Arrangement with Christmas Bells and Fringe Lilies. Four paintings, Bush Arrangement with Quandongs, Hawkesbury Botanica 1, Hawkesbury Botanica 2 and Hawkesbury Botanica 3 rely on written accounts of flora in the book People of the River by Grace Karskens.
The title BIRD IN HAND is taken from the expression A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, meaning that it is better hold on to what you have than to take your chance for something better in the future. Guthleben hopes that focusing on endangered species and habitats will promote conservation of our precious environment
BIRD IN HAND is Guthleben’s sixth solo show with M Contemporary.
Guthleben lives and works on Cammeraygal land in Sydney’s inner north. She acknowledges the devastating effects of colonisation on First Nations people.