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New Zealand 1917 – Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia 1999

  • Australia from 1943

Earth 1999 Title Notes: Ben Gascoigne provided the numbers for sequence
Place made: Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, ten sawn builders form-boards

Dimensions: installation (variable)
Acknowledgement: Gift of Ben Gascoigne AO and family, 2008
Accession No: NGA 2008.7.1-10
Image rights: © Rosalie Gascoigne. Licensed by Viscopy.

Rosalie Gascoigne is widely regarded as one of Australia’s most important artists. By the time she created Earth at the age of 82, Gascoigne had a wellspring of experience to draw upon. Based in Canberra for most of her adult life, Gascoigne contributed a highly distinctive approach through her use of found materials, which she reconfigured into bold, sophisticated assemblages.

The installation Earth reflects the artist’s interest in multiplicity. The raw materials of builders’ formboards had been in the artist’s studio for some time before she decided to cut them into rectangles of varying sizes and combine them intuitively in a range of formations. Gascoigne always preferred materials that had a history—weathered over time and exposed to the elements. Although many of her earlier works referred directly to her local environment, Earth has more universal implications. The subtleties and richness of the tones, from deep reds and ochres through to browns and black, evoke a feeling for the landscape. The works suggest varying views such as paddocks seen from the air or a feeling for the ground underfoot. Glowing, robust and weathered over time, the cumulative effect of the reconfigured form-boards is a poetic distillation of earthiness.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The ten panels that make up Earth were constructed in the autumn and early winter of 1999. They were among the last things Rosalie Gascoigne made. Two months after her death in October 1999 her husband, Ben Gascoigne, received a letter from Jan Brown, who recalled how earlier in the year ‘Rosalie spoke with enthusiasm about a brown “thing” she was working on in the studio’. The December issue of Artlink included an obituary in which Paul Greenaway remembers visiting Rosalie just after she had completed ‘a major new work’. She described it to him as being ‘from the Earth’, saying prophetically, ‘it looks like death, where do I go from here?’

Earth is made from builders’ form-board, the thick pre-painted plywood sheets used for constructing concrete floors, walls and columns. Humble material. Rosalie’s fascination with form-board began in 1986. She described how in a family letter in February 1987:

My dining room floor is covered with builders’ form board in various shades of brown, dull purple, and tan. I made a killing at a new building site opposite Nat Library [National Library of Australia]. Stepped daintily down to the manager’s office in my Carla Zampati linen and my social shoes and asked if I might have any spare bits. So now I know ‘John’ who says I can cope with anyone bustling me by mentioning his name. I returned next day in my old pants and took a LOT. Enough??? Plenty to go on with anyway! I wonder that no other artist is using it. I keep scrubbing concrete off it and laying it all over the floor until such time as it tells me what it wants to become.

Rosalie was attracted to the eccentric shapes of the board, particularly the curves. The Gallery has an excellent example in her Suddenly the lake 1995. She said of a curved shape in that work, ‘suddenly I found the big Ellsworth Kelly piece and it was a beautiful piece, it ballooned you know, and the hills do that for me’. Almost two decades earlier, in 1977, James Mollison had invited Rosalie to the Gallery’s storage at Hume to see the recently acquired Ellsworth Kelly. In a letter dated 11 October 1977, Rosalie expressed her elation at seeing the Kelly:

I was glad I could respond to it, having felt fairly cold in the presence of [the Gallery’s Kenneth] Noland. Big orange curve on white. Not symmetrical; rather the shape of a rain drop about to leave a fence wire. Pregnant in the broadest sense of the word. I was impressed by the feeling … in it.

Concave or convex, the curves became the dynamic element in works that called up the bays and coastlines of her childhood in New Zealand, the south coast of New South Wales and the hilly landscapes of the Monaro—and, in one case, her sister’s farm in New Zealand. Like Suddenly the lake, these earlier works were all mixed media, involving other types of wood, galvanised iron and Masonite. Earth, on the other hand, is a meditation on form-board alone, where Rosalie employs elements of wood and rectangle that are basic to the language of art.

A photograph taken in August 1996 shows squares of form-board set out on the courtyard floor outside her studio and a large panel leaning against a wall—the panel comprising form-board rectangles. The photograph was published in the catalogue for the Drill Hall Gallery’s exhibition From the studio of Rosalie Gascoigne in 2000, and the caption accompanying it noted:

The marine plywood had been lying around the courtyard for many years. She’d [Rosalie] talked about it, the differences in colours when it was wet from when it was dry. She’d used the curved pieces. In 1996 she’d tried arrangements of the straight-cut wood on the courtyard floor, put together a grid and had it leaning against the wall.

By autumn 1999 Rosalie had exhausted her stocks of yellow Schweppes boxes and retro-reflective road signs. She turned to the unfinished business represented by her pile of form-board, and by doing so she went back to something primary in her creative process, which she had described two years earlier in an interview with ABC Television’s Stephen Feneley:

I still start with the same premise, I’ve got the material and I like it, and then under your hand and fed by your emotions, it will grow and you know yourself when it’s arrived at something or whether it’s a proper nothing.

The Earth panels were constructed quickly with Ben’s help, whose job was to squeeze the glue onto the backs of the cut boards. Panels four, five and six were completed by 22 April 1999, the remainder by June 1999. Rosalie’s studio assistant, the sculptor Peter Vandermark, who prepared the panels for display (straightening the edges and installing hanging systems), observed how Earth came together:

She knew the material and making those Earth panels it was almost as if she did not need to look at a piece of form-board to know its colour quality and precisely what would happen between the boards as she put them side by side. By this time I believe she knew the whole gamut of possibilities of form-board and threw herself upon that knowledge. Also, I’d notice how she would orientate the rectangles of wood so that the grain went one way, then another: they’d refract the light differently.1

The panels that make up Earth are very physical, in keeping with their subject matter. The colour and qualities of earth had been the subject of an earlier Gascoigne construction, Industrial area 1984, which also plays with the colour shifts and textures of the soil in the landscape. This earlier work, which has since been destroyed, was literally made from earth—notably the debris from many ant nests carefully graded according to colour and laid out in heaps on a grid of 42 sheets of newspaper. It recalled a similar structure in Nikolaus Lang’s Earth colours and paintings 1978–79, which she saw at the Sydney Biennale in 1979 (where Rosalie also exhibited), and subsequently in the Australia National Gallery’s 1980 exhibition Landscape-art: two way reaction (curated by Grazia Gunn and shown at the Australian National University).

The difference between the 1984 and 1999 works reflects a shift from the particular to the general in Rosalie’s art. As she had expressed in her interview with Feneley:

Objects have their own history you see, they’ve got a meaning themselves. [In art] I want to say the universal … and I want to say the feel … [My art] is dictated by what I’ve got of course [in materials], and my experience…

Earth 1999 has density and weight and an obdurate form. However, besides those earthbound qualities, it has a generality of feeling that opens the door to many readings.

The National Gallery of Australia played an important part in Rosalie’s creative life and this inspired the Gascoigne family’s decision to give Earth to the Gallery.

Martin Gascoigne

1 Mary Eagle (ed.), From the studio of Rosalie Gascoigne, exhibition catalogue, Australian National University, Canberra, 2000. For Ben and his role, see pp. 14–15; for Peter Vandermark, see p. 25

in artonview, issue 54, winter 2008