ANGELA GARDNER: A Precipitation of Fallen Angels

The radio in the car was playing a pent-up type of jazz as I arrived. A tenor sax line that headed like a freight train towards a wall, then retreated at the same velocity. It was a kind of brinkmanship, drawing attention to the space, the moment of the ‘wall’, and the energy going into it was huge but controlled.

Ian Friend and I were meeting at a gallery, an exhibition by some young artists whose work was both understated and deceptively simple1. Friend had written the catalog essay and so my mind turned to Jasper Johns and Agnes Martin whom he had quoted. Thoughts about a different, impartial verisimilitude; how nature lends its weight to the purely abstract, anchoring a work between earth and air, continued in my mind as we walked the short distance back to Ian’s studio. The day was overcast, a pearlised sky lending a cool, soft, even light to the afternoon, as it played over the paintings in progress in his studio. The light was perfect for the subtlety of the picture surface he had created, a move from veils and smears, to delicate touches of impasto as if the visual mechanics of being inside the pictorial space were being embedded in the paint’s surface.

In a break from what has been his practice for decades Friend has in the last few years taken up painting in oils, a paint that has a different time frame from gouache, a different viscosity, with less inherent chance in its medium that leads to more deliberative approach even from the outset. The choice here is to be more controlled. Although there are similar concerns shared with earlier work the commonality is fidelity of intention, articulating aesthetic connections and allowing a meditative presence to develop. All the oil paintings in this current series are built up from a blue ground, a mix of cobalt, ultramarine and zinc blue, then further under painting develops a rhythm through striations of vertical paint strokes that flow down the surface, mimicking the fall of water which in itself links back to the earlier Ghost Milk series of casein, pigment, watercolour and crayon drawings shown by Andrew Baker Art Dealer as part of Matter and Memory: The Brisbane Years 1997-2012. The painting of this new series continues in veils of white with areas of concentration where a slight impasto and subdued colour forms as a reminder of surface, not illusory but tangible, accumulated and distilled.

Ian Friend_A Precipitation of Fallen Angels #1 (2012)_Indian ink, gouache and graphite on Hahnemühle paper_75 x 55 cmThe series I was looking at in progress, A Precipitation of Fallen Angels, originally begun in watercolour was reinvigorated six months into the project, by the artist’s restorative visit to the Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria, and to the exhibition Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists which confirmed to him that the series was on the right track. In that exhibition Friend saw works by Seurat and Signac and was captivated by an oil painting “Portrait of Madame Astre” by Achille Laugé, whose work with its use of flickering white, Friend would have recognized from his own long use of white gouache and a move from monochrome.

But there were other elements at work here, with inspiration for this series coming from unexpected and disparate sources: a particular green reminiscent of Morandi’s subdued colour and abstracted forms; the recent delight of being caught among thousands of butterflies while walking in the Strathbogies, and in current reading: the almost daily reference to waterfalls in a journal of Coleridge’s of 1802 written while he was staying with the Wordsworths in the Lake District. Only long walks alleviated Coleridge’s acute depression and waterfalls and their particular energy were often a destination for his walks. It is a description by Coleridge of cascades as ‘a precipitation of fallen angels’ that gives Friend’s series of paintings its title.

Here is one instance from Dorothy Wordsworth’s own journal of 1803 on a trip, the following year, when she visited the Highlands together with her brother William and Coleridge:

“in a minute and a half, or less, were directly opposite to the great waterfall. I was much affected by the first view of it. The majesty and strength of the water, for I had never before seen so large a cataract, struck me with astonishment, which died away, giving place to more delightful feelings”

Dorothy Wordsworth, Journal2

I left Ian Friend’s studio that day with the light fading, realizing I needed to return with more time to look at the works and their progress, and to find out more about what sparked their genesis. In the two weeks intervening before I was able to visit the studio again the variety of surface treatments and the subtle colours of the oil paintings had played in my mind. The non-linear aerial perspective and the move into white tugged at my memory until I realized that the brushwork reminded me of some of Turner’s seascapes, the atmosphere of water droplets in veils of paint contrasting with the occasional colour flick or scumble loaded onto a canvas, whose real subject is light and movement.

