Heather Ellyard, 2009

When an artist moves on, there is a surge of both interest and confusion. Almost like an electrical charge. For safety sake, the work is sometimes called ‘transitional’, while critics and viewers wait for things to settle and categories to be clarified. Sarah Tomasetti, long established in Melbourne, is having her first show in Sydney, at Wilson Street Gallery. Not only is her work new to the city, but it is also at a new threshold.

For years, she has been respected and collected for her quite beautiful fresco work. She is a master of the technique, having studied the process in Italy under orthodox tutelage. She has used fresco to create ephemeral looking but strong, wall based hangings, which bespoke of quattrocento mindsets in contemporary conditions. Tomasetti made ruminating notations in pencil onto the crazed plaster, coaxing the process forward, while engaging in polemics with the tradition. Later she moved on to cloud and cloth studies, pinning down fleeting observations of billows and change with plaster and wash. Producing delicate skyscapes of wishful thinking. Where things were and were not what they seemed. And where graphite and stains were all that remained of glimpses and memories.

Subsequently, she turned to landscape more directly, and created a body of large framed frescos referencing Milford Sound in New Zealand, where she had gone on a personal holiday. Those paintings were an exuberance of Romantic Attitude: the landscape as beauty and truth. Bravely and brazenly, Tomasetti offered them up in the 21st century, with all the problematic baggage such historical poetics hold. She carried that weight with purpose; to paint nature now, after its centuries of cultural definitions, was a challenge to her as an artist.

Recently, she has taken that imperative further. Now she stands, artist, mother, global citizen, in the midst of a darker experience of the land and its readings. Admitting to love and fear. Working in the twilight zones of both. To probe that emotional as well as actual territory, she has all but abandoned fresco, for canvas and oils. She has turned from the lightest touch on almost chalk-white grounds, to layers and glazes of darkening mood, slowly building up depth. As though each glaze added to the urge to see, understand and protect. Aware of the difficulty of darkness, both in the painting and in the mind, she nonetheless makes a psychic jump, right in the middle of experiencing a real dusk at a real place called Wilson’s Promontory, along coastal Victoria. Not only did she reach for oils, but she also switched from rectangles to circles, symbolically embedding her search in the template of continuity, with its history of spiritual references.

For Tomasetti, landscape is more and more her home-place, where she finds meaning and picks up clues for making art that is increasingly pertinent to our time. Neither ‘transitional’ nor Romantic, she is using her experience of the land and her skill as an artist to remind us of what we stand to lose.