Guido Maestri is running up his studio stairs, in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, phone in hand, ready to face another day pondering his large-scale, textural, almost sculptural paintings of artificially tinted landscapes. He’s not sure any of them are quite ready yet.
“Each one is a living thing, not a finished product. I never really know how I feel about them until they are taken away and I see them hung elsewhere,” says Guido.
Viewers in Australia, and internationally, have been lapping up the artist’s lush gestural paintings of the Australian landscape for the past decade. He’s also an inventive sculptor and deft still-life and portrait painter; and a winner of many important art prizes, the most notable being the prestigious Archibald Prize in 2009 for his gigantic portrait of Aboriginal musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.
He has a slew of additional accolades under his belt for his magical landscapes that capture the mood of Australia’s land and flora so evocatively. Most of the works in the past have been plein-air paintings, thus have taken him across the vast Australian deserts, volcanic plains and more recently to one New South Wales country lane, over and over again, until he realised he didn’t need to stand in the foreground of a vista to make the painting.
Bibbenluke, 2022. 199cm x 152cm. Oil on French polyester. Photo / Courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery
In a strange circle, Guido now finds himself taking the landscape inside, conjuring up scenes from myriad landscapes — taking fragments of imagery from his own paintings, the internet, and his imagination, now unencumbered with the task of having to represent what he sees in front of him.
“All of a sudden there’s a freedom, a playfulness. I painted in one place for years — purposefully — then I got to a point when I was looking less and the paintings started to open up. I became more inventive with my palette — there’s no reference point in the studio, so my possibilities expanded. You can become a slave to the physical thing — once you let that go, anything can happen.”
And strange and wonderful things have happened. From the crevasses of his mind, he’s created Alice in Wonderland-type scenes, resplendent in high key colours — cerulean blues, emerald greens, Hansa yellows, slathered on with thick oil paint to create curious collage-like patterns. Perhaps glimpses of prehistoric landscapes, or portholes to a futuristic world overloaded with human artifice.
“Once I came in from the field, I felt like I was creating new worlds; these are very much manipulated landscapes, all affected in some way by human beings. I like the fact the landscapes are now once-removed from the field and the studio, they are otherworldly spaces.”
Guido says the patterned elements to his work are a way to pay homage to the repeated designs in nature.
“I really enjoy the mark-making part of patterns, I think perhaps illustrations from children’s books have influenced me in some way — I’ve spent the past four years reading kids’ books to my son… I really respect the talent of illustrators.”
His process often begins with a collage in the studio, then he’ll make the painting once it looks right.
“I’ll often go through a National Geographic and chop it up to make a collage; it really helps to break up that classical landscape idea, but I’ll arrange the elements so it reads correctly.”
In the past, Guido had little need for digital imagery — but now he’s embracing the idea that he can access images instantaneously from anywhere in the world he might be able to utilise in one of his huge paintings that often measure over 2 metres in width and depth.
Continuing to embrace new ways of approaching his work, for his recent Singapore show, Guido experimented with audio cues to see if it affected his painting. An audio podcast about paleo-ecology led him to approach the painting differently.
“I was interested in how I could be influenced by something being read to me — I was accessing a landscape that existed around 50 million years ago — it turned out to be a new way to activate the imagination.”
“Oil paint is a simple substance, yet it’s very indulgent, I’m seduced by its materiality. Sculpture is so much like painting, in that you are modelling a form.” Photo / Saskia Wilson, courtesy of Yavuz Gallery
For the latest works appearing in Auckland, he continues to change it up.
“Figures are creeping into the work… it had to happen, just with the slightest hint of a figure, thoughts about the painting change, you might wonder who, where and why they’re there — it’s the first time human forms have entered my landscapes — they’re still very much suggestions, forcing you to bring your own ideas about how much they have interfered with the space.”
Guido’s mastery of creating these almost sculptural, surreal spaces is partly due to his mastery of paint. He’s an expert in the manipulation of oil paint, the way he slides it across the surface, the unusual tools — slices of rubber, foam or cardboard wedges, his own fingers often directly mush the paint about and often he’ll place two colours on a brush to give the marks a three-dimensional feel.
“Oil paint is a simple substance, yet it’s very indulgent, I’m seduced by its materiality. Sculpture is so much like painting, in that you are modelling a form.”
One of Guido’s signature off-kilter classical bronze busts painted in bright cerulean blue will appear at the fair — a riff on the civic sculptures of early explorers — he likes the idea of changing the ideology of these colonial monuments.
“I paint them so they look like play dough — all squishy and soft. I’m defacing the concepts behind these monuments. They are modelled on me as an old, arrogant white man,” he says, deadpan.
Often his kooky sculptures are displayed in front of landscapes, to link a human figure to the painting, begging the viewer to question the impact the explorer might have had on the new world he discovered.
As for the narrative behind his self-described “artificial” looking landscapes, he says there are hints to current global climate challenges.
“More so in that the paintings look fake, for me that implies human interference.”
Australia’s recent devastating flooding and bushfire disasters have inevitably seeped into his work.
“I made a number of flood paintings, I couldn’t help being influenced by these disasters. In one of my new works there is smoke in the background, but it could be a storm cloud — I don’t want it to be too obvious, but the ideas are subtly there.”