A cultural negotiator: Michael Eather reflects

Michael Eather, L'Immensite de la Mer, 2013, archival pigment on paper, ed. 1/5, 72 x 132 cm. COURTESY HEISER GALLERY, BRISBANE.
Michael Eather, L’Immensite de la Mer, 2013, archival pigment on paper, ed. 1/5, 72 x 132 cm. COURTESY HEISER GALLERY, BRISBANE.

Michael Eather’s “The Endless Sea” opened at Brisbane’s Heiser Gallery on Saturday 22 February. This exhibition of gouaches, sculpture and photography sees Eather reflecting on his 30 years of practice as an artist, his life journey negotiating cultural difference, and the stimulation that art affords him.

Michael Eather, The Visionary Position, 2013, gouache on Arches Paper, 30 x 42 cm. Courtesy HEISER GALLERY, BRISBANE.
Michael Eather, The Visionary Position, 2013, gouache on Arches Paper, 30 x 42 cm. Courtesy HEISER GALLERY, BRISBANE.










My catalogue essay below. The exhibition is viewable at http://www.heisergallery.com.au/current.html.


Michael Eather: The Endless Sea

Heiser Gallery, Brisbane

18 February to 15 March 2014


When in doubt, draw.

– Michael Eather, 1987

“The Endless Sea” sees Michael Eather in a reflective place. While this may have been enhanced by his January driving holiday, his mid-life non-crisis, his youngest daughter turning eleven, business stability and ongoing art practice, it is also about the medium he has adopted for this body of work. Working predominantly in watercolour, on the kitchen table at home, or in a studio at the back of his office, it has allowed his art practice to be as constant, compelling and intimate as it has ever been. Perhaps it is that that takes him back to the beginning of his aesthetic and adult journey.

Eather’s life story, the things he has seen and discussed and the things he has experienced and may never disclose, could be the subject of a film script. What is clear is that he has been driven, at a possibly subconscious level, to be a cross-cultural traveller. The stingray carries this sense of crossover (an autobiographical element in his oeuvre generally) that is also present in the watercolours. Like the fish, they have a silent element, benign yet potentially otherwise, fluid, yet indelibly present and occasionally prescient.

The stingrays have always been the great epiphany. A time of waiting and cognition … manifested by a sublime form as all the substances before me danced in unison just within grasp, or buried in the mangrove mud… indeed, some were captured and eaten. Self-belief starts with an empty stomach.[i]

In this exhibition the images and ideas are fresh, drawing together dalliances from the past with the perspectives of the present. Manifest with hopes for the future they also offer up the primacy of an art practice in terms of making the connections that have shaped Eather’s life, in many places and times, tight, a seamless whole, “… navigating psychological seascapes that are potentially fraught with obstacles and/or the allure of (cross-cultural) destinations”.[ii]

The watercolours as a group are notable for the multiple portals to other worlds that exist within confined interiors. The Visionary Position (2013), for example, depicts a corner with floorboards that evoke the archetypal van Gogh, Vincent’s bedroom in Arles (1888), and contrasting vertical VJs that box in the space. From this slightly claustrophobic vantage point a window looks out over a stormy sea, with a telescope awaiting the viewer, who watches unseen. The saw is creating a circular hole in the floor (like a Roadrunner cartoon), a passage to another place, and a chopping block crouches in front of the window. Does this suggest an obstacle between the watcher and the water, the voyeur and the unseen? A book lies open on the floor, a traditional method of travel through fictional worlds, overlapping a Turkish-style rug/magic carpet. The pun in the title juxtaposes the safety of the traditional missionary position with the vicarious nature of the visionary as a viewer rather than participant. Perspective is always more possible from a distance.

The world of relaxing on beds (backlog), 2013 draws Eather’s many cultural journeys into this interior, with the timber (a formative influence in his art school days in Tasmania) burning in a campfire on the single bed while the back and forward journeying is evoked by the saw (eye sore) attacking the bedhead. The stingrays are present, observers from above and below, while the ghost “fathership” – denoting his responsibilities – may be just outside the window, invisible yet present, on the sea. Books (and paper) are also made from wood, and are a constant presence.

