Elisabeth Cummings donation – NERAM

Above: Elisabeth Cummings, Dark Bush, 2010, coloured etching, edition of 30, 20.5 x 24 cm
Right: Elisabeth Cummings, Termite Mounds, 2009, etching, edition of 25
Below: Elisabeth Cummings, Self Portrait, etching, 5 x 5 cm, edition of 10

Curator Sioux Garside discusses the work of Elisabeth Cummings and her adventures in print and works on paper.

Q: Many people know and admire Elisabeth Cummings for her work as a painter. How does her history with works on paper connect with her broader oeuvre?


SG: Elisabeth has been experimenting with printmaking processes for many years making etching and aquatint at Cicada Press in Sydney.  Monoprinting has also been part of her evolving practice since the 1990 and I’ve included as many of her sketchbook drawings as possible. These give us an intimate and surprising insight into the subjects that appeal to her sensibility. The drawings and etchings demonstrate her consummate graphic skills; a quirky sense of constructing compositions and an ability to work on a smaller scale with speed and a vigorous fluent line.


Q: How did the exhibition come about at Drill Hall, and what sort of parameters did you set in curating it?


SG: The directors of King Street Gallery felt it was timely to have a retrospective to show Elisabeth’s important contribution to the advancement of abstraction and landscape painting in Australia.  There was also an aim to satisfy requests for a fully illustrated monograph on her work from private collectors and institutions.


Many years ago I worked closely with Elisabeth on her first survey at Campbelltown Art Gallery in 1996. That survey had presented Elisabeth with useful insights and an overview of what had been achieved from her earliest work as a young graduate from East Sydney Tech in the late 1950s, to the work made during a decade overseas in Florence, up to her break-through paintings of the early 1990s. Viewing the chronological development of her painting confirmed Elisabeth’s confidence and future direction and consolidated her growing reputation in Sydney as a luminous colourist and gestural expressionist painter.  Wedderburn spring, 1993 a highlight in the 1996 show would later be included in the big survey of Australian painting at the Royal Academy in London curated under the aegis of the National Gallery Canberra in 2013.


Essentially with Interior landscapes my aim was to show Elisabeth Cummings as the great painter she is, and include as many of her iconic large-scale paintings of interiors and landscapes as feasible. Since most of her paintings are held in private or corporate collections [with some notable exceptions], a major body of her work is rarely seen. I also thought it important to include her printmaking and ceramics, to demonstrate how a artist of maturity and insight can transfer an embodied form of painterly abstraction that is inspired by exterior or interior spaces, into vastly different mediums.


When asked to host the survey exhibition Director Terence Maloon immediately agreed. The depth of his scholarly knowledge provided an insightful consideration of the European influences of Bonnard and Vuillard on Elisabeth’s development, which gave us the title for the show. I know he was delighted by the irresistible public response to her exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery ANU.


Q: What are some of the print-based works in the exhibition and what is most interesting about them for you?


SG: Printmaking offers another way of interpreting, it is another way of creating an image and Elisabeth’s approach to making a print is exploratory. She describes the medium as slower and more challenging. “At times it’s frustrating because it’s not as immediate as painting, one has to work through several processes. With printmaking it is not so easy to eliminate something you’ve created, so that slows the process down. And sometimes it works better in the print than the painting”.

She works directly on the plate, firstly making a line drawing in crayon then scraping and scratching over and over with tools, searching for a particular patination of aquatint and scribbly deeply bitten lines. Arkaroola landscape 2005, and Evening termite mounds 2011 are compelling examples of her feeling and experience in the landscape, evoking the texture of place and mood. For me there is also a subtle expressed concern and wonder for the earth and its fragile living ecology with her imagery of birds and metaphoric rocks and mounds eroded over eons by the elemental forces of wind and rain into sandy deserts. Elisabeth camps in remote places in the Kimberley and the Flinders ranges to make her drawings and gouaches. The resulting paintings may condense a panoramic vista, be attuned to the vibrating effects of light, heat and colour and are suggestive of the infinitesimal detail and rhythms of nature.


I enjoy her interpretation of light and shadow and contemplative feeling achieved by wiry lines and earthy greys and velvety blacks tones in Dark bush 2010. Her unique combination of wit and structure is compelling for the lively way she combines different perspectival views of a motif in a painting or an etchings such as Hill end glimpse 2009.


Q: Cummings has an interesting history in the arts – can you tell us some of the highlights of her experiences?

SG: There are so many highlights. She has always been a peripatetic artist and observant seeker inspired by remote and beautiful places of Australia, the Simpson desert, Lake Mungo, the Pilbara and the Kimberley. Walking with traditional Indigenous elders at Elcho island and observing the monsoonal tides changing the waters muddy yellow inspired After the wet Elcho island; travelling by boat down the Darling river with her sister and exploring Lake Eyre and the inland deserts led to her monumental canvases Edge of the Simpson 2011 and River bend 2008.

Equally importantly to the feeling and authenticity of her work is a constant reflection on subjects close at hand in her studio and a time-based focus on her surroundings in all seasons and lights from drought to flooding rain. She has worked for over forty years in the bush surrounded by sandstone and tall eucalypts at Wedderburn adjacent to the Dharawal national park in south west Sydney.

Right now Elisabeth is teaching a workshop in Morocco and exploring the vibrant colour of Fez and the Atlas mountains. I long to see her sketch books when she returns.


Q: How did the donation of an archive of 85 prints and etchings by Cummings to NERAM come about?

SG: The donation came about when Robert Heather the Director of NERAM was visiting King St Gallery’s store and expressed interest in acquiring a drawing of Elisabeth‘s studio. NERAM was considered an appropriate institution for the proposed gift as they want to build their print collection and were keen to host Elisabeth’s survey retrospective.  The art museum has a Museum of Printing and they have collected artists’s prints since the Hinton Bequest last century. The gift of Elisabeth’s etchings is intended to be ongoing because the aim is to have a complete and representative archive of her prints held in one public institution. This will be a focus point for further research.

Elisabeth Cummings: Interior Landscapes is a Drill Hall Gallery touring exhibition and is at the New England Regional Art Museum until 4 November. It then travels to Orange (from 17 November) and Newcastle.