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