After nearly three decades of traversing, contemplating and capturing desert landscapes throughout Australia and across the world, Jo Bertini found a true connection to the desert of New Mexico, where she now lives and works. In this new suite of paintings, entitled ‘Songs of Dry Hills’, Bertini takes her desert home of New Mexico as the starting point for something much more ubiquitous and elusive. ‘I’m not painting actual places… these are my creations, that come from decades of learning about and coming to understand the geology, ecology, mythology, culture, and spirit of desert environments’. The works, in a way, represent an amalgamation of references to lived experiences in wide variety of arid environments.
Throughout her career, Bertini has refined a highly distinctive way of rendering scenes of nature that are emotive, impressionistic, and elemental. Through the application of natural ochres, and iridescent powders mixed with coloured pigments, she achieves a mineral richness and a sense of life and movement. New colours and textures emerge according to the time of day, quality of light, and angle of observation, in keeping with the ephemeral qualities of the desert itself.
Bertini recalls an Arrernte saying – ‘the desert right sizes you’. The boundless space and the sheer geological evidence for deep time create space for perspective and existential contemplation. ‘You look at the stratifications in the desert – layers of yellow ochre, bright red rich oxides, sandstone… you look at this painted land and those layers represent millions and millions of years.’ Any one of those layers could encapsulate the totality of man’s occupation of this planet. Works such as Hauntings – What the Desert Retains (A Garden of Sacred Mountains) create the impression of a time-based study and a sense of existential pondering. The composition seems to peel and warp, a small snatch of night sky is peppered with stars in motion. There is a beautiful clash between absolute stillness and the mind-bending speed of the earth's rotation. Reproducing this effect of ‘earth-turning consciousness’ (a term coined by the outback astronomer Greg Quicke) is no mean feat.
The notion of abundance in the desert can seem contradictory, but Bertini depicts landscapes that she knows, with great intimacy, to be culturally, aesthetically and biologically plentiful. The cliched vision of scrubby and sparse vegetation and red dirt contrasts with the reality of rich and unique floral and faunal biodiversity. Lands that have been dismissed by Western colonisers and consciousness as untenable and worthless have sustained and nurtured civilizations and communities across time, and into the present.
In fact, challenging the assumptions and western mythologies of desert landscapes is a central tenet of her practice. Throughout her life's work, Bertini has confronted and deconstructed predominately macho-capitalist perspectives on the land. She explains that the female experience and knowledge of wilderness has been overshadowed and undervalued for too long. Her immense archive of sketchbooks and journals will eventually be bequeathed to the National Library of Australia, in an effort to bridge this gap. The paintings from the ‘Songs of Dry Hills’ series are imbued with this same spirit of generosity. Stemming from a heartfelt love for the land, Bertini encourages us to slow down, pay attention to, and appreciate the natural world.
Pippa Mott, Arts Writer & Curator, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Tasmania