Featuring in New Romantics: Greg Wood

Australian Scholarly Publishing PTY LYD, North Melbourne, 2011
Something is happening in Australian art today. We are witnessing the resurgence of ideas that took root centuries ago - a return to passion in art; a return to atmosphere and awe.
Historians call it Romanticism; a disposition for melancholic yearning, for communion with nature, for the sublime. Australian artists, in countless numbers, are engaging with these themes again today.
Through the work of thirty-six contemporary practitioners, Simon Gregg seeks to understand a paradigm shift that is shaping the future course of Australian Art.
New Romantics is rich in exclusive interviews with, and first-hand accounts by, the leading artists of this generation, each of whom represent a unique aspect of an extraordinary spectacle of art.
Simon Gregg is a curator and art historian specialising in colonial and contemporary Australian art. His genre- busting exhibitions and published works traverse fields as diverse as social and architectural history, contemporary art and popular culture.
Currently Curator of the Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale, he was previously Senior Curator of Melbourne’s City Museum and he has worked for major museums and galleries throughout Victoria. New Romantics is his first full-length book.
Greg Wood is concerned with the void above the earth. His visceral approach heightens the sense of insubstantiality, and the immaterial. In each of his works, we are drawn to a thin detail of land along its lowest edge.
Wood is drawn to decidedly moody atmospheric conditions - more English than Australian and characterised by dense, heavy fog and vaporous chills. The scale of many of his works immerses us within their mournful shrouds and, while once again we are led to an empirical rendering of the earth and sky, the devout aura cannot fail to be registered. These are images of deep longing that, in their focus on the heavens and the immaterial, facilitate a spiritual transcendence into the beyond. Substance becomes mutable, and we are made to feel forces and emotions that have nothing to do with topography.
Wood has evolved his practice over a long period and unapologetically considers himself first and foremost as a landscape painter. While Wood’s work is very much his own, the similarities between many of his paintings and those of, say, Chris Langlois, William Breen or even John Morris or Joanna Logue, are startling. Here lies the evidence of a groundswell of sympathy for the land, as a vehicle for expressing human pathos. The writhing, unpredictable forms of nature become vessels for transmitting mystical concerns, in a way that we have not seen en masse since Romanticism - and like the artists of that era, those of today are working in isolation, without an overarching strategic brief. There are doubtless as many reasons for the renewed relevance of Romanticism as there are artists. By way of example, Peter Daverington - to return to that painter of extraordinary glacial landscapes - ascribes the present resurgence in the sublime and the Romantic to a ‘Disillusionment with the materialism of our capitalist, globalised culture’. - Peter Daverington, 2010. As we are seeing, the rebirth of Romanticism has less to do with societal factors or a tactical polemic among artists, than an individual pursuit of truth - or for art’s sake.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the work of Greg Wood who, betraying a trace of indignation, asserts that his paintings ‘are nor media interactive or interested in identity politics; they are landscape paintings (in the true sense of the word) that render often everyday and undiscerning scenes sublime.’ - Greg Wood, 2010.
‘I am definitely familiar with the , and would say that I do deal with elements of it such as the sublime, melancholy, vastness, the void. I am also influenced and inspired by the Tonalists, being that I use merging tones, flattened forms and muted colours. However I have not consciously set out to follow the theories of Romanticism. The landscapes that I choose to paint are the ordinary places often in between destinations, the overlooked places. I am drawn to these landscapes when they are being engulfed and dominated by the elements.’ - Greg Wood, 2010.
Wood’s words might well have come from Friedrich himself, or from any other artist who elicits a nostalgia for a long-lost world through transcendental imagery. In applying a similar dissolution of form to that which we have seen in Langlois and Breen, Wood suggests a metaphysical world drawn from a fading memory. The immateriality of form correlates directly with the failure of the memory, and as we approach death we might imagine a canvas where the encroaching mist has consumed the dissolving form altogether.
In Spooky Hill (2009), Wood presents a long, horizontal evocation of a grey, undulating landscape. It is symptomatic of his working method in which observed fact is filtered through imaginative recall, resulting in generic space rather than specific place. The title, like the work, conveys at once a supernatural occurrence and an empirical fact. As Wood says:
‘Spooky Place is an actual place in Tasmania. All my paintings are named from actual places, but the paintings themselves become a combination of my memory, experience and documentation.’

Like all his works, this painting shows no evidence of human habitation - we might be observing a primeval scene where humans have yet to evolve. In pining for a lost world, Wood evokes a kind of pre-loved world - a transitional state in which a new cosmology is being formed. The rawness of Tasmania is the ideal setting for Wood - as it has been for Wolfhagen, Burton and many others; it provides as Wood says, ‘a culmination of everything I am seeking in the land.’ Spooky Hill exudes a cleansed purity where natural represents a glorious divinity, and where humankind - absent here - comes to symbolise degradation. In its reductive minimalism, Spooky Hill invokes the void of Friedrich’s Monk, and also of Mark Rothko’s later canvases.
Dove Lake (2009), like Spooky Hill, describes in most ethereal terms a hillside dissolving into mist. While we may still discern the identifiable form of a land mass, we are struck by the hypnotic dissolution which repositions the work in abstract terms. Reminiscent of colour field painting (without the colour), the image can be read in three sections: a pale top section (identifiable as sky), a darker middle section (a distant hill) and a darker-still lower section (a closer hill). Wood affords us no other means of comprehending its content. Dove Lake is thus Turnerian in as much as it expresses the immaterial through the material, and specifically recalls Turner’s Fighting Temeraire. Wood’s hillside is enveloped in the same spectral luminosity that dissolved the Napoleonic warship, only now we are deprived of the tugboat to ground us to earth.
Wood confronts the infinite head-one in Hadspen (2009), by virtually severing all links with the landscape tradition. We are presented with an absolute void, demarcated only by a sliver of land at the very base of the picture. This dark strip is barely identifiable as land, and it is only in the subtlest provocation of our imagination that Wood is able to intimate it as such. That the greater part of the surface is devoted to the sky recalls the cloud studies of Constable, who stated that ‘it will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key-note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment.’
A critical review of Wood’s 2009 exhibition Neither Forgotten Nor Kept decried that ‘The grey of the omnipresent sky is so utterly overpowering that it dominates the subtle nuances of colour and texture that Wood achieves within the tiny slivers of landscape placed at the bottom of each canvas’ - The Melbourne Art Review, 2010. In doing so, the reviewer calls into account the very qualities that elevate the work. Wood amplifies the effect of the sky, and exaggerates its awesome power over the earth in order to impart the immensity of the ethereal. For Wood, ‘It’s always about atmosphere for me. The sky dictates the land. The sky is the starting point, which informs what happens below.’
While each of Wood’s works speaks of similar sensations - of loss, longing and transcendence - each is unique. The subtle, barely discernible shifts in the leaden, corrosive atmosphere remind us, again, of Constable, who declared that ‘No two days are alike, not even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves alike since the creation of the world’. In calling to mind these sentiments, Wood reinstates the magic in everyday moment. He seeks to express, as he says, ‘How it makes you feel when you’re in this void.’ His sublime is not one of terror or turmoil, but of a quiet, contemplative state in which the wonders of the empirical world open up to reveal the plaintive majesty that surrounds us, intoxicating us, if only we develop the nuance to discern it.
In ascending form the void to pure light, we progress deeper into an immaterial state that further alters our perception toward an ‘inner eye’, and in doing so we encounter another rich vein of age Romantic that is flourishing today.

Explore more about Sophia Szilagyi, who also features in the book - New Romantics, Darkness and Light in Australian Art by Simon Gregg. 
May 27, 2022