Drawing a line to Australia 2000

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 September, 1999, 12:00am

The sea roars off the canvas, dark waves whose tumbling crests are heavy with the impasto of oil paint.

The foaming water is empty of boats, yet there is an apocalyptic presence in the picture. 'The Wave', reads the simple text beside the picture - but you do not need a clue to this wildness.

Geoff Dyer had never painted waves before but, like half the world, the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race captured his attention. This vast painting, one of a series, each done in just hours, is the result of his horror at an event that cost six lives and the loss of five yachts. It is being shown as part of a new exhibition, Towards Sydney 2000, at The Rotunda this week and next.

'I kept looking at the television footage and photographic images,' says the award-winning Australian landscape painter.

'They were sheer reportage. They were taken to show the wrecked yachts and the size of the waves. Yet by accident they were tremendously aesthetic.

'The wild sea - the power and look of it - would never have been captured by any camera unless the yachts had been racing there.

'I wanted just to slow down and be objective about the whole thing - and putting people in the picture would have lessened the image. Instead it has this starkness.' There are no liferafts, rescue aircraft, flotsam. 'I wanted to show the way the photo reports captured the sea and also to capture our nostalgia for the sublime,' he says.

Sublime is a strange word to use about a tragedy. What he means is more apparent in two other Dyer works hanging beside The Wave in this show of modern paintings by noted Australian artists, focusing on their interpretations of Australia in the new millennium.

The Ocean I and II, the result of his preoccupation with the coastal landscapes and waters of the west coast of Tasmania, are fairly literal interpretations, paintings about simplicity of space. Tidal water from the King River, red with sap from the rainforests, built up by texture, flows into the sea, a reflection of eroded landscapes and fragility. Dyer is struck by conflicts in nature and isolated landscapes.

His work hangs alongside 38 paintings by fellow Australians. Such artists as Ann Thomson, Susan Sheridan, Scott McDougall, Neil Taylor, Judy Cassab, Ernesto Arrisueno, Ken Johnson, John Earle, David Aspden, John Coburn and Pro Hart offer diversity of styles and techniques to tackle the theme.

Australian gallery owner Shirley Wagner, showing the pictures, says: 'I wanted to represent what Australian artists are doing now, their styles, themes, techniques, to show the rest of the world what we have to be proud of in Australia.' The result, curiously, is as much about the intense reds of central Australia, the tropical splendour of Queensland, the country's arid, uninhabited regions as it is about the long beaches and bright skies of Sydney.

Dyer is not alone in portraying a power that refuses to be confined within one narrow brief.

Towards Sydney 2000. Presented by Wagner Art Gallery, Sydney. 8am to 8pm daily. The Rotunda, One Exchange Square, Central. Tel: 2521 7882. Until September 23