Horizons present and unseen

Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, 24 March - 7 May 2017

Horizons present and unseen is a collection of paintings and photographs from two years of research and travel in Australia supported by the Marten Bequest Traveling Scholarship (2015-2016). Broken Hill Regional Gallery gives space to bring together works across the different series created during this period. The photographs document movement through the landscape; the paintings construct and inhabit landscapes speculatively from the Sydney-based studio. These processes are a challenge to the artist to think differently—about place-making, about how we are shaped by the landscape, and about how we respond to the spoken and unspoken influences of the places, people and cultures that surround and inform us in Australia. Seen side by side, subtle shifts in form are revealed; edges and lines quiver between series.

Sketch for October paintings, 2017

Sketch for October paintings, 2017

Horizons Present and Unseen

Exhibition essay by Dr Katie Louise Williams

How is it possible for some things to exist in the world and be perceived by the eye, yet retain an essence that is concealed, hidden in plain sight? Feelings and emotions lie just beneath the surface of our skin. When attuned, we can sense them, their momentary subtle shifts, the immense complexity and the minute detail of their make-up are all within our grasp. However, in many ways when we try to define them they remain elusive. Words can touch on a concrete decipherable account of these currents, yet never do justice to the intricacies and elusive changes that occur but are never completely identifiable.

The horizon line in Hayley Megan French’s paintings inhabits this shifting space. Hidden in plain site, the horizon line is not painted, does not announce itself visually, but to the viewer its presence can be felt. And for French it is forever present.

French’s relationship with the horizon line was ignited when she went skydiving in 2013. With her fear of heights, this was no easy feat, as she states she 'blacked out' before jumping into the void from a small aircraft. On regaining consciousness she remembers feeling completely weightless and surrounded by whiteness, enveloped in a cloud and not being able to see the horizon line. With no visual line to position herself, she lost all understanding of where she was, or what direction she was facing. It was only when she emerged from the cloud and the horizon line was visible once more, that she was able to orient herself and make sense of what was happening. This understanding was to alter French’s perspective on the importance – visually and psychologically – of the horizon and its role in framing the way we comprehend space.

This seminal experience was carried by French on several road trips that traversed remote parts of Australia from North East Arnhem Land to the Kimberley Region, the Pilbara, Goldfields and the Nullabor Plain. As she explored these isolated parts of our country she found the seemingly endless stretches of land and horizon to be mesmerising. The need to apprehend all of it, to hold onto the experience or feeling, was to be explored through several different means.

French has a background in photography, and she used the photograph as a way to capture the merging of place, light and horizon. These images and French’s handwritten locations have been reproduced in a book accompanying this exhibition. The photographs depict what could be seen with the eye, however, the felt sensation is always painted. The true horizon line for French exists in her being, and it is translated through paint.

French’s small painted sketches were also done while on the road; quick, less inhibited and more gestural than her larger paintings and sometimes with a different palette. The small canvases acting as impromptu maps, with parts of them translated and changed in the larger canvas to come.

Hidden horizons remain embedded in both the small and large painted works, sensed by, but not illustrated for the viewer. They are intimate works – layered in both meaning and material – that require time and reflection to resolve.

This is the first time that French has shown her large paintings, alongside her ‘working’ photographs and sketches. Viewing the elements together provides a fascinating insight into a way of seeing that is unique to French.

Finally French generously acknowledges the importance of the many influences that inhabit her works, from the ongoing dialogue between Indigenous painting and non-Indigenous painting, to the people with whom she shares her experience of her place in the landscape. All of these factors effect how she processes what is seen and felt. In viewing many of the photographic wall works the impact of Carla Liesch, her long time friend and collaborative partner, is apparent. Three of the photographic works exhibited in Horizons Present and Unseen were created with Liesch. French recognises that the works exist in a grey zone, where two individuals merge and create a third entity, the work.

Broken Hill Regional Gallery was the final destination of one of her many road trips and thus a fitting place for French to invite the viewer into her way of understanding and thinking through what the horizon means to her. It is through the complex and interwoven mix of components that make up Horizons Present and Unseen that we as viewers are able to piece together our own unique understanding of what the horizon is for us.

Fieldwork (horizons), 9 July – 10 August 2016, Artist proof 1/3