Memorial for Philip Hunter, artist

By Jenepher Duncan

Philip Hunter, Shallow acquifer, 2016, oil on linen, 122 x 213 cm. From 2016 exhibition Geophonics, courtesy of Sophie Gannon Gallery.

On 4 April 2017, the Australian artist Philip Hunter died at the age of 58. In this appreciation of his life, eminent curator of Australian art Jenepher Duncan gives a personal account of the man and his work, with an introduction by VCA Director Professor Jon Cattapan.

2017 has been a remarkable year at the VCA with a significant anniversary being celebrated – the 150-year history of VCA Art and its antecedent schools: the National Gallery School and Prahran College.

While reflecting on the incredible past and recent VCA achievements and celebrating our many illustrious alumni, we marked also in April the passing of our great friend and alumnus Philip Hunter.

Philip was a student at Prahran College, and later a postgraduate student at the VCA. From there, in the early 80s, as a young artist, he launched his then expressionistic visions publicly. He became an academic at Prahran College and, when that great institution amalgamated with ours, he went on to be an inspiring, legendary teacher in VCA Painting.

That Philip is regarded as a very fine and dedicated Australian artist who made us see our landscape in innovative ways is a given. Less known to the broader public was his tireless support of younger artists and his deep friendships with writers, philosophers and architects. All of this informed, in highly intelligent ways, the making of his work. His was a rich and involved life in art and he will be remembered as one of Australia’s significant landscape painters.

At Philip’s memorial, the three speakers – Norbert Loeffler, Jenepher Duncan and Sir Jonathan Mills – offered reflections on Philip’s life, work and friendships.

We have asked Jenepher Duncan, as an eminent curator of Australian art, to offer her reflection here, in a tribute that beautifully encapsulates Philip’s achievements, the trajectory of his work and the enormous ambition with which he worked right through his life. Vale Philip Hunter, great artist, great friend and esteemed alumnus.

Jon Cattapan
Director, VCA

Philip Hunter - photograph by Julian Kingma
Philip Hunter. Photograph by Julian Kingma

Memorial for Philip Hunter, by Jenepher Duncan

I last saw Philip Hunter, after some years, in Perth in August 2015 when he and Vera Möller were exhibiting at Perth’s Turner Galleries, at the start of Philip’s four-week artist’s residency sponsored by Turner’s Art Angels group and the Central Institute of Technology. It was their first joint exhibition and their first visit to Perth together. Both exhibitions offered representations, in effect, of what lies beneath – respectively, the earth and the water. Philip’s Geophonics exhibition, a term he coined, was inspired by his research into sounds from underground, the earth’s thrum, and Vera’s Below Low exhibition, by her exploration of underwater life.

Geophonics would be Philip’s last solo show, with two more iterations after Perth, in Melbourne at Sophie Gannon Gallery in May 2016 and finally at Michael Reid’s Sydney gallery in October. Philip had reflected of these paintings in 2015 that “The idea of listening to sounds made from deep inside of the Earth (was) appealing” [1]. For an artist who had early remarked, although certainly with some irony, in 1984 that, “My paintings are really gum tree pictures,” [2] this later assertion hints at his progression from representations based on the seen and observed landscape to evocations of something more: the unseen, the intangible, perhaps “the deep spatial pulse”, as he once described, of a Rothko painting – “vast, rhythmic and eternal” [3].

My first encounter with Philip’s work was through his inclusion in the exhibition Young Melbourne Painters, organised by academic Memory Holloway for the Visual Arts department gallery on the seventh floor of Monash University’s Menzies building in Clayton. It was 1982 and Philip, at 24, had already had a solo show at the new Axiom Gallery in South Yarra. He was at the same time undertaking postgraduate study at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) when renowned British artist John Walker (Memory’s then partner) was Dean of the Art School, a painter who had turned the VCA, according to the now Professor Ian McLean, into “a powerhouse of neo-expressionism.” [4]

Philip’s visual talent and personality were evident and both were imposing. His works on paper, large and small, were forceful and of the time, the 1980s – emblematic, extreme chiaroscuro forms located in indeterminate settings, or assured abstracted descriptions which not only reflected his appreciation of the way Fred Williams’s paint marks articulated and established distance and space, but as well, set out Hunter’s own facility in the printmaking and drawing mediums.

