For works based on a long, circuitous process, it’s fitting that Alice Wormald’s paintings in Ordinary Pictures, her new solo exhibition at Daine Singer, began with a road trip. Wormald drove down the Nepean Highway, to Frankston and back, stopping at seven or eight op-shops along the way. She filled her boot with nature photography books and magazines – anything from coffee-table books to National Geographic back issues. For good measure, she fanned out to op-shops in Oakleigh and Noble Park, too, cramming what extra she could fit in the car.
Then she cut out photographs of nature from these publications, tracing the contours of petals, branches, winding rivers and mountains. She slipped these into meticulously organised plastic sleeves, which were labelled by subject (‘Foliage’, ‘Rocks’, ‘Rivers’) and by colour (‘Purple’, ‘Green’, ‘Blue’). Eventually, these slices were arranged into collages.
Never straying far from nature, Wormald then looked at other artists’ treatments of landscapes for ideas on how to compose and structure the collages. She drew on Georgia O’Keeffe’s layered New Mexico mountain ranges and William Robinson’s gnarled Gold Coast rainforests. Once she’d arranged these collages just so, she rendered them in photorealistic oil paintings and watercolours.
The result, after being led by nature the entire way, is anything but natural. At a glance, these paintings are alien landscapes, seemingly straight out of science fiction. They’re tidy compositions, with complementary colours and textures balanced across the canvas, but after a closer look these scenes show themselves to be ultimately impossible – in this world or any other.
Aerial vistas butt against floral close-ups, upsetting any sense of scale. The traditional Japanese landscape painting technique of framing the background with trees in the foreground is used here to split the plane into separate, almost entirely unrelated worlds. Elsewhere, mountains sit in front of vast plains, but the perspective seems slightly askew. These techniques, usually employed to pull the viewer in, seem to do so while pushing back too.
On even closer inspection, Wormald’s complicated process intentionally reveals itself. Her rigorous approach to painting captures the rough white edges of the collages, even the shadows underneath each layer. Different degrees of focus, different paper stocks and different printing palettes in each photograph make themselves apparent. Due to the honesty of photorealistic painting and the neutral, painted surface, these discrepancies almost come across as a surprise.
In Grass Drawing, there’s what’s almost a feint. A frozen waterfall sits atop an aerial view of the branching burn marks etched out by a bushfire. For all the grand contrast of ice and fire, the scene is belittled by minuscule flecks of red and green – a straight-faced translation of printing errors in Wormald's found photographs.
These proofs of process, which might seem coy or conspiratorial, speak more to a continued renegotiation of landscapes. From sourcing to slicing to arranging to painting, Wormald grasps at scenes. By showing her hand, and in effect painting it, she depicts both landscapes and the way that she wrestles with them.
The viewer, too, wrestles with landscapes. Even while you stand still, a landscape is something you navigate, not something you absorb in one sweeping, single glance. As disjointed and impossible as Wormald’s paintings may be, they play to the way the eye’s jerky saccades flit between broad topographic features and fine details.
An instructive hint can be found in a comment once made by Georgia O'Keeffe, from whose landscapes, as mentioned before, Wormald drew a few compositions. Writing to a friend in 1923, O'Keeffe raved about Lake George and the Adirondack Mountains, saying that "there is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees – sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces – it seems so perfect..."
Wormald seems to have followed through with O'Keeffe's urge, tearing her mountains and lakes and trees into pieces. Viewers also tear apart these images bit by bit, second by second, as their eyes tease out the edges of these disparate worlds within worlds. Even the paintings, with all their internal tension and discord, seem close to tearing themselves apart.
The landscapes in Ordinary Pictures are pieced-together landscapes whose torn edges are brought into sharp relief. Stand back and they look like any affecting landscape: somewhat familiar yet unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Take a few steps forward and you can see a frustrating beauty being grappled with over and over again. From either vantage, you get a sense of how perfect the landscapes – real and imagined, found and invented – must have seemed.
Alice Wormald’s Ordinary Pictures is showing at Daine Singer, 325 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, until March 29.