Richard Morecroft interviews Jane Guthleben about her most recent exhibition at .M Contemporary in 2021 ‘An Evening At Mount Wilson’.
A month spent in historic Mt Wilson in the Blue Mountains is the focus of Jane Guthleben’s latest suite of 52 paintings, which celebrates the regeneration of indigenous flora and fauna after last summer’s devastating bushfires. Guthleben was awarded a month-long residency at the Old School in the tiny rainforest hamlet, and her paintings reflect her daily encounters with wildlife that emerged from the blackened earth, tree trunks and rock faces after the fires.
Guthleben is fascinated with Dutch still life painting and reinterpreting it with Australian flora and fauna. The burnt out landscape and its regrowth provided plenty of subject matter for her many small studies and larger works. The unique adaptation by native flora to bushfire and cultural burning by is of particular interest.
Some larger works in the exhibition have done away with domestic references such as vases, tables and backgrounds typically seen in still life paintings. Surrounded by bush at the residency, Guthleben wanted to create arrangements solely of flora, to pay homage to the abundance of new growth. Painting compositions such as Flora Infinitum (2020), In the Night Garden 2020 and Phoenix Arrangement – Regeneration After the Fires (2020) appear to extend well beyond the canvas and could be seen as details of giant bouquets, or as sections of the bush itself.
Other works refer to the town’s history as a mountain retreat for Sydney’s colonial establishment in the late 19th century, which included Art Gallery of New South Wales founder Richard Wynne (of the Wynne prize). In Romantic Arrangement (2020) and An Evening in Mt Wilson (2020), the local flora springs magically to life in the guise of society ladies in their evening finery. Guthleben was intrigued by the arrival of well-heeled families in the remote village, who kept up societal standards and formal dress codes far from the city, as recorded in historical photographs. She has conjured the mountain’s flowers into the shape of ghostly evening gowns emerging from the dark.
Small works such as Still Life with Cicada Casings (2020) and Common fringe-lily at Govetts Leap (2020) are more like diary entries, documenting what Guthleben encountered on her daily walks.
An Evening at Mt Wilson is a record of a place; a memoir; a romantic title that refers to a short period of sweet time in a place, which has recently experienced both darkness and light. The exhibition continues Guthleben’s ongoing project to honour our unique flora and fauna and to create an Australian floral dictionary where we can interpret the meaning of a banksia as easily as the colour of a rose.
Guthleben has a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) from the University of New South Wales. She is currently a finalist in the Archibald Prize, and also recently in the Portia Geach, Mosman Art Prize, Archibald Prize Salon des Refuses, Waverley Art Prize and the Ravenswood Art Prize. This is her fifth solo exhibition with M Contemporary.