Scale matters, and comes into force in the current and most welcome Jan Senbergs exhibition at the NGV. I admit to being overwhelmed half way through the exhibition, knowing that a return visit will be needed to take it all in. There is almost an overindulgence of work on display. The works are largely bold and heavy and imposing; the more recent cityscapes inspired by medieval maps lightening the mood. The older works, where they look simply dark reproduced in a book, have a compelling presence in the exhibition.
Senbergs is an underrated Australian painter, perhaps because he is not out to shock and tends to lack the sensuality of Brett Whiteley, or the elder-statesman status of John Olsen or the irony of, say, Jeffrey Smart. Yet like Smart Senbergs finds beauty, or more correctly, interest, in oddly industrial landscapes. Though in his earlier work there are Dada-ist collage-y effects, in the crisp screen prints in particular, the juxtapositions are more subtle and less jarring. You are often not quite sure what you are looking at, unlike Dada where familiar objects are recognizable but placed in surrealist opposition. Senbergs is inspired by busy landscapes, even in Antarctica, where he focussed on the detritus surrounding the scientific bases. He likes piles of junk. This results in much of his work being a happy cacophony of lines or marks. His cities grow haphazardly and precariously like coral reefs. He has never quite shaken the cubist influence in his early work – the jumbled forms – though it shows through in more muted fashion lately.
I like Senbergs’ tendency to blur the line between drawing and painting, by painting and drawing on the same (often large) sheet of paper, and by his tendency to emphasise line, like Giacometti. His black pastel drawings are particularly imposing, and when he adds a little brown or grey he is judicious. When drawing a city the work can seem like frenzied calligraphy, though that is not quite right as there is a strong measure of control. The drawings of his large, crowded studio in Melbourne have been described by Patrick McCaughey as ‘haunting’ but that is a stretch, they are merely remarkably attentive to detail (which McCaughey also notes). In contrast to these huge works there is a wall of small framed drawings, hung together, that shows a more delicate tendency, but these drawings also fill the page.
When he uses colour in the more recent works such as the Aireys Inlet paintings they have a restless, Arthur-Boyd-ish quality. This has developed into a lovely recent series of bushfire paintings where the relentless mark-making occurs in the rendering of black tree trunks. His tendency to alleviate the mass of marks in the Melbourne paintings with spaces of water (Port Philip Bay, etc.), inspired by the Chinese landscape tradition where mist sets off the gnarled rocks and willows, is here done with the smoke that drifts in the valleys. These paintings tend to show how comfortably Senbergs has settled into his style, and how effective it is.