MASTERS OF MODERN ART FROM THE HERMITAGE

These big shows overwhelm me. Apart from the audience crowds there’s the celebrity of the artworks themselves, with their big, colourful personalities. Indeed, it’s colour (and at the end, its absence) that really is this show’s theme.

Summer blockbusters are crowdpleasers, and for that you can’t go past Monet. The mark-making of his Poppy field is rough as hell but tonally it’s perfect. Standing in front of this, you squint through the sunshine; feel the breeze riffle your hair.

 

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Poppy field, 1890/91, oil on canvas, 61 x 92 cm

 

It was fabulous to see two whole wall of Matisses, although like John McDonald I wasn’t a fan of the glaring yellow wall colour. It did make me feel the heat of the Mediterranean though.

Game of Bowls  is both puzzling and magnetic. It doesn’t seem like anything much, and I’m often not a fan of his figuration (there, I’ve said it in print. Yikes…) but it was very hard to drag my eyes away from this one. Once again Matisse nails both forms and tone: the rhythmic positioning of the almost – black heads and balls is delicious.

 

Henri Matisse (1869-1954 )  Game of Bowls, 1908, oil on canvas,115 x 147 cm

 

I came across an artist I’ve not heard of, whose work was a welcome respite from some of the noisy psychedelia of the show. It allowed me some breathing room and I found it soothing. Albert Marquet is associated with the Fauves but his palette is as you can see much more restrained, for which I was grateful.

Again, tones win the day and I found the light in this, as well as the composition, both balanced and satisfying. I especially enjoyed the quiet interplay between the sequences of oar/standing figure in the foreground and middle ground, with the outline of mast and rigging in the distance. This linear discussion considered and over with, we could then enjoy the quiet saturation of the sky at the top of the work, before discovering on the right side of the work a gentle echo of the previous conversation. More on Albert Marquet here.

 

Albert Marquet (1875-1947 ) Bay of Naples, 1909, oil on canvas, 62 x 80.3 cm

 

For all the visual excitement of those colour-saturated Moderns, it’s Malevich’s Black Square that has gotten under my skin. I didn’t expect this.

That period, the first decade or two of the 20th century, saw several artists experimenting with the strange new ideas of abstraction – Kandinsky; Mondrian; af Klint – and each of these with some sort of spiritual component to their concerns.

I stand before Black Square with a century of Abstraction under my belt. It could never possibly hope to convey the original meaning. It was created at a time of great change and excitement in art, however very soon it would become increasingly dangerous for artworks to be created if they were seen to create ‘public unrest’ or were ‘decadent’. It’s  hard to get a good sense of that today. Malevich was ok up until Stalin’s takeover in the 1920s. After that his career didn’t do so well and at times he was obliged to create socialist realism  posters for the State.

In its inaugural exhibition,  0.10 in 1915, Black Square was positioned high in the corner of the room. The ‘red corner’ or ‘beautiful corner’ was where an icon painting would hang in a traditional Russian home. [1] For Malevich to adopt such a presentation spoke eloquently about how he regarded his work, and the ideas behind the work.

Malevich was trying to get away from the pictorial, the descriptive and invent a new language, where a painting was not descriptive of something, but- like an icon – was an object of magic in itself. This was Suprematism. Phillip Shaw from the TATE tells us that Malevich announced  that ‘To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling’.[2]

In recognition of the superlative nature of Malevich’s ideas – and he is considered one of the founding fathers of Abstraction –  the Curators at the AGNSW have given the work a wall of its own, and it is the final statement in the show.

 

Kasimir Malevich (Ukraine, 1878-1935 ) Black Square, this version 1932 but originally 1913, oil on canvas, 53.5 x 53.5cm

 

But Black Square in 2018 is small, cracked and…well, humble. It comprises simple materials that are now, naturally, degrading. There is something about its uncompromising presence that I found moving just as we may be moved when reading the headstone of someone famous.

