Interior Landscapes at the Newcastle Art Gallery is a survey exhibition from one of Australia’s most highly respected and influential painters, Elisabeth Cummings, whose career has spanned over 60 years and shows no sign of diminishing.
Despite being highly regarded by her artist peers and a small group of private collectors, Cummings work has been largely overlooked by the major galleries, art prize judges and “taste makers”.
But this has never deterred her from her task of making better art. She had no interest in the celebrity that so often becomes the focus of the media, preferring to work in the isolation of her home and studio in the bush of Wedderburn, outside Sydney, free from distractions.
The large, imposing, freely painted canvases of interiors and landscapes that hover in the uncertain space between abstraction and figuration are a commanding presence in the gallery’s open spaces.
However, the inclusion of some ceramic sculptures, drawings and prints do not add a great deal to our understanding of her singular approach to painting.
Broad gestural marks knit with subtle use of colour, tone, shape and line in carefully balanced compositions full of energy and moody intrigue. These are the result of deep engagement with her immediate surrounds, be they the entangled scrub of the coastal fringe, the burning heat of the outback or the domestic chaos of her studio-home.
Unlike many painters who achieve fame and recognition from an early age and then spend the rest of their years in an endless loop of repetition, Cummings spent the early decades of her career somewhat isolated from the fashionable and novel diversions of the art scene, preferring to develop her particular vision and the skills necessary to express it.
She had been a student at the National Art School in Sydney during the 1950s where the highly structured compositions of her teacher, Godfrey Miller, made an indelible impression as did the spatial arrangements and calligraphic elements of Ian Fairweather’s work, and it is the underlying structures of her loosely painted and drawn works that holds them together so well.
After graduating from art school Cummings spent a decade in Europe learning from teachers like Oscar Kokoshka but more so directly from the artworks she was exposed to, with Bonnard, Matisse, and Cezanne joining Margaret Olley and Grace Cossington-Smith as strong influences on her future direction.
Over the last 20 years her work has developed a confident maturity which is the result of her undistracted focus.
This is a very strong and rich exhibition from an artist now in her 80s where consistent development is obvious rather than mere repetition of former successes.
It is telling that the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra curated this touring exhibition rather than a major metropolitan gallery. Perhaps, in time, Elisabeth Cummings will finally get the recognition she deserves.
Interior Landscapes, Elisabeth Cummings, at Newcastle Art Gallery, until April 29.