‘Optical gyrations’

Our Mob, God’s Story: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists share their faith, Louise Sherman and Christobel Mattingley (eds), Bible Society

In one of last year’s better books, Position Doubtful, Kim Mahood writes about how indigenous peoples don’t just passively receive good and bad elements of introduced European culture. This, she argues, ignores indigenous agency and plays into Eurocentric and anthropological stereotypes of a fixed culture encroached upon by, and unable to resist, modernity. Instead indigenous peoples adapt, innovate, resist and utilise. This ability is on show in the Bible Society’s Our Mob, God’s Story, a coffee table book that celebrates Australian indigenous art with a Christian orientation, as well as marking the Bible Society’s bicentenary. The artists here tell the biblical stories through the style and symbolism of traditional and modern indigenous art, and display a Christian faith as deep as their connection to the land, and as vital as rain. In many paintings orientation is to the fore, in that the aerial view of much desert painting, which highlights orientation to land and community, here also includes the orientation that comes through faith.

There are variations in style, and variations in quality too, I suppose, but that may be subjective. There are paintings here in the Western Desert style, often described as one of the great art movements of the twentieth century, with their dot-patterned ‘optical gyrations’ and bird’s eye view of landscape and history, X-ray paintings from the far north, and paintings that incorporate European art elements. These harmonise with the subject matter – the Bible seen through indigenous eyes alert to story, country, justice and community. This is art with simplicity and depth.

It seems unfair to single out artists, but as an illustration of the breadth of the collection, we move from the easy movement of the dot paintings of Pitjantjara leaders Rupert Jack and Hector Tjupuru Burton to Daphne Davis’s stringy, black calligraphic figuration in vibrant backgrounds that recall Pro Hart. Susan Nakamarra Nelson offers controlled, pared-back scenes that are reminiscent of both colour field painting and Rover Thomas’s use of spacious planes. Julie Dowling’s highly accomplished work combines realism, subtle dot painting background and Renaissance iconography. Margy Adams, like Ian Fairweather, places blurry white stylised faceless figures in tight groupings. Fern Martins reimagines the Stations of the Cross and the Easter story in a bushfire-blackened and eventually rejuvenated forest landscape.

The art and faith here contradict the idea of Christianity as merely a foreign imposition on indigenous culture. The artists here show that indigenous culture can embrace Christian faith, interpret it in appropriate ways, find resonances with traditional beliefs and use it as a resource. In particular, the artists here tell personal stories of the value of faith, away from wider issues of culture. The book also shows that the process is two-way, with indigenous culture able to reinterpret and rejuvenate Christianity for the Australian context. Proceeds from the book fund the work of translating the Bible into indigenous languages, which in turn helps to preserve that culture.

Hockney at the NGV

At the last minute I almost didn’t go, as a glance at the catalogue showed that the exhibition was dominated by ipod and ipad pictures (heaps of them printed out on paper and merely pinned to the gallery walls). But I was pleasantly surprised, partly by the ingenuity of the myriad viewpoints and use of colour. And this is one of the things about this David Hockney show at the NGV (entitled ‘current’ so you are clear you won’t be seeing any of the iconic Californian paintings) – it is all about volume rather than particular works chosen for being iconic paintings. Apart, that is, from the gigantic painting (composed of numerous smaller canvasses) ‘Bigger Trees near Warter’, which is apparently the biggest plein air painting ever attempted. But even then, the painting fills one wall of a room, and if that wasn’t enough, it has been duplicated on paper in the same size on the other four walls of the gallery room.

david-hockney

Gallery-goers were ‘phew’-ing over the number of works, and it is true that the obvious diligence of Hockney’s painting every day is impressive. Not just for volume, but for noticing everything (a plant on a windowsill, a teacup) and thinking it worthy of capturing. Interesting though that most of the show is a gallery of reproductions (prints). But the quality of the printing is good, and the indulgence of colour is energising. And I guess one could think of this as like a photography exhibition. But whereas other artists may use the technology to do things impossible with paint, here Hockney is bending the technology back towards the traditional.

Yet in one sense, the medium dictates the message, because the lines in the i-paintings are clearly different from a brushstroke (even if the program he uses attempts to mimic the brushstroke). They have a characteristic curve that is different to the sweep of an actual brush. It’s this mix of the traditional and technological that is somewhat surprising. A room featuring Hockney’s manipulated photography shows that the i-equipment is not the only technology he is experimenting with.

