FORGET ME NOT
Only a handful of artists working today will be remembered in 2048, writes Sebastian Smee
WHO are Australia’s best living artists? Such a simple question, yet you’d be surprised how rarely it’s asked. In the art world press, it’s common to read articles about our ‘‘ hottest emerging talents’’. In the company of art lovers you may also hear arguments related to the past: about whether, for instance, Fred Williams was better than Sidney Nolan; or whether Brett Whiteley was worth getting so excited about; or whether John Brack was more than just a Melbourne phenomenon. All these questions are fun to consider: they enliven our sense of history and help to clarify values.
But they do so within parameters we can all agree on: the history is written, the retrospectives have been held, the reputations established.
Much harder is to ask which Australian artists working at their peak today will be the subjects of books and retrospectives at our leading galleries in 20, 30 or 40 years. Who will be given the kind of attention that artists such as Williams, Nolan and Arthur Boyd are given today?
It’s hard because inherent in the question is the deeper question about which values we think will endure and which will be revealed as fleeting fashions, mere confetti on the zeitgeist.
No one can answer this with much confidence, and not just because it requires speaking for more than oneself. The greater problem is that art today is almost ungraspably eclectic. There are no recognisable movements. There is no credible centre. And there is no coherence in art practice at all. It’s truly a case of anything goes: any medium, any image, any philosophy.
Rather than feeling threatened by all this, I say we should welcome it. After all, compared with film, theatre, music and even fiction, contemporary art looks extraordinarily robust right now, and not just in the market ( where it’s bound to take a dive soon). You need only look at attendance figures for the galleries that show it and the amount of publishing activity about it. The interest is so much stronger than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
As this interest expands and deepens, people are increasingly willing to think for themselves; to respond to what they like and to react with disdain to hype, platitudes and pretension.
The great movements of the 20th century — cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, minimalism — were manifestations of the zeitgeist, yes; but they were also expressions of groupthink, safe havens for followers and secondraters. At their worst, these movements snuffed out individuality. Today, by contrast, the key values in art are individuality and conviction: to hell with movements.
It doesn’t really matter in today’s terms whether you are laboriously carving wood in a desolate studio on the outskirts of Los Angeles or making videos of men in bear suits with the help of a team of assistants: the important thing is that you do what you do with conviction, and that the results stick in people’s minds. Conviction, unlike almost everything else about art, can’t be faked.
Sadly, the curators at our state and national galleries — those people who help to forge reputations by honouring living artists with retrospectives — are not so comfortable with the new eclecticism. They are stuck in the old paradigms, thinking in terms of movements and zeitgeists.
Thus, having established the reputations of older artists such as John Olsen, Rosalie Gascoigne and Jeffrey Smart, these curators have begun sifting through the next generation, the artists who came to prominence in the late 1970s, the ’ 80s and early ’ 90s. And instead of looking for mavericks, they have tried to spot movements.
The best they could come up with were the academic incarnations of postmodernism that came out of tertiary institutions in the ’ 80s and ’ 90s. Thus, the notable retrospectives of the past two years — the shows aimed at cementing reputations at our leading art museums — were devoted to Gordon Bennett, Imants Tillers, Mike Parr and Juan Davila.
All four take their cue from academic theory. All forged careers out of questioning the possibility of originality. And none has shown any faith in the idea of individuality. Not one of them, needless to say, would make it on to my list of the best artists working in Australia today. So who would? Let me first explain my criteria. I am not including elderly artists whose reputations — indeed, legendary status — are already established. Thus Olsen and Smart are immediately disqualified. Nor do I want to plumb for younger
stars, such as Benjamin Armstrong, Del Kathryn Barton, Daniel von Sturmer, Brett McMahon, Ricky Swallow, Tonee Messiah, Joe Frost or Daniel Crooks, even though I am confident all of these artists will carve out rock- solid reputations in time.
Instead, I want to concentrate on artists no longer in their 30s but not yet in their dotage; artists who already have an extensive body of work behind them and who — though they may be well established in the art world — are not so well known to the wider public.
In short, I want to answer this question: which Australian artists working at their peak today are likely to be celebrated well after they are gone?
