Painted in 2009, Grahame Sydney’s Winter at Burkes Pass, takes the landscape of the Mackenzie Country in South Canterbury as its departure point. The important heritage site of Burkes Pass on the banks of the Opihi River divides the Two Thumbs and Rollesby Ranges, thereby allowing for easy access to the high tussock lands of the Mackenzie Basin. Under Sydney’s brush, a segment of the region is translated into a two-dimensional ivory haven. Freshly fallen snow blankets the earth and the painting virtually bristles under the silence of the scene.
From a distance, Sydney’s Winter at Burkes Pass appears to be an almost barren wonderland of white and grey tonalities. United in their milky hues, sky and earth are nearly indistinguishable with the exception of the two rivulets of muted silver that run the expanse of the painting and serve to cleave the niveous landscape from a brooding, bloodless sky. Nestled in the snowy haze, this nebulous grey patch is perhaps a run of pine trees but, then again, it is maybe a rocky outcrop or a series of rolling hills or even possibly, a band of houses. Comprising, ostensibly an expanse of bleached ground, a leaden, chalky sky and a murky smudge in the middle distance, Winter at Burkes Pass is evidence of Sydney’s supreme technical virtuosity. If one draws closer to Winter at Burkes Pass, however, a number of small, mimetic elements reveal themselves, looming out of the picture plane and pitting the work with an internal narrative.
Viewing the painting at a closer proximity, the spectator is welcomed into a finely detailed wintery world.
Compositionally graceful, Winter at Burkes Pass is solidly anchored by a thick wooden post in the lower left foreground that gives way to a series of wooden palings and strings of barbed wire. Radically foreshortened, the fence marches backwards into the painting where it carves out a sharp right angle, turning to shadow the horizon line until it trails off the edge of the painting in an amaranthine manner. A circular concrete water trough punctuates the far corner of the fenced paddock and the occasional brave stalk of grass can be seen breaking the snowy covering.
It is characteristic of Sydney that Winter at Burkes Pass is devoid of any human presence. However, as with most of his best works, the painting contains hints and traces of humanity, of civilisation, progress and ownership. Unobtrusive yet assertive, the wooden railings and rounded trough signal that this is a maintained property and not a bleak, desolate wilderness. The landscape is private and cultivated, and belongs to someone, and the painting pays a humble and subtle tribute to agriculture, industry, perseverance and the human desire for ownership. In conjunction with the works that Sydney completed following his trips to Ross Island, Antarctica, in 2003 and 2006, Winter at Burkes Pass is a testimony to his ability to transform a pallid and almost empty expanse of frozen landscape into an image of enduring visual interest. These images of alabaster lands punctuated by small and comparatively insignificant marks of humanity have become something of a hallmark of Sydney’s style.