One interesting thing about the ipad technique is that the program Hockney uses captures each brushstroke in its memory and therefore a video can be (re)played of the build-up of the picture. And what this shows is that these are not mere dashings-off, but many of these pictures are as painstakingly layered and re-worked as a traditional painting. In many ways the gaiety, the colour, the volume, the traditional still life, portrait and landscape subject matter, not to mention the technology, may tend to mask a serious artist.

Elsewhere in the exhibition is a (long) room of his famous recent series of dozens of portraits, all the sitters in the same chair with the same blue and aqua background. And again, it is the cumulative effect that is on show. Each individual portrait is what in a previous century may have been thought of as a study preparatory for a more serious work. Which may show that when Hockney is lauded as Britain’s best living painter, ‘best’ may mean quantity not quality. (Interesting that he continues to title works ‘bigger’ somethings. It seemed initially like too easily cutely playing off his reputation, but now I wonder whether he is simply interested in doing bigger or more than everyone else.) Each portrait is full-length, and because the sitters (literally) are in a chair, what tends to dominate, weirdly, are the feet and legs.

What is missing in the exhibition is drawing, and I know that there are sketches of the same subject matter that crops up in the i-paintings. But then black and white works may seem out of place in an exhibition so dominated by bright colour.

At the NGV – Degas

edgar-degas

It’s a little ho-hum that the NGV’s winter blockbuster exhibition is yet another Impressionist exhibition, not because of the quality of the art of course but because of the predictability of the public’s love of Impressionist art, but then if you are going to see an Impressionist, Degas is the one, at least from the perspective of someone interested in drawing. Degas is one of the few artists in this league for whom drawing plays as important a role as painting, and is not merely preparatory study, as it would continue to be right through the twentieth century. And in an exhibition like this the comparison of the pastels and the paintings (let’s leave aside, for the moment, the charcoals and prints) is invaluable. Firstly, it shows how similar they can be. His pastels have the depth and work of the paintings, while there is something about the luminescence of some of his paintings that are like the effect of pastels. And his technique is similar in both media – the angled, jabbing strokes, not only finely worked but overlaid. Indeed, apparently, the exhibiton notes tell us, Degas used layering of pastels to achieve the depth, applying lacquer in between the layers. He was something of an innovator when it came to media, occasionally crushing pastels, wetting the powder and applying it with a brush, which then blurs the line between painting and drawing. He experimented with tools for engraving and also revived the craft of monotype (the method of applying paint or whatever to glass or metal and pressing paper onto the plate to make a generally once-off print) which was barely used in his day, but became much more popular into the twentieth century. One can perhaps see why when we look at Degas’ prints, which have a decidedly modern feel to them.

Degas was not quite the entire Impressionist. He rarely ventured into painting the countryside en plein air. When he did do outdoor scenes they were primarily to show his beloved races, and the countryside is merely a backdrop for his groupings of figures, in this case, horses. Indeed, groupings, groupings everywhere in this exhibition. The odd angle, the cut-off bodies and heads, the asymmetrical groupings all show the effect photography, and its ability to candidly capture and not arrange, had on his art. Compare his earlier painting of Spartan youth, which required a great hulk of a building to hold down the centre of this very classical painting, to the later paintings of groups of ballet dancers where he was unafraid to whack a great hunk of nothing in the middle of the painting (or even better, not quite in the centre of the painting). His paintings and drawings of nude women or dancers, in particular show how keen he was on capturing the awkward pose in an attempt to convey not elegance but everyday life. (If you count ballet as everyday life.)

degas-sculpture

The exhibition also contains a fair smattering of his bronze figures which are charming in their disarming size and continuation of his fascination with the contortions of the human body.

At the NGV: Jan Senbergs

Jan Senbergs

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.

Michelangelos on Rothkos

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon and the Masters (Fontanka Publications)

This catalogue from a recent show at the University of East Anglia focusses on Francis Bacon’s process of creating paintings, particularly in regards to the inspiration he gleaned from old masters (it might be a bit of a stretch to describe Picasso as an ‘old master’. Nevertheless…). Bacon may have a reputation as a formidable twentieth century artist, but in many ways, like Lucian Freud, his art partook of the conventions of the history of Western art, if one thinks of the overriding theme of portraiture in his work, the creation of triptychs, as well as the obvious references to older paintings (of Velazquez, Van Gogh).