Landscape as a painting genre was not exactly on trend at the time, nor since, but it allowed Hunter freedom, as he said, to occupy a different creative zone: “It gives you space that makes room for meditation and speculation. It’s to do with being inside things.” [5] For the work in this show, he received the Ansett Art Award and was selected for the Australian Perspecta in the following year, 1983. Memory Holloway also included him in The Australians show at CDS gallery in New York in 1984, alongside artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Peter Booth and others, forecasting the affinity later proposed between Hunter’s paintings and Nolan’s Modernist Wimmera landscapes.

Hunter’s exploration of, and intense engagement with, the imagined poetics of landscape began as early as 1983, with his Pastoral Hero landscape suite, drawing on the experience of his return to the land of his early childhood years, the dry, heat-hazed, whispering plains of the wheat-growing region of north-western Victoria. While there were naturalistic elements of the topography employed in this series, they seemed incidental to the overarching conceptual and visionary narrative being played out by the artist.

Philip Hunter, Geophonic no. 1, 2014–16, oil on linen, 71 x 56 cm
Philip Hunter, Geophonic no. 1, 2014–16, oil on linen, 71 x 56 cm. From 2016 exhibition Geophonics, courtesy of Sophie Gannon Gallery.

By 1988 Philip could remark of his working approach: “My intention is not to illustrate a geographic location, but to create by analogy a vehicle for exploration, to digest what has been seen and to then reinvent that subject and all that it implies.” [6] Yet location and place informed the way Hunter developed his work, from his early assimilation of Old Master paintings while travelling in Europe, to Koongarra Saddle in Kakadu National Park, Tower Hill, Gundagai, the Wimmera and Acheron regions in northwestern and northeastern Victoria. His response to the real experiences of location prompted his imagined reflections on them and then these were worked through in series, over an extended period such as with The Plains and The Flatlands Project of the 2000s. With Philip and Vera's move last year to the Victorian coastal retreat Flinders, Philip, surprisingly for such a man of the land, was planning to look out to the sea in his work, to Bass Strait, wanting to capture its experience as “something of a surprise” [7].

Ten years after that first Monash group show, in 1992, I invited Philip to put together a solo exhibition at the at Monash’s University Gallery at Clayton of his recent work. Its grand title, The Territory1st Hemisphere, hinted at its deep pictorial ambition, which was emphatically delivered. As envisaged by the artist, the Territory project, begun in 1989, was to be three interrelated cycles, The Continent, The Visit and The Garden, consisting of paintings, drawings, and prints, to be worked on simultaneously, not sequentially, across all media and all composed within a continuum of self-analysis. “My landscapes”, he had explained to a journalist in 1989, “are a metaphor for my knowledge, memory, traditions. I use them as a means of exploring, of journeying. Everyone has their own geography which needs to be mapped out.“ [8]

The Monash exhibition was the outcome of several years of material, technical and conceptual exploration by Hunter around the nature and meaning of painting and the experience of landscape as imagined, poetic form. The exhibition also reflected Hunter’s first profoundly influential trip to Europe in 1986 with its great museums and their historical art collections. There he absorbed the European Romantic painting tradition with its lustrous tonal effects, spatial ordering and physicality, and the experience transformed his approach to painting into big, bold statements of fictionalised picture-making, landscapes (or mindscapes) of a kind, free of naturalistic topography, which were inspired by his viewing of Rubens, Delacroix, Rembrandt and other Old Masters.

Philip redefined and reinvented the appearance of his paintings as he sought to recreate the historical narrative painting tradition of the Northern Hemisphere and relocate or re-imagine it into the context of the Southern Hemisphere. Counterpointing these aspirational visions were works on paper, which set out his talent for the refined reflective detail hovering in the grand sweep of nature, or indeed the mind.

