This is not a painting. Look closely at the reproduction and you will see shadows cast by brown boards that are superimposed on each other or on galvanised iron sheeting or on boards painted blue-white. It is a sculptural wall-hung construction.
The materials retain their distinct character. Like her younger contemporary, the American Robert Rauschenberg, Rosalie Gascoigne always preferred well used ready-made materials, as she indicated when she was interviewed by the ABC in 1997: ‘They’ve had the sun, they’ve had the rain, it’s real stuff, it’s not like the stuff you get from a hardware shop.’1 Here the plywood sheets had a previous life as formboard walls into which concrete was poured. The sheets of galvanised iron were found weathered in a rubbish dump. The masonite boards, painted on by the artist, were also pre-used.
One day in 1995, as she shifted scavenged materials around on the studio floor, an elegant combination of brown boards and blue-grey galvanised iron suddenly looked like earth and water, and not just in a general way. It immediately evoked a particular place.
Generalised landscape experience of her Canberra region is often present in Gascoigne’s art. There are swooping grassland pieces and hovering cloudscapes. There had been earlier land and water pieces, but nothing made with Lysaght brand galvanised iron sheetinguntil 1989: ‘The tin – which people thought was a lake – was the obdurate soil.’ Now, six years later, in Suddenly the lake more of the ‘tin’ would really be a lake, specifically Lake George as suddenly seen by motorists travelling out of Canberra towards Sydney – before the present freeway flattened the journey – at a place called Geary’s Gap.
The third and largest panel, instantly recognisable to Canberrans, contains the genesis of the piece; the others frame that sharp-angled flash of recognition. On its right, the lumpiest of the four panels is a suggestion of the round hills to be climbed before the surprise. On its left is only a painted board, flush with a sheet of galvanised iron, to make a calm horizon of sky and water as if seen from the road that closely hugs the shoreline after descent from the hills. Then, instead of galvanised iron for water, the remaining panel has a white-painted mid zone, probably to suggest the dry bed of Lake George where its northern end seldom fills with water.
When read from right to left as a south-to-north motorist’s drive, it is a reversal of conventional expectation. Western cultures read their images and words from left to right. As well as the usual way, this very Australian image of passage through hard-edged dry hills and along an often dry lake has to be read in the ‘wrong’ direction, as if it were Japanese. (Gascoigne had been a practitioner of wild, avant-garde ikebana – Japanese flower arrangement – before turning late in life to sculpture.) The two-way alternation of visual flow creates a pleasing tension, like an electric charge.
There are other tensions too, of class and gender. A female artist, whose work is highly art-literate, acknowledges that working-class men similarly love the look and feel of their materials: galvanised iron sheeting for tinsmiths to fabricate into water-related objects such as buckets and cans, roof flashings, downpipes, bathtubs; plywood for cabinetmakers or builders to transform into furniture or houses and sheds, or to hold concrete while it solidifies. We sense behind the elegant Gascoigne product an acknowledgment of, and engagement with, a world of elegant processes, mostly male: sawing, hammering, cementing, and erecting foundations and walls.
Gascoigne and the workmen, whose cast-offs she brings into the temples of art, delight equally in the poetics of materials. Both also delight in the poetics of place, of home-making and of familiar ground. Further, however, Gascoigne had an exceptional feeling for the tangibility of outside air and distant space, perhaps from once having lived in an astronomers’ community on a Canberra mountain. Perhaps because her first motor car in 1948 was a means of liberation from Mount Stromlo, she emphasises the sensation of swooping – flying almost – along endless inland roads in one’s own familiar vehicle, a particular Australian ecstasy. No automobile is depicted in Suddenly the lake but we are nevertheless cruising the old Federal Highway from a driver’s seat. Those who come to Canberra by road will encounter not only such to-be-expected thrills, but they will also find their momentary, everyday feelings of delight in cross-country driving raised here, by Gascoigne, into something crystalline, austere and everlasting. She has converted Australian life into art.
The Canberra setting made this the perfect work to give to the National Gallery of Australia in memory of Michael Lloyd, a curator who had found for the Gallery wonderful European paintings by Miró and Magritte, and a construction by Picasso that Rosalie Gascoigne especially admired.
Daniel Thomas, 2002.
1Rosalie Gascoigne, interview with Stephen Feneley, ABC Express, 4 December 1997
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002