Written in silver

001 Felicia.jpg

Curator's introductory essay published in Ian NorthFelicia: South Australia 1974-1978, a monograph published by the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, to accompany the artist's solo exhibition. Authored by Ian North and Pedro de Almeida with preface by Kon Gouriotis OAM, edited by Michael Fitzgerald and designed by Joe Weideman. Published in a signed limited edition of 60.

The first thing we see is a corrugated iron barrier, a fence or the side of a shed, a few dints across its surface, harsh light casting shadows behind each undulating curve of iron. Foregrounded by the unkempt tangle of shrubbery and sun-worshipping garden flowers this landscape in minutiae unceremoniously places us in Ian North’s unswerving field of vision, opening with a scene suggestive, by the most minimalist of means, of the visual textures of Australian suburbia. Immediately this space opens up to a broad scene of the Yorke Peninsula, whose boot-shaped protuberance from the mainland north-west of Adelaide defines the contiguous geographical boundary of the Spencer and St Vincent gulfs either side of the South Australian capital. Here we find a telegraph pole standing as if a sentinel against unwelcome trespass on a terrain divided by a dirt road receding to a horizon of low-lying clouds. Following this we encounter a claustrophobic corner of a dark bedroom, the far wall lined with decorative floral wallpaper, the moon-like pock-marked surface of the adjacent wall supporting a power socket in which a lonely double adapter is plugged like a lunar landing craft, a lead trailing out of view. Its despondent atmosphere belies the photographic beauty of the scene as a subject worthy of close study by the artist’s eye.

In this sequence of three photographs Ian North introduces his remarkable body of work, Felicia: South Australia 1973-1978, signalling his principal conception of photographic representation as the space where history, the world and the individual might converge. The cumulative effect of this sequence—simply a precursor to what unfolds over a tightly edited sequence of 38 photographs—is a clear-eyed obstinacy to see things as they really are, coupled with a genuinely inquiring mind receptive to the unexamined wonder of the surface of things. Presented here for the first time is a body of work that may finally take its place in Australian art history. The creation of the Felicia portfolio encompasses a period in which North was curator of paintings at the Art Gallery of South Australia (1971-1980) before moving to Canberra to take up the position of foundation curator of photography and head of the National Gallery of Australia’s Photography Department (1980-1984). These two significant curatorial positions facilitated, on the one hand, North’s influence on the viewing public’s engagement with a wide variety of historical and contemporary art, while ironically disabling the potential for an audience for his own artistic work—wearing the hats of both curator and artist was then keenly discouraged by the art establishment, in contrast to today’s more flexible and fluid professional roles and boundaries.

In returning to these images after a good portion of a lifetime, and well after establishing himself as an artist and academic, North undertook a complex process of recreation and interpretation of his own archive to achieve a sequence of still images of remarkable coherence. Take your time, one by one, and these photographs will divulge a writer’s lesson in allusion and intimation seductively written in silver. Shifting from the suburban settings of Adelaide to the rural and seaside environs of the peninsulas beyond the city’s outskirts, North’s landscapes capture the nexus of human intervention and otherwise austere natural environments. Loose clusters of domestic shelters stand together in their loneliness as telegraph poles delineate spatial relationships between earth and sky, their wires lifelines sustaining the persistent encroachment of civilisation into yet more distant points on the horizon. The history of the settlement and colonisation of South Australia, significantly the only Australian state established by free settlers rather than convicts, is first and foremost one of the unjust appropriation of the land of its native Aboriginal peoples. Yet further down the scale is the imposition of an alien geometry and its insidious logic of spatial organisation on ancient spiritual country, making the juxtapositions of nature and culture in North’s landscapes ever more incongruous when viewed in this light. And yet incongruity gives way to an acceptance of what appears before us as near limitless in the inexplicable substance of the canopy under which we make our terrestrial home. Gazing on North’s panoramic skies one recalls the memorable impression of English poet Philip Larkin: 

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless. [1]

For North there is, surely, a rare sense of fulfilment and gentle pride attached to the realisation of Felicia being publicly presented in its wholeness. More than that, it stands as an indelible chronicle of the younger artist’s probing aesthetic and intellectual examination of his surroundings­, resulting in a depth of understanding of his own transitory place in the world. Presented here in the form of an artist’s monograph as well as an exhibition at Australia’s oldest institution dedicated to the photographic arts—four decades after North first traversed these landscapes, serendipitously coinciding with the establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography in 1973—Felicia stands as a defiantly insoluble body of work. It is one that paradoxically amplifies its whispered secrets to an attentive audience by its very reticence. In light of its nominal subject of the southern margins of our continent, Felicia is not to be mistaken with modesty in ambition nor affect, much less with the idea of happiness that its title suggests. North’s mastery is not simply in the photographic craft—inconsequential in and of itself—but in his ability to fuse subject and content in the service of eclipsing personality which, ironically, like the penumbra observed from earth as the moon passes before the sun, only enhances the blinding force of the individual.

