An anchor monument which stands in the seaside town of Barwon Heads may seem an unlikely subject to paint. But it inspired the centrepiece painting in Joel Wolter’s solo exhibition Stories from the shore at Geelong Gallery. The anchor came from the vessel Earl of Charlemont wrecked off Barwon Heads in 1853. In Wolter’s painting, he has depicted the anchor, rusty with the patina of age, looming larger than life on the shoreline. Its size has been dramatically exaggerated and its placement creates a strong diagonal line from corner to corner. Behind it vast skies, with broody clouds bruised purple and grey, hover ominously above a tranquil sea, like the calm before the storm. This oil painting, redolent with atmosphere, pregnant with expectation, conveys a sense that something has just happened or is about to happen.
Wolter explains the anchor symbolises the human presence in the landscape as well as being a metaphor for the temporality of life. Sitting in the gallery surrounded by his work, Wolter speaks in a gentle and understated way, a quality echoed in his paintings and prints which have a quiet stillness about them. Rather than include figures in his images, he uses the remnants and relics of human endeavour to leave room for the viewer to contemplate what once was or will be – the implicit rather than the explicit.
“There is always a sense of the human presence but the absence of a figure,” Wolter says. “Some of the works have an environmental undertone. There is an air of concern in some of the works.”
He points to an etching Remnants of a town that moved away which depicts a manmade timber structure in the water. “That is actually from the old Barwon Heads bridge which has been there since the 1920s. Now we have got two bridges in Barwon Heads and the town is heavily populated. The structure is a metaphor for change and the development of the Surfcoast. It has a very strong geometric cross through the middle – it could represent the wrong thing or bad turn.”
Wolter, 34, was born Geelong and now lives in Barwon Heads. A keen surfer he has a deep appreciation for the coastal environment and has observed the area change rapidly as more people move to the region for a seachange. Consequently a recurring theme throughout his work is humankind’s impact on the environment and the transience of time and place.
Spanning the length of one wall in the gallery, a series of fourteen still life paintings commemorate natural objects that Wolter found on his beach meanderings: a pinecone, feather, bone, skeleton, shell, squid, crab, seahorse, butterfly. In the tradition of the vanitas still life in which objects such as skulls, decaying fruit and wilting flowers symbolise mankind’s mortal nature, Wolter has selected ephemeral objects to serve as a reminder of life’s impermanence. Each paintings pays tribute to the uniqueness of each object, its essence captured in paint.
“It ties in with that historical theme of still life and links back to mortality and the ephemeral nature of life in general,” Joel says. “All the works deal with that in many ways. Death is not overstated. A lot of still life deals with that vessel quality of objects; that they once held something or had a presence or life form.”
Joel Wolter, The keeper of secrets (scallop shell) 2013, oil on canvas. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.
Although Wolter is well known for his printmaking, in particular his Geelong skyline prints, he has only recently turned his attention to the medium of oil paint. This is a brave move for the artist who is most comfortable around the printing press. Wolter majored in printmaking at the Victorian College of the Arts, and spent more than ten years’ working as a professional printmaker while also developing his own portfolio of work which is now held in numerous public and private collections in Australia. He has also received recognition for his printmaking having been shortlisted for the Rick Amor Print Prize (2011) and the Geelong acquisitive print awards several times. So what motivated him to explore oil painting?
“I have dabbled for many years in painting but I have always seen my strength in the drawing and etching side,” Wolter says. “Painting is a challenge I have set for myself as an evolutionary stage in my career as an artist. Painting is just so immediate, whereas in printmaking you have to get bogged down in the processes and techniques to get to that conceptual idea stage. I plan to keep doing both in the future.”
With a couple of group shows coming up, one at Tussock in Pt Lonsdale and another at Tacit in Melbourne, Wolter will be busy. He intends to revisit some of his earlier prints and rework them into paintings and of course he will continue to look to his local environment for new subject matter.
“There is a tradition in art history of artists documenting their environment. I don’t think you have to do a huge amount more than that really,” and he laughs at his own understatement.
More than documenting his environment, Wolter takes familiar objects and places, and imbues them with an extraordinary broody ambience. We get a sense of the transience of a particular object or place and in doing so are perhaps reminded of our own mortality.
You can find out more about Joel Wolter on his website joelwolter.com.au