Jason Smith was a Year 12 student working part-time in a Canberra petrol station when he met Mandy Martin in 1983. The renowned landscape artist, who was 31 at the time and had just had her first child, pulled up with her husband, fellow artist Robert Boynes, in a “cute Euro Golf”. The young attendant, who was considering going on to art school, introduced himself.
That “happenstance” meeting was the start of a 30-year friendship that was instrumental in Smith’s decision to study art. He remembers attending a dinner party at Martin’s home, arranged by a mutual friend, a short time later.
“I still have a very strong memory of Mandy’s work desk with images of forests and bush landscapes. She was young, vital, clever, dynamic, but not dismissive in any way,” says Smith, now director of the Geelong Gallery. “If you expressed an interest in art, she wanted to talk with you. What I realised in that first visit was that art had something to say. That’s why people became artists.”
Martin had risen through the 1970s feminist movement, cementing her artistic and political sensibilities through Adelaide’s progressive art movement. She started her career as a printmaker before shifting her focus away from the human figure and towards painted landscapes. Her most famous work, Red Ochre Cove, was commissioned for the Australian Parliament the same year she met Smith.
Their connection came full circle this month when Smith launched an exhibition of Martin’s works at the gallery he now runs. A Persistent Vision brings together works Martin gifted to the gallery before her death last year, along with those already in the gallery’s collection.
The show includes early prints, drawings and paintings dating from 1975 to 2017, selected by Martin and Smith throughout 2020 and 2021. The artist recognised that Geelong’s history as an industrial port city fitted well with the industrialism of her early works.
“We’re telling the industrial story, the political prints story, which sets up our understanding of how Mandy Martin is and how she thinks,” says Smith. Created with strong line and colour, many of these early prints and drawings directly address industrialism, politics and environmentalism. They depict workers, factories and warehouses, in a clear critique of capitalism, exploitation and social division. For Martin, art, politics and humanity were inseparable.
One early screenprint, You never had it so good (1974/75), shows collage-like imagery of women engaging in manual labour. Unknown Industrial prisoner II (1977) depicts a worker being hauled away while the factory owner, dressed in a suit, smokes a pipe and stares down at the viewer. The show also includes oil stick and pastel on paper, one capturing the sinister-looking saw-toothed roofs of factory warehouses.
“Her art is political from the beginning to the end,” says Smith, who believes the early works remain as relevant today as when she created them 50 years ago. “She questions the political and social structures that still impact our daily lives, our environments, to call out questionable entities like corporations, mining and coal-powered energy.”
Born in Adelaide in 1952, Martin was sensitive to both art and nature from a young age. Her father was a botanist and her mother an accomplished watercolourist. She became known as a feminist artist during the 1970s, developing forthright posters, and practising alongside the likes of Susan Norrie and artist and activist Ann Newmarch, who became Martin’s mentor.
During this time, she met Boynes, who was 10 years older, well established and heavily involved in left-wing causes. He would encourage Martin’s early printmaking, and the pair’s 20-year marriage, and two children, would be of great significance to both of their practices. The couple moved to Canberra in 1978 and divorced in the mid-1990s.
Her son, curator and artist Alexander Boynes, began collaborating with her in 2017. The exhibition includes a work done by Boynes, his mother and musician Tristen Parr.
“Everything was underpinned by a sense of justice and fighting for what she believed was right,” Boynes says. “Those key issues were the environment, the landscape we live within … and human rights — whether feminism, refugee rights or the Vietnam era. She was always concerned about people and the landscape.”
The landscape fully entered Martin’s practice in the 1980s, when she eschewed the human figure in favour of industrial scapes, sheds and natural habitation. Many works from this time depict impersonal spaces of alienation, but they still evoke great human presence — despite human absence.
The shift in mediums, from printmaking to oils and then acrylics, was in response to health concerns; she developed emphysema in the mid-2010s and became an advocate for the health and safety of artists. She convinced the Canberra School of Art, where she taught from 1978 to 2003, to adopt newer, less toxic water-based paints and materials.
The Red Ochre Cove commission, an intense red landscape measuring three metres by 12 metres, is both primal and contemporary and captures what Boynes calls “the ecstasy and agony” of her work. Here is the beauty of the landscape alongside its terrifying fragility. The year after this major commission, in 1984, Martin was chosen as one of eight artists included in the Guggenheim’s Australian Visions exhibition in New York.
For all her success, did she ever feel maligned as a female artist or landscape painter? If she did, say Smith and Boynes, she never let on.
As Martin’s work matured, her emotional connection with the landscape intensified. In 1996, she married farmer and conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge, and moved to Mandurama, south-west of Bathurst, where she would paint en plein air on her ironing-board easel. During her later years, she was a keen collaborator, connecting artists, poets, writers, scientists and First Nations people, with a focus on environmental care.
Was she optimistic or despairing about the future? “There’s an optimism that comes through the art,” says Smith. “At the heart of Mandy’s political work is an intense humanism. There’s left-wing politics, there’s agitation, there’s activism — but there’s an incredible humanity about our place in this world, and how we can impact it.”
Mandy Martin: A Persistent Vision is at Geelong Gallery until February 5.
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