Herein lie records of keenly felt observance by a young man in ecstatic acceptance of all that he saw, now transfigured. It’s as agreeable a destiny as one might hope for lost worlds.

[1] Philip Larkin, High Windows, Faber & Faber, London, 1974, p. 17.

© Pedro de Almeida 2013.

Just allowing it to be: a conversation with Ian North

Ian North signing and numbering  Felicia: South Australia 1974-1978  on the occasion of its public launch at Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, 20 April 2013. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

Ian North signing and numbering Felicia: South Australia 1974-1978 on the occasion of its public launch at Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, 20 April 2013. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

Curator's introduction to the publication of a conversation with Ian North that took place in the artist's studio, Kent Town, Adelaide, December 2012. Commissioned by the Australian Centre for Photography for the monograph. An extended version of the conversation was published in American Suburb X.

Arriving a little early at Ian North’s home and studio in the central Adelaide suburb of Kent Town, a short stroll across Rundle Park east of the city centre, I decided to explore the local neighbourhood. As I sauntered down Rundle Street and its parallel laneways, I recognised suburban scenes and landscapes from Ian’s Adelaide Suite (2008-2009), a series of large-scale panoramic colour photographs. In an earlier text I had published on the artist’s work I had noted: ‘Not for North the inadequate descriptive of the flâneur—never a convincing sensibility in antipodean cities—but instead a prosaically eerie stroll into the mythical realm: Voss in suburbia.’ [1] To be physically present in this suburban setting, perambulating a small patch of the territory that hitherto I had only observed through the prism of the artist’s eye, underlined photography’s capacity to do anything but simply reflect reality back on itself. At this moment I was struck by photography’s ability to forge the uncanny on visual accuracy no matter how familiar one might be with the nominal subject.

Entering Ian’s studio I was immediately struck by the happy juxtaposition of the clinical, laboratory-like cleanliness of the working studio of a disciplined photographer with the necessarily cluttered, detritus-filled surfaces of the oil painter. The studio’s west wall was smeared with swatches of paint, daubs and sketches, the urgent mark-making of the painter at work, and pinned with postcard images—scenes of boats and ships at sea by Winslow Homer and J. M. W. Turner among others. Adjacent were some framed artist proofs of photographs from his Canberra Suite (1980-1981). [2] The opposing east wall was lined with hundreds if not thousands of books, journals and the compulsive clippings of a prolific writer and scholar, acquired and consulted over a lifetime of voracious reading. Before settling down to conversation, Ian presented his boxed set of 38 exhibition prints of the Felicia portfolio, followed by some of the original commercial Kodak lab prints of his early 1960s work—over these urban scenes of Wellington he had sketched or otherwise adhered the small prints to large sheets of paper as the basis for drawings. In addition, Ian had been kind enough to prepare and display a selection of his framed works from the Adelaide Suite. These lined the studio floor, propped up against the legs of tables and chairs. Then he showed me a few works from his 1986-1988 Pseudo Panorama series not otherwise in museum or private collections, in which he incorporated paint on photographic imagery in theoretical and personal studies in typologies and art historical readings of landscapes.

Afterwards I was treated to an informal tour of Ian’s art collection in his home. Most works had been presented to him as gifts from grateful friends and colleagues over the decades, as well as a few works of his own too special to part with. During the tour I spotted a square-format black-and-white photograph depicting a handsome middle-aged man of a rather swarthy complexion, his thick dark hair and goatee framing an inquisitive yet steady gaze. ‘That’s one of Max Dupain’s,’ Ian offered. ‘And who’s the subject?,’ I asked. ‘You’re looking at him.’ I couldn’t reconcile that face—one, surely, of a Jewish intellectual I joked—with the man before me. Overcoming this slight embarrassment I was reminded, as if further evidence was needed, of what photography can do: freezing time and insinuating fictions in its near-limitless capacity to render the world fantastic, in this instance casting familiar faces as unrecognisable.

[1] Pedro de Almeida, 'Ian North' in Artist Profile, no. 14, 2011, pp. 114-115 (guest edited by Glenn Barkley). Patrick White’s novel Voss (1957) tells the doomed story of the fictional character Johann Ulrich Voss based on the life of the Prussian explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt who disappeared in his attempt to cross the Australian continent in 1848. North’s Adelaide Suite (2008–2009) is a series of 24 archival inkjet pigment prints each measuring c. 55 x 150 cm.
[2] Ian North’s Canberra Suite (1980–1981) is a series of 24 type-C photographs each measuring c. 37 x 45.7 cm. Since the series’ first significant presentation in Good Looking (2004), a group exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (curator Kate Rhodes), the Canberra Suite has come to be recognised as one of the first large-scale colour photography bodies of work in Australian art history and has been acquired into various collections including the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia. 


This project was assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.

With thanks to Australian Centre for Photography, Ian North AM and Kon Gouriotis OAM.

© Pedro de Almeida 2013.