Perceptions of place – in all its theoretical and physical vicissitudes – coalesce in the paintings of Lauren O’Connor. Working with hand-mixed acrylics, gouache and ink, the artist responds to natural, domestic, urban, psychic and imagined environments; and every space in between. She orchestrates felt tensions between ‘wilderness’ and the built environment, looking at how certain places can nourish, or starve, the soul. Spontaneous drips and splatters, studio detritus and accidents collide with the controlled, intentional marks that scaffold each work, conjuring abstract scenes alive with the environmental paradoxes of the present moment.
O’Connor grew up in Kangaroo Valley, and this formative rurality ploughs into the dense urban landscape of Sydney where she lives and works today. Her mother and grandmother are painters and sculptors, and through these creative women she came to admire the work of Fred Williams and the Hermannsburg Potters – inspirations evident in her visual vocabulary. In the studio she works from above, standing over her plywood panels, moving between five or six at a time. She paints in fast and frequent layering, making intuitive decisions on colour, composition, opacity, weight, tone. The paint is generously applied, and O’Connor often employs distinct diagonals and a bold hatching mark to craft woven compositions that materialise a web of emotions and sensations. Symbols can be occasionally glimpsed – trees, mountains, towers, vessels, tracks, bodies of water – but these forms are fleeting and fragile, dissolving back into their painterly cocoon before the eye can settle.
An important part of O’Connor’s practice is painting en plein air during her travels around the country. Recently she journeyed through Kamilaroi land to a town called Bingara, and here she absorbed vast inspiration from the region’s indigenous history, its ancient volcanic rock formations, a 290-million-year-old glacier, the marshy Mehi River in Moree, the tranquil Gwydir River, meat works in Inverell, and an endless highway existence stretching for countless kilometres. A trip to Bright in Victoria has also informed this series, where, daily, O’Connor painted, sketched and photographed her surroundings. The resulting works conjure alpine ecosystems, dramatic waterfalls, dead white gum trees, eroded rock formations and burnt-out charcoal logs, all carried on the back of hazy blue horizon line. Carefully articulated shapes anchor each painting, holding within their orbit fast, fleshy marks, and colours that consciously clash but also harmonise. A rustic, earthy palette of umbers and evergreens rub up against creamy lilacs and dizzy pinks, forbidding you to land on a singular image, landscape, or feeling. Burnt white gums stand like moonlit spectres in a night-time forest, yet incandescent shafts of apricot confuse the scene. A river, wild and wintry, gushes down the canvas – but what are those elusive shapes of lavender? Architectural accents make an appearance, too – lintels and beams, doorways and windows, pivoting us from country to city and back again. O’Connor gives us everything and nothing, all at once.
O’Connor cites her connection to the Australian landscape – fraught, though it inevitably is – as the heartbeat of her practice. The title of her show ‘Eating Wild Honey’ is inspired by the Indigenous Gamilaraay word Warialda (Place of Wild Honey.) During recent travels, the artist passed through the agricultural town Warialda and was astounded by the abundant scent of bush honey in the wind. She analogises her process of painting to eating wild honey: “To eat wild honey one must stumble upon a hive, by chance, you must have luck on your side. The extraction process is slow, takes care and concentration, it can be painful, it feels almost like stealing. The rewards are sweet and raw, the honey tastes intense and sometimes even unexpectedly sour.” Chance, time, toil, reward and surprise – the tenets of painting, O’Connor’s way.
Though her work orbits notions of environmentalism and sustainability, O’Connor is inspired by smaller, quieter moments, too – textiles, second-hand knick-knacks, handmade objects, photography, smells and physical sensations. Her paintings are compilations of life. The human hand dwells at the core of these pictures: conceptually in notions of human creation, intervention, cultivation, and physically in the lush, gestural swathes of paint. With brushstrokes decisive yet gentle, each painting pairs endurance with empathy, strength with solitude, proclaiming their presence whilst inviting us to discover them, quietly, on our own terms.
Elli Walsh – Principle Writer, Artist Profile