Creation Station is RACV Club’s interview series examining the artworks that are hidden in plain sight across our clubs and resorts. This month we focus on artist Tim Burns, who has five landscape paintings in the RACV Art Collection, hanging across our Torquay and Inverloch resorts.
Landscapes are at the core of the RACV Art Collection. They capture the imagination of the country, of where we travel, or of our localities. The concept of landscape painting is a relatively new phenomenon; until the 17th century landscapes were quite literally backgrounds, or only explored as narrative for mythological or historical paintings.
The 19th century saw the growth of landscape painting, from romanticism to impressionism in England and France. As Europeans travelled to Australia, landscape paintings were important for understanding a new world. For Indigenous people they demonstrate an ongoing connection to Country. Landscape has become a way of challenging ideas of representation and capturing identity. Landscapes are ultimately observations of the human condition. They scrutinise how we inhabit and construct the environments around us.
Tim Burns has five works in the RACV Art Collection. He thinks of painting as no different from fishing, music or surfing in that it captures a meditative state, reliant on intuition, chance and discipline.
Born in Sydney, he now lives in Tasmania, which is a key source of inspiration. He captures the play of light on water, foliage against the sky and juxtaposes colour and texture. Tim builds compositions intuitively, progressing from light tones to rich, dark colours full of exquisite details.
From the bridge (Vuillard’s garden) – pictured below – is from his Henty River Suite of paintings from 2009. Although exploring the west coast of Tasmania where the Henty River lies, the painting is also referencing French post-impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940). Burns borrows Vuillard’s flattened, Japanese-influenced style and penchant for the highly detailed but creates his own distinct visual language. He uses short, square brushstrokes, layering of paint, and larger-than-life canvases, which create images akin to a richly patterned tapestry.
Tim Burns reveals what he loves about living on Bruny Island in Tasmania and how his artwork has changed, in this Club Highlights Q&A.
Your abstract landscapes in the RACV collection are physically imposing, some measuring three metres by two metres. What role does canvas size play in the impact of your work?
I’m interested in the mood or presence of a painting when you stand in front of it. Different landscapes evoke different moods. The emotion of being in an open field is different from being in an enclosed forest. Sometimes I join two panels together because the idea cannot be contained in one panel.
One of your five works in the RACV collection is called From the bridge (Vuillard’s garden). Is this a reference to artist Edouard Vuillard and, if so, what do you draw from this French post-impressionist painter?
I was in Hobart when painting that work and every day I’d walk along the Hobart Rivulet (trail) from the base of Mount Wellington, crossing bridges and stopping to gaze into the water; it stirred something in me. I’m not a literal painter; nature inspires me. I don’t look at something and put down exactly what I see. In this painting you can see the reeds waving in the water and the willow branches hanging down but the rest is improvised and based on what I was experiencing. I like patterns and a cacophony of brushstrokes and these remind me of Vuillard. I’m very interested in the history of painting.
Which comes first, the painting or the title?
Sometimes it’s a response to certain places or locations while other times, as you’re painting, your work begins to remind you of a location or another artist’s painting, a state of mind or a feeling, and the title comes as the last thing before your painting is finished.
As the painting is drying and I can’t do any more, I go through my journals and choose a phrase or statement that corresponds to the painting and gives the audience a way into it.
Your works are in 28 public collections in Australia, including the national galleries of Australia and Victoria. Do you recall your excitement when you were first collected by a public gallery?
When major collections started to buy my work, it gave me confidence. It’s nice when people say they like your work, but when a major collection buys one, or you win major prizes, it builds your faith in your work, which you need [in order] to paint daily.
How long have your lived on Tasmania’s Bruny Island and what inspiration do you get from this relatively isolated island?
I’ve been going south all my life. Raised in Sydney, I moved to Melbourne, then Hobart and now Bruny Island. I’ve been coming to Cloudy Bay on Bruny Island for more than 20 years and lived here full-time for seven years. Its landscapes are a source for moods, atmosphere, shapes, patterns and rhythms for my paintings. These landscapes provide a vocabulary I can draw on and use to enter into a dialogue with myself and my interior world. No matter what anyone paints, they are painting self-portraits, in the sense they are painting the way they relate on a subconscious level to the landscape. I have to immerse myself in the landscape and I do that on Bruny Island.
You went straight from school into studying art at three tertiary art establishments, before becoming a full-time artist. When did you realise this was your destiny?
As a child growing up in Sydney, there was an Easter art exhibition for kids and I won it one year with a pen-and-ink [sketch]. That was it for me. I’d always been more interested in drawing in exercise books for school projects rather than writing about history, science or geography. Growing up, I thought the most beautiful things I ever saw were paintings.
You’ve won residencies to live and paint in places such as Paris’s Cité Internationale des Arts complex on the River Seine. Of what value were these residential posts to your craft?
You can’t see how paintings are made by looking at them in books or on computer screens, you must see them in real life. Paintings are hand-made and you have to be able to look at the surface of the real painting. For example, Rembrandt is rough; it looks like he dragged paint on his canvas with a rag or painted with a stick, but when you stand back it is perfect, magic.
Do you make mistakes when painting?
Chance plays a big part in painting. Sometimes I’m startled by what I have done. You have to be aware of these chance moments and jump on that unintended consequence. You have to make sure you make the most out of what happens.
As a young man you studied art extensively, gaining several degrees including a Master of Fine Art at the University of Tasmania, where you then taught for the decade up to 1998. Do you ever stop learning, and who are your best teachers?
I never stop learning, I have an inquisitive mind and love experimenting. My work today is so different to what is held in RACV’s collection. Every decade or so I change. Today my work is stripped back, monochromatic abstraction. I read poetry and novels and listen and play music; they feed into my work.