In a blue and white corner of sky in one of the large-scale Arthur Boyd landscapes in Bundanon’s new exhibition, Wilder Times, what appears to be a flock of birds makes its way towards Pulpit Rock, the cliffscape adjacent to Boyd’s homestead on the Shoalhaven River. It’s one of 14 works Boyd made of Bangli/Shoalhaven at various times of day, depicting the landscape in the shapeshifting light between dawn and midnight. But upon closer inspection, the tiny black specks are not birds at all. They are 40-year-old bugs embedded in the oil paint.

In 1984 stage designer John Truscott commissioned Boyd to produce a series of landscape paintings for Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre circle foyer. Boyd had six months to deliver them. When they arrived in Melbourne, they were wet, with bits of Bundanon bugs and blades of grass stuck to the paint. The paintings were framed on-site and hung just in time for the opening in October 1984, where they have remained an iconic fixture of the gaudy red-walled foyer ever since.

While Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre undergoes a four-year renovation, the paintings have been returned, for the first time, to the place they were made.

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“They haven’t been seen anywhere except at the State Theatre foyer at Arts Centre Melbourne since they were installed,” curator Sophie O’Brien tells Broadsheet. “Coming back to Bundanon has a resonance for us in terms of Arthur’s first years here, how he thinks about landscape, the tradition of European landscape painting that he drew on, and how he responded to the Australian landscape in that context.”

O’Brien has chosen to place the Arts Centre Melbourne collection alongside over 60 works made by figural Australian artists of the era. Each of the works included was made in the same period, between 1984 and ’86.

“It’s an opportunity to learn about the Boyd legacy but also to learn about that time in more depth,” O’Brien says.

The survey includes works on loan from significant public and private collections across painting, film, photography and printed material by important Australian artists including Imants Tillers, Mac Betts, Vivienne Binns, Judy Cassab, Rover Joolama Thomas and more. The works O’Brien chose reflect the context of the mid-1980s, and how landscape functioned across the culture.

Vivienne Binns’s painting The Aftermath and the Ikon of Fear, a landscape covered in bold red crosses, features a baby lying on its back emitting a stream of smoke that stretches towards the heavens, obscuring the land and the sky.

“A lot of critical thinking was going on. It was such a dynamic time. To do a simple landscape commission seems at the outset a very gentle, simple and elegant [task]. But at the same time Arthur was also establishing a wildlife refuge, and taking out environmental protection orders for the river. He was thinking about Bundanon becoming a multi-artform residency education space in a unique natural environment. So landscape, then, has a bigger weight to it,” O’Brien says.

Imants Tillers’s Pataphysical man, originally presented in the 1984 exhibition An Australian Accent at MoMA PS1 New York, is a highlight of the survey. In 1981, Tillers began a practice of painting on small-scale canvases which he connects to make large-scale paintings. He has numbered his paintings from one to infinity and views them as an ever-expanding collection named The Book of Power.

Tillers, who is preparing for a major survey in Germany next year, tells Broadsheet he is still counting. “I’m still going,” he says. “I’m up to number 116,000.”

Wilder Times: Arthur Boyd and the Mid-1980s Landscape is on now until October 13, 2024. Entry is $18. Admission on weekends also includes entry to the homestead site.