Autumn Frolick

Autumn Someplace Else

In my cheap hotel room in Rome the walls were decorated with floor-to-ceiling photo wallpaper of a fantastic autumnal scene. The effect was a disturbing trompe l’oeil that invited the viewer to leap off the creaky double bed’s headboard into a forest, wander along a path scattered with bright orange and yellow leaves, take rest on a conveniently placed wooden bench, and then regard this Silvan Glade with the detached melancholy of a Romantic poet. In reality, however, the solid wall and its brute physics resisted any attempt to physically enter the picture. The encounter was one for the eyes – and mind – only.

Craig Waddell’s latest body of work, grouped together under the title Autumn Frolic, reminded me of that experience in the Italian pensione all those years ago through a simple trigger – the colour orange. Like the man who loves chocolate but who ends up a diabetic, exposure to that giant photo mural put me off the association of colour and season forever. The hotel experience was aversion therapy, yet the continual reminder of this association won’t go away. And it still upsets me.

Along the street where I live there are trees in autumnal colours, non-native imports that reinforce our bizarre cultural need for a Northern Hemisphere winter. Between red and yellow there is orange, the visual sensation of the wavelength of light that clusters between 585-620 nanometres. We associate this colour with autumn because, in the odd default cultural memory of us non-Indigenous types, the colour occurs between summer and winter. The logic is simple but faulty; cause does not necessarily produce affect.

Waddell is a visual ironist. There is nothing in these paintings beyond the gesture, yet in the language of the expressionist, there is surface, and gesture, and much more – the ghost of the figure lurks beneath the great swathes of paint. As a record of an experience we can reasonably think that Waddell, a citizen of Sydney’s north western suburbs – and a place noted for its Liquid Amber trees, Devonshire teas and olde worlde antique shops – is drawing on direct experience. But the titles of the works, with their playful evocation of paint sample names such as Swirling Leaves, Peach Dreams, Sunshine Flickers and Persimmon Delight, is far more knowing and playful that one might at first suspect.

As a painter with an engaged understanding of art history, Waddell is offering a classical notion of irony; a double meaning or an incongruity between what is proposed and what is understood. It’s in this space that we find the lurking figuration suggested by the title. Instead of a literal rendering of faux experience, what emerges in this sequence of paintings is a far more bucolic – and erotic – version of nature. From beyond the detailed surface arrive a group of frolicking, naked women, proposing a connection to the master of expressionism Willem de Kooning and another artist-sensualist lost in an Arcadian imagination, one Norman Lindsay. The narrative of these paintings suggests that the viewer can revisit even the most seemingly abstract pictures and detect the trace of the figure. Waddell’s experiments with abstraction and figuration stretch back through his work taking paint to its very essence in sculptural lumps of left over paint to portraits, landscapes and seascapes. The continuity is Waddell’s apparent fascination with the physical properties of paint, but more interestingly, its suggestive properties too, deployed somewhere between the experience of the real and its phantom.