Susan Baird’s lyrical paintings drift weightlessly between different realities. Within them, a time long past mingles with a poignantly intimate present in a tessellating dance that visualises the connectedness of all things. Though we may be inclined to label these works as ‘landscapes’ and ‘still lives’, they are more aptly portraits, tracing the emotional physiognomy of the artist’s experiences. Physical topography coalesces with psychological and spiritual terrain, forging a visual poetry that sings of place, person and everything in between.
In her new series, Baird continues to contribute her unique voice to the rich artistic legacy of Hill End, in regional New South Wales. Over ten years since first visiting this gold rush town, two residencies and a house later, the artist distils Hill End’s iconic landscape into empathetic orchestrations wherein the weight of colonial history presses against the stillness of the present moment.
As with many artists before her, Baird is captivated by the ‘mysterious light’ of Hill End which, in the artist’s own words, ‘filters through the crevasses of time.’ Painted either from life through a window in her historic Bowman’s Cottage or en plein air close to the property, the works give form to feeling in a cathartic coming to terms with personal loss. Yet, they are not melancholy; rather, Baird’s paintings are contoured with energy and light as if warmly embracing the future. In Studio Window Bowman’s Cottage, the life-sized scale situates the viewer in the artist’s studio, peering through a window that symbolically splits inside and out, culture and nature. We can almost hear it creaking open in the breeze, beckoning us into the verdant landscape beyond; into the future. Here, a soft healing light fosters a harmonic union of art, self, family and the natural world.
Through swift brushwork, repeated motifs and amorphic forms, we get the sense that Baird is searching for something – sewing together felt sensation and haptic memory in order to untangle the landscape’s elusive poesy. Barely discernible horizons pulse through the paintings like a fading heartbeat, melting into horizontal swoops of oil that flush across the linen. Buttressing this linear motion is the verticality of Baird’s trees, anchoring the paintings with gravitational force. Native species of Eucalypt and Ghost Gum sit alongside introduced species like Hawthorn and Elm that were brought to Hill End during the gold rush. Rarely does the artist render these trees in their entirety, with angular torsos and spikey limbs pushing upwards, off the canvas, as if reaching for the clouds.
Central to Baird’s process is being still and observing the landscape shift into new palettes, atmospheres and shapes. As Baird builds up her canvasses, each embryonic painting absorbs both the undulating inner life of the artist and the seasonal world around her. Her vistas seem to hover in a liminal space – between seasons, between times – like a fractal dream or faraway memory whose edges have softened and blurred with age. There is movement as if time has accelerated into a spin, the landscape rushing past our eyes in an endless reel. This momentum – a symptom of our modern lives – ploughs into the quiet eternity of nature, expressing how the landscape bears witness to the past.
For many years Baird has represented the landscape reflected in water; a trope of faceted perspectives and abstract realities. Painting her neighbour’s dam, she captures the patchwork of light and shadow that ripples across its crystalline surface, forming an ephemeral floating world that both conceals and reveals. In works such as Sheena’s Dam and Bush Telegraph, the water creates a compositional cleave that connects – or indeed separates – reflection and reality.
Nothing is definitive in these paintings; shapes are permeable, colours bleed into one another, foreground melts into background. One thing, however, is certain – as felt landscapes and present histories collide on the canvas, Baird gives shape to something that can only be articulated in paint.
Elli Walsh, 2019