Art, Northern Advocate Column

John Foster’s ‘Four Seasons on the Farm’

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4 April 2015

I actually chuckled. That was my initial reaction to running my eyes over John Foster’s large mural with many, many sheep.

How delightfully incongruous it was to see in the rarefied space of an art gallery something so seemingly mundane as life on a sheep farm. Sheep being sheared, drenched, corralled, giving birth, dying, and just milling about eating grass. 

Four Seasons on the Farm is currently installed at the Whangarei Art Museum. The artist, unsurprisingly, was also a sheep farmer on a property near Wellsford. Foster painted the work, which stretches 14.4 metres, from 1980 to 1984 in a farm shed converted into a studio.

There are 365 panels depicting events and scenes on the farm over the course of the year. Grey fence posts divide the mural into 12 months. The seasons flow from the ochre shades of late summer through to the greening grass of autumn, the greyness and mud of winter, and the rejuvenation of colour in spring and early summer.

Everything you could imagine happening on a farm is represented. It’s a narrative of life and death. In a prominently positioned panel a ram mounts an indifferent looking ewe. In the August section an extended sequence of panels shows the birth of lambs, painted a special golden yellow. 

Further on there’s a panel where lambs have bloodied ears and butts from docking and tagging. Grim, but visually dramatic, as are the pictures of sheep corpses amid scenes of idyllic rural beauty and ever changing weather.

Foster has successfully imbued life on a sheep farm with epic qualities. It’s a bit like Game of Thrones, the beauty and violence, and winter is always coming. The rain-jacketed man on the motorbike a craggy and heroic Warden of the North.

But what kept me engaged with this large work was the way it was painted.  It’s rugged and raw, as befitting its subject matter. The paint is smeared and plastered on.

The scenes are at turn cartoon-like and impressionistic. There’s no refined perspective and detailed shading. Everything is flat on the picture frame and pushing out at you. The influences of New Zealand painters Colin McCahon, Toss Wollaston and Pat Hanly is strong.

My delight in the work undoubtedly comes from the contrast it offers from the images we see on our screens. It’s got to the point that I’ve developed almost a nausea at viewing digital photographs. Such is the saturation that digital imagery has achieved over the last decade. The early 1980s seems like a distant and far simpler age.

And that’s the thing about art, sometimes it develops meaning and importance that could not have been envisaged by the artist. Times change, our experiences change and then shift the way we see things.

I recommend leaving your phones at home and taking the time to go and see Four Seasons on a Farm. Revel in a different visual experience that makes you want to touch, smell and hear the world.

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