Wild at art

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 May, 2009, 12:00am

The large canvases burst with colour against the white walls of the Cat Street Gallery, with splashes of thick paint and repeated motifs. This is rural Australia, but not as it is often portrayed in pastoral landscapes. Instead, the abstract oils, vibrant colours and textures of Guy Maestri's works chronicle the harsh environment of Australia's bush.

Near the Sheung Wan gallery's entrance, Waratah, a native flower, dominates the canvas, dripping blood-red paint. In Welshmans Reef, scattered bones and skulls lie on a patchwork of pastel colours.

Field Studies is Maestri's second exhibition in Hong Kong; it is his first solo show here.

The soft-spoken, 34-year-old Australian artist was thrust into the limelight in March after winning the prestigious Archibald Prize. Organised by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the portraiture prize attracts more than 150,000 people to the gallery each year and puts the media spotlight on artists and their subjects.

'My life is generally pretty private,' Maestri says. 'I do my work and come out and show about once a year. After winning the Archibald, it was a whirlwind for a month. It was just nuts - lots of media, lots of talking about the works. It was quite a huge experience to be part of this whole thing. It was really amazing.'

Maestri's portrait of blind Aboriginal musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is a quiet and emotional work the artist says reflects the depth of his music. 'I saw him [perform] live and it was so amazing,' he says. 'It was the first time I had a good connection with the sitter and got involved in the emotional side of it. That's why I think this one was selected.'

Until now, Maestri has not been known for portraits. His work is mainly focused on his distinctive style of landscape - abstract visions of Australia's natural environment. For the Field Studies series, he visited a rural area northwest of Melbourne to draw the scenes around him. Back in the studio, through trial and error over about six months, the series came together.

His works always come together as a series but often not as initially imagined, he says. Waratah was 'a completely different painting' he was struggling to finish. 'I just painted over it in white and [then] it came together pretty quickly.'

The exhibition is a mixture of vibrant colour amid desolate imagery - a stylised depiction of drought-blighted land. 'It's very dry, the agricultural land,' Maestri says. 'A lot of it is very degraded. It's a pretty tough environment. I tried to capture that dichotomy.'

He uses the images of bones and skulls, of agriculture waning in the harsh surrounds. Drawings in textured oil paints show glimpses of animal and plants, which are sometimes consumed by their context.

Maestri has an affinity with the countryside. He was born in Mudgee, a small town more than three hours drive from Sydney, and spent his childhood in rural New South Wales. 'Being brought up in that environment has taught me that awareness [of the environment],' he says.

But after having lived in Sydney as an adult, he is reluctant to return to rural life. 'I don't know if I could live back there now - there's such a great art scene in Sydney.'

And Maestri's work is at the forefront of that art scene. Australian gallery owner Tim Olsen has nurtured the painter's work since he graduated from the National Art School in 2003, hosting solo exhibitions at his Sydney gallery every year since 2004.

'Since the Archibald, we've had people ringing the gallery, buying [his work] on the back of the confidence of his success in that prize,' Olsen says.

Maestri's work will only improve, Olsen says. 'He's interested in creating an artwork rather than doing a pretty picture. His works have a vibrancy, which is rare to find in such a young artist. He is getting more courageous, taking more risks and challenging himself to be less obviously decorative. There is a lot of gusto in his work.'

The son of one of Australia's finest artists, John Olsen, Tim Olsen says Maestri uses paint like a chef uses food. 'He really paints with some verve, [like] someone who cooks. There's dexterity. He has an ability to draw with paint that is very rare in someone of his age.'

But he says it is Maestri's landscapes that will further his career as an international artist, saying his work recalls the American Impressionists, blended with the aesthetic of eastern calligraphy.

Cat Street Gallery owner Mandy d'Abo agrees, saying Maestri's work stands out from that of his contemporaries. 'His abstract landscapes are a breath of fresh air in this urban environment.'

D'Abo has followed his progress as an artist and opened her Hollywood Road gallery with an exhibition that included his works.

Following his visit to Hong Kong, Maestri is keen to return to his studio. He says he has gained a new burst of confidence since winning the Archibald and is keen to plot a new course in his future endeavours. Still exploring the theme of the natural environment, he is changing his focus to humanity's impact on the landscape.

'This is man and nature, but the next series is a little bit more of man understanding his place in the world,' he says. 'I really have to get home and get busy. It's really what every artist wants: to get into the studio and work towards something. It's nice to know you can go to work every day.'

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