The Photographs of Wesley Stacey
Playing with titles for a proposed retrospective of his work some years ago, Wesley Stacey came up with 'topographical delights' as a description of his landscapes.
The genre of topographical art reached a golden age in the service of the great scientific voyages and geographical explorations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Topographical art is often distinguished from pure landscape art because of its primary concern with the accurate and precise rendering of permanent features of the landscape, including towns, buildings or ruins. Atmospheric conditions and the expression of emotions and ideas were not the province of the topographer. Topographical artists were more or less put out of business by the arrival of photography, which took over most scientific recording functions after 1890.
Wesley Stacey sees his work as part of an on-going tradition of 'landscape picture-making' in this country. He perceives his precursors as landscape painters, in particular the leading artists of his youth: Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Russell Drysdale. The publication in 1986 of a book on Drysdale's colour photographs, which were taken by the artist on his painting journeys, was a delightful revelation for Stacey. Features of Fred Williams's landscape paintings - the spareness, countered with the texture of vegetation and the spindly calligraphy of tree trunks - also seem to be echoed in Stacey's use of vertical and horizontal linear elements against a sea of space. At the same time, Stacey has become more aware of past landscape photographers through the increasing number of photographic publications and exhibitions in the 1980s. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, Stacey's work - in particular its focus on the enduring aspects of places - has more in common with the topographical artist.
In looking at both Stacey's juvenilia and his graphic work of the early 1960s, the topographer's clarity and linear structures are evident. In these years, Stacey was involved in the Anglican Church and devout in his beliefs. A certain teenage intensity can be seen in early images that reveal his religious concerns. Barbed wire and steel fence spikes suggest the symbol of Christ's suffering - the 'crown of thorns' - and cosmic symbols such as the wheel and water represent aspects of creation.
Stacey's later rejection of the Church and all imposed doctrines began to show in his work in the early 1960s through a lightness of touch and an openness to new experiences. Dramatic graphic contrasts between black and white spaces and lines, characteristic of sixties art, were modified in the 1970s by a subtle tonal richness.
As a freelance photographer in the seventies, Stacey specialised in travel and architectural subjects. A series of pioneering publications produced in association with architect Philip Cox on homesteads, vernacular buildings and country towns was novel at a time when the Australian public was still more interested in classical and Georgian colonial architecture. This publication coincided with a change of attitudes in the National Trust Councils, which were starting to recognize and preserve forms of heritage other than mansions. Heritage protection provided by the Green Bans - activated by that unlikely prophet of environmental consciousness, Builders Labourers Federation boss Jack Mundy - gave the Trust a muscle against the destructive plans of developers. The 1960s and 1970s were also the decades when architect Robin Boyd castigated Australian cities and suburbs as spiritual and aesthetic deserts.
Unlike Boyd, Stacey took a non-judgemental approach to the urban environment with such series as The edge, 1975 - which described Sydney's shoreline suburbs - and The road, 1973-75 - a visual diary of his car trips. At the time, The road was a revolutionary acceptance of the nature and familiarity of the 'driving' experience, and was an innovative expression of a very common Australian approach to the landscape.
Stacey has often been innovative in his career. For example, The road embraced the technical developments of the 1 970s in its acceptance of the character and ease of colour printing and of new cameras such as the Kodak Instarnatic. It revealed Stacey's interest both in process and in extended repetition as a rhythm with its own hypnotic beauty, and also indicated that he was responding to contemporary developments in conceptualist art.
A growing sense of Australian heritage seems to have inspired a significant art event of the 1 970s. In 1972agroupof painters and photographers - including Tim Storrier, Grant Mudford, Melanie Le Guay and Stacey - undertook a pilgrimage to 'The Rock' (Uluru), in the centre of Australia.
The topographical delights of natural heritage have sustained Stacey from the late seventies. His travels in the 1 980s, in particular, have taken him and his partner Narelle Perroux across the continent - from Bermagui, where he owns land with a bush camp, to Broome and the Kimberleys. Contacts with Aboriginal people have significantly enriched his view of the land; his adoption of a Widelux camera and his exclusive use of a panoramic format has allowed him a fuller measure of its dimensions.
Stacey's experiences working with the South Coast Advisory Committee on Woodchipping and with Aboriginal tribal elder Guboo Ted Thomas in 1977-80 involved him in the use of photographs for direct social-political protest. His recent interest in critical discourse on the nature of the landscape arts, such as Paul Carter's study The Road to Botany Bay, has added an intellectual dimension to his concept of the landscape, particularly an awareness of the interpretative role of landscape photography. Stacey's reading has led him to an understanding of sacred sites of Aboriginal culture and of the breadth and complexity of heritage. Any one site, for instance, can be seen to have aesthetic, historical and spiritual significance.
Stacey's most recent project integrates images created on a trip to Italy in 1988 with photographs from the Australian landscape. Called Signing the land, the images present signs, calligraphy and graffiti found in Italy and dating from the Roman era alongside signs imparted to the Australian landscape by Aboriginal people and early European explorers. What comes across is human presence and cultural commonality.
landscapes are presented without obvious movement or drama - the
land just is. His images are levelled by a strong horizon, and the
panoramic format extends the conventional 'picture window' view that
cuts off as much as it frames. In this sense, the topographic tradition
- with its clarity and restraint - is an important aspect of his
style. However, in a subtle assimilation that is the essence of his
idiom, Stacey's work also incorporates elements of the romantic,
classical and picturesque landscape traditions.
Gael Newton is Senior Curator of Photography, NGA, Canberra
Text from NGA Room brochure