Paul Moncrieff and the Road to Paradise.

Roads round Ballidu twist and turn between tiny hills. Postage stamp paddocks slope up and down, speckled with purple or yellow crops, red dust and green shoots in season. Leafless trees explode on the crest of a hill. One occasionally thinks of England, the colours of the countryside. But this is the country. There are no lush meadows. Rock piles rise in every paddock, skulls of dumb giants long dead. Here one survives by slow cunning and anticipation . Everywhere dams, set in the land like jewels, catch the cloudy sky in  diamond bright ripples, sheets of shifting sapphire and ultramine. Even they cannot keep the country intact, cannot stop salt rising, flesh falling from the bones. Raw skeletons of empty homes, broken barns, show crisp against the sky line.

 

Paul Moncrieff spent many childhood days here on holiday trips with his draftsman father. Childhood country shapes you for good. It remains, your only landscape of memory and discovery, through which you will wander, in day dreams and idle moments, until you die. Eventually it will become a map of your entire life. Memory matters more than one might suspect for these paintings. Clad as they are in the style and manners of modern art, they are nonetheless always about being folded into this particular space. Far from appropriating the scenery for his stylistic imperatives, like so many before him, Moncrieff tests his art against the truths of vision and memory.The land itself is shaped by all that has happened in it. This country has been farmed for more than 80 years, every feature marks a struggle, joy or disaster.

 

To diagram, draw or paint what one sees requires a passionate eye, a willingness to follow the folds of memory, as carefully as the contours of the hills. To do this Moncrieff chose watercolour, pencil and ink the tools of the passionate cartographer. He has spent two years watching the land, open to everything, looking as Max Ernst once said with one eye inward,  one outward to the world.

 

Pencil makes a fine line in landscape, however dense it may seem to the artist. Moncrieff's ten panel panoramic view of Ballidu country is built from a seemingly endless range of small marks, lines blunt and sharp that have settled over the scene like a net of recollection, tiny points where memory touches and shapes the scene . Each panel contains an incident, an encounter with the life lived here At one end beams prop a shaded sagging structure, a stack woven from cobwebs of dark line. Next to it are panels showing the harvest, spiral stooks and bales, laid out across striped and textured fields. At the other are rock piles, a cross roads wedged into a quilt of paddocks.  Framed by life and death, the panorama  'reviews' day and night, the passing seasons in the country.

 

Pencil seems impotent before the land, unable to bear the shaping strength needed to make a living image. Moncrieff resolves the challenge both through his impressive vocabulary of gestures and his ability to map the dynamism  of the land through the system of memories he deploys, through visual mimesis in which the very processes of drawing echo the life of the land. One pencil study, Death of an Interior echoes the knife sharp, dark shadows that fall across the centre section of the panorama, country split and ruptured by salt. Shadows appear only through violent pressure that congeals shiny impenetrable graphite, light filled paddocks require only careful tender caresses. Silhouettes of words slowly soak to the surface of the skein of marks like salt, a metaphor for the inevitable inscriptions of human presence. Dotted red lines suggest hidden shapes, diagrammed longing, unrealised plans or the ghostly residue of times past, desires fulfilled or denied.

 

 

Watercolour and ink are the perfect vehicles for Moncrieff's feeling for the inscription of humanity across the country. Ink makes sharp lines, but blossoms and explodes at the touch of a wet brush. Watercolour can settle densely on the spot like enamel or form meagre layers that barely cover the paper. It can bury shapes and symbols one beneath the other so that they emerge like memories in the process of looking or remain latent in the shifting patterns of the surface Above all watercolour is an  avatar of the passionate eye. It can overflow its bounds, swamp an image with desire, but leave its shape, its profile in the land, undisturbed.          

In several studies Moncrieff shapes a dam and its surrounding ridges with  lines of ink then floods the centre, first with plain water, then with blue or orange watercolour so that the  whole area is activated with a blooming liquid explosion a depthless desire that somehow has its counterpart in the land's longing for water. This is surely a sexual image. One study shows three animated dams wedged in a hillside like peacock eyes burdened with burning blue lust. The land slips and sways around them in a massive coloured caress, dun greys, sap green and oranges.  The parallel lines and dots of ink that shape the scene bleed into the surrounding surface as if a veil of mist  and drizzle hung over scene.

In another image of a dam hangs alone in the empty page, a  tough crystalline enamel  flower with a dirt road for stalk, a road one can hardly travel a jewel one may never grasp. Another image of a dam is built entirely of veils, roughly rectangular panels of translucent brown. luminous paynes grey and dusty charcoal, casually sutured together, like patches of gauze blowing in the breeze. Under the central patch a dark pencil sketch of a dam shivers and twitches on a washed out patch of ochre and dusty charcoal. In the panel above a  dense, but translucent triangle of mid blue suggests a hill or land  turned to water.  It is laid over dark toned toned texture - scuffed pencil and rivulets of charcoal wash which add to the impression of inversion, of layers of liquid hidden in the land. Weather too, can  reveal layer upon layer of memory hidden in the land.

Usually it is rain but wind and shifting shadow can also bring for ward patterns, associations long hidden in the mind's eye. Charcoal and pencil studies show buildings and trees reshaped for the moment by storms. Occasionally as in Harboured or Landlocked great ships loom across the wheat fields mysteriously borne from their moorings at Fremantle. This is a common enough metaphor, land as ocean  inspired by wind blown stalks waving in the wind. In his letters from Arles, van Gogh refers to a panorama of wheat fields as a sea. Like Van  Gogh Moncrieff also understands the image as an icon of universal desire. Moncrieff's boats however are stranded, lost in a land corroded by salt, a dream destroyed by greed. Such scenes abound for real around the Aral sea. Moncrieff may have dreamed our future. More likely though the essential life giving link between paddock and container ship has emerged as a single coherent memory one of the necessary fantasy images of real life.  

Moncrieff's sources are not necessarily obvious. True Paul Nash, the British surrealist made images similar to these, filled with subtle desolation and decay, honoured by time, but Moncrieff was far more affected by the late "figurative" work of American painter Philip Guston, when it appeared here in the 1980's.  Guston's massive gestures were left unrefined so that their full rhetorical impact remained imbedded intact in the figures or objects he depicted. Moncrieff seeks a similar rhetorical effect but the scale, space and memory of his subject and his vision requires completely different media. Similarly Moncrieff's use of displaced panels, each with its own spatial logic, its own perspective and of geometrical  constraints,  rules applied uniquely to individual paddocks or roads has suggested a comparison with cubism but this misleading. Fragmented imagery is common throughout modernity.  It can  refer to many different experiences.  In this case each plane might be seen as hinge for memory.In the turning of the spaces between planes we encounter the turns and twists of memory.

 

Each pictorial plane might also be a gate, a door that has swung ajar  through which can be glimpsed  the road to a place and time when  everything was new, a seamless. joyful reality to match the seamlessness, the eternal present of memory

 

Perhaps the road to Ballidu is the road to paradise