Elisabeth Cummings by Sioux Garside

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

With darting brushwork Elisabeth Cummings unfolds a fluid, internalised visualisation of her studio. Her paintings develop from a profound feeling for the dappled light and sandstone bush at Wedderburn, south‑west of Sydney, where she has lived since the mid 1970s.

Forms and figurations are outlined with minimal, linear gestures across an expanded painterly field. At left a tribal mask drawn in orange is next to the sketched outline of vessels and a bronze sculpture. Spatial dimensions expand and contract through a pattern of shifting planes and divisions suggesting shafts of light and shadows pitched across the canvas. Moments of arrested stillness and mimetic clarity emerge in small details—an open notebook and blue spectacles left on the table, near the pricked ears of her waiting dog.

At the centre is a glimpse of the artist’s profile, a reminder that this is her domain. ‘My paintings are all about memory and self,’ she maintains.(1) Favourite postcards pinned to the wall reference an abstract by Sean Scully and a black and white portrait, perhaps by Diego Velazquez.

A dynamic interaction exists between these inanimate objects and the spaces they occupy. Softly draped forms give up their solid separate existence becoming dematerialised and abstract, blurring sensations of time and movement. The warm colour range is counterbalanced by cool grey‑greens and yellow ochre tones which lead the eye to the distinctive bush seen through the doorway.

Cummings is heir to Sydney precursor Grace Cossington Smith, who combined views of interior/exterior spaces in her paintings. ‘I liked the way she mixed pure colour on the brush and applied it,’ Cummings said. ‘Her arrangement of the spaces in her paintings, that was mysterious to me—her compositions and reflected images in the angled plane of a wardrobe mirror.’(2)

A great artist will study the underlying insights into reality made by an earlier artist, understanding that she must grasp such concepts for herself in order to invent a new sign, or painterly language. Cummings’ achievement has been to move from ‘interior landscapes’ to a new, authentic expression of the vast, weathered terrain of Indigenous country forged in the imaginative process that takes place back in the studio.

Hers is a remarkably advanced form of abstraction, a reflection of nature’s organic dynamism expressed through a pure love of oil paint. ‘You want the next painting to be … alive. I want it to move. Not always achieved but that is what I want to attain … I want them to have that pulse … that movement.’(3)

(1) Elisabeth Cummings, quoted in Elli Walsh, ‘Elisabeth Cummings: Interior landscapes’, Art Almanac, 7 March 2017, at art-almanac.com.au/elisabeth-cummings-interior-landscapes, accessed 19 November 2019.

(2) Cummings, unpublished interview with Sioux Garside, 2016.

(3) Cummings, quoted in Anna Johnson, ‘Elisabeth Cummings’, Artist Profile, no 39, 2017, at artistprofile.com.au/elisabeth-cummingsissue39/, accessed 19 November 2019.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Garside, Sioux. "Elisabeth Cummings" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 94–95.

SIOUX GARSIDE is an independent curator.

Elisabeth Cummings appears in