All the artists in the show are long dead, but I don’t feel like this about any of the others. Maybe it’s the nakedness of it; like the bald head of a monk. It’s not showing virtuosity or brilliance. We’re not transported by the fascinating composition or saturated colours. It’s unapologetic and at one time was very sure of itself. And as we know, this never lasts.

It ended up talking to me of human endeavour, exploration and courage. It stood for the endless ways artists will come to the creative act.

 

 

[1] https://tmora.org/happening-now/online-exhibitions/a-homespun-life-textiles-of-old-russia/complete-diorama/red-corner/

[2] Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003), p. 67            quoted in Shaw, Philip: The art of the sublime: Malevich’s Black Square, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/philip-shaw-kasimir-malevichs-black-square-r1141459

The creative

 

Choose your own path, 2018

mixed media on A5 paper

 

It took a long time before I realised that one must answer the call to create. Not just when I felt like it. Not just when I felt inspired or had time. There is a respect that must be paid to …well…whomever or whatever you  call it. That divine wellspring. The origin.  This is a poem about that.

 

The creative 

This  the demand:

 …your ‘yes’ must be oceanic. Wide, glad-hearted. Dark

is OK: troubled, turbulent, all that, just keep on. The shoreline

shows up only at your final depletion…

 

Her skin is hot, her arms  a drawstring strained

around kids, lover, home.

 

Here’s her mouth loosening. A howl, a torrent

down her cheeks as out she wades.

 

Oh brave and brave, knowing herself

insufficient, yet strangely perfect for the job.

 

(for A.C.)

What a wonderful world: the work of Sue Smalkowski

 

Alpine wildflowers

2018, oil on linen, 100 x 100cm

 

Every now and then an art teacher or critic will nominate an artist as ‘a painter’s painter’ – not necessarily a helpful title, as it implies that painters exist as some exclusive little coterie. There’s already too much hype and mystique surrounding the art-making process, ironically paralleled by a  scandalous lack of Government support.

However I’ll admit the term keeps coming to mind when considering Sue Smalkowski’s work. Look – anyone making interesting, well-resolved paintings will be worth checking out, but there’s more to it than that. There’s an engagement some painters make with the actual physicality, the sensuality, of paint that makes those who regularly pick up a brush stop and take notice. There’s a frisson.

 

Surrounding escarpment

 2018, oil on linen, 122 x 122 cm

 

Then there’s a ‘tell’- and anyone who’s ever sat in a Gallery and observed the viewers will back me up here. It’s a certain posture a painter adopts when they recognise a work they could and probably should learn from. They may adjust spectacles if any… step forward carefully to a position very close to the work, as though straining for a whispered message… then the chin comes up. There follows a minute examination. You see that a lot in front of a Smalkowski piece.

Sue’s been working for 20 odd years, along the way establishing herself as a teacher of watercolour painting (a strand of her practice to be addressed another day.) I met Sue at TAFE in the nineties and have always admired both her talent and her modesty. The art scene is highly competitive, which doesn’t hurt, but the muddy end of the pond can be tainted by envy and bitterness (and probably too much alcohol.) Someone like Sue who is quietly getting on with the job is a reminder that there are, indeed, practitioners who don’t have some overblown sense of their own importance. They stave off self-doubt and chronic discouragement and make great stuff anyway.

Sue has an intense love of Nature, but the fact that the works spring from her response to the natural world may be almost beside the point to a viewer. Her paintings are not pictorial descriptions, even though the artist talks about experiences of actual places and times. Sue recalls the colours of a wildflower or a cliff-face from when she made her plein air studies, but the finished paintings do not make me marvel at the wonder of nature. They are about themselves and to me that’s precisely where the interest lies.

