One of the traditional functions of art has been to explain the world as it is, another has been to propose what it might be. Theo Koning employs both approaches in his drawings and his sculptures, particularly in his work based around a family holiday home at Ledge Point, north of Perth. He has named one slight rise on the horizon, the Hill of Scars, and has continued to question what would happen if human characteristics and frailties were conferred onto other hills. For example what might the Hill of Eyes look like? What might it mean and what effect would it have on our lives?
In other words, for the artist the central concern is to establish his relationship with the natural world. It is this sense of inquiry and the artist's reaffirmation in the face of nature, that gives his work its potency. By investigating the places where he lives and works, he is attempting to identify the structural relationships that exist between human beings and their environment.
This relationship is characterised for the artist by the ubiquitous 'half man, half animal' or wood spirit who appears in many of his works and whose role, it seems, is to form a bridge between nature and culture. In fact he occupies a transitional zone between nature and culture. On all fours, this half human creature moves through a grey and bleak city, carrying the remnants of the forest (the realm of nature) on his back. Is it the beginning of a new life or is the residual presence left as a painful reminder of what has been lost?
Although there is ample evidence to suggest that Koning believes that the natural is the preferred domain, nature itself is rather terrifying. Sexual intercourse, as well as being highly natural and pleasurable, is also presented as dangerous and risky. A red lipped woman is transformed into the head of a snake issuing from a corpse like a penis, coupled lovers are trapped in the world of memory and a sperm is surrounded by the plastic skin of a condom. Everything is contained and restricted. The desolate landscape which supports this scene is similarly life threatening and devoid of possibility.
In the other Head the figure's conception of itself is also locked into the memory or brain and the conjunction between the lips and the head of a snake reappear as a powerful metaphor for the dangers of sexuality. It is the straight-forward presentation of these complex images of frustration and anxiety that gives these paintings their particular resonance.
In his work over the past two years Theo Koning has begun locating universal concerns about life and love within a very local context, even identifying universal symbols in the landscape and the life around him. This identification with locality and his discovery of universal meanings in such common objects as shells, flowers and the beach adds to this resonance by providing a sharp edge and a lingering presence.
One of the most successful strategies he employs to establish these links is to develop a code of images which he can use in his series of works. Some of these are borrowed from Christian iconography, Jung and cross-cultural sources, others have been devised by the artist from the environments he encounters.
Over the past two decades Theo Koning has built a body of paintings and sculpture that present a new interpretation of Western Australia that is not entirely reassuring. It is an important addition to our visual culture and one that will continue to challenge us for many years to come.
TED SNELL 1991