Enshrined in the mythology of the phoenix, the fabulous decorated bird whose blazing end precipitates renewal and rebirth, is the lesson that fire is inherently cyclical. Although this legend derives from Greco-Roman tradition, the idea of fire as a fundamental rhythm of the landscape resounds profoundly in Australia; land of bush fires, seasonal prescribed burns, campfires and pyrophytic seed germination. Tasmanian artist Nigel Hewitt meditates on the role of fire as a force of destruction, regrowth and change in his exhibition Recinder. Hewitt uses fire as a context to explore narratives of conservation, industry and contestation in the wooded lands around him.
Thirteen works on canvas, highly detailed and broad in scale, illustrate various stages in the cycle of Australian bush fire: fear, aridity, kindling, inferno and cremation.
In Hewitt’s vision the landscape is under constant threat. It’s a reservoir of fuel that might erupt into flame at any moment, displacing communities of fauna and diminishing old-growth forest to a rubble of embers. The works are made primarily from wood ash, which Hewitt collects from the wreckage of Tasmanian bush fires. The medium is powdery, speckled, irregular and accordingly monochromatic. Hewitt capitalises on its darkness and nebulous form to compose his mournful cautionary forest scenes.
The quadriptych of paintings Changing of the Guard, 2018, describes the wrath of fire in four stages. Each panel shows the same ancient pencil pine, boughs akimbo, a stately elder of the Tasmanian highlands. From left to right, the materials Hewitt uses (a mixture of wax, oil, ash and resin) become tormented and more violently applied, as though warped by heat and flame before turning to ash.
A pair of works, Yield and Woven, both 2015, are made with ashes from the massive 2013 bush fire in Dunalley, Tasmania. Woven, (which won the 2015 Glover Prize for Tasmanian landscape) makes use of a curious technique whereby ash is divided into five distinct tones − black to light grey − and is applied in a grid of tiny, fuzzy piles. The result is a surface that resembles a pixelated photo or a tapestry; a soft-textured technique elaborated in other works throughout Recinder.
In Yield, Hewitt applies the same five tones of ash, but blends and scrapes them over the canvas into a subtler range of tonality, much like painting.
The longer one studies the vast scene, which depicts a tract of Mount Barrow rainforest, the more details emerge, a process akin to eyes adjusting to darkness. The first is the apparition of a long-extinct thylacine who, like a grim reaper, leads a pack of extant species – including wombats, Tasmanian devils and birds – out of the forest. The synergy of material and narrative in Hewitt’s ash works is dark and urgent. Standing back, a viewer can see a living forest, but on coming close to the canvas, all detail is reduced to the same mottled dust.
Accompanied by generous didactic notes, Recinder is an emotive statement on loss in Australian landscapes. Hewitt focuses on whatis lost when a place goes up in smoke: not only flora and fauna, but environmental complexity, primeval cultural memory, and the life and politics of local communities. His question is not whether the cycle of fire is malevolent or essential, but whether we have ventured outside of that cycle altogether. As the climate changes, and Australia’s addiction to property, permanence and consumption plays out, Hewitt seems to wonder if fires are coming from which nothing can regrow?