Going beyond this, Paul Joannides, one of the writers of the essays in the book, describes Bacon’s portraiture as similar to, and inspired by, ancient sculpture, including the way in which Bacon ‘mounted’ portraits on tables and the like within the canvasses. I think also that the serenity of the backdrops, in contrast to the smudgy, grainy brushwork of the figures, act as a form of framing within the frame. Some of his pictures look like blurred and distorted Michelangelos on Rothkos. There is also something here of the religious icon painting tradition, where the background itself is more than a background and becomes part of the frame. At times Bacon’s figures are framed by the blank canvas, and in a similar fashion the Fauves would leave bits of blank canvas showing through, as a contrast to their intense and deliberately overemphasised colours.

The figures in Bacon’s paintings are not conventionally beautiful and are more often than not rather disquieting, but, like Freud, he is not out to shock for shock’s sake. His paintings say something about the human body, and the fact that the figures in his crucifixion paintings are like slaughterhouse carcasses rather than Greek statuary (as they are in many Western depictions of the crucifixion) makes this point well, as well as making a certain amount of sense considering that crucifixion was a gruesome rather than noble way to die – the intention was to completely strip the victim of humanity. Bacon had a fascination for deterioration in the human body, and the tragedy in this, and this catalogue makes a link between the messiness of the human body and the (famous) messiness of Bacon’s studio. The detailed documenting of Bacon’s studio detritus may seem part of the modern conceit regarding the importance of modern artists, part of the hagiography of modern artists, that assumes any piece of ephemera is of interest to the general public, but this catalogue suggests that, in this particular case, understanding Bacon’s studio helps us understand Bacon’s influences, not just through the pictures of artworks and photos of friends piled there, but because the state of their preservation (or lack thereof) was a key to Bacon’s interpretation of them in the paintings.

Fantastical Fairweather

fairweather

Fairweather, by Murray Bail (author of Eucalyptus), about the painter Ian Fairweather, is a beautiful book, not only because of the quality of the reproductions, but because of Bail’s insightful commentary.

There is something fantastical about Fairweather’s life, like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Fairweather, born in Britain, travelled eventually to Asia and China in often very trying circumstances. Clearly he had what we might call issues of some kind. He valued solitude and in Asia avoided fellow Europeans wherever possible, as well as taking all sorts of abruptly terminated jobs, all the while sketching and painting on whatever he could lay his hands on. He eventually turned up in Melbourne and for a brief moment, really the only one in his life, was part of a local arts community. Otherwise, for almost all his life, he despatched artwork to dealers by post and almost never attended even his own exhibitions. As with other artists (Van Gogh springs to mind), he was saved from destitution only by the tenacious support of particular dealers (such as Macquarie Galleries in Sydney). Fairweather himself “avoided the art world like the plague”. In contrast to say, John Olsen, constantly feted at luxurious Sydney restaurants by celebrities, Fairweather, suggests Bail, is often forgotten.

The hardships are amazing – painting and living in near poverty in China, in freezing conditions; living in the Philippines in a house in stilts in the jungle; his occupation of a rusting, partly demolished navy ship in Darwin, where rain would run down the walls; his self-constructed huts on Bribie Island, one of which was ruined by bushfire; his deportations as a vagrant; his death-defying raft journey across the Timor Strait. In London, a shipment of paintings destined for an exhibition arrived in one coagulated mess. In Brisbane he painted too dry and when they were finally removed from the walls of the abandoned movie theatre in which he was living, a group of paintings crumbled and flaked. The owner of the theatre found them and burnt them.

He was “not the most reliable commentator” on his own output. He wrote to a gallery owner disowning paintings that were clearly his. Titles of his paintings can be arbitrary. Critics that Bail quotes were clearly in two minds about his work, though he had his fierce enthusiasts, such as Robert Hughes.

Despite all this, his work displayed a delicate beauty. Although borrowing from the post-impressionists, his work has none of the garishness of the Fauves. It is all pale pinks, blues and grays, and fawny browns, splashed with calligraphic black. The boundaries between painting and drawing blurs. The influence of Chinese calligraphy is obvious – Bail writes that the strength of line keeps turning up in Fairweather’s work – a trait Fairweather had to work on, as initially, upon visiting master calligraphers, Fairweather himself suddenly saw his own work as lesser in comparison.

His landscapes at first glance can look insubstantial, then crystallise as something mutedly beautiful. His more abstract, cubist works show the influence of Asian and aboriginal art, and the influence of the Australian landscape, but he is markedly different from Drysdale, Nolan, Boyd, Williams and Olsen, and, says Bail, the comparisons are often as unhelpful as they are helpful. Bail argues that there is no artist quite like him.