You have to be careful with paintings and painters.
You have to be careful in bookshops. You might find a book that unmakes you completely for $29.95. You might leave with a book that leaves you cold for fifty dollars flat. You might buy a book that breaks your heart for less than it costs you to travel to work. You might find the answer you weren’t looking for or you might leave with more questions than you came in with. You might disappear forever in a coven of avid fancy-dressed children, caught in the final chapter of the kind of spell that only books and sorcery and marketing cast. Or you might meet a man who never dresses up as anyone but himself, who never sells himself at all, except to sell himself short; you might meet a man who looks like a bookseller and sounds like a reader and paints like a mystic and poet and wanderer. A man who paints like a painter. You might meet Roland Hemmert.
I met Roland in Megalong Books one day in the late nineties or early 2000s, when I was working on a book about the sandstone country we call the mountains—this country about us tonight—The Blue Plateau—and he was fresh back from the dreaming country of the Kimberley and starting to believe he was a painter again. I used to live here then. Roland caught me prowling the natural history shelves. Again. We got talking. Roland can talk. You might have noticed. And I can talk. So we talked, and what we talked about then and later and ever since is what you find in this work of his all around you tonight. Land and its forms and mysteries; art (made of words and made of paint) and how you stumble toward truth with it, the truth in particular that is embodied in country; technique—the ways and means of evolution, of erosion, of syntax and tincture and brushwork and attention and practice and walking in the bush; places and their histories and the claims they make on human hearts, the way they unmake us and make us up again, the way we use and ignore and sometimes redeem them, and the way they redeem us; matters of spirit and psyche and the geographies of the soul and the soil; sandstone and, probably, children and eucalypts and the difficult blessing of working at your calling.
Shortly after, Roland visited me and Maree and our children, if we had them by then, at our house in Bourne Street, Katoomba, and shortly after that, if not before that, I visited him in his studio. I saw at once that he was trying in paint to do, after his own fashion, on canvas, what I was trying after my own fashion to do in the semantic music of prose—to try to say something close to what the landscape here, and elsewhere, seemed to want to say for itself about nearly everything that seemed to matter. We’ve both been working in conversation ever since. This, in his case, is where that conversation has led. And speaking for myself, and taking no responsibility at all for anything that’s good here, I think that what Roland has made, all by himself, out of what we talked about that day and ever after, is something fine; it is a country worth arriving at and staying in; it is an accumulation of epiphanic fragments. What you have here is a testament to the power of bookshops and to the perils of conversation and to the medicine of friendship, and to the necessity of landscape and to the gift, above all, of this painter, and the life he has led, courageously, to make him ready to make this work.
Roland Hemmert says he paints like Mark Tredinnick writes. If that’s true, it honours me; it flatters me. And perhaps sometimes I write, if I’m writing anything good, like Roland Hemmert paints. On a bad day. Which is not to say our work resembles each other’s; just that it searches for, at a similar rhythm and at a similar depth, the same sorts of truths and essays some of the same ideas. Our work shares a conversation. And so it is good to find our work here together in this exhibition, conversing. Roland had some wallspace spare; he asked me if he could put some words of mine in it, between the pieces of himself, these paintings. But this is Roland’s show and Roland’s night and Roland’s work. Look at what he has done, buy what he has made out of the depths of who he is and where he has found himself. Make it yours and take it home and see what you become.
The painters and poets of the Taoist school favoured landscapes. They thought them the ony fit subjects for the artist; enough had been said, the Taoists thought, and enough would always be said, of our human selves. Nature was where we might learn who we were and how we should live; nature was where we might forget ourselves long enough to find ourselves. Many landscape artists in many cultures paint and draw in this tradition, and I think Roland Hemmert is one of them. He doesn’t put too many people in, and hardly ever himself. But he is there—a thing the Taoists also knew—in the brushstrokes and the composition, the colour choice and the point of view. He is there in how he makes the landscapes make us feel; in what he transcribes of what he overheard them say; in how he lets them go on being, out there I mean, whatever it is that they are, and how, at the same time he lets them be a second time—in here—for each of us; and he is in his work in the way it guides us down to our deeper selves by taking us outside ourselves and into these shimmering gestures of memories of love of place. What Roland paints is the conversation he has had with places, the country that plays and goes on playing between him and these bluffs and trees and rocks and lightscapes and valleyfloors and firegrounds that stopped him dead and asked him to stay.
I wrote a poem at Lake St Clair once, and if it’s not too much of an indulgence, I want to read you a bit of it here because it says something better than I could find a way of paraphrasing it at the State Library of Queensland where I say on Thursday and wrote all this.
The Other Pieces
I pick up a rock on the lakeshore,
a riverstone the glacier left,
now cleft perfectly down the middle,
a notch at one end.
This is how one feels,
half a self,
We are here, perhaps, to look for the rest of who we are,
and that could be anything—
a lake, a range, a woman,
a pink robin,
one day in particular.
Perhaps one is everywhere one looks.
And then a second thought strikes me,
holding the half-rock:
each of us is someone else’s other—
a lost half,
I bend and put the rock down among the other pieces of the shore;
I turn, and I am gone.
