Looking at a series of Anya Sinclair’s works, it is hard to know exactly when we, as viewers lose our hold on reality. The break is never instant, but the longer we spend looking, the further we fall from what we know.
Sinclair’s largest works imitate the scale and relations of nature, and like natural forms are often at their most impactful from a distance. The unknown is – at first – at an arm’s length and many of the most physically imposing works in Forest Lives are gentle in their distortion of the world.
Just as you would follow a creekbed in the hope of recovering your way, only to see it turn deeper into the bush ahead – or peer out through a break in the upper canopy at an untouchably distant range of hills – there is an expectancy and recognition here, of something reassuring just out of sight.
It is an illusion grounded in Sinclair’s appropriation of seductive, but familiar imagery. We have seen scenes like these in calendars, postcards and holiday snaps since before we can remember; we are acquainted with these forms, but detached from them. We trust without risking anything.
Sinclair begins to manipulate our detachment immediately, using delicately off kilter placements and control of light to steer our view – perspectives that are never quite what a lifetime’s experience of internet stock footage and coffee table books leads us to expect.
More brutal is her commandeering of our most essential sense for nature: colour. Shifting and inverting her palette, she mythologises the landscapes, morphing them into a worried world, tangled and mucky, blurred by a basic, almost biological uncertainty – an unease, a discomfort that she seems to curate, nurturing it in her viewers.
Sinclair drives us steadily further from reality, forgoing fine brushwork as she moves deeper into the logic of the works – slowly unravelling the painterly fiction of representation, replacing it with a language of gesture and impromptu shapes. There is a fraught impulse on display, a ‘natural’ rawness and imperfection that culminates in works like ‘Worried Landscape’, which occupy an astonishing, energized limbo between nature and abstraction.
Critically, these landscapes are empty, emphatically devoid of any human or animal subject. The question of what we are doing there, of who we are – or what we are looking at – will not be answered.
Even the undeniable anxiety of these landscapes seems to alter as you look at them. At one moment, the unease on display feels like our response to the darkness of nature, of ourselves, our inability to ever fully encompass it. The next, it is an anxiety for nature itself, its degradation at our hands, these landscapes that are actually falling to pieces.
Like ourselves, these abstracted works bear a vestigial relation to nature – they are ‘from’ it – but have almost severed their ties to it – they are no longer ‘of it’. Here we are brought to a halt, allowed to look around and see just how far we have strayed from the path.