I simply fall in love with the art object itself. There is a vibrancy to her colour choices that nonetheless avoid the ‘too sweet’ zone. Then there is the rhythm of the works – that is, the journey the eye is taken on: the pauses; the quiet areas; the more vocal parts. I don’t get a chance to get tired or bored, and in that sense alone, it’s as though we are indeed on a bushwalk, or gazing into a rockpool: there is so much to see. Sue acknowledges inspiration from (amongst others) Elizabeth Cummings and John R Walker, both superlatively expressive painters. Like her, they respond to landscape with somewhat calligraphic expressions and a savvy and satisfying colour sense.

Where Nature sings I

2018, graphite and watercolour on paper, 68 x 54cm

Sue’s drawings – typically graphite with washes of watercolour- have a different flavour altogether. Like her paintings, the drawings are assiduously created but these are minutely observational descriptions of flora and fauna. Perhaps inevitably for someone educated in contemporary art practices, they owe a debt to John Wolseley in terms of a faithful description complemented by lyricism. The pieces read as light and somehow ‘natural’, despite what must be many hours of work and careful compositional consideration. It is these pieces that bring us more directly within earshot of the world’s song.

Both the paintings and the drawings make me want to keep looking,  but then I also want to run home to paint:  another reliable ‘tell.’

Nature’s calligraphy, solo show by Sue Smalkowski, opens soon at Frances Keevil Gallery

Opening Event 29 September 5-7 pm

Show runs 26 Sept – 14 Oct. Gallery hours Tues-Sat 10 till 5; Sun 11 till 4. (CLOSED MONDAYS)

 

Getting the paperwork done

This is a different kind of show. Organisers Sue Buckton and Janette Loughrey, two long-term friends, business partners and creatives, were inspired by a trip to Mexico last year. They loved the objects crafted from paper that they saw there, and the idea for this group exhibition was born.

 

 

It’s a great mix of approaches, from  character filled birds (Sue Buckton) to a diorama image conjured from childhood memories (Lea Tucker). There is the chance to dress up your own paper doll with clothing of the exhausted 21st century parent (Alice Henchlon) and delicate, calligraphic paper mache strings of colour and whimsy from Jan Loughrey.

 

Show opened Friday Aug 31.

Show runs 10 – 3pm till  Sunday 9 Sept at Red Point Gallery, 100 Wentworth Street Port Kembla. 

Group show at Wollongong Art Gallery

It’s a delight to be included in IAVA: NOW, a group show of artists from Illawarra Association for the Visual Arts. We’re showing at the beautiful Wollongong Art Gallery, this year celebrating its 40th Anniversary

IAVA NOW showcases the work of Arja Välimäki, Deborah Redwood, Gillian Day, Jennifer Jackson, Jennifer Portman, John Kennedy, Libby Bloxham, Liz Jeneid, Mary Wingrave, Paula Schiller, Robert Reid, Sue Smalkowski, Alannah Driese, Alena Kennedy, Angela Forrest, Judy Bourke, Lara Seresin, Megan Seres, Melissa Ritchie, T.S. Zaracostas, Susan McAlister, Ken Tucker and myself.

 

IAVA NOW

Wollongong Art Gallery

cnr Burelli & Kembla Streets Wollongong ph 02 4227 8500

Opening Event Friday 6 July @ 6pm

Exhibition runs Thurs 5 July to Sunday 2 September

Gallery hours: Tues-Fri 10am – 5pm; Sat/Sun 12 – 4pm

Free event, refreshments provided, all welcome.

 

65th Blake Prize: thoughtful, but the numinous was hard to find

We visited  Casula Powerhouse this week to see the Blake Prize.

I’m always delighted to reach this quiet bushy spot so close to Liverpool, with its own bell-bird glen. I enjoy the venue, with its soaring ceilings and the indigenous map built into the floor.

The exhibition this year was thoughtfully presented but to me it largely lacked depth, or sometimes relevance.  I have to agree with the oft-curmudgeonly John McDonald here. Moving away from an insistence on Christian expression (which was the original premise of the prize, back in 1949) was of course both necessary and appropriate if the Prize was to remain in any way relevant.