I have included in my list only one Aboriginal artist and no dot painters, despite the fact Aboriginal art is such a key part of Australian art discourse today. This is not because I do not feel confident judging Aboriginal art. It’s because I believe its success in the market does not reflect its quality, which is rarely high.
For too long now in discussions of Aboriginal art, people have been getting artistic excellence confused with sociopolitical pieties and patronising, ill- considered forms of romanticism. I believe I am far from alone in holding this view, but one rarely hears it expressed because almost everyone with expertise in Aboriginal art has a finger in the commercial pie.
I have also left out some of the bigger names in recent Australian art, such as Tracey Moffatt, Peter Booth, Michael Johnson, John Firth- Smith, John Peart, William Robinson and Patricia Piccinini. I admire them, but some aspects of their various achievements leave me unconvinced.
All of the artists on this list have been written about at length, by others and me, elsewhere. So I will keep brief the explanations of why I have included them.
HENSON is a photographer who continues to find magic in the medium when most of that magic seems to be leaking away. His images of solitude, erotic commotion and trembling intimacy are as beautiful and emotionally turbulent as ever. Forget the better known Dusseldorf School of photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth; Henson, along with South Africa’s Roger Ballen, is among the most interesting photographers at work today.
FRANK’S knack for combining rampant beauty with a kind of scathing indifference makes him one of our most thrillingly unpredictable artists. His abstract varnish paintings, created during the past eight years and which conjure associations with landscape and a characteristically 21stcentury sense of mental drift, are stupendous seductions of the eye. The best of them can hold their own in any company.
ANOTHER brazen individualist. Sansom, like Frank, has truly come into his own in the past 10 years. His anarchic side still pulses through his paintings, which express the confusions, the pleasures and the rebellions of the psyche. But his sense of colour and form has been refined to a point where it seems he can do whatever he likes.
HALL works in ways that already seem to be falling out of fashion. She favours installations and long series of works that riff on ecological and political themes. But her work will last and continue to impress because it is so full of wit, so original and so grown- up. It is conceptual art with a human pulse and it never fails to delight.
MAWURNDJUL’S bark paintings of the rainbow serpent Ngalyod and, more recently, the Mardayin ceremony are impossible to forget. They relate the drama of ritual to visual forms and patterns that seem to squirm across the surface of the already undulating bark he prepares and paints on. The best of them are spellbinding images — sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract — that flicker with light and syncopated visual rhythms.
ADMIRED across the country, Cummings has yet to be given a large retrospective at one of our state or national galleries. Her achievement has been to bring the intimiste language of Pierre Bonnard to bear on the openness and expanse of the Australian landscape. She is an original colourist and her paintings ripple with evidence of all her decisions. They are gorgeously alive.
HARRIS is an artist who combines humour with the ability to disturb. His images combine the simplifed graphic language of cartooning — usually magnified and cropped — with abstraction. The overall effect is surreal and openly sexual. But the imagery often works only as a lure. More compelling is Harris’s subtle and often scintillating feeling for colour.
THERE are many Australian abstract painters nearing the twilight of their careers who deserve to be much better known. Geoffrey de Groen, from Taralga, NSW, is one of them; so is Melbourne’s Allan Mitelman. Western Australia’s Blanchflower is yet another. His large, hessian canvases pinned to the wall are uncanny in their ability to channel and distil the vastness of sky and earth. Hung in pairs or triptychs, their exquisitely refined fields of colour seem to want to melt into each other, but they remain tantalisingly, achingly apart.
FURLONGER is breathtakingly prolific and much of his output can seem unremarkable. But a good eye could easily compile a Furlonger retrospective that would instantly put him in the first rank of Australian landscape painters, up there with Olsen, Nolan and Williams. His work has drawn on all these artists, especially Ian Fairweather. But he arrived long ago at an idiom — so gorgeously breezy — that is his own.
For the long haul: Opposite page, clockwise from top left, John Mawurndjul’s bark painting titled Milmilngkan ; Understorey by Fiona Hall; Borrowed Plumage # 3 ( To the River) by Brent Harris. This page, Untitled , a photograph by Bill Henson