Painting and the Australian Gothic

Image: Peta Dzubiel, Lost Daguerreotype (2017) oil on aluminium, 23 x 20.5cm


Peta Dzubiel | Jane Guthleben


Exhibition 19 July-6 August

Opening Saturday 22 July 2-4pm

Incinerator Art Space

2 Small St, Willoughby NSW


Painting and the Australian Gothic

The Australian Gothic has been described as an overlooked genre in conventional readings of Australian art history[1]. However, recent exhibitions such as Weird Melancholy: The Australian Gothic (2015) have focused on this stylistic approach, showing how artists from the eighteenth century until the present “registered the anxieties, disorientation and sometimes fear inherent in colonial and post-colonial responses to the natural landscape”[2]. The gothic sensibility has persisted in Australian visual art for centuries, “from Eugene von Guerard’s meticulously botanical forests, to Hugh Ramsay’s moody portraits; from the oppressive verticality of Fred Williams’ gum trees to Louise Hearman’s spectral presences and otherworldly landscapes”[3].

Ideas of home and country are at the heart of The Australian Gothic, which often deploys the tension between familiarity and alienation in the treatment of the landscape, interiors and figures. In this context, Peta Dzubiel and Jane Guthleben explore an intuitive, painterly response to these themes expressed through the weight and body of paint. They exploit the palpably tactile dimension of painting in a way that invites the use of the eyes as organs of touch[4]. This way of seeing imparts a visceral connection with the world of images in which the sensual qualities of the medium evoke the hedonic and mnemonic aspects of tactile experience. Both artists stress the physical aspects of painting; the way that it encompasses “bodied words, tactile signifiers and gestic acts”[5].

The work in Remote taps into the “problem of being a stranger in one’s own land”[6] that has arisen in the wake of Australia’s colonisation by white settlers (not to mention this country’s continuing political disputes over the protection of borders and who gets to ‘belong’ here). As Lisa Thatcher suggests, white Australia encompasses the psychic history of entering into occupied land and claiming it, which generates “a feeling of unease in our relationship with the physical earth in this country, and a troubled identity as inheritors of European culture and displacers of Aboriginal heritage”[7]. The sense of disquiet underpinning this anxiety, combined with what Marcus Clarke[8] famously termed the “weird melancholy” of the Australian bush provides fertile conceptual territory for Dzubiel and Guthleben.

Peta Dzubiel uses found daguerreotypes, as well as stills from the classic Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock as source images for paintings. She cites the “eerie magnetism” of the bush as a quality peculiar to the Australian Gothic sensibility. This strange attraction is underscored by the duality of seduction and veiled threat that characterises the atmosphere of her work. The figures in Dzubiel’s paintings exist in narrative and painterly exile—half there, half gone—on deteriorated surfaces of aluminium and copper, or subtly integrated into the landscape in photographs of her paintings installed in bushland. These photographs employ the subterfuge of a picture inside a picture, invoking a spatio-temporal disjunction that one might associate with the feeling of being lost, or ‘out of time’.

Jane Guthleben’s paintings assemble archetypal Australian objects, clothing, and tableware in abundant displays of “the ugly and the ordinary” that construct “the remarkable on the unremarkable”[9]. These things are often juxtaposed against lonely skies or sparsely vegetated horizons that suggest the arid centre, remote dwellings and the austerity of early colonisation. Jane draws on personal histories—she says, “our farm dining table is an object that really fires my imagination. It was brought from Ireland in 1876 by the Irish siblings we descend from. I can sit there today and imagine how scary it was to travel through the 1870s bush to their settlement, and have to make a meal and a respectable home”[10]. It is the quality of the domestic that holds sway in these paintings, drawing attention to the way the concept of home looms large in the emotional profile of formative experiences. These experiences and memories underpin the structures of familial and national identity that span both the homely, and the unhomely (unheimlich)[11].

Painting has an immediacy that can spark an unexpected response to images. It can bring together such complex significations as isolation, heat and aural effects in the depiction of land, objects and people through the richness of texture, the rawness of an edge, a hectic colour contrast or the ghostly echoes of erased imagery. The Australian Gothic is well orchestrated in the hands of such skilled painters, who are able to manipulate materiality to keen emotive and psychological effect. As playwright Stephen Carleton has said, “our history haunts us and the land we live upon”[12]. In this exhibition, we can both see and feel this sentiment on display in paintings that ultimately bridge the implied distance and histories that the title Remote suggests.


Chelsea Lehmann, artist





[1] From the exhibition overview in MUSSE (Melbourne university staff and student news), Accessed 30/6/2017.

Weird Melancholy: The Australian Gothic was curated by Suzette Wearne for The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne, (Apr 2-Aug 9, 2015).

[2] ibid

[3] The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne (web), Accessed 30/6/2017.

[4] L. U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2002, introduction, p. xiii.

[5] I borrow this description of theatre from Rebecca Schneider in “Judith Butler” in my hands, in: Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, E. Armour & S. St.Ville (eds.), Columbia University Press, 2006, p. 247.

[6] See: L. Thatcher, The Monster Within: Australian Gothic emphasises the terror of the familiar, The Essential (web), 2015 Accessed 30/6/2017.

[7] This statement concerns the work of Australian filmmaker Peter Weir in, L. Thatcher, ibid. (Thatcher cites D. Thomas & G. Gillard, Ten Types of Australian Film Chapter 9: Gothic (2009) and S. Dermody and E. Jacka The Screening of Australia Volume 2: Anatomy of a National Cinema (Currency Press, 2000) as touch stones for this article).

[8] Marcus Clarke (24 April 1846 – 2 August 1881) was an English-born Australian novelist and poet, best known for his novel For the Term of His Natural Life.

[9] Ibid. L. Thatcher.

[10] Email correspondence with the artist, 30/6/2017.

[11] In his essay titled “The World and the Home” Homi Bhabha draws on Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “Uncanny” (“unheimlich”). In its original sense, Freud’s uncanny or “unhomely” refers to the estranged sense of encountering something familiar yet threatening which lies within the bounds of the intimate. See: The Cultural Reader: Article Summaries and Reviews in Cultural Studies. Accessed 30/6/2017.

[12] S. Carleton, “Introduction Surviving Jonah Salt”, in K. Ash, et al., Plays from the edge: Two plays from northern Australia, Playlab Press, 2004, p.107.

5 Replies to “Painting and the Australian Gothic”

  1. Helen Piotrowski says:

    Continue to be enthralled with your wonderful academic discourse on the arts .. your AFter Velasquez work and some from your tuition adorn walls of home :Down by parklands 2 years now ..Hope to catch you or your work in Adelaide one day Your devoted fan Helen

    • So nice to hear from you Helen, as always. I will be part of a group show for FRAN (feminist renewal art network) at BMG gallery in September (1st-27th or thereabouts). I’m not sure I will get to Adelaide myself but one or two of my works will. One largish painting called ‘Threshold’ also borrows some compositional elements from Velazquez. x c

  2. Lisa Sharp says:

    This tale gave me quite a shiver! Delightful dislocation? Am looking forward to seeing the exhibition and those qualities in the paintings. Well written Chelsea.

    • Thanks Lisa! Delightful dislocation indeed. There is so much to be said via this genre. Thanks for taking an interest in my writing- I really appreciate the feedback.

  3. CattleCapers says:

    Hadn’t ever considered Gothic in terms of Australia. Interesting. Learned something new tonight.

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