Catalogue description of Pig Root Pond (Oil on Linen. 1993. 1066 x 1066mm). By Jemma Field, August 2011.
Painted in 1993, Grahame Sydney’s Pig Root Pond greets the viewer with a crepuscular landscape that is characterised overall by a spectacular stillness. As with the best of Sydney’s paintings, Pig Root Pond is completed with a high degree of polish and a virtuoso handling of paint to produce a photographic veracity that belies any presence of the artist or his brush.
In terms of composition, Pig Root Pond is minimal and features only a thin, linear slice of land that stretches across the lower third of the painting, leaving the majority of the pictorial space to the chromatic subtleties of pond and sky. That Sydney is able to create a powerful and arresting image in the absence of traditional subject matter is testament to his painterly talent. In this regard, Pig Root Pond functions as an exercise in the painter’s ability to capture and translate the ostensibly transient quality of the atmosphere at dawn into the pictorial realm wherein an aurora sky is seen edging up slowly from behind the shadowed landscape and dispelling the night.
The austerity of the piece and the complete lack of any indication of human presence, lends the work an eerie yet beguiling quality. This absence of population, of any sign of industry or development permits the work a high level of tranquillity which is then reinforced by the monumental stillness of the scene, appearing as it does to be without even a breath of wind. Simultaneously, the dearth of defining landmarks or recognisable features offers an element of anonymity, of indeterminacy and artistic imagination, which Sydney then counteracts by definitively naming the site and thereby anchoring it to a sense of place and consolidating a specific identity. The use of cropped edges gives the impression that only a small snapshot of a larger reality is being shown and that the landscape and water continue in their paired existence and extend well beyond the parameters of the physical canvas.
Extending the vein of immaculate serenity, the body of water that lies in the foreground of the work is pristine and unsullied with not even a ripple or shadow marring its glassy surface and is punctuated only by the reflections of the pencil-thin post and the small, barely perceptible fragments of foliage that creep along the water’s fringe. Sydney’s decision to transcribe a relatively empty segment of landscape onto the linen canvas allows the viewer the luxury of being able to move through an impressively nuanced array of mauve and refulgent yellow hues. Despite the unblemished perfection of the scene, the painting steers clear of the saccharine by avoiding any obvious aspects of the picturesque and also by the quality of the dawn light, which bestows an aura of poignant and elegiac poeticism to the work. What Sydney offers to the spectator is a clean, crisp and seemingly objective representation of an untouched rural idyll.
It is fitting that Pig Root Pond was chosen to grace the cover of the book dedicated to the art of Grahame Sydney as, in its clean precision, its calming quietude and its precise handling of paint, it stands as a characteristic and iconic painting by one of New Zealand’s most celebrated painters.