Lemonade: Letters to Art

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William Robinson

Philip Bacon Galleries, Meanjin/Brisbane
15 August-9 September 2023
— Alex Chadwick

William Robinson is internationally recognised for his expansive, sometimes dizzying, multi-perspectival oil paintings of Queensland landscapes. His rich colouring is enlivened by a textured application, creating a sense of exploration within his large canvases. Robinson’s recent show at Philip Bacon Galleries, however, offers something new: this colourful archival collection provokes a renewed sense of Queensland identity promising a heart-warming and sentimental experience for local audiences.

The exhibition presents works from Robinson’s time at Birkdale, near Mulgumpin/Moreton Bay, in the 1970s, as well as a small group of recent figurative studies from Winnam/Wynnum.

In the earlier works, the artist encapsulates a point in time when that place was an emerging residential settlement: quintessential Queenslanders sparsely dot dry bush, looking across a bay to the monumental sandhills of Gheebulum Kunungai/Moreton Island. The works are ultimately personal ‘snapshots’ from Robinson’s time at his Birkdale homestead. Each piece evokes a different moment, a distinct memory. Yet there is also a sense of collective nostalgia for many Australians for whom these bright, joyous artworks may suggest the carefree simplicity of youth. As I look at these works, I recall memories from scorching summers: splashing around in shallow waters, filling my bucket with wet sand, eating over-salted hot chips, revived by lemonade Icy Poles, marching through dry bush singing loudly to pass the time. Robinson’s artworks capture the kaleidoscopic hues of coastal landscapes with such persuasion as to allow the audience to cling to these familiar images through their own memories.

In Tidepools and boats (1978), Robinson recreates the fleeting hours of low tide on a bright, languid afternoon. Here, water pools in an undulating sand bank to reflect a sunlit expanse of sky, which is dotted, almost indistinguishably, with multi-coloured cotton clouds. A proud row of sailboats wait at the edge of the bay, bobbing on a white-speckled ocean. This painting exudes a familiar moment that is both restful and content. I cannot help but imagine myself as a young girl looking out upon this scene. This seascape captures the vivid colours of summer, flushed by Queensland heat.

Nearby, Robinson’s Wynnum Esplanade figures study (2021) hangs unassumingly on a wall beneath cartoon-like watercolour studies. This small, modest scrap of paper, seemingly torn from the artist’s sketchbook, offers enthralling poolside scenes. I’m reminded of muggy holidays spent observing common strangers: a profiled beer-bellied man strolls with confidence, his upturned cap balancing impossibly on his pointed head while a child floats uncertainly to his left, her arms splayed without grace. Robinson pictures these dynamic figures to emphasise their bold movements, presenting them almost as caricatures. Of course, Robinson’s technical proficiency allows this fluidity of imagination, with rudimentary flecks of graphite conjuring a set of characters for his audience.

Philip Bacon Galleries also offers five pastel and gouache paintings that capture a different mood—the placid, reflective state of night-time. These small works hang in-line together on a freestanding wall, further impressing their distinction from the bright landscapes. I was particularly struck by the evocative scene in Starry night IV (1978). As described by the gallery, this work contrasts the bright artificial lights of “distant settlements” with “the influence of the cosmos”. In this delicate painting, presented in portrait, Robinson dedicates the upper section to the luminous expanse of constellations. Here, the artist plays with light through a refined use of colour: deep blue blends subtly into the warmth of distant stars. The resulting image is one of resolute quiet—an immutable, consuming serenity. The lower section, however, depicts the vibrant, golden shimmer of a bustling city. I like to think I recognise the persistent glare of Mt Coot-tha’s transmission towers, watching over Brisbane like late-night guards. The ocean churns ceaselessly at the base of the painting, fierce light now melting upon its surface.

Robinson’s extensive practice is enlivened by this memorable exhibition, which presents a different style from the artist’s large-scale rainforest paintings. Here, vivid impressionistic artworks inspire one’s imagination through the thoughtful colouration of known scenes. By recalling the joyous ease of youth, the show is an ode to life’s simplicity, reminding is to step back from the overwhelming instability of our contemporary era. Robinson reminds audiences to take the time to appreciate the beauty of Queensland’s landscapes, which are equally dazzling in the haze of summer and carefree delight.

Alex Chadwick is an emerging arts worker based in Meanjin/Brisbane.