Every year over summer Laura Skerlj goes back to her family home in northern NSW. Every year she marvels at the strangeness of the Australian sub-tropics: the brightness of the landscape, the muscularity of the plants, the abundance of wildlife hanging out in close proximity. These are lazy, languid days with no phone reception. When she does get a chance to speak to friends back in the city, it’s in holiday-themed hieroglyphics - emojis of dolphins, palm trees, hibiscus flowers and peace fingers. Skerlj’s latest show Tropical Planet (at Fort Delta until 19 December), consists of eighteen new paintings that reflect on her annual summer holiday at home in the sub-tropics, and in-turn communicating that experience to friends in Melbourne using the cliched visual codes of ‘paradise’.
The first paintings I saw of Laura Skerlj’s were massive, fantastical landscapes in bright pops of pink and azure blue. Over the last four or five years, her paintings have started to disintegrate. At first, Skerlj zoomed out. The paintings became geological and planetary in scale, or as Skerlj says, “I started to think of them less as landscapes and more as cosmos.” The proportions became less familiar and the arrangements stranger. She also did a lot of collage over this time too, literally disassembling and reassembling the different components of a landscape painting. Her latest work at Fort Delta is more abstract again but there are still pictorial aspects to all of the paintings, especially the larger works. Amid a congested jungle of lush colour you can catch a palm frond here, a tropical flower there, snakes, pineapples, surf and sand, maybe even a bit of swollen bare flesh.
The paintings in Tropical Planet also have a cartoon-ish, graphic quality to them that hasn't been in Skerlj’s work so much before. There are fat curls of ripe colour squiggled on the canvas like marks from an over-sized felt-tip pen. Skerlj does a lot of doodling, more and more so lately. Drawing is where she feels most at ease, she says, and it makes a welcome change from the slow process of oil painting. When Skerlj began working on the paintings in Tropical Planet, she says, “I started doing a lot of drawing with texta. It was so fast and so enjoyable. It might be on anything I could find. … I wanted the marks to have a similar energy or immediacy to what the drawings had.” And as she explains later via email, “When I am painting, it’s best when the marks come out as they do when I am drawing. Paintings I make that I am most satisfied with remind me of that moment when the mark making is happening quite naturally and there is a confidence there.”
There is an easy confidence in the colour too. The canvases on show at Fort Delta are, for the most part, painted in eye-popping shades of surf-coast peach and pink. “There’s blue this time! There’s far less pink,” Skerlj protests, “but that salmon-y colour, I cannot not use it.” Skerlj goes on, “with respect to landscape, so much of Australia is pink.” Take a look at the desert, she says, at the rocks, “we live in quite a pink coloured landscape.” Which is true, I guess. Just like in the tropics the ocean really is that blue and the flowers on the ginger plants really are that neon and the blade grass really is so green it hurts your eyes. But Skerlj’s choice of colour is as much willful and playful as it is representational. “That colour is so prevalent and so otherworldly and so fun,” she says of pink’s appeal, “It’s gutsy. Use the pretty thing and do it in a gutsy way.”
Skerl says in a way she’s still painting landscapes, but now she thinks of them as “siteless”. They’re not real landscapes but remembered ones or assembled ones; often they draw on images of landscapes that were real once but have been unhooked and set adrift online. It's clear Skerlj enjoys this push and pull between representation and abstraction, which works on both a cultural and painterly level. She’s curious about the way something so abstract as a shade of colour – like those tones of coral and salmon pink – can also be culturally loaded and geographically specific. Or, in the reverse, the way something so detailed and precise as a palm frond or a hibiscus flower can be visually reduced to just a few iconic marks and abstracted into a global cultural short-hand for tropical paradise. “Whether the work is more pictorial or more abstract, I like that flux,” Skerlj says. "Painting itself becomes an exciting way to experiment with these variations, and to let the image be separate from the author in a way where it has a life, or energy, of its own - it excites me that the further you push a painting away from its reference the more it seems to contain an energy of its own."
>> Maura Edmond
>> 10 December 2015
GO SEE IT:
2 - 19 December, 2015
Capitol Arcade (Basement Level)
Shop 59 / 113 Swanston Street
Wed - Sat 12pm - 5pm