MAKE A SPLASH

Seren­ity and ex­plo­sive en­ergy are to be found in Peter Up­ward’s work, writes Se­bas­tian Smee Frozen Ges­tures: The Art of Peter Up­ward Pen­rith Re­gional Gallery and the Lew­ers Be­quest, Pen­rith, NSW. Un­til De­cem­ber 2. Brian Blanch­flower: From the Gen­er­a­tive E

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

PETER Up­ward was a ca­su­alty twice over. The cul­prit first time around was the swing­ing ’ 60s: Up­ward went to Lon­don, took too many drugs, fell for too much coun­ter­cul­tural gob­bledy­gook, and gen­er­ally lost the plot. He got it to­gether again, re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia to re­sume paint­ing and teach­ing.

But the sec­ond time around fate was less for­giv­ing. Only three years af­ter mar­ry­ing the painter Julie Har­ris, and less than two years af­ter the birth of their daugh­ter, his son from an ear­lier mar­riage, Matthew, died in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent. Two weeks later, in Novem­ber 1983, Up­ward suf­fered a mas­sive heart at­tack while walk­ing along Syd­ney’s Bal­moral Beach. He was dead, aged 54.

Up­ward made some of the most ex­plo­sive and — counter- in­tu­itively — some of the most serenely beau­ti­ful paint­ings of his time. Af­ter see­ing them it makes sense to learn that he was fas­ci­nated by para­dox, es­pe­cially as it came down through the teach­ings of Zen Bud­dhism, be­cause he had found a bril­liant painterly lan­guage to ex­press it: brush­strokes so big and bold that they look like the squig­gles of a fren­zied gi­ant; pools of paint so thick, vis­cous and sweetly coloured they look like melt­ing pud­dles of ge­lato.

Un­doubt­edly, Up­ward’s vis­ual lan­guage oc­ca­sion­ally re­sem­bles the ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist work that came out of the US and Europe in the wake of World War II. But Christo­pher Dean, the cu­ra­tor of a ret­ro­spec­tive of Up­ward’s work at the Pen­rith Re­gional Gallery and Lew­ers Be­quest, is at pains to dis­tin­guish Up­ward from th­ese ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists.

You can un­der­stand why: Dean feels ( and I agree) that Up­ward is sadly un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. His achieve­ment war­rants much more ac­claim than it has so far been given. And if all this is be­cause he is re­garded as merely a pro­vin­cial im­i­ta­tor of New York ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism, then one so­lu­tion might be to sever the con­nec­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, it doesn’t wash, un­less you cling to a very car­i­ca­tured no­tion of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism.

The fact is, ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist artists such as Robert Mother­well, Pierre Soulage and Franz Kline were fas­ci­nated by Zen- in­spired splashed ink cal­lig­ra­phy ( al­though Kline de­nied di­rect in­flu­ence), just as Up­ward was. They all liked work­ing on a large scale. And even though they were in­ter­ested in spon­ta­neous ges­tures and self- ex­pres­sion, they were also in­ter­ested in a sur­pris­ing new form of qui­etude, of mys­tery and para­dox.

It’s the usual story. So of­ten when art his­tory is in­voked to es­tab­lish an artist’s lin­eage, it re­lies on dras­tic sim­pli­fi­ca­tions. Thus, for in­stance, Jack­son Pol­lock’s drip paint­ings are as­so­ci­ated with ul­tra- mas­cu­line, drink- fu­elled, emo­tion­ally vi­o­lent ‘‘ ac­tion paint­ing’’, a car­i­ca­ture that in no way ac­counts for the un­earthly calm of his great­est pic­tures. Sim­i­larly, ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism is car­i­ca­tured as emo­tional, an­guished and ag­i­tated, in op­po­si­tion to min­i­mal­ism, the move­ment that suc­ceeded it, which was ul­tra- cool, in­ex­pres­sive and calm. But al­ready in the work of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists such as Pol­lock, Kline, Clyf­ford Still and Bar­nett New­man there were el­e­ments of the ex­treme re­duc­tive­ness we

as­so­ci­ate with min­i­mal­ism. So Dean’s ar­gu­ment that Up­ward was more of a proto- min­i­mal­ist than an ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist is equally strained.