 

This year’s winner: Tina Havelock Stevens, Giant Rock, 2017 (still from video)

 

 

No problem there, but many of the works just failed to engage me. McDonald rightly notes that ‘religion’ is all about a group of believers, whereas ‘spirituality’ is a more individual idea. Again, that’s not necessarily a problem.

Many people nowadays weave their own sense of the sacred from whatever scraps they can find – bits of childhood magic, the rise of a post-institutional animism arising from ecological concerns; feminist practices that overlap with neo-paganism. There is also aesthetics and the consoling power of beauty.

I have found some new (to me) artists however, whose work is well worth mentioning and following.

I enjoyed the video by Nasim Nasr 33 beads (unworried) # 2 showing an anonymous woman, her face totally obliterated by her hair, with spotlit  hands holding and working worry beads – traditionally a male practice. Gradually other women’s hands appear and also work the multiple strings. In the end the beads are violently torn apart.

Still from the video 33 beads (unworried) 3 #2 by Nasim Nasr

Nasr is an internationally recognised Iranian artist now living in Australia.

 

I was disturbed and I guess, diverted  by Greg Semu’s   Dead body of Christ in two parts, a photographic self-portrait in two frames, referencing Holbein the Younger’s astounding ‘coffin-cam’ work from 1521.

 

Hans Holbein the Younger, The body of the dead Christ in the tomb, oil and tempera on board, 1521.

 

 

Greg Semu, Dead body of Christ in two parts, photograph in two frames.

 

The image I’ve had to use here was an earlier iteration, in one piece. The Blake entry  is literally in two framed pieces -one piece is his head, neck and shoulder, the other has the remainder of the body.

The pieces sit either side of a corner,  accentuating the unusual proportions. Float mounted against a blood red mat with lush, cinematic lighting a la Bill Viola , it features Semu’s Samoan body tattoos and opaque contact lenses so he looks rather shockingly like a doll.

Semu uses his own body and that of other indigenous people in some interesting video and photographic works  referencing and  deconstructing Christian iconography.

My own favourite though was far from sensational. Mark Tweedie had two entries in the show, both understated and painterly.

I loved ‘Now I lay me down’, a modest size painting of his dying grandmother in bed.

Mark Tweedie, Now I lay me down, oil on canvas, 41 x 31cm

Quiet, economical, calm and contemplative, it  brought me closer to prayer than anything else.

TOUCH OF RED: – two anniversary shows

Turns out there are two significant anniversaries this year:

Red Point Artists Association celebrates 10 years of hard work that have resulted in an arts hub in the middle of slowly – gentrifying Port Kembla. A touch of red celebrates this with a group show at the Red Point Gallery featuring sculpture, ceramics, assemblages and painting. I have a piece in this show which is sensitively  curated by Kathy Orton and  Janette Loughrey.

 

The idea of requiring everyone to include the colour red in their work wasn’t universally welcomed and not everyone held to the brief, but the ubiquity of red throughout the gallery certainly contributes to a feeling of dynamism and excitement.

Opening Event: Saturday 12 May @ 2.30pm

Show runs Wed-Sun, 10 till 4,  and is on till Sun May 20

 

Meanwhile, in the Wollongong CBD, Wollongong Art Gallery is celebrating 40 years as an art institution by inviting various community groups to hold exhibitions in the upstairs Community Gallery, rolling out over the year. Red Point Artists are continuing with their ‘Touch of Red’ theme for this show which opens Saturday 19 May @ 6pm.

Wollongong Art Gallery, cnr Burelli & Kembla Streets Wollongong

Touch of Red Opening Event Saturday 19 May @ 6pm

Show opens Tues-Fri 10am till 4pm; Sat/Sun 12-4

Show runs Saturday 19 May till 1 July

ALL WELCOME

 

 

There’s gonna be a hangin’….

