On Sydney’s Northern Beaches During the Time of COVID

Exploring the Landscape Through Abstract Art — on Sydney’s Northern Beaches During the Time of COVID


Feature by Emma-Kate Wilson

Five abstract artists working on Sydney’s Northern Beaches reveal a colourful oeuvre that responds directly to site and place. For each of the artists, the famous stretch of coastline north of the city, dominated by suburbia, the Aussie ‘bush’, and the vast ocean, is intrinsically connected to their psyche—made even more relevant by the outbreak of COVID-19.

Living in Manly, the golden tip of the north-side headland of Sydney’s gaping harbour, Chilean artist Maria Jose Benvenuto invites her unaccustomed environment into her canvases. Gestural mark-making imprints the raw linen with gesso and acrylic, building layers akin to the mountains of her hometown of Santiago and the waves that roll through the Pacific Ocean with their sighing breath.

Even far away from her first home, time in lockdown has brought an escape and time to develop her practice. “It has been affected positively because this year I’ve produced more than ever,” Benvenuto explains. “I think I’ve made huge progress this year; I’ve had time to explore new techniques and materials, and from that experimentation, new images start to appear.”

The everyday moments of life, like the salty breeze on a coastal walk or the clouds passing through the sky, inspire Benvenuto—sparking textures, colours, and images. “I am constantly experimenting and studying colour and composition. The most important thing for inspiration is to take ideas from our surroundings,” she thoughtfully muses. Lines meticulously dance across the canvas, reminiscent of the landscape with its peaks and troughs or the records of life, like a heartbeat on a monitor.

For Venezuelan artist Marisabel Gonzalez, there is a relationship between modern medicine and her artworks. As an ultrasound technician, she spends the day looking at greyscale colours and glimpses of light inside the body—an experience that translates into her practice through layers, intriguing brushwork, and a vivid palette. Her conversations with patients or her own emotions manifest within the paint and canvas, inviting the viewer to take a journey through their composition.

Born in Venezuela, Gonzalez moved to Australia 14 years ago. The move enhanced her connection with the landscape; she sought refuge in its openness and found a collective of likeminded South American artists. But during COVID-19 lockdowns, her medical world became increasingly burdened with stress and tension. “The staff was stretched to the limits. The patient load increased, the hours and pay were reduced, and the risk of bringing COVID home to your loved ones was a dreadful thought,” she adds.

As a sonographer, Gonzalez was exposed to the virus in her small and enclosed environment. But, she shares, “for me COVID provided a space for insight, for resilience and a deeply compassionate approach to life, health, and death.” The artworks are divided into areas of expressive paint in bright, pop colours. Each is a portal to a connection or conversation. Gonzalez continues, “my work is an attempt to bring attention to the idea that if we keep things in perspective, we would not see the pathological processes in our bodies as something abnormal, but as part of the journey of life.”

This sentiment rings true for Australian artist Leonie Barton, who balances chronic pain with her art practice. The time in lockdown allowed for a physical change in her artworks, transitioning to oil painting with the extra time permitted. In Barton’s hands, the landscape is abstracted—reduced to the microcells of energy, depicted in muted colours that evoke a modernist design.

Inspired by the organic compositions of her photography series the ‘Ephemeral Project’ (2015-), Barton’s initial drawings are built up with layers of wax and oil. Working intuitively, the canvas becomes a platform for mark-making and problem-solving. “[It’s about] what to leave, what to expand, and what to take away,” the artist explains. “The shapes that emerge in my work directly relate to the landscape and the shapes that were frequently present in my ‘Ephemeral Project’.”

For British-born artist Julie Nicholson, painting her new surroundings was a way to connect with the environment. “My paintings help me to make sense of my adopted Australian landscape, often intertwined with the memories of waterlogged, acid greens from my Cotswold upbringing, infused with the dry, blueish greys of the Australian landscape,” she shares.

Growing up in the lush English countryside, the visions of rolling hills often find their way into Nicholson’s oeuvre. But it’s the blue that dominates her recent works which provides an aching reminder of the lack of landmass between here and home. Amidst COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures, art became a welcome escape for Nicholson from the monotony of everyday life. “The lush, layered, heavily textured paintings are an emotional response to the physical and mental restraints of staying inside,” the artist considers. “Looking through the window, I searched for the meaning of home.”

As we become divided in our increasingly fractured pandemic world, and families are separated by blankets of oceans, landscape becomes a space of yearning. Nicholson’s artworks evoke such sensations of longing through their washes of acrylic, layered across the canvas. The tangle of lines and drips invite the audience to come closer and appreciate their multi-dimensionality. “My paintings are simply from the inside looking out, questioning where home is and what it means,” Nicholson adds.

Alejandra Sieder, a Venezuelan-Spanish artist, demonstrates the landscape’s intrigue through her series of black and white, Op-Art style paintings that challenge the viewer’s perspective in lines and curves. While the waves of the ocean may inspire her, Sieder’s work focuses more on how humans interpret the sublime effects of nature: an interest she developed through her studies in psychology. “Optimal mental health is non-existent,” Sieder explains. “The chaos of life is the result of a variety of mental processes triggered by intrusive thoughts. The paintings that comprise my body of work are an exploration of the relation between conscious and sub-consciousness.”

The results leave the audience questioning their gaze. How do we make sense of these works? Beyond the airless feeling of a panic attack or hope and fulfilment, Sieder’s series takes on a deeper meaning during COVID-19, grounded in her anxieties of embarking on a career in the unstable art industry. The uncertainty of both the virus and a lack of income drove Sieder to pursue her art practice full-time. “Overnight it became an overwhelming certainty: I didn’t have a choice,” the artist reflects. “I was sure that this has always been my path, and there was nowhere to go but forward.”

As revealed by each of these artists, 2020 was a year of transition. It profoundly changed how they each capture their sensory experiences, emotions, and memories. The landscape’s effect, in a location abundant with the sublime, helped connect them with something deeper, something beyond their anxieties, to a world of colour, texture, mark-making, and layers and layers of paint. These new works expose the human ability to continue to create, even in the most challenging times.

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