‘Space, vast space, is the friend of being.’ Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1964).
We all know that feeling, when we leave the city and our visual field is suddenly filled with sky, and the horizon of our vision retreats and finds a more remote place of rest. We might experience this when we go out to sea, drive across the flat lands of the outback or look down from a high summit. The arrival of capacious vision can have a dizzying effect. This can trigger a sense of inner displacement, a shudder of uncertainty about our place in the world. Wendy Loefler knows that such moments are the very stuff of art. As the philosopher Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space, a book much loved by artists, ‘immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone’. While Bachelard inhabited the forest to contemplate the phenomenon of limitlessness in both a spatial and subjective sense, it is to the deserts of Australia that Wendy has returned again and again. Here one might look in one direction, knowing that the dunes rise and fall for nine hundred kilometres, but be unable to bring a perception of that terrestrial depth to consciousness. Such constraints upon our literal imagination are of course precisely the opposite for our poetic imagination, and it is in this space that Wendy dwells to make her work.
For years now Wendy has made works of ambitious scale that respond to arid environments. The exhibition “Elsewhere” is ambitious not only in scale, but in the scope of its composition as a single work that fills the gallery space. Here we have twelve linked canvases, tailored to the specific proportions of the gallery, comprising a 360-degree view. In the digital era, we are offered many screen-mediated opportunities to be immersed within environments both banal and fantastic: video games, virtual reality, digital art installations or in the cinema with our 3D glasses. With “Elsewhere” Wendy returns stereoscopic vision to the virtuosity of the draftsperson and the most modest of mediums: charcoal. Impressions of light and depth, of the infinite and the indefinite that the viewer might experience, are the consequence of simple marks that through some intuitive skill only a few of us possess, distil a vision of place.
While Wendy has an enviable ability to depict what she sees before her, in these works she isn’t trying to represent any particular location accurately. Her works contain remembered and somewhat fictionalized landscapes. It might be surprising, as we study these black and white drawings, to learn that en plein-air painting in water colour or gouache is as important to the preparatory process as sketches in pencil or charcoal. This practice produces a more genuinely felt memory of her experience and an understanding of the landscape’s properties and mood, providing Wendy with a truer record of the desert’s palette than photography. This painting record informs her renderings of tone and the depth of shadows created by the sun, for example.
Wendy’s en plein-air studies, as well as photographs, fill several reference files in the studio. These files have titles like ‘grasses’, ‘nulla-nulla’, ‘dune tops’, ‘burnt trees’, ‘flowers/leaves’. They are the archives of extended research trips Wendy has taken along the Canning Stock Route in 1997, 2004 and 2007. As she composes her large-scale drawings, she assembles these landscape elements, playing with their scale, selecting point of interest, and tracking depth of field through the most economical of visual cues. With these arrangements Wendy dispels the myth of the desert’s uniformity and emptiness, arresting us with the features of the landscape that arrested her.
The raw white of primed canvas in “Elsewhere” provides ambiguous material for the spatial imagination. These passages might be sand, dunes, sky, stark light, heated atmospheres or voids that are kilometres deep. Contours are rendered with a soft touch. In some areas, the horizon line seems to be irrelevant. The overall effect is of diffuse saturation. What is vacuous in material terms provokes an amplified idea of space. To return to Bachelard, such moments suggest directionless space: ‘one substance, one dimension’. But Wendy’s canvases also remind us that an apprehension of vastness also sensitizes the observer to what is close by. The sparse vegetation of the desert, while it cannot prevail over the horizontal plane, is nevertheless alive to the eye in its variety and crowds the foreground with detail in some canvases.
Wendy’s works are about the diminution of human scale by many orders of magnitude, the hunkering fortitude of the desert flora, the story of time told by the aged bones of a solitary tree. Beyond this, they are subtly emotional landscapes that probe elemental questions about the tenuousness of human and non-human life. Wendy seems to be telling us that it is in these arid places, places which resist becoming the dominion of humans, that such questions can be explored.