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Wayne Ashton's Islands

A critique by Dr David Bromfield

Nobody is an island, that is, none of us is ever separate, alone and inviolate. Like islands, however, we too are touched by tides, worn by wind and rain, we face the bright noonday and the lucid blue moonlight. Through it all we remain distinctly present, never quite an illusion even in the most brilliant summer haze, never a mirage.

Islands remain while waves and currents flow urgently to and fro. Islands offer adventure. The imagination can always cope with an island because the sea bounds it as sleep surrounds our night. There is just enough space for a story because every island, even the barest of rocks, holds magic, be it The Tempest, Long John Silver, South Pacific or Peter Pan.

One longs to be on an island. That desire to be, there not here, is the final subject of the suite of eight small paintings by Wayne Ashton. Recently exhibited at the KURB Gallery William Street Perth. It is no coincidence that the fundamental technical challenges of contemporary painting - presence and passion - fit so well with the island experience. It certainly solves the perennial post-war problem of how to remain a painter, how to allow painting to be truly itself, how to unlock and stage for the viewer's hungry eye the magic that remains.

From now things should be simple. An island provides a figure, a shape of the surface of the canvas that can be decorated, inside and out with patches of colour, rhythmic marks, and the instantly recogniseable apparatus of inscribed nostalgia that saturates and wrecks so much popular Australian painting - that is, vague allusions to Heidelberg brush marks or Boyd's bravura lines. There's a lot of it around, but it will not do for Ashton. This is his island and he wants it to hold everything in life, like a lens open to contemplate the universe. That is why each image in the suite is a sonata in richly modulated blues, carefully crafted from a limited range of colours. Blue alone allows us to be present in the moment, like a swimmer in a sparkling lagoon.

Consider Evening, a panel of medium to dark blue paint with a dark ultramarine shape across its centre whose outline resembles Australia tipped on its side. At first this may appear a simple design, abstracted from an aerial view of any old atoll. Look more carefully, the problems of painting and the problems of presence unify, cohere, become as one. To the left of the island there is a short swathe of translucent blue glazed over ochre that tapers into a line of glowing blue around the left hand coast. This is recognisably the effect of a sand bar slowly rising from the deep to become a beach. It is also, however, a fundamental problem in painting worked to perfection. Briefly this concerns the way that the painter chooses to treat the edges of things, the boundaries of zones within the picture plane. Boundaries - edges, soft, hard and broken are crucial to any hope that the painter may have to capture, not only the viewers' interest, but their full sensual commitment, their desire to be there.

Some artists have based their entire life's work on the problem of edges and the density of paint, Mark Rothko for one. However, Rothko's work required surfaces large enough to dive through. Ashton can invite the same sensual absorption in a small panel. Every surface is painted with remarkable sensitivity to the density of paint and the possibility of a small difference in colours matched to the texture and direction of brush marks. Like a summer rock pool, Evening invites the sensual eye to gaze even deeper, to sway and shift with rhythms of sea and sky.

Together Ashton's suite of eight paintings amplifies this sensation towards total absoprtion through the light of an entire day of travel around the islands. In Twilight a group of islands shrouded in mist hovers on the horizon while in the sea beneath is a panorama of painterly incident that almost breaks free from the convention that it is, after all, light on water so as to exist in its own right. Other panels range from a small detail of blue leaves flaring across Indian red and ochre, to huge art nouveau curves of blue almost overwhelming the island, but not quite. This superb suite of island paintings forms a statement of presence on par with that of the famous sand gardens in Kyoto where ever-shifting waves of raked sand swirl round ancient rocks unmoved and venerated.

D.B. February 2006

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