For instance, his recollection of a Bullock’s Head gum tree (so-called for its resemblance to that animal’s head silhouette) on the Richardson River near Donald, in the Wimmera region, could appear emblematically in lyrical evocations based on Tower Hill of the late 1980s, and were inspired by Antoine Watteau’s elegiac Cythera pastoral landscape paintings (1717–1718).

Hunter’s oppositional configuration of form and formlessness, grand scale and close detail, light and dark, nature and culture, formed the dialectical armature of The Territory project and set up the pictorial tension of his paintings. The Visit cycle, refers closely but freely to Rubens’ Life of Maria de’ Medici (1622–1624) in the Louvre, and featured ghostly human figures for the only time in his practice (with the exception of a 1996 portrait of his close friend, the renowned architect Peter Corrigan).

The paintings also used the vibrant colours from a new range of paint pigments developed by his friend Edal Marcus: pure concentrated colour whose clarity and fidelity were riveting to behold. These pellucid hues, the reds and yellows, would not re-appear until later paintings of the Acheron series of the 1990s. A darker, more sombre palette of burnt umber, greys, blacks and white would generally reflect his experience of later landscapes around Wimmera, near the South Australian border.

Philip Hunter, Geosphere no. 4, 2015, oil on linen, 153 x 122.5 cm
Philip Hunter, Geosphere no. 4, 2015, oil on linen, 153 x 122.5 cm

The Continent landscapes were places of no fixed address and mostly of no fixed vanishing point either. They read like dreamscapes, unfolding to a sudden fixed point, then moving off to a spatial void, bottomless and vortical. It was a painting mode which prompted Charles Green’s observation that “Hunter’s forms are more the result of automatism than description, and his paint disguises as much as it reveals.” [9]

The Monash show gave equal weight to Hunter’s works on paper, gouaches, drawings, studies, prints, as it did to the paintings. The fluidity of composition and assured lines of the works on paper translated increasingly to the paintings, reasonably enough as drawing was central to Hunter’s practice: it was, he remarked, “an essential component” of what he did – it allowed him to be “speculative – hypothetical … If I want to really get to know a place, what it looks like, how it feels, I draw it.” [10]

So direct observational drawing was always his starting point. Patrick McCaughey later observed about Philip’s paintings exhibited at the Potter Gallery in 2001 as The Plains: “[W]hat grounds and makes them work pictorially is PH’s (sic) balance between observation, the direct experience of the landscape, and his studio practice which elaborates and orchestrates his initial responses so meditatively.” [11]

Philip’s engagement with the landscape genre for his own discoveries has sometimes been characterised as a visual conversation with it; a dialogue set up between landscape and its representation. That conversation extended into real life. While not generally talkative (at least in my experience), Philip reflected extensively in writing and in interviews about his work; its ideas, influences and aspirations. Collectively these track his thinking, his ways of looking at a landscape and his restless creative impulse.

A conversation with the artist, as a journalist discovered in 2011, could be as complex as some of his paintings, and could cover “his recent trip to Europe, his new “tropical inland sea” paintings, Borges, Calvino, wasp nests, dog fences, horseshoes, memory palaces; horizons and ‘a vast book with no pages’.” [12]

Philip also read widely and avidly, from fiction and philosophy, from the Bible and Herman Melville, to Richard Wollheim’s Painting as an art (1987) and Frank Stella’s lectures on modern abstract painting [13], to name just the few recorded, while two iconic contemporary works of Australian fiction, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (1978) and later Gerald Murnane’s The Plains (1982), seeped into his meditations on landscape through his paintings.

Just as Malouf’s story of the Ancient Roman poet Ovid’s exile to the edge of the Roman Empire in a remote foreign land had become something of a creative talisman for Hunter during the gestation period of The Territory project, so too did Murnane’s fable or allegory provide both the title and the personal frame of reference with Philip’s The Plains exhibition of 2001, whose compositional source was the landscape of the Wimmera district.

