Belinda Syme’s work is infuriatingly difficult to define. While it can fundamentally be split into two themes, ‘Trees’ and ‘Landscapes’, there’s no clear-cut style, no absolute identifying features, no artistic ‘brand’. This is refreshing; an artist who creates what they want to, when they want to, experiments with different mediums and lets ideas ferment and bloom.
While some of her paintings have a distinct graphic quality, others have a more elemental, airy feel. It’s this very nebulous aspect that makes it fun to talk to her and ponder the wealth of influences that have informed her work.
Syme is a native Australian, a fact manifestly evident in her paintings. “Even though I’ve been here since 1976, I grew up with Australian painting and that’s where my influence is.” Rocks figure strongly in her landscapes, and even depictions of lush nature still whisper an element of uncertainty. For all the richness of colour and texture, a delicate sparseness remains. It is a reminder, as she puts it, that “man and nature can really ravage a landscape, and obviously that’s very evident in Australia.”
Despite Australia’s visual pull and centrality in Syme’s work, in the 1960s the allure of London was undeniable. “It’s where I always wanted to be. All we got in Australia was this reported vision of the music, Portobello Road, all the fashions. Everyone at the time just wanted to get the hell out of there, all my contemporaries were heading over to London and I longed to go.” And go she did.
However, as with every intoxicating dream, the reality was somewhat different. “I went to art school and everyone was talking about Walter Sickert and Frank Auerbach. I just found it pig ugly – dull and splodgy.” Artists like Auerbach tried to capture the oppressive, dank quality of London, thickly applying paint to canvas to achieve a figurative yet murky rendering. Syme’s dislike and dissociation from the prevailing artistic trends instilled a desire to depict the opposite, and so she began to reflect on Australia and colour. “I don’t think it was conscious, but I found a distinct colour palette, and although I got pulled apart for the brightness of my ‘parrot’ palette, it appealed to me because it was a relief from all the dark and sludge.” The ‘parrot’ palette has certainly been toned down now, but that artistic playfulness and the influence of memory and imagination have remained.
Take her collages. Syme initially studied graphic design in Melbourne, and the vestiges are evident. A linear aesthetic, solid colours and contrasting textures all feature, and it’s here that her interest in Asian art is particularly clear. Some pieces have a strong Japanese, graphic quality and many are informed by the materials themselves. From making her own marble paper to collecting various wrappers and textures, Syme is something of a self-confessed squirrel and likes to let materials dictate her work.
Her fundamental principle is to derive inspiration from memory and imagination, which arose from her initial dislocation when she settled in London. “My aunt sent me a calendar of Australian landscapes, typical scenes like Ayres Rock and the bush, so I painted things like that. Then I started to abstract them more, and got into tree trunks.”
She devised her own technique, painting the tree trunks more as stripes. “I would use masking tape and a little cardboard squeegee, and squeegee on the paint in between. You’d get these interesting effects and I liked the combination of ordered and unpredictable.” She used a similar technique with masking tape for her more linear, graphic oil paintings. “It’s more time-consuming but you have that serendipity, you’re not sure when the masking tape might reveal the colour underneath – what might peep through.”
Yet another stylistic tributary is photography. She studied Asian Art History and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, visits Asia regularly, and was besotted with a particular church in Goa which she decided to photograph. However, when it came to printing, some of the ink toners in the cartridges had run out. “I noticed it would create a good effect to print on acetate and just sandwich them all together. You don’t really know how the colours will come out, so you just take your chances.” It creates an intriguing, ghostly effect. Even when working with snapshots of real places, Syme still produces imaginative, questioning images. Ink depletion has paradoxically given rise to layering and texture; the very lack has led to substance.
With a diverse range of styles and techniques, Syme has a distinctly ‘scrapbook’ approach and a sense of happy coincidence weaves through a lot of her work, yet the different moods vary greatly. One foreboding painting is titled ‘Evening Storm’, whereas the collage ‘Mallacoota Inlet’ glows with coloured cellophane pieces, and is inspired by a childhood holiday at the beach. Regardless of the subject matter, Syme’s work is “reminiscent of the feeling of remembering.”
Her newest project is a slight departure from her usual approach. The idea, which came fully formed after stewing away for years, is art for the ‘Ikea generation’, because as she puts it, “I know too many people who have beige houses and nothing on the walls.” She’s planning some collages, using sample paint charts and a dose of conceptual wit to comment on the current narrow-mindedness of art buyers. “A friend offered to buy his daughter a painting, and as they were looking she kept saying ‘Oh yeah, that would go with the sofa, that would fit the space’ and in the end she couldn’t decide because nothing quite went with the sofa or was quite the right size.”
Such concerns are symptomatic of the art buying public; it’s not about the art itself, but the ‘lifestyle aspirations’ it exudes. “People don’t want their parents’ old furniture – they want new, clean, perceived modernity and it’s all totally anodyne. It’s like a five star hotel, completely lacking in personality.” Considering Syme’s colour saturated approach and irritation with the art world’s preoccupation with ‘brand’, her desire to comment on the current state of creative consumerism seems astute. She’s found a rich spring of inspiration from something that is inherently uninspiring.
In thoughtfully weaving memory and imagination together, along with a healthy dose of experimentation, Syme has developed an approach that drips with evocation of places both real and imagined. Never predictable, her various influences have melded to form a distinct yet eclectic oeuvre.