By Kevin Robertson (Curtin University)
Emotional expression in painting is something that I have been looking at for many years. As an artist who lived through the postmodern era, I wondered why expression was something that was no longer considered as a serious subject in contemporary art. Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s was probably the last time it made an awkward appearance, but this was a short-lived phenomenon. When I undertook a PhD to research the idea of expression through my practice as a painter, I realised I would have to approach the problem differently to find a way out of the maze of fallacies that plague theories of expressionism. I came to focus on awe as a fascinating emotional state to guide me through the process.
Awe sets off all kinds of erratic reactions in people when you casually discuss the topic. It seems too hard to define, or for the initiated, too quickly linked to the sublime when it comes up. I wanted try to isolate this emotion in particular from this latter association and consider it as a somatic state of feeling through painting – how it affects the body and how in turn this affects the process of painting.
Awe, at first, seems to be a term for many different states. There is the awe you feel when you meet someone from a higher social status, or seeing a famous artwork, or the awe you experience when you go into hospital for major surgery. Keltner and Haidt situate awe ‘in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear’ (Keltner and Haidt 2003). If you stand outside during a lightning storm, you may appreciate the force of the dramatic display of light as extremely beautiful, but the experience is mixed in that you may be fearful of the consequences and aware of your vulnerability. By this definition, awe also produces recognisable physical reactions like goosebumps and sweating and this connects with my understanding of painting as essentially a physical practice – a kind of extension of your body.
I wondered if I could insert myself into a situation where this feeling could be ‘switched on’ in me and then be able to use my painting as a kind of shock absorber to record this experience (Konečni 2005).
From the outset I struggled to find a subject that might cause this reaction in me. I had a feeling that it might be connected to geological landscapes, because my earliest experiences were gathered in Norseman, Western Australia, a gold mining town where I grew up. I have returned many times to this landscape and painted en plein air, because of the strong emotional reactions this kind of landscape activates in me. I love it, the quartz, the salt lakes and dry heat, I feel a big connection to it, but I don’t feel awe towards it.
The answer to finding the right subject to paint came by accident when I was tidying up my children’s bookshelf. A tiny book that I didn’t know we owned on Australia’s meteorite craters fell onto the floor and it piqued my curiosity (Bevan & McNamara 2009). In particular it describes Kandimahal (the Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater) as a huge, near perfectly circular crater in WA. I became very excited. I looked up the coordinates of the crater and by coincidence it was extremely close to the town where my friend worked as a doctor in Balgo. I had thought of visiting him in the past to paint the landscape, but now it seemed imperative.
My friend gave me the keys to the town and the contacts I needed to get permission to paint on Aboriginal land. I am so grateful for the generosity of the elders to allow me to do so.
My first sight of the purple and brown ridge of the crater sent a shudder through my body. The view from the rim of the crater was stunning, revealing symmetrical shapes, with great circular bands of chrome green, Naples yellow and Mars violet. As a well-preserved artefact of a three-thousand year old meteorite collision, I felt overwhelmed at viewing such an incredible formation.
I arrived at Kandimalal in the middle of the wet season. It was 45 degrees Celsius, extremely humid and there was no shade at the edge of crater. I rolled my huge canvas onto the rocky ground and started painting. Painting in those conditions was like trying to operate a lucky dip machine – I struggled at first just to make marks on the big canvas, but the feeling of awe that engulfed me gave me the binding motivation to complete my task. The rocks and plants were pressing through the surface of the canvas and these patterns were recorded through the process of frottage in the paint strokes, and the heat was causing a rapidly drying surface. The environment of the crater itself was affecting the visual outcome of the painting.
Inside the crater on the second day, the fear component began to emerge in me and this was difficult to accommodate. I knew consciously that this was supposed to be part of the study, but still I wasn’t prepared for it. I was terrified of snakes, death adders to be specific, which are local to the area. I was on my own and the heat was increasing. It was difficult to carry the painting gear, buckets of water, and the painting itself back out of the crater, because it was a fifty-metre rocky drop. I stopped for a moment halfway up and felt that my strength had completely drained out of my muscles and it seemed impossible to go on climbing. I had no choice but to make myself continue.
I felt like an intruder, in a place where I didn’t belong. I was becoming irrational about how to even move through the landscape, where I could step and where I could not. At the end of each session the wind picked up slightly and I took this a sign that my time was up and I had to leave quickly.
I can still visualise the intensity of the colours and how everything, including the rocks, seemed to be swarming with energy. While I worked, time was passing very slowly, and this sense was heightened by my anxiety. The task of painting seemed at times futile, in the face of the immense scale of the site, but I kept working. I was overcome by the sensation of being alone in that space. I needed new ways to think about the expressivity of the geological site itself.
While painting the crater, I became confused about my understanding of representation and expression as being converse to each other – the visible world against the internal one. Out of this confusion came the basis of my exegesis. I found that representation and expression needed to be coupled together rather than seen in opposition. The beginning of this chain was triggered by an awe reaction to the environment that was physically transferred to my body and in turn to my paintings.
The experience also challenged my perception of the geological landscape as a dead space. I am extremely grateful to the elders, who gave me the opportunity to make large scale paintings and experience the strange, living force of Kandimalal and I hope the paintings convey some of the intensity of the experience.
“Rectangular Emotion: The Expression of Awe in Painting and the Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater” can be accessed through Curtin University espace: https://espace.curtin.edu.au/handle/20.500.11937/68260
Kevin Roberston is an artist and a sessional academic at Curtin University. In September 2022 the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at UWA will present a retrospective exhibition of the works of Kevin Robertson, curated by Dr Sally Quin. The exhibition will be accompanied by a monograph on the artist. The project will present works dating from the 1980s through to the present.
Bevan, A., and K. McNamara. Australia’s meteorite craters. Perth, WA: The Western Australian Museum, 2009.
Keltner, D., and J. Haidt. ‘Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion’. Cognition and Emotion. 17.2 (2003): 297–314.
Konečni, V. (2005). ‘The aesthetic trinity: Awe, being moved, thrills’. Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts 5.2 (2005): 27–44. Retrieved from http://konecni.ucsd.edu/pdf/2005%20Aesthetic%20Trinity,%20Bulletin%20of%20P.%20and%20A.pdf.