by Dr Jacqui Durrant
Bushranger is Nina Machielse Hunt’s first major artistic response to the landscape of North East Victoria’s Woolshed Valley. This rugged landscape, made legendary by the exploits of the Kelly Gang (gang member Joe Byrne murdered police informer Aaron Sherritt a virtual stone’s throw from Machielse Hunt’s studio), wears layers of human occupation, from indigenous occupants who were dispossessed by squatters, to gold-miners, Chinese market gardeners and selectors. Although Machielse Hunt’s landscapes are devoid of humans, her paintings create a sense of immersion within the landscape which calls upon us as viewers to occupy her images figuratively, compelling us to retrace the steps of those who have gone before. These paintings make bushrangers of us all.
The feeling of immersion in the landscape seen in Bushranger is partly derived from the situation of Machielse Hunt’s Woolshed Valley studio: a corrugated iron shed scantily lined with plywood, which is architecturally mean enough to blur the boundaries between working in the studio and working en plein air. Accordingly, the perspective of these paintings is one afforded by the studio itself — looking up and into the surrounding hills with the prospect of travelling through them, concealed among their granite outcrops; or looking down towards the creek, to be nestled among its sandy banks and ephemeral soaks.
Since settling in the North East of Victoria in 2014, after five years of travel through remote regions of South Australia and the Northern Territory with her young family, Machielse Hunt has been inspired by the diversity of the landscape in this new region, which she explains ‘changes a lot… You see a lot of variation in a five-minute drive. The way the landscape shifts – its diversity – satisfies me artistically. It keeps my mind busy. It’s exciting.’ But it seems that the dry rocky landscape of the Woolshed Valley, with its hillsides clad in a gnarled forest of Eucalyptus and Black Cypress Pine, suit her best in terms of providing the necessary grit: ‘I don’t always want to paint a pretty picture,’ she says, ‘I love tension — not the perfect colour match, not the perfect line. I enjoy creating tension.’
Painting this most rough-hewn of landscapes has incidentally afforded Machielse Hunt an opportunity to challenge the implicit but long-running division of labour within Australian genre painting, whereby it is predominantly men who go out – often together – to paint en plein air and wrestle the landscape into submission, while women stay indoors to produce comfortable, domestic pictures. ‘There’s an idea that women tend to paint people; or they respond to domestic scenes,’ says Machielse Hunt. ‘But I’m interested in the psyche of the bush. I don’t want to be just a pretty colourist, or decorative. I want to paint something gutsy. I don’t want people to always feel comfortable.’
For Machielse Hunt, the decision to paint landscape above any other subject was a natural choice. She grew up in Orange on the New South Wales Central Western Tablelands a few hours over the Blue Mountains from Sydney – a region which has attracted generations of Australian landscape painters since the 1940s, including Russell Drysdale, John Olsen and Brett Whiteley. Her love of abstract expressionism is likewise part of a shared artistic lineage with other Sydney-based contemporaries whose work is steeped in the ‘primitive mark-making’ of Australian modernists such as Tony Tuckson, and above all, one of her heroes, Elisabeth Cummings. Machielse Hunt’s desire to paint in this manner was confirmed early, while still a student at the College of Fine Arts (UNSW) in the early 1990’s. After some time in Europe exploring the Masters she remembers the sense of liberation she experienced in her first encounter back in Australia with the work of Ron Lambert (1954-1992). ‘I had been studying in an environment that was highly conceptual, and his work was so uncontrived,’ she says. ‘I loved the colour and freedom. It was primal mark-making, and it came at a rather formative time.’ (As an aside, the artist responsible for this introduction — another ‘primal mark-maker,’ Robert Hirschmann — now also resides in North East Victoria, and he and Machielse Hunt remain enthusiastic supporters of each other’s work.)
If anything now separates Machielse Hunt’s paintings from those of contemporaries of her former Sydney stamping grounds (Luke Scibberas, Guy Maestri and Craig Waddell among them) — artists who are known for the concise painterly gestures of alla prima wet-on-wet painting; it is that Machielse Hunt’s ‘mark-making’ is a prolonged affair. She works intensely on each painting, building up (and sometimes scraping back) surfaces over periods of months. The paintings seen in Bushranger ‘have had many lives,’ she says. ‘It’s become like modelling: I push and pull forms and then add detail, deciding what needs to be tight and what needs to be loose. I waste a lot of paint. It’s almost sculpting.’
Although not stylistically apparent, the spirit of Bushranger also owes much to the Indigenous perspective on landscape. While Machielse Hunt’s first teaching post – teaching art at Willyama High School in Broken Hill – gave her a working introduction to indigenous culture, it was time spent as an arts worker for Warlukurlangu Aboriginal Art Centre in Yuendumu (one of the epicentres of Western Desert art) in 2005 that made an especially big impact on her.
After completing a Masters degree in gallery administration and simultaneously working as the head of art at a school in Sydney, Machielse Hunt headed to the central desert to work, and to absorb the landscape and the culture. ‘At the Art Centre I documented artists’ work, preparing canvases, mixing colours, making tea and lunches, driving artists places, and participating in the diversity a remote Aboriginal community offers: all great and crazy and wonderful… I learned quite a bit about various jurkupa (dreaming stories), and was fortunate enough to be given a skin name. I also began landscape painting fairly purposefully around then.’
A few years later she volunteered at the Yirrkala Arts Centre near Nhulunbuy in North East Arnhem Land. This ‘privileged time’ with the proud Yolngu people in 2013, including the currently celebrated contemporary artist Nyapanyapa, solidified Machielse Hunt’s deep interest in Indigenous approaches and connection to Country through landscape depiction, which she explains has at its source ‘a loving kind of intimacy with the land that can’t be quantified.’ This deeper sense of landscape, she says, ‘feeds into how you see yourself and your connectedness to humankind – not just western society but humankind as a whole. It’s a way of living, and understanding that difference somehow informs the way you are in the world, what you think is important, and ultimately the art you produce. It gives you respect.’ Above all, it is this drive for intimate connection with the landscape – most especially, connection with the place one lives, that is the central and unifying force behind the paintings of Bushranger.
Dr Jacqui Durrant