The real rea­sons for Up­ward’s lack of worldly suc­cess are sim­pler, and sad­der, and they are hinted at in the bi­o­graph­i­cal data Dean sup­plies in his cat­a­logue es­say. Up­ward was un­lucky. He did not make the most of his worldly op­por­tu­ni­ties. He was dis­tracted by the blan­dish­ments of ’ 60s coun­ter­cul­ture. And then he died too young.

The best thing to do to re­store Up­ward’s rep­u­ta­tion is to give peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity to look at his paint­ings, and that is pre­cisely what Dean and Anne Lox­ley, the di­rec­tor of this ex­quis­ite Pen­rith gallery, have done. This is a splen­did show.

Robert Hughes, writ­ing as a 24- year- old in The Art of Aus­tralia , ar­gued that Up­ward’s paint­ings were prop­erly de­scribed as ‘‘ cal­li­graphic’’ be­cause they dis­pensed with any il­lu­sion of a third di­men­sion. This, thought Hughes, made Up­ward a ‘‘ purer’’ sort of ab­stract painter, and riskier, too: ‘‘ his aes­thetic strips his sen­si­bil­ity to the quick’’.

Up­ward’s paint­ings are in­deed risky — their ap­pear­ance of chancy spon­tane­ity is a big part of their ap­peal — but Hughes’s ex­pla­na­tion is not quite con­vinc­ing. See­ing Up­ward’s pro­gres­sion from hor­i­zon­tal, land­scape- de­rived ab­stracts, in­flu­enced by his teacher John Pass­more, to the bold cal­li­graphic works of the early ’ 60s makes it hard to miss his on­go­ing in­ter­est in spa­tial il­lu­sion. In the ear­lier works, in an ochre key, Up­ward makes great use of over­lap­ping colours and de­grees of trans­parency, which he brings alive with glaz­ing. It is im­pos­si­ble not to read three- di­men­sional space into them.

When he turns, in the ’ 60s, to the ‘‘ purer’’ works that made his rep­u­ta­tion, this in­ter­est in spa­tial am­bi­gu­ity doesn’t sim­ply dis­ap­pear. Rather, it is dis­tilled. Up­ward’s sweep­ing black lines, wild splat­ters and pud­dled full stops sug­gest not just the ‘‘ pure’’ space of cal­lig­ra­phy, but the branches of trees, the paths of in­sects against the sky: in­deed, all kinds of vig­or­ous move­ments oc­cur­ring, we may eas­ily imag­ine, in three­d­i­men­sional space.

In this sense, Up­ward can be com­pared to John Olsen, his friend and con­tem­po­rary, who for years has com­bined cal­li­graphic mark- mak­ing with close ob­ser­va­tion of nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena in an at­tempt to sug­gest states of in­ces­sant be­com­ing, move­ment and trans­for­ma­tion.

To say, as Hughes does, that Up­ward’s ‘‘ flat white tablets are merely a neu­tral ground on which the black ges­ture hap­pens’’ is not to have looked at the ’ 60s can­vases, which are never neu­tral. Look, for in­stance, at June Cel­e­bra­tion , Up­ward’s mas­ter­piece in the col­lec­tion of the Na­tional Gallery in Can­berra.

The artist uses grey washes and thin mist- like splat­ters to det­o­nate the empty ground on which the bolder marks are made.

Th­ese bold black marks sit in front of the washes. They are made at dif­fer­ent speeds, and with dif­fer­ent quan­ti­ties of paint on the brush. Some are brisk, thin and trans­par­ent. Oth­ers are dense, pud­dled, opaque.

All th­ese vari­ables, set against each other, cre­ate be­guil­ing il­lu­sions of space. Th­ese il­lu­sions may not al­ways be di­rectly in­spired by the nat­u­ral world. But they do ac­ti­vate the imag­i­na­tion, stim­u­lat­ing our sense of spa­tial am­bi­gu­ity.

What makes Up­ward dis­tinc­tive is not just his vis­ual re­duc­tive­ness but his con­trol of scale. Though his marks look free and spon­ta­neous, they are too big to have been made by mere sweeps of the hand. And while they sug­gest vi­o­lent, spas­modic move­ment, they are also full of the kind of tex­ture and weath­er­ing that sug­gests du­ra­tion, still­ness, seren­ity. His pud­dles of paint have cracks in them. Spat­ter sits on the sur­face like gen­tle rain.

