David Frazer’s linocut Holding On presents a snapshot of solitude and vulnerability that could never be witnessed in person. That is precisely its power. We see a figure of pathos that can only exist away from the eyes, the expectations and the judgement of society.
Men in the Australian bush are meant to be tough, resilient and, for better or worse, emotionally reserved. But this land of droughts and flooding rains so often takes its toll. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men aged between fifteen and forty-four, and those living in the more remote parts of Australia—notably farmers—kill themselves at twice the rate of their city cousins.
It is not uncommon for men to feel they have no-one to talk to, no-one to turn to when things aren’t going the way they are supposed to. That is all the more so in settings of relative isolation, where everything one has worked for—one’s livelihood and ongoing intergenerational existence on the land—is dependent on the vagaries of weather, commodity prices and one’s capacity to service a bank loan.
The man in Frazer’s work clings to the bare trunk of a eucalyptus tree, the fallen branches of which lie scattered around its base. There are, of course, many possible interpretations of why the man clings to the tree, and viewers will have their own explanations for the action in the scene. It is simplistic to suggest he seeks the maternal embrace of Mother Nature, but certainly plausible that he desires a connection to another living creature—one that knows his hardships and can understand his pain.
Frazer’s steady hand manages impressive detail, except, notably, in his subject’s face. The face is rough and geometrical, perhaps resembling a wooden puppet. We receive so much emotional information from facial expressions, so Frazer’s decision not to depict his subject’s pain through facial features makes the artist’s ability to communicate such emotional intensity all the more impressive. There are other juxtapositions in the work too. The clouds border on cartoonish, while the earth, patches of grass, wire fence and folds in the man’s clothes all appear lifelike. It works to guide our focus to where the artist intends it to fall.
A Victorian-based artist, Frazer has produced several artworks depicting rural Australia. These do not attempt to show its magnificence or natural beauty; they seek to show its ordinariness. In some cases, they communicate the despair and loneliness that come from combining mundaneness with enduring isolation.
Frazer’s effectiveness in evoking our compassion makes his work a natural fit for Australian Catholic University’s burgeoning art collection. The university has, in recent years, expressly placed the concept of empathy at the centre of its work, including through the mildly cryptic slogan ‘impact through empathy’. What we derive from Holding On is an immediate sense of compassion for the print’s central figure—a concern to not leave him alone once he releases his grip on the trunk of his eucalyptus. Frazer successfully stirs our sense of empathy and reminds us of the importance of caring for our fellow Australians, particularly those whose pain may not be evident until we are offered a glimpse into the otherwise unseen.