PAINT AS IF YOU RE­ALLY MEAN IT

A crop of ex­hi­bi­tions at com­mer­cial gal­leries holds some un­for­get­table sur­prises, writes Louise Hear­man To­larno Gal­leries, Flin­ders Lane, Melbourne, ends to­day. Philip Wolfha­gen Chris­tine Abra­hams Gallery, Rich­mond, Melbourne, un­til Novem­ber 17. Ab­stracti

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Se­bas­tian Smee

THE head of a hippo. An eclipse. A cloud. A boy in a field. The head of a dog. There is no ex­plain­ing the im­agery of Louise Hear­man and only a fool would want it oth­er­wise. Hear­man is one of the most in­trigu­ing and pow­er­fully strange painters at work to­day, and her show at To­larno Gal­leries in Melbourne, her first in her home town for 10 years, was eas­ily the most in­volv­ing of the dozen or more shows I saw there last week.

Hear­man paints in oils on Ma­sonite. Her pic­tures are fairly small, most of them about 60cm high and wide. But they are dark and sen­su­ous, and their grip on the imag­i­na­tion is thrillingly slip­pery.

One minute you are awed by the sheer con­gested force of an im­age: a jumbo jet, for in­stance, its outer skin blurred, its in­ner in­tent im­pla­ca­ble and threat­en­ing. The next you are star­ing into the help­less, id­i­otic eyes of an in­fant, its blond head, out of scale, sus­pended ab­surdly against a land­scape. To the first im­age, the only pos­si­ble re­sponse would seem to be si­lence; the sec­ond may as eas­ily elicit gig­gles. Try to make the two images com­men­su­rate and you can’t. But try, al­ter­na­tively, to push ei­ther one of them out of your mind and the task is just as dif­fi­cult.

It’s this lat­ter qual­ity, the abil­ity to come up with ut­terly un­for­get­table images, that makes Hear­man such a re­mark­able artist. In the end, baf­fling as the sources of her im­agery may be, it’s re­fresh­ing not to be able to pick her. So many artists seem to pre­fer ob­vi­ous­ness and imag­i­na­tive clo­sure, as if they feared peo­ple not know­ing what to say about them. Con­se­quently, they pro­duce work that is still­born.

Hear­man of­ten iso­lates her sub­jects mid­pic­ture against fields of deep, lus­trous black. She likes sources of light that are low, lo­cal, in­tense and ir­ra­di­at­ing. Things glim­mer in her pic­tures; at times they are al­most phos­pho­res­cent.

It’s a height­ened vis­ual reg­is­ter that some­times calls to mind films — The Sixth Sense , for in­stance — in which spot­lights are used to make pale- faced chil­dren seem spook­ily en­dowed with su­per­nat­u­ral abil­i­ties. Other choices of sub­ject mat­ter re­in­force the cin­e­matic con­nec­tion: a man ap­proach­ing a car seen from be­tween trees or a dog gam­bolling on a hill­top, its fur ringed by ra­di­ant light.

But no story- line emerges. And soon enough any sense that the air of strange­ness may be sec­ond- hand or re­liant on cin­e­matic cliche is dis­pelled by the many images that seem to ar­rive out of nowhere. Some of th­ese break away from re­al­ism, cin­e­matic or oth­er­wise, to em­brace uniquely painterly free­doms.

Look, for in­stance, at the pic­ture in which a white cat leans in the same di­rec­tion as sev­eral arch­ing pink and white lines that may or may not be flower stems. Or at the gor­geous, feath­ery field of green paint that sur­rounds the boy’s down­cast head in one of 11 images de­voted to chil­dren.

Hear­man is a fiercely at­ten­tive artist; the magic in her images comes from this. She uses light not, fi­nally, as a cin­e­matic de­vice or con­cep­tual strat­egy but as a rich source of imag­i­na­tive fo­cus. Af­ter all, light does much more than aid vis­i­bil­ity; it also im­parts strange­ness, am­biva­lence, emo­tion. Noth­ing in the show il­lus­trates this more force­fully than the bravura paint­ing of the hippo’s head, a most un­likely com­bi­na­tion of ethe­re­al­ity and sheer phys­i­cal heft.