For the past several years I’ve curated a local community art show. It was an honour to be asked to perform this important task and I’ve been glad to do it. My dear partner acts as my ‘gopher’ during the day, helping me position, re-position and re-re-position  the many artworks over and over. By the end of the day we are totally trashed.

Back in 2014, the first year I did the show. Ahn Do’s beautiful Wombat Man in the background…

It gives you an interesting take on the art though. Of course,  you can’t indulge the luxury of considering a work properly at this time. You’re mainly concerned with the formal aspects of a piece – it’s blue or red, it’s busy or spare in composition, it’s impasto or smooth – because it’s these aspects that impact on where it will look at its best and how it may effect it’s neighbours.

You do however quickly develop strong opinions about framing. There are many rubbish frames out there, people. Step away from the rubbish. Sorry. I know what it’s like to have no money for paint, let alone framing…but…well, there it is. Save your pennies and then get it done properly.

By the end of the day though, you find yourself having subconsciously absorbed the quality of some standout works and you fall in love with them, and with art generally, all over again. That’s after your third beer of course, when your feet are up.

Thread III

 

 

 

 

It’s great to be exhibiting with these four powerful women again. Thread III will be a varied and interesting show. Get on down and join us!

THREAD III

Red Point Gallery, 100 Wentworth Street Port Kembla

Opening event: Sunday 22 April @ 2pm. Artists will discuss their work.

Refreshments provided, free entry.

Show runs Wed 18 April till Sun 29 April

Gallery open Wed till Sun 10 till 4

Gallery is wheelchair accessible. Refreshments provided, all welcome.

 

Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing 2018

Ever heard that cliche ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ ? Yep, me too. But rule number 1 in art criticism is to put your personal taste to the side, and try to really analyse what you’re looking at.  OK, I’m not an art critic but I do try to approach a show critically and make some kind of reasonable judgement about things.

A friend and I had a great time at this year’s Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing and by the time we approached  Ceara Metlikovec’s winning piece, Indigo 5, we were maybe a bit over-excited. Certainly I didn’t give it the time it deserved.

 

Ceara Metlikovec, Indigo 5, 2018, graphite on Fabriano paper, 140 x 94.5cm

The piece is quiet; contemplative. It’s a closely positioned set of ruled verticals of various tones, carefully built up,  reminiscent of a barcode or a DNA read-out.  It’s also apparent how labour intensive the piece must have been, which makes it a reflection on mortality. After a while it reminded me of the transparent curtains separating the congregation from the deceased, prior to a cremation.

What I didn’t understand till later was the acres of white paper that the work didn’t cover. The drawing is reasonably substantial in size but is drawn on a huge piece of paper, and offset in the right top corner of the paper. There is more white paper than drawing. I found it unsettling, and only belatedly recognised this as a ‘masking off’ of the total reality of someone. The drawing is a kind of portrait, but as with any portrait you are seeing a mediated image; an incomplete reading of someone through the perception of the artist.  I ended up deciding this was a thoughtful and worthwhile piece.

It didn’t get my Peoples’ Choice vote though! That went to another problematic work, by  Robert Ewing:

 

Robert Ewing,  Fractured Landscape number 3

coloured pencil on cotton paper, 56 x 76cm

It’s a real testament to the power of a work when you don’t exactly enjoy it, but you can’t take your eyes off it and it makes you feel unsettled.  Ewing’s bioforms (I can’t really call them trees) are phallic and otherworldly. His colour choices are intriguing and shouldn’t add up but somehow they do.  He’s onto something.

Of course we both loved Tom Carment’s economical drawings of family around the table at Christmas time. He has a light touch and wonderful observation of the quotidian. I don’t know how often Carment actually wins awards but every exhibition he’s in is the richer for his inclusion. There will always be more spectacular works as he’s the master of understatement, but I love his quiet virtuosity.

Tom Carment, Family in Perth

dip pen and ink on paper, three sheets each 30 x 42cm