Mas­sive ar­chi­tec­ture and empty spa­ces give Rick Amor’s best paint­ings an in­scrutable qual­ity, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

A Sin­gle Mind: Rick Amor Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Melbourne, un­til July 13.

HAS a paint­ing bleaker than Rick Amor’s Door­way ( 2004) ever been painted? Not to my knowl­edge. The work de­scribes no more than the ti­tle in­di­cates; it’s an im­age of awe­some sim­plic­ity. But when you look at it, you feel as if some­one has hand- fed you a spoon­ful of ash.

Amor, a painter of night­mares in the guise of ev­ery­day scenes, is the sub­ject of an un­set­tling, of­ten bril­liant ret­ro­spec­tive at Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in Melbourne.

He is not the most con­sis­tent painter; too of­ten ev­ery­thing seems to be go­ing bril­liantly but the paint­ing falls at the last hur­dle. Some­times the prob­lems are tech­ni­cal: a fig­ure may be too stiff; clouds may sit too close to the sur­face in­stead of re­ced­ing; the luridly coloured un­der­coat may push through too ob­tru­sively. Other times it’s to do with the im­agery, which can feel con­cocted and be­laboured rather than ir­ra­tionally true, as great night­mare vi­sions do.

Yet at his best Amor can make you set aside any qualms and sur­ren­der to the un­al­loyed force of his im­agery.

The Heide show presents Amor at his best; in other words, it does what a ret­ro­spec­tive should do. There must be a half- dozen paint­ings here as fine as any painted in Aus­tralia in the past two decades. But it also shows us how he came to be where he is.

‘‘ A quintessen­tially Melbourne artist,’’ is how Les­ley Al­way, Heide’s re­tir­ing di­rec­tor, de­scribes Amor in the fore­word to the cat­a­logue. And in­deed, Amor stud­ied at Melbourne’s Na­tional Gallery School in the late 1960s, where his teacher was that other quintessen­tially Melbourne artist, John Brack.

When most of Amor’s con­tem­po­raries were pur­su­ing ab­strac­tion, Brack en­cour­aged him to pur­sue fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing and taught him, more im­por­tantly, to cul­ti­vate in­de­pen­dence.

For a while, mind you, he took only so much no­tice: early Amors look sus­pi­ciously like Bracks. There are the games with win­dows and re­flec­tions; the dis­tilled, car­toon- like styli­sa­tions; the stiff, stylised por­traits in howl­ingly off- beat colours; and the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with worka­day and do­mes­tic themes.

More than once, Amor man­ages to give Brack — his wry intelligence and vis­ual cun­ning — a run for his money. Tina Iron­ing ( 1973), for in­stance, is like a di­a­gram the sub­ject it de­scribes and a tour de force of cos­mopoli­tan wit, fondly sub­ur­banised.

The scene — of Amor’s wife, Tina ( once a wash­board player in a band he played gui­tar in) — is ob­served through an open door. The cor­ner of a stretched can­vas is seen in the fore­ground and cur­tains frame a win­dow at the far end of the room. The whole im­age, in sprucy pas­tel colours, is di­vided into rec­tan­gles and ev­ery­thing in it sits flat on the sur­face: there is no il­lu­sion of spa­tial re­ces­sion.

An­other im­age, Zoe ( 1974), shows a baby in close- up, fac­ing away from the viewer.

Her mother is hold­ing her up­right and burp­ing her. Her breast, pok­ing out from un­der a black top, re­mains ex­posed, wait­ing for the re­sump­tion of feed­ing. It’s pure Brack, an in­tensely in­ti­mate scene schema­tised into an ar­range­ment of lines

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