Peter Thorn Recent Paintings exhibition June 2017 ARO Gallery, Darlinghurst, Sydney
The following is excerpted from an opening address by Dr Ann Stephen

This is a special occasion for several reasons: Firstly the location. In the early 1980s I shared with Peter and various Darlinghurst notables, like members of the band The Go-betweens, warehouse space further up William Street from ARO Gallery, in Kings Cross, sandwiched between a pawnbroker and the transsexual beat. I used to lie awake at night imagining the traffic were waves breaking on the beach.

At that time Peter was in the epicentre of the art world, editing & designing the magazine Artnetwork, and we were both caught up in the Artworkers Union, as far as I know he wasn't painting, not many were. It was the time of political posters and punk bands rather than landscape painting though the conceptual artist Ian Burn, our mutual friend who had taught Peter at art school surprised us all when he wrote a wonderful book National Life and Landscape. His closing words still ring true today, he wrote:

'Now, at the end of the twentieth century, in an era of anxious conservation, our relation to the landscape is undergoing further refinements and assuming new global significances, this time not caused by modernisation but by its violent consequences and destructive side effects.' Ian then ends on a series of questions 'Who can say what new meanings an ideal landscape – detached from modernisation and symbolic of a harmony with nature – will take on? Or what new fictions will be figured through the Australian landscape?'

With those questions ringing in our ears I'd like to turn to Peter's paintings because I think he has taken up such questioning.

The early works that he began [exhibiting] in 2010, explored the nascent art nouveau shapes of gum trees, you would have seen in the Newtown shopfront gallery 'At the Vanishing Point', and subsequently at First Draft in 2011.

Since then he has slowly built up a highly individual response to contemplating nature, with a quite personal process that concentrates attention, by slowing down looking. Many of the paintings have a corrugated acrylic ground which is then delicately built up in detailed layering of oil paint. Take the magisterial grand vista, Above the Falls. The view is seen from a motorway, a band of rails running along the foreground holds the viewer from easy immersion. Like many of Peter's landscapes the centre suggests a vast void, delicately framed by smudged bush, but dominated by the sense of a vast sky that is caught in the watery lake below. The title indicates the view is the pooling of water at the top of a waterfall, like Wentworth falls, though it has the look of an ideal Chinese landscape with its aerial point of view and sublime vista. There is a sense that it also imagines a space beyond that is not visible, a void that plunges down between us and the distant horizon line. It is as Peter says 'One of those spaces you disappear into'.

The other work I wanted to direct your attention to is The Basin, low tide.Here the vantage point is downward, the painter and the viewer are standing in the mangrove mud. Peter's reference point is Port Hacking, but it could be in any coastal mangrove across the region. These coastal flats are dirty, smelly unpicturesque places. Peter observes the surface area covered by a mass of roots and stubble, a liminal space smeared by wet or dry caked mud. This expanse seems to oscillate somewhere between very sharp observation and abstraction as it stretches towards the pale blue strip on the horizon. I find the choice to concentrate the eye and mind on the dirt fascinating for really what is landscape but the study of what is underfoot. I am reminded that such a fascination with dirt has a long art history, observe the wonderful study of the ground that the great Florentine painter Piero della Francesca made in his Nativity. He wanted 'his majesty the baby' to be seen not surrounded by golden tapestries but laid on the ground amid the dirt, shit and weeds of a backshed, for after all his parents were homeless refugees…

It is this reality that Peter addresses […]

Ann Stephen, June 2017

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Updated November 2017