The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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)

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