Just as Murnane’s book sought to forge an alternative way of imagining the country within Australian literature, so too, it can be said, did Hunter in his paintings. These seminal works of fiction by Malouf and Murnane – about the outsider actively engaging, and coming to terms, with speculative landscapes – seemed to chart and anchor Hunter’s deep connection to the land – not just like the wandering outsider of The Plains reconciling his own imagination with an immense physical landscape, but as an artist engaging with its memory and meaning. (Murnane’s words would have sounded about right for Philip: “I stare at this land now, and every glowing acre of it sinks into my same old private darkness.”) [14]

Philip Hunter, Geosphere no. 6, 2015, 153 x 122.5 cm
Philip Hunter, Geosphere no. 6, 2015, 153 x 122.5 cm. From 2016 exhibition Geophonics, courtesy of Sophie Gannon Gallery.

Contemporary Indigenous art too played a part in Philip’s mature attentiveness to the metaphysics, the spirit of a place, its genius loci [15]. Philip well understood that he was exploring a landscape with a past, a history which structured and gave it meaning which he wanted to explain in his paintings. He talked about his work at this time as “an invariably complex field of conceptual possibilities and material outcomes; a zone where different foci, fragments, textures perspectives, illusory spaces, moods and views coexist.” [16]

Vera Moller similarly reflected on his work at this time: “Aerial or mapping views co-exist alongside the minutiae, where you almost crawl from the stubble, where you get this sense of its material value, a surface articulation of the earth itself. They are layers of memories, of details, of histories.” [17]

Throughout the 2000s, Philip would undertake research into the local and natural histories and the cultural geography of a place, finding points of reference in its shaping influences: wind gusts, ancient water lines and the once present inland sea, the land’s vapours, cloud shadows, ghost waves, smoke trails, tractor lines, animal and crop movements and finally its voice emanating from the ground, “the imagined noises and sounds of the geosphere itself”, as he remarked. [18]

He was also wanting to focus on intensifying the colours and atmospherics of his paintings. Philip had always looked at a wide variety of other artists’ paintings, but more recently was looking at the paintings of Milton Avery, Roger Hilton, Georgia O’Keefe and Helen Frankenthaler, “to heighten his sense of the differences in [...] the range of their individual pictorial spaces [...] to make paintings about places, districts and events that aren’t so easily quantified or pictured.” [19] The resulting works through the later 2000s, with their rich variety of paint markings, their shifting viewpoints and emphatic pictorial effects, have the cadence of a finely crafted sentence.

So while Philip had turned his attention to water flows beneath the ground in the mid-2000s, what prompted him to go further underground, below the earth’s crust, to the lithosphere, to consider the deep forces that have contributed to the shape of a terrain?

In 2013, hosted by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Philip participated with Vera Möller in an artists’ residency project based at Skullbone Plains, in central Tasmania, an ancient landscape that had been dramatically shaped by glacial activity. This experience lead to his research into geological studies and speculation about the sounds of the earth’s post-glacial expansion. He came across an image of a geophone, a device that measure noises in the earth created by movements in the Geosphere and thought it looked like a modernist sculpture.

His investigations included geophone recordings of movement from deep in the earth’s Geosphere translated into audio by specially designed computer software and which sounded like a muffled heartbeat. Several exhibitions based on that phenomenon lead to his final Geophonics show of 2015-2016 held in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

In Philip’s last interview in July 2016, he reflected on his creative progression and the nature of his painting: “I’ve developed an approach to painting that in some way emulates the act of walking through a terrain and exploring it firsthand, looking under stones, the backwards and forwards of creating an image, of discovering some type of structure within the pictorial field is the way I proceed. It’s the way I’m able to establish meaningful relationships with a painting, to unveil as I go along just what it is that I am able to see and experience and find out.” [20]

So for now, can we not perhaps think of Philip as walking, stepping lightly, towards another horizon (in David Malouf’s words): “[...] further from the far, safe place where [he] began, the green lands of [his] father’s farm, further from the last inhabited outpost of the known world, further from speech even, into the sighing grasslands that are silence ...” [21]

Jenepher Duncan would like to thank Vera Möller; Kirrily Hammond, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne; and Helen Turner and Allison Archer, Turner Galleries, Perth.