In Lon­don, Up­ward — bless him — be­came in­ter­ested in as­tro­log­i­cal charts and horoscopes. Only two of his so- called Zo­diac paint­ings are in­cluded in the Pen­rith show. They are sup­posed to func­tion as sym­bolic por­traits in­spired by peo­ple’s as­tro­log­i­cal charts. Take it from me: you can live with­out them.

His out­put slowed dur­ing the ’ 60s as he went down the path of drugs and hip­pie phi­los­o­phy ( Dean more gen­er­ously calls it ‘‘ a time for self­de­vel­op­ment’’). He met peo­ple such as Allen Gins­berg and R. D. Laing and stud­ied the writ­ings of Wil­helm Re­ich, whose no­tion of ‘‘ or­gone en­ergy’’, or ‘‘ the free and pri­mor­dial en­ergy of the li­bido’’, seemed to an­swer to some­thing in Up­ward’s ges­tu­ral paint­ings.

He re­turned to Aus­tralia in 1971 ‘‘ a bro­ken man’’, ac­cord­ing to Dean. But he quickly got down to a new se­ries of works: pools, splat­ters and dripped lines of coloured resin ap­plied to cir­cu­lar mono­chrome grounds. Th­ese works seem more ar­ti­fi­cial and min­i­mal than the ear­lier ab­strac­tions, and yet their com­bi­na­tions of colour — light blue on dirty yel­low; mauve on a kind of apri­cot — are never less than orig­i­nal.

Up­ward is one of many artists who ought to have been the sub­ject of im­por­tant ret­ro­spec­tives at our state gal­leries. But in re­cent times, for what­ever rea­son, most of our state gal­leries have dropped the ball when it comes to pay­ing proper at­ten­tion to liv­ing, or re­cently de­ceased, artists ( un­less those artists con­form to te­diously pre­dictable aca­demic cri­te­ria). The sit­u­a­tion is dire, and get­ting more so.

Recog­nis­ing this, the John Curtin Gallery in Perth has taken an un­usual step in its at­tempt to cham­pion an­other ab­stract artist we ought to have seen more of: Brian Blanch­flower.

Blanch­flower, who was born in Bri­tain and has lived in West­ern Aus­tralia since 1972, has been col­lected by al­most all our state gal­leries, as well as the Na­tional Gallery in Can­berra, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York, the St­edelijk Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam, the Pushkin Mu­seum of Fine Art in Moscow and the Bri­tish Mu­seum.

But he has not been the sub­ject of a big solo show in a state gallery for al­most 20 years.

Blanch­flower paints in oils and acrylics, which he mixes with pumice pow­der and wax medium be­fore ap­ply­ing to sur­faces such as jute sack­cloth and lam­i­nated hes­sian. The re­sult­ing paint­ings, pinned to the walls, are en­tranc­ingly beau­ti­ful. With­out ever pre­tend­ing to be more than they are, they seem to con­tain whole worlds.

They breathe and pulse with mys­te­ri­ous life. Of­ten hung be­side each other in se­ries of two, three, four or five, their exquisitely re­fined fields of colour seem to want to melt into each other; but they re­main tan­ta­lis­ingly, achingly apart.

The John Curtin Gallery in Perth mounted the only se­ri­ous over­view of Blanch­flower’s post1989 work when it de­voted its en­tire gallery to the artist in 2002. In the wake of that all- too- short ex­hi­bi­tion, the gallery has spent sev­eral years and a great deal of money pub­lish­ing a post- event cat­a­logue, which re­pro­duces each work in the show and pho­to­graphs of their in­stal­la­tion.

I did not see the show: I was liv­ing in Lon­don ex­plor­ing hip­pie philoso­phies at the time. But I am more glad than I can say to have this cat­a­logue, since I be­lieve it records one of the most re­fined and ex­quis­ite bod­ies of work by a liv­ing artist any­where in the world.

Spa­tial am­bi­gu­i­ties: Peter Up­ward’s Jan­uary Sev­enth ( 1961), above; and Spar­ta­cus R ( 1971), be­low

Counter- in­tu­itive: Up­ward’s Punc­tu­a­tion ( 1970)

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