Exhibit Essay by Stephen Carleton

Stephen Carleton is an award-winning playwright, academic and theatre reviewer. Stephen counts himself privileged to be branching into the field of visual art critique for his friend Jasmine Jan’s solo art exhibition.

EnlargementFruit, Feathers, Fins and Flowers
A solo exhibition by Jasmine Jan

It wasn’t long ago that scientific illustration took its place alongside cartography and astronomy as de rigueur requirements for anyone wanting to embark upon a career of maritime adventure. In the days before photography, botanists, entomologist, ornithologists and zoologists were the conduits through which images of new species and lands were conveyed to home populations. They were the filters through which perceptions of alien culture and landscape were distilled. In Australia’s case, the images they sent back to Europe suggested a topsy-turvy antipodean world where trees refused to shed their leaves in winter, and the land and waterways teemed with odd creatures like kangaroos and platypuses, whose illogical constitutions seemed to confirm something Mother England suspected about Australia’s contrary nature all along.

Jasmine Jan has served such a visual arts apprenticeship, and her work slots in to a rich tradition of fine-tooth-comb recording, interpretation and testimony that reminds us at a visceral and visual level what it means to inhabit this part of the world. Over recent years her images of distinctive north-Australian land, shore and aquatic life have re-affirmed for us images of Territory life that infiltrate our senses and frame the experience of living here on a ‘micro-spective’ level. She has trowelled our littoral fringes – our mangroves, foreshores and estuaries – our billabongs and backyards to provide evidence of teeming beauty of which most of us are only peripherally aware.

Those familiar with Jasmine’s work will be familiar with the ‘tradtional’ scientific illustration techniques she has employed in the past. Her coloured pencil images on drafting film, for instance, gave us disarmingly faithful renditions of Torres Strait Pigeons feeding on a Carpentaria palm. There was a celebration of social order and interplay between the birds in the accuracy of the image. Likewise, her Red-clawed yabbies possessed a droll kind of stentorian charm as they swirled and foraged beneath lily pads. In the same vein, her graphite pencil images on illustration board were striking in their simplicity and elegance. Ostensibly ‘plain’ black and white figures, the medium still allowed for wonderful specific detail, such as the incredible filigree work we saw in the compartmentalised skin sections of the Saltwater Crocodile; or in the gloriously world-weary expression on the face of the Rufous Owl.

With this new exhibition – her first (and much awaited) solo effort- Jasmine takes the draughtsmanship of her scientific illustrators background, and uses it as a fulcrum from which to move into the more unhampered realm of interpretation and design. The formal constraints of her scientific discipline ensure a continued commitment to verisimilitude in her rendering of specific Top End birds, plants and aquatic animals; but her field on interests have broadened, and there is a bold leap here toward synthesis of influences that sees Jasmine developing her own distinctive and exciting visual artist’s style.

One of the areas in which Jasmine is finding especial joy in this regard is with her idiosyncratic approach to the traditional watercolour. Those familiar with Jasmine’s back-catalogue will notice the proliferation of work in this direction. There is a blending of aesthetics (and techniques) taking place here – what the artist refers to as her ‘East/West fusion style’ . Incorporating techniques learnt from Rob Walter in 2004 with images Jasmine was attracted to by famous Chinese watercolourist Lian Quan Zhen, the result is a distinctive personal signature that frames realist scientific illustration within a moody Asian-inspired – and distinctly Territorian – abstract background, paying homage to the artist’s own cultural heritage.

As she states, “instead of painting Cherry Blossoms from China I am painting Frangipanis from Fannie Bay, and instead of painting Goldfish or Carp, I am painting the native Eel-tailed Catfish and Long-necked Turtles found in Top End waterways.” The images are striking and unique. My favourite is the Pied Herons being enshrouded in a gathering crimson watercolour pall that could as easily be an ominous looming Hector storm cloud or a portentous Top End sunset. Similarly aficionados of Jasmine’s work will be familiar with her laconic Emu, but here the bird is framed within an abstract watercolour background that hints at savannah bushland under a fiery afternoon sun.

Notice too her Yellow- and Red-Faced Turtles. They seem to be wending their way through a surface that logic tells us is water, and yet they’ve been removed from a literal depiction of their natural habitat and placed against an ambiguous (and suitably amphibious) watercolour terrain that hints of mangrove tendrils and pandanus leaves, with a topsy-turvy range of colours that suggest water above ground, and sun below. Similarly her Striped Scats could be gliding as effortlessly through air as water. It is as though the abstract watercolour backgrounds mirror Jasmine’s own liberation from the realist confines of formal scientific illustration. Only the botanic centrepieces defy the figurative treatment here. Her Frangipanis, for instance seem uncomplicated and faithful enough to the purist’s eye. But even so, they quiver and brim toward the eye in a tacit suggestion of lush tropical hyperactivity.

The other major technique Jasmine employs in this exhibition is the chalk pastel series on Art Spectrum colourfix paper. Taught to her by Maxine Thompson, the technique involves using chalk pastel sticks on a coloured background surface that has the texture of fine sandpaper. Whilst the background colour adds a mood or tone not afforded by standard white, the paper ensures that the pastel really grips the surface, allowing Jasmine to build up several layers of pure pigment colour. The results are an astonishing and vibrant array of ‘bug’s eye’ views of distinctive Top End flora.

The black background in several of these images allows for a study in colour and texture, tweaking the astute local observer’s subliminal awareness of plants as we pass on bicycle tracks and foreshore walks everyday. I love the vivid pandanus and cycad series in particular here, with their edible range of oranges and yellows. The artist’s eye zeros in on the dizzying whorls and folds of the pandanus crown and spiral; or the complex pineapple-like matrix of a cycad trunk. The abstract blues and pinks of the coconuts, on the other hand, suggest a cache of fallen fruit nestled in coral, capturing the polar-opposite colour chart tricks that filtered light can play beneath water.

There is a return, then, to our theme of topsy-turvy antipodean bounty confounding and defying the European eye; a virtuosic experimentation and play with the bounds and traditions of scientific illustration. Jasmine reminds us in this stunning and much-anticipated solo exhibition not only the rich continuum of her chosen art form and its ongoing value and relevance in a world where species and ecosystems are rapidly vanishing before (and beneath) our complacent gaze; but that the natural environment is a wondrous, complex and captivating thing that needs to be treasured, monitored and celebrated – especially in a part of the world where human and natural environments so happily coalesce.

Contact details:
Stephen Carleton
PO Box 6324
St Lucia QLD 4067