Read more ART150 stories

[1] Philip Hunter quoted in exhibition information, Geophonics, Turner Galleries, Perth, July-August 2015.

[2] Philip Hunter, quoted in Janina Green, “Basically Gum Tree Pictures”, The Melbourne Times, 25 July 1984, p. 14.

[3] Philip Hunter quoted in Janet McKenzie, interview, Studio International, 5/7/2016.

(“I remember the first time I saw Mark Rothko’s murals in the Tate. The sensation I experienced is difficult to articulate, but my memory is one of encountering a deep spatial pulse – vast, rhythmic and eternal. I recall the effect of what seemed to be a deep bass symphonic resonance, a sound conversation between each of the individual canvases.”)

[4] Ian McLean interviewed by Jon Cattapan, 2017. https://art150.unimelb.edu.au/articles/artistic-encounter-jon-cattapan-and-ian-mclean

[5] Philip Hunter quoted in Peter Craven, “Return to the landscape”, The Australian, 20 May, 2008, p. 14

[6] Philip Hunter artist statement, Moet et Chandon Australian Art Foundation touring exhibition catalogue,1988, p. 32.

[7] Hunter quoted in Janet McKenzie (2016) op. cit. As had Fred Williams with his Bass Strait landscapes (1971-1978).

[8] Philip Hunter quoted in Louise Bellamy, “Private world of colour and grace”, The Age, 12 December 1989, p. 14

[9] Charles Green, “Melbourne:  Philip Hunter, City Gallery”, Artforum International, XXIX, 2 October, 1990, p. 186.

[10] Philip Hunter quoted in Janet McKenzie (2016) op.cit

[11] Patrick McCaughey “Letter from New Haven”, in The Plains, Wimmera and the Imaging of Australian Landscape, Philip Hunter and Sidney Nolan, The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne, 2001, exhibition and catalogue, texts by Peter Haynes, (Guest curator), Justin Clemens, Patrick McCaughey, Jonathon Mills, Dr. Chris McAuliffe, p. 5.

[12] “The things that still move us:  Philip Hunter in conversation with Fiona Hile”, Art and Australia, vol. 48, no. 3, 2011

[13] Frank Stella, Working Space, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1986, (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1984, called for a rejuvenation of abstraction by achieving the depth of baroque paintings), cited by Ted Gott, “Philip Hunter:  The Territory:  1st Hemisphere”, essay for Philip Hunter The Territory:  1st Hemisphere, Monash University Gallery, Melbourne, 1992, exhibition and catalogue, Texts by Jenepher Duncan (curator), Dr. Ted Gott, Dr. John Gregory, Peter King. p12.

[14] Gerald Murnane, The Plains, Text Publishing, Melbourne, (2000), 2012, originally published Norstrilia Press, 1982, p. 155.

[15] Contemporary Indigenous art in relation to Hunter’s paintings was early referenced by Leon van Schaik, “Letter to Philip Hunter”, Transition, Vol 61/62, 2000, p. 11 (cited in Ashley Crawford, Wimmera:  The Work of Philip Hunter, Thames and Hudson, Melbourne 2002, p. 122); and Patrick McCaughey, “Letter from New Hampshire”, and Justin Clemens, “You are someone else and elsewhere”,The Plains, Wimmera and the Imaging of Australian Landscape, Philip Hunter and Sidney Nolan, 2001, pp 4 – 5; pp 18 – 21.

[16] Philip Hunter quoted by Ashley Crawford, Wimmera:  The Work of Philip Hunter, Thames and Hudson, Melbourne, 2002, p. 126.  (From Hunter’s doctoral thesis (unpublished), Deakin University, Melbourne, 1996-1999, p. 135.)

[17] Vera Möller quoted by Ashley Crawford, Ibid. p.121.

[18] Philip Hunter quoted in exhibition information, Geophonics, Turner Galleries, Perth, July-August 2015, op. cit.

[19] Hunter quoted in McKenzie, 2016, ibid.

[20] Hunter quoted in McKenzie, 2016, op. cit.

[21] David Malouf, An Imaginary Life, George Braziller, New York, 1978, p. 145.