Ray Ching's new paintings set in Aesop's Australian Outback

Ray Ching, Aesop’s Outback Fables
Artis Gallery
Until May 20

Ray Ching, Aesop’s Outback Fables
Published by Artis Gallery
RRP $78

Throughout history, Aesop’s fables first compiled into a set of books by ancient Greek orators have been retold and re-imagined in literature and in art by such prominent figures as Marc Chagall and Alexander Calder. Artist Ray Ching has also worked on the fable tradition with an entirely new location and a cast of animal players.

In his latest exhibition, Aesop’s Outback Fables, Aesop is imagined having left Greece and journeyed to Australia where he uses the animals of the new land to fashion his tales filled with moral principles.

The paintings represent about half of the images Ching has created for his new book also entitled Aesop’s Outback Fables.

This is not completely new territory for Ching as he has previously produced 10 books featuring mainly birds over the past 40 years and a couple of years ago published his Aesop’s Kiwi Fables.

The exhibition Aesop’s Outback Fables is a collection of more than 50 works featuring the archetypal creatures of the Australian bush – the kangaroo, the kookaburra, the koala and the wombat. There are also lesser known creatures, such as the quokka, the crimson finch and the echidna.

The texts of the fables are inscribed on the paintings in Ching’s own handwriting and in the case of a couple of works the birds are provided with speech bubbles, a technique Ching often uses in his paintings.

The texts are witty and astute, drawing on some of the ages-old tales as well as more contemporary views of the world. In his anthropomorphising of the various animals and birds, the fables are a mixture of children’s tales, political parables and moral allegories.

The Echidna and the Eagle ($6000) parallels the mythic story of Icarus and his attempt to fly. In this painting the echidna (a spiny anteater) begs an eagle to teach him how to fly. The reluctant eagle eventually carries the animal up in the air and releases him. The echidna realizing as he falls that “I should have been content to stay in my rocky crevice instead of which I have come crashing down from the skies.”

Most of the paintings depict the animals in their natural habitat but occasionally he provides them with some additional accessories or locations. So, in The Fox, the Dingo and the Owl Judge ($6250), the owl has been provided with a judge’s wig, while in “he Crimson Finch and his shadow ($6250), the bird is depicted at a rural crossroads.

A few of the paintings reference human civilisation but no figures are depicted. In The Emu who complained ($7000) Ching includes some cave paintings by the Wandjinas people, one of the few paintings in which humans are referred to in any way.

In some there are traces of European settlement as in The Poor Man and the Cockatoo ($7500) featuring a dilapidated shack and a water tank and in The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse”($6500) he has the two rodents cavorting around the drinking fountain commemorating Edward Harewood Lascelles, the founder of Hopetoun in Victoria.

There are several paintings concerned with the “fierce battle waged between the birds and beasts” in which various animals are given various designations – the kangaroo is called “the ancient,” the koala “the standard bearer,” the chicken “the negotiator” while the bat is labelled as “the traitor” for his reluctance to take sides in the great battle. The various stories and their participants convey a sense of contemporary political infighting. The largest in this series is “The Birds, The Beasts and the Bat ($62,000).

The works combine the artist's extraordinary attention to detail as well as well astute rendering of foliage and landscape. He also displays a few aspects of the experimental, with works such as the nine-panelled cartoon Rain Drop ($7000) or The Wombat and the Frilled Lizard ($6500) where he has slashed a line of red paint across the surface. In a number of works the artist has left some underpainting or drawings of previous works that offer a ghost-like presence.

The overall effect in combining art and writing is visually captivating and entertaining, with his approach to description and analysis not unlike the various notebooks of Leonardo de Vinci.

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.