One of the outstanding works in the Castlemaine Art Museum, Fred Williams’ Silver Landscape is representative of the work for which the Melbourne painter is best known. A scattering of mark-making in thick oils on a thin-glazed ground represents the land, while a quiet whitish area of opaque paint in slightly varied hues in the top third of the canvas represents the sky.
For all the minimalist abstraction of this studio-made painting, the distilled experience of being out there in the landscape is evident. Williams made repeated trips to the places where he was inspired, to observe and make plein air works. During the 1960s he was drawn to the You Yangs, and also painted scenes of Upwey, where he was living. His favoured format and medium for these on-site works were a standard-sized watercolour sheet, 56 x 76 cm and gouache.
When looking at this work from a distance, you see the landscape as a whole. Move much closer to the painting, and your eye settles on the mark-making and moves from one mark or grouping of marks to another, these elements representing trees, as well as logs, rocks and other aspects of the landscape. Movement and time enter your viewing of the work, as you “joins the dots” in a random way. I am reminded of how I experience landscape, not in a static moment as a photograph records, but in an embodied way, scanning the whole while also looking here and there.
Williams saw the landscape, particularly in his work of the 1960s, in essentialist terms; it wasn’t the particulars of place such as the weather or light at any given moment that interested him, but rather the generic character of place. Williams saw our continent as essentially flat, dry and brown. While Victoria is green half the year, this is not a colour seen in his painting of this period; it is essentialist qualities that imbue the character of his work at this time.
As a consequence of their abstract and generic quality, Williams’ paintings of the 1960s evoke landscape seen at a distance and at a remove, rather than as environment. There is no foreground on which the viewer can imagine standing. You are viewing the world as if disembodied and hovering above the ground. Williams achieves this distancing through the scale of the mark-making, such as trees and other features seen from afar, the distant horizon, the overarching sky, and the borderless edges that imply a vastness extending beyond the edges of the canvas.
Yet these distancing features also evoke the romantic idea of the sublime, an idea that originated in European painting and art theory more than 200 years ago. While Silver Landscape shows a landscape that is unremarkable and featureless from a scenic perspective, it evokes an idea of landscape as vast and “other” that appeals to our sense of wonder about the world.