Clifford How: A Fragile Strength – Sydney Contemporary

7 - 10 September 2023
Exhibition Text

Clifford How’s newest series, ‘A Fragile Strength’, is a painterly ballad of Tasmania’s ancient wilderness. As a fourth-generation Tasmanian, the variability – and volatility – of this island landscape is dear to the artist’s heart, but this affiliation is not without a recognition of the colonial shadows that problematise the contemporary landscape and the history of landscape painting. How responds to this reality by re-wilding the landscape, erasing traces of humanity and restoring nature’s sovereignty. 


In ‘A Fragile Strength’, How takes a retrospective look at subjects and motifs, and more importantly, emotional connections he has experienced within specific landscapes in previous years. He explains, “Re-examining these subjects with a clearer vision technically, and a much deeper sense of place, has clarified the purpose behind my creativity”. For years he has been engrossed in Tasmania’s ancient and fragile temperate rainforests, a time capsule ecosystem unchanged for eons. How’s atmospheric forest interiors evoke the fragility of this environment – a subject that, he admits, has been more challenging than the open, light-filled scenes he usually paints. Pigments are applied with a palette knife passionately and intuitively, allowing scenes to surge out of frame and swell from the linen, pushing the formal limits of the canvas. This movement is met, in moments, with stillness and quietude, as How captures the rich multi-dimensionality of this primordial place. 


How’s paintings consciously and consistently blur the line between the seen and the unseen. The landscape is captured in recognisable form for a tangible visual experience, but the artist tempers this vision with what he terms “organic abstraction” to create space for emotive thoughts. A self-taught painter, he manipulates scenes captured as en plein air studies with profound sensitivity, tracing not only the anatomy of place but its sentiment and spirit. These paintings traverse landscapes that hold the memories, traditions, culture and hope of First Nations people in Tasmania including Yingina, Leeawulena and Titikalangrruni Country. To truly capture the atmosphere, light and colour of the moment, How immerses himself in the landscape – journeying into the Central Plateau and Highlands and the Tarkine Wilderness and rainforest, with a tent, sleeping bag and backpack full of paints, brushes, sketchbooks and small boards.


In works such as Organism and Myrtle Garden, How’s mastery of light, texture and tone hatch a fragrant, damp atmosphere that can be discernibly felt and smelt. Mossy greens and icy greys create a sensorial briskness as the cool purity of the Tasmanian air fills our lungs. The viewer, solitary, is engulfed by the flora, diminutive and humbled. The crystalline skin of a cool stream conceals ancient secrets that the forest will never divulge, while trunks and roots spill off the canvas, reaching for things out of sight. This alluring current of mystery is continued in the panoramic work The Bend, Pine Valley Forest, where the forest’s wisdom is etched into the sprawling mats of omniscient moss, and the eternal trees that watch on with a cavernous quietude, making us conscious of our own breath, our own heartbeat.


There is a coolness to the works in ‘A Fragile Strength’ – not merely weather-wise (certainly these landscapes dance between Winter and Spring), but the way they carry themselves slowly, quietly, sensitively. How’s generous swathes of paint are scraped back in the foreground of Pause and Reflect – Near the Summit, demarcating the foliage and hinting at a personal process of revelation. In the distance, spectral lakes linger like apparitions on the verge of vanishing, melting into the mountains and sky with soft ethereality.   


Always devoid of people, or human indication, How’s works are a meditation on our place in nature. They prompt us to contemplate, in the artist’s words, how “we are very small in the scheme of things, and that these untamed places will exist beyond us. They demand to be cherished and protected. 

Elli Walsh, Artist Profile 

Installation Views