Hear­man’s tech­ni­cal abil­i­ties are get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter, which in turn grants her imag­i­na­tion more and more free­doms. She has a lush way with paint and a con­fi­dent touch. In sev­eral paint­ings, the brown Ma­sonite board has been left bare where a lighter, or­angey brown note is re­quired. Else­where, the paint may be scum­bled and bro­ken or vel­vety and smooth.

Hear­man is not the only artist who man­ages to com­bine tra­di­tional oil paint­ing skills with an orig­i­nal and very con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­ity. But some­thing about the qual­ity of her en­gage­ment with her sub­jects, a pre­car­i­ous bal­anc­ing act be­tween per­verse whim and sheer con­vic­tion, makes the wink­ing mock­ery of bet­ter known artists such as Amer­i­cans John Cur­rin and Lisa Yuskav­age look pre­cious and self- re­gard­ing.

Con­vic­tion is some­thing I rarely ques­tion in front of the paint­ings of Philip Wolfha­gen. All the same, some­thing is miss­ing. Wolfha­gen lives in Tas­ma­nia and paints lush, at­mo­spheric land­scapes us­ing a pal­ette knife, cre­at­ing a blurry, un­fo­cused ef­fect.

The pal­ette knife, as artists such as Cezanne and Courbet knew, pro­duces lovely, cake- like tex­tures. In land­scapes, it can as­sist in con­vey­ing a sense of airy ex­pan­sion by cre­at­ing a sub­tle op­ti­cal patch­work, break­ing up any ten­dency to fix on a sin­gle van­tage point.

In Wolfha­gen’s latest paint­ings, which are al­most ex­clu­sively de­voted to clouds and sky, with only a few hints of sea and head­land, the sense of airy ex­pan­sion is there, but it is muf­fled by pon­der­ous han­dling and what seemed to me an overly ap­prox­i­mate treat­ment of form.

Wolfha­gen works in se­ries. He hangs can­vases side by side in dip­ty­chs or larger se­quences, and some­times paints two sep­a­rate views on the same can­vas, each view di­vided by a ver­ti­cal zip of coloured paint. This se­rial approach, as with Monet’s paint­ings of the same sub­jects seen in dif­fer­ent con­di­tions, is pre­sum­ably de­signed to bring home a sense of na­ture’s evanes­cence, its con­stant mu­ta­bil­ity.

But em­pha­sis­ing the mu­ta­bil­ity of a cathe­dral or a cliff, as Monet did, is one thing. Paint­ing clouds in the same way is quite dif­fer­ent, since we know even be­fore we look at them that clouds are mu­ta­ble. This may sound a needling point, but I am try­ing to get at why Wolfha­gen’s paint­ings in­creas­ingly lack any trac­tion or psy­cho­log­i­cal

ten­sion. It’s not just that the ac­cre­tion of paint on his sur­faces can of­ten work against the pos­si­bil­ity of per­ceiv­ing vol­ume and at­mos­phere. It’s that his images lack the ten­sion cre­ated by speci­ficity.

Wolfha­gen has been se­duced by a se­ri­al­ist aes­thetic. It may an­swer to the no­tion of na­ture’s flux, but it does his pic­tures no good. I do think he has tremen­dous abil­i­ties and great sin­cer­ity. But, in this show at least, no one of his paint­ings seems more im­por­tant, more truth­ful, more emo­tion­ally res­o­nant than the oth­ers.

At Charles No­drum Gallery, an ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to ab­stract paint­ing ( the dealer’s sixth in as many years) proves that even images of noth­ing can be full of emo­tion and for­mal ten­sions. No­drum says sell­ing ab­stract paint­ings re­mains dif­fi­cult here. But he re­mains undeterred and his Ab­strac­tion shows are a con­tin­ual reve­la­tion. Not only does he source early work by well- known artists who have gone on to other things ( this show, for in­stance, in­cludes a large and fas­ci­nat­ing 1975 paint­ing by Gareth San­som), he also finds won­der­ful things by artists who have been un­justly forgotten.