I returned in the different cooler light of morning and had the same immediate affinity with the work hung, propped or leant against the studio walls. There were points of similarity certainly with the Turners: I had remembered the paint surfaces yes, but also the feeling of landscape without horizon and of white as a physical materiality, a presence.

We talked of the negatively charged air around waterfalls, how the ionized air is thought, by some, to energise the body and mind. It seems a particularly Romantic notion yet Friend drew my attention to an observation by the 20th Century minimalist painter Agnes Martin “There is no-one living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall.3” It prompted the return of a memory, how I had as a young adult on a Summer day out with friends, after a refreshing swim off the Gower, ended up at a waterfall somewhere near Ystradfellte where you could walk on a rock-ledge behind a curtain of water. This memory was so strong I asked immediately if the paintings that made up the series A Precipitation of Fallen Angels were looking through water, and in which direction? On which side of the curtain was the viewer sited?  I wondered if what I was seeing was a moment in time or the stream of constantly changing place? The paintings, neither didactic nor prescriptive, give instead only indications that emerge from memory.

At this point in my studio visit Friend showed me the illustration of Pont des Arts and the Île de la Cité, a tiny pen and ink study on paper by Albert Dubois-Pillet, in an exhibition catalog. We were examining the part played by the paper surface and the subtlety of the drawing in monochrome that suggested so much, so sparely.

The interpretive act of looking at a painting is the real work of the viewer. Friend’s paintings make me think: about the act of entering another language, of brief moments of instability expressed in paint, of the discontinuous line between the mediums of oil and watercolour. How the artist can respond to the heightened Romantic idea of “emotion recollected in tranquility” filtered through a damped down, more controlled lens so that a liminal space opens up between the mind and the emotions.

The waterfalls of A Precipitation of Fallen Angels are not a specific depiction, but are, in their depth of field and light, of memory and imagination the poetry of the sublime. Their impartial verisimilitude, brought about in part by the subdued palette and tempered abstraction, is lent weight by actual waterfalls laid down emotionally in memory and recalled as energy and vapour. The paintings not so much fix this memory between earth and air, but allow it to hover in an immeasurable and constantly shifting point or moment. Thinking this, I finally realized that in looking at them I saw a charged surface, the shimmering edge, not dissimilar to the sound-energy of the jazz riff that I arrived on.


1  an undisclosed motive Wollongabba Art Gallery, artists: Tor Maclean and Priscilla BeckAgnes Martin, Dia Foundation, New York 2011

2 Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth VOL. I, Ed. William Knight, NEW YORK : THE MACMILLAN COMPANY, 1904 (this section from RECOLLECTIONS OF A TOUR MADE IN SCOTLAND Second Week,  accessed online 27/2/2013 at

3 Agnes Martin, Dia Foundation, New York 2011

Angela Gardner, 2004 Bauhinia, and 2006 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry prizewinner, practices as both a visual artist and poet. She is the author of Views of the Hudson (selected Poetry, Shearsman Press, 2009) and Parts of Speech (selected Poetry) UQP, 2007. She has been a recipient of a Churchill Fellowship, A Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy Grant and an Australia Council for the Arts Literature Residency. Her poetry has been anthologised in Out of the Box Ed Jill Jones & Michael Farrell, The Best Australian Poems (2010 Ed. Robert Adamson; 2011 and 2012 Ed. John Tranter, Black Inc). In 2013 Angela will be Café Poet in Residence at QAG/GOMA (Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art).



  • Judy Macklin

    Evocative, insightful and descriptive. I see this whole where words and pictures synthesise beautifully and with ease. Reading this article has illuminated the abstract and made sense of the notions.

  • Ian Were

    Lovely article. Many thanks!


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