Archive for September 2018

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)