and colours, fond yet unsentimental, domestic yet urbane.
Amor worked in the mid-’ 70s as an illustrator and cartoonist. He had moved with his wife and two children to a cottage at the residence of Daryl and Joan Lindsay in Baxter, Victoria, and there he wrestled with his conviction that art should be engaged with life, the private and the political. He was reading left- wing British critic John Berger and looking at some of the expressionist work of Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker.
Setting aside his preoccupation with flat, geometric forms, he painted an important series of works showing his children playing in the garden. Much fresher and looser than his earlier works, this new style recalled the paintings of Stanley Spencer, the eccentric English painter of everyday scenes infused with visionary intensity. They had a disturbing undercurrent of the kind one often finds in fairytales.
In the early ’ 80s Amor and Tina separated and she and the children left. This period of personal crisis was also a turning point in his art. He began painting imagery that related directly to dreams in a dark, clotted manner that had obvious affinities with another Melbourne artist, Peter Booth.
The first of these, painted in 1982, was called, with admirable directness, Nightmare and it showed a man standing on a shattered pier, arms raised imploringly, as if one of Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary figures looking soulfully out to sea had finally found the pressure of existence too much and gone barking mad.
These images were not entirely contrived: Amor had begun painting en plein air with a friend, Andrew Southall, the previous year and they liked to visit the docklands and industrial areas of Williamstown, according to Linda Short, the exhibition’s curator.
Gradually, out of the various elements preoccupying him at the time, Amor worked up a repertoire of archetypal settings ( many relating to childhood visits to the sea) and figures: most notably the figure of a running man, which grew out of his earlier pictures of running children and was developed through a series of reiterated drawings and, later, paintings and sculptures.
Then, as his vision matured in the late ’ 80s and ’ 90s, Amor unclotted his brushwork and hushed down the element of hysteria. More subtle motifs appeared in his work: dream imagery that felt less obviously universal ( the solitary runner, the roiling sea, the lowering sky) but was all the more affecting. He became preoccupied by empty spaces, dead zones and voids, and also by massive, looming architecture that dwarfed his figures and occasionally the viewer.
A wonderful early example is Still Life ( 1992). It’s not, as the title may indicate, a delicate arrangement of innocuous items on a kitchen table but a haunting, inexplicable scene that is hard to push out of one’s mind. A brilliant white shirt is shown pegged by its sleeves to a washing line suspended across a narrow industrial alleyway. Much of the painting is taken up by an elevated network of pipes and steel beams resembling one of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. But it’s the shirt, suspended pathetically like the dead Christ before his deposition and casting a small and forlorn shadow, that rivets the attention.
Paintings such as The Ante- room ( 1993), in which three figures are seen waiting in a theatre beneath a massive reinforced column, and The Call , which shows a man taking a phone call in an empty office many floors up, continue the preoccupation with emptiness and looming architecture. They also bring to mind the paintings of Edward Hopper, America’s poet of urban solitude.
Briefly, Amor shows himself interested in Hopper’s glinting light effects: in, for instance, Celestial Lane ( Three Trees) ( 1989), a shadowy reprise of Hopper’s greatest painting, Early Sunday Morning ( 1930). But again and again he returns to dull, ashen atmospheres that crush the spirit; and, not incidentally, suggest another abiding influence, late 19th- century Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi. Hammershoi painted empty interiors with solitary figures seen from behind and unpopulated city architecture. His paintings had an enigmatic stillness, reinforced by their near- monochrome key.
In The Empty Shop ( 1991), Amor arrives at something close to Hammershoi’s shattering vacancy, but a figure reflected in a window at the far left of the canvas ruins the effect somewhat, bringing to mind cliches of solitude rather than a genuinely indifferent emptiness.
This is why Doorway gives such a shock. The black of the interior, framed by daunting grey columns, is not enveloping and velvety as some dark voids can be but simply repelling. The eye bounces off it and instantly loses the will to look again. It is a fantastically depressing painting. If it brings to mind the parable of the law in Franz Kafka’s The Trial (‘‘ This door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it’’), it does so viscerally, not as a neat intellectual allusion.
Doorway is so impressively distilled and ruthlessly executed that it makes some of the surrounding imagery feel a little hammy. The tiny running figure in Wonderful Life ( 2002), a Jeffrey Smart- like painting of an empty street beneath a raised freeway, acts as a spoiler, bringing theatre to an image that might otherwise have been magnificently mute.
The same goes for the burning car in an earlier, related painting, Burning Car Under the Bridge ( 1997), and the running figure in 1995’ s The Beach .
Amor is at his best when he is most inscrutable, when you don’t feel conscious of symbols or recurring motifs but pulled into an atmosphere. It’s an atmosphere that doesn’t communicate emptiness so much as thwart communication.
Aside from Doorway and Still Life , I think Amor’s best paintings are probably his depictions of ancient exhibits in museum interiors. His portraiture, which is hung in a separate room at Heide, is rarely better than workmanlike. The subjects here include poet Dorothy Porter and crime writer Shane Maloney, but none of the paintings offers anything much in the way of real life. Amor’s self- portraits are much better. The intensity of the scrutiny behind Self Portrait on the New York Subway and Self Portrait in a Grey Jumper ( A Month out of Hospital after a Bone Marrow Transplant) , painted in 2004 and 2005 respectively, is hard to miss.
The inclusion of drawings and studies in the show provides a marvellous opportunity to get inside Amor’s working process.
I emerged from the show convinced not only of Amor’s singularity in contemporary Australian art — there is really nobody like him — but of his importance. His commitment is unmistakable, his intelligence acute, and his best images impossible to forget.
Uncommon vision: Main picture, opposite page, Morning in the Outlying Districts ( 2003) by Rick Amor; and, left, the artist’s Doorway ( 2004)