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Robert Habel | Art Series And Iceland

Date: 13 Jun 2017
Profile: Robert Habel
Category: Success Stories

If you’ve had a take away coffee recently, it could have been served in an Art Series cup featuring the work of South Australian artist Robert Habel. His painting ‘Gillman’ wraps around the cup, with landscape and a big horizon skirting the top like a blue cloudy rim.

Well Made was delighted to be contacted by the curator of the BioPak Art Series, Kate Armstrong, whose brief is to seek out artists who work with environmental themes. “We love featuring the work of Australian and New Zealand artists who explore positive environmental messages in their practice; collaborating with artists who produce eye-catching, beautiful and original work, which is what draws us to artists like Robert Habel."

With his Art Series cup out on the streets, it’s a good time to catch up with Habel to talk about ‘Gillman’ and his latest projects, including a filmmaking trip to Iceland.

Can you tell us about working en plein air?

I was born in Launceston in Tasmania and went to art school there. I was an athletic young bloke, competing in track and field and I couldn’t sit inside a studio all day. So I first got into en plein air painting at art school, inspired by the big landscapes in Tasmania and it became my subject without really thinking about it. It took one session outdoors to realise painting in the open air is a moving target. So I had to become an active participant on that stage and the painting becomes an experiment in capturing the subject in time and motion.

What inspires you about Gillman?

I moved to Adelaide in 1988 for art school, went back to Tasmania then returned to SA in 1992 for a Masters and have been here ever since. My interest is in industrial, farmed and rural landscapes and particularly the impact of human intervention in the landscape. This is how I started painting the Gillman area, which is a contested area on the northern edge of Adelaide. It was the site of the proposed Multi Function Polis in the 1980s and has continued to be a politicised site ever since, with arguments over what the land should be used for. It’s a low-lying marshland that acts as a filtering system between heavy industry and the sea. My whole Masters project was about Gillman and I attended community forums and got involved in discussions around the space. I paint there and experiment with it at different times of day and I try to capture the place, time and the cultural layers.

How did you come to visit Iceland recently?

My friend and collaborator on film projects Cole Larsen, together with writer & director Peter Hanlon conjured up the idea to go to the Airwaves music festival in November 2016. So the three of us along with cameraman Rick Davies decided to go on a filmmaking road-trip. We are all fans of punk and heavy metal and Airwaves is a non-commercial festival in Reykjavik featuring local artists from punk through to black metal.

We are all fascinated by the landscape of Iceland and the trip became a kind of search for a utopia on the other side of the world. We found it to be very familiar, with a certain level of affluence; it is a recognisable culture in an exotic and different landscape. But there is also a strong political left wing in Iceland and the film evolved with a focus on three things - the music festival, the landscape and left wing politics.

As we travelled around Iceland, I would paint and this became a link to the landscape in the film. We captured the process of painting en plein air in that environment, with the wind and rain coming in and wetting the painting. There is an eerie light with the sun so low in winter, everything is luminous from within - the golden hour – and I tried to capture that. People rave about the beauty of Iceland and the starkness of the tree-less landscape. But this is because the island has been denuded of trees from over farming and building boats and houses. It’s ironic that the sublime aesthetic that Iceland is known for is due to human intervention in the landscape.

When will the film be released?

The film is feature length and was completed in May 2017. It is largely documentary in style featuring interviews with musicians, politicians and travels through landscape. There are also some dramatic scenes featuring actors. Some of the local theories are that Iceland is part of the lost city of Atlantis, so we have called the film ‘Atlantis Iceland’. The film has been entered into Adelaide Film Festival, so if it’s successful it will be shown in Adelaide in October this year. We have also entered it into the Iceland film festival and other film festivals around the world. The film is of cinema standard, with all the editing and sound mix happening in Adelaide. When the film is released locally I would like to exhibit the Icelandic paintings as a gallery complement to the cinema screenings.

Do you have a dream creative project?

I would love to do a film project of a dawn to dusk painting, on a canvas about 10 metres long. Probably somewhere like a salt plain or an industrial setting, starting painting at sunrise and working along the canvas until sunset.  I like the slow message and experience of painting combined with the contemporary nature and immediate message of the related film.

And your thoughts on the Art Series cup?

It's my first launch into the world of merchandise, an unusual space for me to be involved. It’s interesting for me to see the painting translated onto another surface. I like the idea that my landscape painting of the view across the Wingfield Tip (AKA Wingfield Waste and Recycling Centre) features on a recyclable throwaway coffee cup that will one day end up back there. It was nice to be asked by Well Made and it says a lot about the reach of Well Made that artists are being seen by broader industry. You can see the original painting as it’s currently on display at State MP Susan Close’s office in Lipson St, Port Adelaide.

View Robert Habel's full profile.

Images (banner): Robert Habel painting 'en plein air' in Iceland. Images (top to bottom): 'Gillman' painting reproduced on BioPak Art Series cup. Image courtesy Kate Armstrong; 'Gillman', 1996, oil on canvas, 173 x 245cm. Image courtesy Robert Habel; 'Heimaey Island en plein air 1', 2016, oil on canvas, 69x79cm. Image courtesy Robert Habel; Filming on Heimaey Island, Iceland, 2016. Image courtesy Robert Habel. 

Keywords: painting, oil painting