Liz Sullivan’s exhibition Wild Parterre launches at Cascade Art

In late 2023 Liz Sullivan was interviewed by Cascade Art Gallery director, Kareen Anchen about her work, its inspiration and her latest exhibition, ‘Wild Parterre’.

“I have the freedom of using what is around me and the energy of my surroundings and memories to think ‘well, I am painting my interpretation and am aware of but not answerable to the past and to reality.’ It is the voice inside my head where reflections, the playing of light on form and shadow and the flat painting surface is not constricted by the one viewpoint. Lines can overlap, colour and rhythms can compete and harmonise and the mind can be an adventure.”

Liz Sullivan is unashamedly driven to work with the substance of paint to create bold, large-scale artworks charged with optical visual energy. Sullivan is no stranger to the paintings of Cy Twombly, Turner and closer to home, Fred Williams. Sullivan’s paintings are about mark-making and finding and creating beauty in the unexpected. She makes no attempt to disguise the methods of production involved in her paintings and clearly celebrates painting as her preferred medium of expression.

In Sullivan’s own words,

“I have never stopped painting even during challenging times in my life. These days I have greater peace of mind and I can confidently take more risks in my work.”

Sullivan is a powerhouse of energy getting up at 5am to start painting in the studio by 6am. Coupled with this great joy and enthusiastic passion for painting, is a sense of urgent intensity that brings the paintings forward fast and furiously. This is clear by the sheer volume of paintings executed between 2022 and 2024.

Sullivan is thoughtful and intentional in her direct approach to painting but still allows, “paint to take over from imagery.”

As a young child Sullivan would stare closely at pictures in a book of her mother’s about the Australian Heidelberg School. This interest informed her deep understanding and appreciation of the mechanics of paintwork, layering, gesture and glazing. The magic of mark-making even extends into her three-dimensional sculptural work which she sees as “an extension of the gesture.”

Moving from the Bayside suburbs of Melbourne and rediscovering her paternal roots in Victoria’s Central Goldfields has been a deeply satisfying inward and spiritual experience. She talks of a strong sense of personal direction at this point in her life and has a deep grounding in her daily practice. Sullivan researched and wrote about her father’s time on the Victorian Goldfields and she talks of a literal earth-bound paternal connection with place. This feeling supports her in consolidating thinking and painting.

“I am questioning the categorising of ‘flower’ to paint the weeds on our roadside, the grasses lying with their individual kind of beauty.”

Instead of stopping to smell the roses, Sullivan stops to see the weeds.

Always looking for the unexpected beauty in the mundane. Her paintings, like Light Around the Corner, 2023 and Clearing, 2023, are suggestive of deeper meditations at work. It is her truth in visual form. She is interested in water changing, the interplay of lines and shadow and lively passages of light and dark.

In her own words “I am not trying to be intellectual.”

Sullivan’s painting is an attempt to stay connected with an intuitive self, a self that quite simply loves to paint out ideas, observations, memories and express feelings.

Sullivan has every intention of discovering joy in what she sees in nature and in her immediate ever-changing environment. Be it the tussling of overgrown grasses or commonplace weeds  – Mullum Mullum, Gorse, Blackberry, Patterson’s Curse or, local creeks and rivers bursting their dusty, dry riverbanks after a massive dump of unexpected rain. The climactic conditions are a subject. The regeneration of whatever survives from the dried cracks of nature, or the fecund road verge creates lime green habitat for who knows what living creatures – is also subject. It’s not about pretty, but about observation.

Pale Light in the Distance, 2024 and Lily Pads for Luck, 2024, are all paintings hovering on the cusp of pictorial recognition and abstraction. They are joyous landscape paintings with powerful formal art elements, held together with substantial drawing in the structural paintwork.

Shining Through, 2024, are further testimony to Sullivan’s command of an expressive painterly language. Morning Meditations, 2023 and Green Escape, 2024 continue this painterly language into a Japonoise experience of calligraphic mark-making. A confetti of delicate flicks and flickering marks, light, sketchy and rhythmic. No surprise, Sullivan dances to music while painting – it’s a physical action.

It is Sullivan’s intention to uplift the viewer by elevating the mundane to a higher level.

“My father was troubled by my use of the Nescafe jar to hold the flowers in my still lives. It wasn’t beautiful. To me it was beautiful. The abstract shapes of letters, colours and patterns on the label and the shape and screw top of the jar held as much attraction as any vessel. The vitality of paint bounces of each shape as reactions to each other allowing a freedom from representation of the object.”

In Light within the Dark, 2023 and Story 1, 2024 we are viewing from the vantage point of an ant. Earth and water elements are the dominant forces. An obscured high horizon line and scratchy grasses cloud the vista – we read these paintings as if we were lying down on the ground and looking up and glimpsing through. One senses a primal connection with the earth and this affinity with strong nature, is revisited in Sullivan’s current paintings.

Sullivan is primarily an oil painter and works on solid gesso-primed boards. The approach is quite deliberate and fast, blocking in with acrylic and then building up with oil paint. There is a vigorous sketchy drawn quality to her mark-making. Sometimes the rhythm of the lines explodes as an all-over repeat dynamic pattern. Of her methodology, the artist says, “she will sit on the ground for hours to get into the rhythm of building up layers and layers, often working from all four sides of the picture plane.” This method of working allows a certain freedom to get into an unconscious meditative rhythm until she is ready to formalise and resolve the image. Unlike classic studio easel painters, Sullivan does not step back to see the work, preferring to stay face-to-face and up close until much later in the process of making a painting.

Sullivan employs photographs as a reference to aid composition, insisting that the camera helps her to get a better depth of field.

Not a slave to nature, the artist makes immersive painterly works, drawing on memory and a deep bank of feelings, leading to compelling, poetic and intimate depictions of nature.

Michael Wolfe with Robert Maclaurin at the launch. Photo by Jeff Gardner.
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