20 May 2004


Degrees of Abstraction     Ian Bettinson
May 14 - June 27, 2004

Celebrated landscape painter, Ian Bettinson won the Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting in 1987, and again in 1989. His work gained recognition recently in 2003, when he was awarded the inaugural Country Energy Art Prize for landscape painting. Unlike many contemporary artists, Bettinson has remained committed to the exploration of the Australian landscape. Bettinson sums up his work as capturing ‘The simplicity of the desert landscape, its sense of space and wonderment has a metaphysical quality which is unique to Australian art.’


Bettinson’s exhibition at Newcontemporaries is the first comprehensive survey of his work to be shown in Australia in the last five years. The artist has recently returned to Australia after exhibitions in St Petersburg and Paris. He believes that the international art community is looking for paintings which are about place, but have universal meaning.  Bettinson looks to the notion of ‘informed regionalism’ crediting it for rekindling the current interest in Australian landscape painting. Nick Waterlow, Art Curator and former Director of the Biennale of Sydney comments, ‘Above all, this is a body of work that is not only a significant edition to our understanding, but is a magnificent feat born of solitude, endurance, and an unrelenting clarity of vision’.



After repeated trips to the outlying regions of New South Wales, the desert landscape has taken a powerful hold on Ian Bettinson’s imagination. When he titles an exhibition, Degrees of Abstraction, he recognizes the gradual nature of a process that is simultaneously an accumulation of visual experience, and a stripping away of inessentials. Although these recent works may appear more minimal than anything Bettinson has ever painted, he has returned to the landscape time and again, finding new variations in scenes that some artists would see as featureless.


One tends to forget that for the past two hundred years, local artists felt no attraction for the desert. With the exception of a figure such as Ludwig Becker, who perished on the Burke and Wills expedition, there were very few painters who turned their attention to this theme prior to Sidney Nolan’s pioneering trip of 1949. Until comparatively recently, the vast majority of Australians regarded the desert as a barren and hostile place. If it has become less so, this is due to prosaic factors such as improvements in transport and communications; but also because of a growing understanding of the spiritual ties that indigenous Australians feel for this country.


Bettinson is conscious of the way we have gone from seeing the outback as a place of dismay and despair, in the manner of the early colonists, to viewing it as a domain of wonder. It may be that the works of Aboriginal artists have provided a guide as to how to look at the land through the eyes of its first inhabitants.  

Bettinson’s personal approach has a kind of atavistic quality, as if he were possessed by some spirit that could only be exorcised by the repeated ritual of painting. On the other hand, he is aware of the formal affinities between his works and those of artists such as Mark Rothko, who never saw his floating rectangles of translucent colour as purely abstract, but as vehicles for strong emotion, a series of meditations on tragic and spiritual themes. So too, does Bettinson see his own heavily-abstracted landscapes as screens upon which we may project our thoughts about what is transient and what is eternal; about the relationship between God, earth and man.


There are affinities with Jacquetta Hawkes’s well-known book of 1951, A Land, which charted the geological formations of Britain and related them to the growth of human culture and environmental awareness. Hawkes was concerned with the way we nurtured fixed ideas of a world that was torn between forces of growth and decay. “It is the endless problem of the philosophers;” she writes, “either they give process, energy, its due and neglect its formal limitations, or they look only at forms and forget the irresistible power of change.”


For Bettinson, the lure of the Australian deserts may lie in the fact that these are among the oldest landscapes in the world. Hawkes could discuss the ongoing erosion and cultivation of a fertile, densely-populated island, but Bettinson – a Yorkshireman by birth, a product of that same environment – is consumed by a vision of a land from which time has apparently been banished. The rivers, forests, lakes and mountains that once covered these regions have been pulverized into stark, sandy plains that extend as far as the eye can see. It is the endgame of all landscape, the reductio ad absurdum of landscape art. And yet, in the slightest variations of colour and tone, the play of light and the scattered vestiges of plant forms, the artist discovers a life force in these bare, flat lands. The longer we look, the more we begin to perceive these pictures as no longer empty, but full; no longer a purgatory for the human spirit, but a sanctuary.


©  John McDonald

April 2004


Newcontemporaries Director


Artist Statement


The works exhibited are part of a series that were made within the last six years, travelling to Lake Kinchega and Lake Mungo National Parks in far western New South Wales. This flat open landscape has given my work a simplicity and grandeur that captures the passage of time over this ancient country. This big picture landscape has become centre stage and the human presence is minimal in this ever-changing visual drama. As this series has developed I realised I was involved in redefining a landscape tradition much in the same way as Fred Williams did in the late 1960’s. Like Williams, painting directly in the desert landscape provides an endless and timeless transforming subject. It is this idea of informed regionalism, which can regenerate and transform contemporary issues in painting. Travel has become an integral part of my working practice. There is an authenticity working directly in the landscape, which is impossible to recreate in the studio environment. With the Renaissance in Aboriginal painting, which has occurred over the past twenty years, there is a renewed awareness in the public appreciation of landscape art. Aboriginal mythology permeates the landscape with its traditions and culture. This is unique within the world of contemporary art and society. With the political issues for the 21st century centred on the environment, artists can play an important role in reconnecting people and place. This critical debate is centred on how we can become custodians of the land and not merely owners of it and to protect the environment for future generations. My interest for this work is to put environmental art back into the centre stage of artistic debate.


These large scale paintings are developed from a great number of field paintings made in situ. I have reduced these paintings to two main elements ie; land and sky in equal parts. In doing so the central horizon line (being a taboo in traditional perspective) focuses the viewer to read instead, the abstract dimensions of the work. The intensity of overlaying colour creating the emotional depth and resonance. Much like Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin who are predecessors to this universal approach to regional typography. The abstract elements liberate these paintings while retaining a unique informed regionalism The small scale works are made directly in the landscape and are not only research for future paintings but are multiple paintings in themselves. As I have developed this work I have been surprised to discover that very few contemporary non-indigenous artists are working directly in the environment. Most are studio bound and regard travel as an unnecessary activity. This cuts off the artist from direct source material. A drawing or a painting made directly on site almost always captures the experience of a situation more vividly than can be imagined in the studio. There is also the challenge of capturing fleeting experiences within a defined time frame. With changing lighting conditions and atmospheric situations requires innovation and rapid execution.


From the late 1980’s I have achieved a substantial amount of critical success. I received  the Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting in 1987 and 1989. My Landscape Painting 1, 1986, toured in the Inaugural 1987 Moet and Chandon Touring Exhibition and  was acquired by the Art Gallery Of Western Australia. In 2003 I won the Inaugural Country Energy Art Prize for Landscape Painting. In 2001 I held a Regional Gallery exhibition in France curated by Marcell Bonnaud, Exhibitions Director at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The critical reaction and the contacts made there have convinced me that this new direction in my work has great interest and appeal outside Australia.These unique images inspired by the Australian desert, demonstrate the universal interest in informed regionalism with the global desire for uniqueness and singularity. The simplicity of the desert landscape, its sense of space and wonderment  has a metaphysical quality which is unique to Australian art. The black and white paintings evolved out of drawings made with pixelated marks of ink on paper. The idea behind these works was to give form to light . To describe how, by working at dawn in the desert landscape, light has a physical presence. It slowly moves across the landscape creating shadow and form.  It is this subject I wish to continue to develop in my practise, by making  landscape art that is a relevant  issue for contemporary painting.


Ian Bettinson, May 2004

Ian Bettinson was awarded the 2003 inaugural Country Energy Art Prize for landscape painting. Newcontemporaries is proud to be able include his winning painting in this exhibition.


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