The idea that each of us is the lost half of something or someone else—the rest of who we are and what we’d like to know and be—that I wanted to touch on. Because I think Roland’s work might be understood this way. The poem or the painting, like the good walk with open mind and heart through open ground or open forest or desert, is the most humble and perhaps the most revealing practice in the examined life. I may find the rest of who I am, some other fragments of my original self, in places that arrest me and ask me to stop. One becomes oneself more fully through witness, through giving in to the seductions of particular places now and then and emptying oneself of everything but what one can discern of the self of this profoundly other realm, the land just here, as it gives itself to me. Where one stops and looks as hard, and, at once, as tenderly, as Roland looks in places like these, and how one recalls, in one’s work back in the studio, where one stopped and who one was there—that is where and that is how one nears who one really is, one’s original self.
These paintings and drawings of Roland’s are pilgrimages. Steps through country—toward itself and toward oneself. They are prayerful, halting perambulations. They are walking devotions. Divinations of the world and who we once were or might yet be within it. Roland is not an overtly religious man, but I think his work is his prayer. And good prayer, we forget too easily these secular days, isn’t a shopping list. It is a litany of thanks. It is an expression of hope. It is a quiet and recursive attempt at clarity. It is a surrender to mystery and unknowing and the enormity and beauty of things. It is one’s own particular surrender, of course, conducted in one’s own idiom, according to one’s own tradition. Performed betweens shifts. At the bookshop, or wherever it is one works to earn the time to pray in.
I stood in front of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings in Amsterdam one year, and I wept. I think it was his brushstrokes, the specific density of his ambers and blues on the canvas, the way his prayer came out, the way his original self escaped his tortured vernaculat self through the brush in his fingers as he remembered that meadow in that weather, that one day on earth—I think it was all this that made me weep. But I can’t be sure. You have to be careful in art galleries and at exhibitions. You’d better be careful tonight.
Vincent, I know, is one of Roland Hemmert’s elders, one of the painters to whom he articled himself. We find our voice, all of us artists, by listening hard to other voices who seem to speak to us. And you’ll hear strains of those informing voices in any work as original as Roland’s. Our work is our own, but it is also the point that some tradition, or cluster of traditions, reaches in our hands. So, you’ll find Vincent in Hemmert’s canvases. You’ll find him in Roland Hemmert’s work in ways—technique, pallet, idiom, sensibility—a painter or an art critic would be better placed than I am to explain. And you’ll find trace elements of Fred Williams, Georgia O’Keefe, David Hockney, and others Roland could name and has named, but which I have forgotten, because, what I see and what I hear is Roland himself, and who he is and how he sees the world and how he paints it because of how humbly he has apprenticed himself to master painters and how hard he has laboured to perform in his own way what those others performed in theirs.
But you can expect not just to see in Roland Hemmert’s paintings the hands of other painters; you will also hear the cadences of writers. For Roland Hemmert is a reader who paints—who paints, I add in haste, not like a reader, but like a painter. You may overhear passages, for instance, of Henry David Thoreau and Terry Tempest Williams and William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell and Thomas Hardy and Di Bell and Eugene Stockton and John Cameron and David Tacey and Tim Winton.
Francis Ponge, a French poet and philosopher, coined the word adequation to explain what he thought painters like Hemmert attempt. Ponge wanted a better word than representation to describe the relationship between the artist’s work and the world it engages with. In his or her work the poet, said Ponge, or the painter, adequates the world as it gave itself to him or her. The poet offers on paper and the painter on canvas, like the musician in the score, not a simulacrum of what she witnessed. What she offers is a kind of impression of what she saw and how it changed her, a transcription into another idiom of the lifeworld of one place on earth at one moment in time and who one became within it. If the artwork is any good it won’t mimic the place; it will do, as a painting, what the landscape did as a landscape. It will continue what the place began in the painter or poet or musician, its witness. So that a viewer or listener feels, inhabiting the work, what it felt like to inhabit that place a time; so that a viewer becomes, in small measure, the man or the woman the painter became under the influence of that fraction of the world.
Though his work is manifestly less abstracted from reality than the work of other painters, still Roland Hemmert, like Jan Sibelius or Claude Debussy, would be Francis Ponge’s idea of an adequator. What he gives you is the poem of the place, and the poem of the man within the place. And, somehow, the poem of all of us in the larger selves we know we are—within the world that makes us.
One cold night the other week in the place where we now live, after the stories, some of them recited by the boy, some of them read aloud by his mother, Maree was talking our boy Henry toward sleep; and she was talking, as mothers sometimes do, about how the boy had come into the world and how it had made her glad. And, nearly asleep, the boy asked his mother, “What is the world?” What, indeed?
What the world is and who we are meant to be within it and how we are to conserve what is good and beautiful and true in the world, and in ourselves; how we are to forgive and, if we can, redeem what is bad and ugly and false in ourselves and, because of us, in the world—this may be what we’re here for. Certainly, it’s what artists, especially the poets among them, are here for. This is our work: to cry the world’s beauty; to protest its peril; to place us again beyond our mere selves; and to hold us responsible for our world. This is what I think I’m here for, anyway, and it’s what my writing attempts. I think it’s what Roland Hemmert, my friend, is doing, too, so beautifully. A small part of a very long and urgent conversation.
Acknowledge his troubles and his being a good son.