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 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