Five men and a mountain range

It is impossible to care about something unless it is in some way familiar.

The Strathbogie Ranges is an area of lofty but tempered beauty. Today its rocky vistas are divided by wide tracts of sun-bleached pasture abutting fugitive creek-lines. Topsoil floats as a haze amid gnarled gums as the country endures another year of drought and birds of prey circle overhead, looping patterns in the sky over roaming cattle and sheep. Only the upper reaches of the ranges hint at the wilderness of pre-European times. Here, amid stunted trees, giant granite boulders poise at implausible angles, hanging off the edge of hill-slopes like wind-worn sentinels gazing grandly down into the basalt valley plain.

Altitude Art is a group of artists who are comfortable in each other’s company and familiar with terrain beyond the bitumen of city life. When they sit to work outside in the open air there is no real need to talk. Although they enjoy the energy of each other’s presence, their comradeship is such that they are happy to work in silence. In this way, the bush is allowed to make itself felt – the wind is audible, the progression of insects climbing over debris can be watched, the subtle movement of leaves at the ends of branches or cloud spilling across the horizon can be translated into rapid but conscious brush-strokes or a line of pastel on board.
Above: Jay Watson "Ruffy Road Rocks, Digital C-Type Photograph 2008"


This ‘plein air’ venture into the Strathbogies is the group’s latest foray as cultural missionaries. Previous encounters have taken them together to the wild Antarctic region of South Georgia Island and the fire-singed terrain of Victoria’s High Plains. However, unlike the explorer, whose primary goal is to forge a footprint, this group of friends is motivated to move more humbly in the landscape – waiting and watching. Familiar with the romantic tragedy that underpins Australia’s historical settlement, their work is, firstly, a visual conversation with place. On a deeper level, it is also offers some form of spiritual reparation. Like the many generations of male Australian artists who ‘went bush’ before them – from the late Victorian Heidelberg mates Streeton and Roberts, to Nolan and the Antipodeans or Fred Williams and his abstract peers - their mark-making shares a fervor that suggests it is not just the land they are attempting to glean. Their engaged acts of painting, photographing and sculpting represent a form of emotional quarrying on behalf of their ancestors, who, with their own stories, lived trough the time when the rich narrative logic of indigenous belonging was so quickly over-written by another, far away tale.

Viewed together, the work of Mitch McAuley, Martin King, Mike Nicholls, David Frazer and Jay Younger is a symphonic interpretation of the Strathbogie region. Each artist comes to the land on a different level, some relating to its base elements – rock, soil, water – while others preoccupy themselves with more transient happenings between horizon and sky. Mike Nicholls monumental sculptures are hewn straight from eucalyptus chunks and relate symbolically to the primitive votive totems of ancient civilizations. His gaze is largely internal, informed by a deep sense of the evolution of humanity in time and space. Even his two-dimensional work conveys a strong sense of solidity, its palette tied to an earthy spectrum of red ochre, steel blue and grey-green –as if his hues were rooted directly in the soil.

Mitch McAuley’s painting shares Nicholls physicality, though his eye registers a broader colour palette and involves closer perspective. His rendering of chequered shadows playing across copses of trees is informed by a familiarity with the sun’s passage over a landscape that he lives and works in full time with his family. Each canvas is rich in impasto oil, overlaid and scraped back until he attains a potent portrait of place. McAuley gestures to the duality of the bush – its sinister beauty –by depicting radiant bush fire, a dry creek-bed, or an edgy lone roo. Often, there is a figure in the foreground; observing, mourning, or celebrating the scene observed. In one picture a man stands with an axe, playing an ambiguous role as either guardian or executioner of the trees - Lorax Jack or Jack the Ripper?

Martin King shares McAuley’s implicit conservation concern, though his eye is aimed skyward rather than at the tree-line. A delicate charcoal animation maps the flight of a cormorant as it moves over the water and into the air. As the bird flies, a strange and beautiful transformation takes place; gradually its shadow sprouts branches and becomes a tree. Like a mirage, the bird, water and land merge together, shimmering in an ethereal metamorphosis. Together with his static etchings, this fleeting imaginary scene moves beyond reality to draw a quiet metaphor about the constant cycles of birth and decay that rule all life forms.

In contrast with King’s scantly rendered charcoal frames, the detail in David Frazer’s work approaches the forensic. Although these small paintings appear naturalistic at first glance, there are hidden omissions in each viewpoint. These elisions provide clues to the artist’s motivation: his attention to the character of trees is perhaps an unconscious form of self-portraiture. As a habitually meticulous painter, Frazer also seems to enjoy the temporary challenge of rendering a scene quickly. Each small board captures a different vision of gums in the landscape. Some are mere skeletons of dead giant, others small saplings or sparse groupings in a paddock - their green merging with the gold of the pasture. For Frazer, leaving detail out is both a liberation and submission. He allows himself to become lost in select moments of what he sees before him.

Jay Younger is team’s documenter. His camera draws the project together and provides an overriding structure for the creative gathering. Like his friends, he is drawn to the mixed texture of the Strathbogie Ranges – to their wild rocky past and tamed pastoral present. Recording the other artists at work, he finds his own eye through theirs and distills the passing moments into definite frames. Through his eyes viewers are encouraged to step outside the gallery space into the living, moving place that is this particular landscape. In this way we bring to the meeting our own elation and anxiety about what it means to be human in the delicate and threatened environment of present day Australia.

“Every morning (is) … a cheerful invitation to make …life of equal simplicity, and... innocence, with Nature herself .” Henry David Thoreau, 1854. i

Anna Clabburn


i Thoreau, Henry David, 1981, Walden and Other Writings, ed Joseph Wood Krutch, Bantam Books, Toronto, p.171.

© 2008