The creative medium in the overall body of work shifted from painting to working with found objects as a result of an artistic accident during the mid 1990’s. While collecting driftwood on a remote Victorian Coastline, having the intention of making furniture I stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris. This whole new palette of colour and shape revealed itself and immediately affected me; having never seen such hues and forms before.
Since then for approximately twenty years, there has been a systematic scouring of Australian beaches for found objects, much of which was found as washed up ‘ocean litter’. Around this time it was discovered that this is a worldwide phenomenon, affecting beaches on a global level. These plastics were bought back to the studio to sift, sort, and colour-code for the assemblages, sculptures and installations. As these objects were worked with, a fascination developed of the way they had been modified and weathered by the ocean and nature’s elements. A challenge as an artist developed to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they speak and tell their story, which included those underlying environmental messages inherent in the use of this kind of medium.
This work is in a constant state of evolution, which is largely as alchemical. It is the process of nature’s elements redefining the human-made that creates the initial alchemy in working with these found objects, taking the objects beyond the mundane. The second step was achieved through the transportation of these plastics to the studio and the process of sorting and assembling. A further and more vital transformation took place as they were assembled. These found objects then started to tell their story and become transformed into artworks.
Making this art is a way of sharing messages for the need to care for our environment with a broad audience. If even just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, through being exposed to this artwork then it would be worth it. This stems from a belief that presently humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet currently existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard of changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get.
This is a way of making a difference, and at the same time sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating art, as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways. These artworks exemplify a commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. By presenting this art to the public, it will hopefully have people thinking about the deeper meaning of the work, in particular the environmental issues we currently face. It is hoped these works will act as a constant reminder to people about awareness. I would like them to find enjoyment of the work on many levels and find themselves becoming identified in various ways with each of the artworks they see and look forward to the possible discussion that these works may generate.
These things are possibilities, bearing in mind as well that comments are regularly made about people’s consciousness while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing these found plastic object artworks, similarly with seeing the recycled plastic bag series, people have marvelled at the creative way of presenting the recycling theme in an aesthetic way, with this in mind, it is trusted that leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer, may leave the possibility they may experience deep perceptual shifts and have a positive aesthetic experience as they interact with this art.
It is a constant surprise to see the variations in these plastics; very much like how there is an intrigue of beach found objects collected over the years. An example of working in this medium was in 2005, whilst artist in residence at Jefferson City Missouri, USA. Here a series of totemic installations with thousands of plastic bags in clear acrylic tubes for their sculpture walk was made.
These plastic bags, which mostly have a lifespan of many years, are possibly facing extinction, as governments are beginning to impose deterrents to people using them. In the mean time as a contemporary visual artist, these recycled materials are used, to create artworks, which may express a certain beauty, as well as containing their own unique environmental messages.
A foray into working with driftwood assemblages began in 1998 and continues until 2017. An article described the driftwood assemblages that were exhibited in a solo, show at the John Gordon Gallery, Coffs Harbour in early 2004 as follows:
“John Dahlsen isn’t your average artist. A bold statement to make but appropriate after you realize the sheer depth and determination which goes into the work this man has produced over the past seven years. Although he has been within art circles for much longer than that, it is only in the most recent years, which have seen Dahlsen create a different form of art with environmental messages and strong statements. It is ‘found’ object art, be that organic or inorganic.
He would be seen scavenging beaches in search of plastics, specific colours and sizes. He is also known for venturing along the edge of Victoria alone in search of driftwood. Boat trips, four-wheel-drive tours and scaling 40 meter-high cliffs, were all part of the process for this driftwood exhibition and Dahlsen admits at times there were death-defying moments grabbing the perfect piece of wood.”
The work on show in the 2004 Wynne Prize as a finalist, at the Art Gallery of NSW, titled “Driftwood Assemblage # 1” was a diptych from this series.
