Land Lines and Love Songs

by Jonathan Turner

The new landscapes by Maree Azzopardi at Rex-Livingston Projects represent a significant shift. “In the past, I looked outside, far away, for inspiration – hence my portraits in Rome, Malta and Sweden, or my work at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, recording the emotions of what other people were going through,” says the artist. “But now, I’m looking closer to home, within my own country and within myself.”

The most obvious change is Azzopardi’s bold use of red, not just in detail, but in huge swathes of passionate, brilliant, burning crimson and scarlet, the colour of lipstick and fire-engines, smeared across broad canvases. “My colours have now expanded to include gold and a lot of red. Having always been scared to use red, I’ve now embraced it, maybe even a little too much, but I’ve embraced it none-the-less.”

Azzopardi’s new paintings of Cooktown, Laura, Lakefield and Young depict vast expanses, flat and monotonous, with the earth and the sky neatly divided by a central horizon. These are minimal landscapes, without sentimentality. After all, where else but in Australia would you find a place called Dead Dog Creek? Azzopardi’s outback is dissected by straight, black lines of bitumen, cutting across scorched earth, fields flattened after harvest, featureless at night. Several of her paintings on canvas and hardboard are covered in colour-fields of pointillist red specks, glowing like embers after a paddock has been burned-off, creating a constellation of flickering lights.

“The red in the Cooktown pieces depicts the red flowers that covered the place when I travelled there, and the flocks of cockatoos at sunset. And yes, the reflection of the sun on the landscape, too. And it’s about passion as well, since the red in The Fire-Horses is a painting about both passion and fire, partly inspired by Dante’s Inferno. I was excited to be travelling so far up north. I had never seen landscapes like these before, in the flesh. There seemed to be a lot of red in the landscape as we were driving the four hours or so it took to reach Cooktown from Cairns.”

Azzopardi snapped photographs from the car window. Of course, the Australian landscape is never as featureless as first meets the eye. On the canvas, much detail is hidden in the layers of paint. In recent times, Azzopardi has included the silhouette of the ubiquitous rabbit – a typically Maltese symbol – dotted across her landscapes. Now in some works, we see the appearance of another beast, even closer to home.

“I’m a fire-horse. Born 1966,” says Azzopardi. “I was obsessed with horses as a girl. Dad bred horses, I rode a horse. To me, horses represent strength and power and beauty. And also the concept of ‘Fight or Flight’. I saw lots of horses up in Cooktown and northern Queensland. Plus I was deeply affected by news of the horses of Fukushima, after the nuclear fall-out. In The Fire-Horses, there is a black horse on the right side of the painting looking across to a ghostly image of a similar horse inserted to the left, symbolising a journey, a transition from one life to another. This painting is virtually a self-portrait, a personal piece about my own spiritual journey.”

But then, there is also the fire, which, according to Spanish writer Baltasar Porcel, “is the old gigantic beast that never sleeps, that gnaws and attacks.” In his novel Horses heading to the darkness, Porcel describes the blazing summer bush-fires which raged across the wild landscapes of his youth.

“The flames, radiant red, swirled up to the sky like an horrific attempt to embrace something ignored. The wind, light but sustained, stirred them. The air was becoming unbreathable. The fire, like a locomotive engine, advanced with a burning hunger, a great crackling roar expelling jets of fire, at times yellow, at others orange. Thousands of trees were burning, dramatically silhouetted black, against the flames. The resin, changed into furious foam, fried.”

It is with this contrast between the ideal and the tragic, between reality and fear, between serenity and disaster, where Azzopardi has worked lately. In her larger paintings, she captures the potential for a mass of exploding violence, as when a gumtree explodes into flame during a bush fire, or when it’s trunk is dramatically split by an axe or a lightning strike.

In Azzopardi’s recent photo-works, in contrast to the harshness of outback scenes, she focuses on the lush Australian landscape around Berry in New South Wales. Photographed at sunrise, the totemic form of a huge gum tree is seen shimmering and hazy through a window or a wire-screen door. Water-droplets clinging to the glass.

May 2011