The real show- stop­per is an un­stretched paint­ing on col­laged can­vases, one rec­tan­gle pasted over an­other, by Peter Kaiser. It’s called From Ispha­han , and its colours sug­gest the bleach­ing sun, blue sky and cit­rus hues of Per­sia as much as the ti­tle.

Kaiser was born in Ber­lin, ar­rived in Aus­tralia in 1940 and moved to France about a decade later. He died in France in 1995 but had main­tained his Aus­tralian con­nec­tions in the in­terim. I have not seen enough of his work to make any grand state­ment about his achieve­ment, but if this work ( re­pro­duced, by chance, along­side his en­try in the new McCul­loch’s En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Aus­tralian Art) is any­thing to go on, he was se­ri­ously good.

One of the plea­sures of the No­drum show is the hang. It’s as sen­si­tive as a mu­seum hang, lift­ing it well above the stan­dard stock shows that com­mer­cial gal­leries start to pre­pare about this time of year. The Kaiser, for in­stance, hangs close to a Brian Blanch­flower Canopy paint­ing, also on un­stretched can­vas. A Karl Wiebke paint­ing in red and orange hangs near an even more gor­geous Al­lan Mitel­man in a sim­i­lar key.

There is a rare and stun­ning paint­ing with flo­ral mo­tifs by Lud­wig Hirschfeld- Mack, an­other Ger­man- born artist who died in 1964 af­ter 24 years in Aus­tralia; a 1968 paint­ing by Syd Ball to com­pare with one from 2004; an ex­quis­ite blue and white striped paint­ing by De­bra Dawes; and ter­rific ex­am­ples of ges­tu­ral ab­strac­tion in­spired by Asian cal­lig­ra­phy by Roys­ton Harpur and Peter Up­ward. ( Up­ward is the sub­ject of a post­hu­mous ret­ro­spec­tive in Syd­ney at Pen­rith Re­gional Gallery & the Lew­ers Be­quest.)

One of the plea­sures of do­ing the rounds of the com­mer­cial gal­leries is that you can lurch be­tween ut­terly di­ver­gent styles and sen­si­bil­i­ties on the same af­ter­noon with­out hav­ing some clever- sticks cu­ra­tor telling you what it’s all sup­posed to mean.

I can’t think of two artists more op­posed in style, phi­los­o­phy and back­ground than Michael Zavros, show­ing at So­phie Gan­non Gallery, and Lofty Bar­dayal Nad­jamer­rek, show­ing with mem­bers of his fam­ily at Mossen­son Gal­leries. Zavros is a well- dressed, good- look­ing young man who paints highly re­fined and lit­eral images based on fash­ion pho­to­graphs. Some peo­ple de­spise his work. I agree it’s dif­fi­cult to like, but as I’ve said pre­vi­ously in th­ese pages, there’s some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing about their air­less­ness and the in­ten­sity of their self- re­gard.

Nad­jamer­rek, who is more than 80, was taught rock paint­ing by his fa­ther in the 1930s. His role in the record­ing and doc­u­ment­ing of rock art sites in Arn­hem Land, his con­tin­ued role as a cer­e­mo­nial leader and his promi­nence as an artist in his own right won him an Or­der of Aus­tralia in 2004.

He is one of the stars of the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia’s in­dige­nous art tri­en­nial, Cul­ture War­riors, and he played a cru­cial role in Cross­ing Coun­try, the ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­hi­bi­tion of bark paint­ing from Arn­hem Land at the Art Gallery of NSW three years ago. His vis­ual style has evolved from the X- ray style of rock art, and he paints cre­ation spir­its, rain­bow ser­pents and na­tive fauna such as kan­ga­roos and snakes with, at times, dev­as­tat­ing im­me­di­acy.

Against all ex­pec­ta­tion, Nad­jamer­rek flew down to Melbourne for the open­ing of the show, which in­cludes work by three gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily. It may well be his last.

At­mo­spher­ics: Clock­wise, from far left, Un­ti­tled # 1213 ( 2007) by Louise Hear­man; Un­ti­tled – Draw­ing ( 1961) by Peter Up­ward; New Delir­ium VI ( 2007) by Philip Wolfha­gen

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