The other focus of artistic activity was in the area of large-scale prints and paintings on canvas and paper. An exploration into prints was first initiated in 1999 and developed into my incorporating digital print technology into my work. It satisfied my concerns with advances in technology where at that point in time, incorporating various images of assemblage installations of the found plastics.
Firstly, there was the development of a series of CIBA chrome photographs taken from above – a birds eye view of the found plastics and then in later years, developed these into complex high-resolution large-scale high resolution works on canvas and paper, utilising contemporary photographic, computer and printing advances.
As well as embracing the digital and screen-printing arena, it also unknowingly heralded a return to painting which was the main chosen medium for many years. The central concerns of this work are with contemporary art practice. Incorporating for many years working with found and recycled objects, most hand-picked from somewhere along the Australian Coastline.
There is a literal amazement me to think how many times have been spent bending over to pick up the many thousands of pieces of plastic debris that made up that aspect of this art, each piece jostled around for who knows how long by sand, sun and ocean, their form faded and rounded by the elements.
The unabated dumping of thousands of tonnes of plastics has been expressed in these assemblages, installations, totems, digital prints and public artworks. And yet, despite the outrage at this environmental vandalism, a return to the beach daily to find more pieces for the artist’s palette occurred. In an uncanny way, these plastics, as they were sorted and then arranged in the studio took on an unspeakable, indefinable and quite a magical beauty, which always provided fascination.
During the latter part of 2005 and into 2006, a new body of work was created, a series of synthetic polymer paintings on Belgian linen, based on the subject matter of plastic “purges” – plastic fabricator machine end waste. This work, considers cycles and recycling. A process began of re-presenting paintings of sculptures that are inherently plastic fabricator machine end waste. The use of plastic materials and their place in the evolutionary motions of recycling are important in constructing these images.
This new series of work was made, exploring the mechanics of how an object is put together, what place it occupies in a cycle of life; organic or man-made. The choice of materials having as much prominence as the end product has.
There is a real need for the massive social transformations that are essential, to adequately deal with such crises as the depletion of fossil fuels and climate change. It is hoped this work can be a timely reminder to us all of the limited supply of these petroleum based materials, which is a direct result of our current collective global mass consumerism.
This environmental artwork concentrates on cycles, momentum and the multiple. In this series of work, there is painted non-recyclable purged plastic objects. These objects are by products of everything plastic, they are the plastic run before or after a hairbrush, juice bottle or chair is made. They represent everything and nothing. The plastic in its petroleum state has undergone millions of years of evolution to get to this stage. And then, it is discarded as a by-product of societal needs.
Essentially there is an exploration of the duality of meaning and perception and the illusion that is created in between. There is a presentation of an image of a non-object, in a painting of an informal Formalist sculpture. The paintings create the profile of a solid sculpture, moulded and plied to present the essence of formalism. The subject of the paintings, exhibit abstract geometrical imagery and constructivist diagramming of space that is playfully organic and blob-like.
The present direction in this environmental art work which also incorporates sculpture and assemblage, has evolved into a return to painting, which was the primary medium for many years prior to working for over twenty years with found objects; making sculptures and assemblages from beach found plastic litter, which were largely based upon environmental artist themes, taking society’s discarded objects of the everyday and transforming them into formal compositions.
After more than twenty years of collecting beach found objects and subsequently making art out of them, a new form of expression has naturally developed, with an enjoyment of a re-entry into painting, which was brought on significantly as a result of the purge painting series and exploration. Painting the Byron Bay local seascapes and landscapes, where the viewer may witness these paintings as being executed with a particular mood and sense of urgency, is largely due to ever-growing concerns about climate change and global warming and its impact.
There has been an engagement in a long standing exploration of the coastal landscape, in painting, sculpture and photography predominantly around Byron Bay, NSW. The work has for many years examined the passage of time in the landscape and the place of humankind within it. The landscapes featured in the work are the very same places roamed over the years and collected detritus and materials for the assemblages and other works. In the past recycled materials have been used to convey the history and memory of a place, to comment on the human experience of place, beauty and degradation of the environment.