The interiors also note a pervasive John Brack-influenced aesthetic, an integral part of his parents’ middle class, meeting and eventual marriage in 1950s Melbourne. Depictions of a stage, Episode 1-3 (2013), replete with velvet curtains, see Eather’s stingray negotiating the theatre of public and private life, new locations, situations and scenarios, the constancy of change and the necessity of the familiar applicable to a universal global contemporary.  Eather suggested, “The artist really has only one story to tell”.[iii]

These works describe the perspectives of the present while they draw further on past material. Soul Searching (a-d) (2010) and Salle universel (vert, bleu, rouge) (2010) are dark, exploring memories of the melancholic nature of Tasmania, its forests, heritage and histories. Yet they may also be seen to be applicable, in their depiction of the disparate and universal “island mentalities” and tribal loyalties, to Australian culture generally.

Joan of Arc (2013) revisits a painting from 1989 and flags the danger inherent in passage between worlds. Portals, like oval mirrors or family portraits, open up the vistas but also bind a personalised tribal memory “to the chest like a stab pass”. Their allusions to cultural secrecy are necessarily conflicted.

Destin (Blue) (2013) and L’Immensité de la Mer (2013), are photographs that revisit the earlier “Shoosh!” images that feature his eldest daughter Noni. In no uncertain terms these images refer to the drive to hide difficult dysfunction and secrets, as well as acknowledging legitimate cultural secreting of information. Sexual abuse in indigenous communities was an issue that Eather negotiated to ensure his eldest three (Indigenous) daughters grew up in safety. The sea behind Noni is the vehicle for his uncharted journey through fatherhood, which began when he was barely into his twenties and it is a powerful backdrop to these images.

The sculpture in this exhibition – fibreglass suspended stingrays and chopping blocks, off-cuts and rough-cut timber – is given an urban edge with glossy, candy coloured, two-pac painted surfaces. Cut firewood is an element ever present in Tasmania and, as a student, Eather had a ton of timber delivered to his studio. The green movement was in its infancy in the early 1980s and these works visit the past overridden with the veneer of the present. They denote a new chapter – melding experiences, thoughts and influences with the same medium that formed his early vision. It is a transformed psychological landscape and with this component of “recent campfires” part of “The Endless Sea”, he reignites the timber, making connections well before the journey into Indigenous Australia that has been such a powerful influence on his life since the mid-1990s. “Firewood, the logs and other pieces of timber … are the substances that reunite the flickering.”[iv]

In this exhibition Eather affirms his artistic and life’s journey, acknowledging the difficulties and celebrating the passage, before, during and after, and noting too that there is nothing new under the sun.

The island … The melancholic landscape:

            I went into the wilderness to paint the landscape

            But older people had been before me

            And rendered it


            I went back into my room to draw the tragedy

            And rendered it


            Like those before me.[v]

– Michael Eather, 2014

Biographical note:           

Michael Eather graduated from art school in Hobart and almost immediately left Tasmania in 1984, aged 21. He lived, on and off, in the indigenous community of Maningrida, in Australia’s north, for seven years whilst also establishing a studio in Brisbane. Eather has played a significant role in brokering indigenous art with whitefella art in both institutional and commercial exhibitions ever since, having conceived and co-curated the groundbreaking “Balance” exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1990. He lives and works in Brisbane. Eather is represented by Heiser Gallery, Brisbane.

[i] Michael Eather, “Words from the last day of travel”, email to the author, 27 January 2014.

[ii] Michael Eather, “The Endless Sea”, notes from Gold Coast Prize entry statement, 2013.

[iii] Michael Eather, visual diaries, 1997.

[iv] Michael Eather, “Words from the last day of travel”, email to the author, 27 January 2014.

[v] Michael Eather, “Words from the last day of travel”, email to the author, 27 January 2014.