AGE OF ANXIETY
Jan Senbergs hit the mark with screenprints of tense, dystopian worlds, writes Sebastian Smee
TJan Senbergs: From Screenprinter to Painter Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney. Until May 25.
HE Jan Senbergs exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW does not set out to prove that one of Australia’s most exciting artists in the 1960s and ’ 70s went off the boil thereafter. But unfortunately, in a roundabout way, it does. The pity is not too great because the show, curated by Hendrik Kolenberg, the gallery’s esteemed curator of Australian works on paper, is a blast. It gathers together all the screenprints, about 70 of them, that Senbergs made between 1960 and 1979.
To me they are a revelation. They present a haunting, at times gorgeous, but always heavybreathing vision of industrial architecture, imposing mountains, plumes of smoke and plunging tankers. Each image has the abstract, design- conscious quality of a modernist collage: the space is flattened; the colours ( greys, blues and greens almost entirely on the cooler side of the spectrum) are determinedly artificial; and the scale is all out of whack.
Most of the shapes in each image are impossible to define as one thing or another. But all of them resemble certain types of things, hence the beguiling sense one has of the imagination being stimulated and thwarted at the same time.
More than anything, they remind me of the early poems of W. H. Auden in volumes such as Look, Stranger! ( 1936), a vision of a place ( in Auden’s case, the British Isles) with ‘‘ furnaces gasping in the impossible air’’, ‘‘ its military silence, its surgeon’s idea of pain’’. In such a climate, asks Auden, ‘‘ What can truth treasure, or heart bless, / But a narrow strictness?’’
It is, strange to say, the ‘‘ narrow strictness’’ of Senbergs’s vision that engages us most. Difficult to warm to, these images nevertheless have a charismatic disciplinarian’s ability to make us sit up, shut up and look.
The only trouble with the show is not so much that it takes up three rooms but that the third room is devoted to a smattering of large paintings made by Senbergs in the years after he abandoned printmaking in the late ’ 70s.
One or two of those from the early ’ 80s are fine. But coming on them after the dark, beguiling world of the first two rooms, you can’t help noticing a slackening off.
Senbergs’s paintings have something hokey about them. The handling of paint is broad and bold, but the images have no poetic intensity. The shifting perspectives and unusual vantage points are striking, it’s true, but they feel unnaturally forced, like a storyteller trying in vain to impress with sweeping gestures and pyrotechnical effects.
So what went wrong? And why did this brilliant printmaker decide to give it away?
Senbergs got into screenprinting almost by accident. Unlike his artist contemporaries, he did not attend art school. At 16, he was too young to get in. So, faced with a limited repertoire of choices, he took up a screenprinting apprenticeship: ‘‘ I’d never heard of it and when they said it involved lettering and layout, that sort of stuff, that’s how it started.’’
He served his apprenticeship for exactly five years, then turned to his real ambition: becoming an artist.
Screenprinting is a way of making multiple images by forcing coloured ink through a silk or nylon screen with a rubber- bladed squeegee. If you’ve tried it, you know: it’s fun.
When he started out, Senbergs used only paper stencils to block out the parts of the page he didn’t want inked. He made five or six stencil cuts for each image in those early days, putting on one colour after another, in that way building up layered compositions that suggested attractively wonky architecture.
He occasionally used bright colours, but tended to dull them down with glazes. Thus, the first room of this exhibition, devoted to work from the early to mid-’ 60s, feels a little overcast. Senbergs saw his imagery in sculptural terms and says: ‘‘ I thought at the time, and still think,
As his technique became more refined and sophisticated, the imagery became wilder
that when you work with sculptural forms, bright primary colours take away from the strength of the form. It wasn’t because I was gloomy or sad but because I chose to go for the sculptural rather than colourful.’’
As his confidence increased in printmaking and painting, he tried introducing hints of texture and complexity with drawn lines ( in pastel) and overpainting. He began to develop a language that hovered between figuration and abstraction. Everything remained vague, irrational, experimental. These early prints, he has said, were ‘‘ to do with a feeling for a new world and making some vague, slightly suggestive comment about it. But mainly I was concerned with creating some kind of inventive form.’’
In 1968, Senbergs introduced photo- stencils into his method and everything changed. He had spent much of the previous year in London on a Helena Rubinstein travelling scholarship, and there he saw the success that artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi, David Hockney and Richard Hamilton were having in printmaking. He shed his aversion to commercially applied techniques and began to make use of an Artiscope process camera. This machine allowed him to enlarge details from photographs he unearthed in books, newspapers and trade manuals, and transfer them to the silk or nylon screen.
Senbergs hit his stride. The images he produced back in Australia from 1968 onwards had a new clarity and a richer repertoire of forms, shapes and colours. Although they were ostensibly figurative, the impulses behind them were abstract. In this sense, Senbergs’s screenprints look quite different from the prints being made in Britain at the time. Brits such as Hockney, Hamilton and Derek Boshier, says Senbergs, ‘‘ were pop ( oriented), figurative and quite clear cut. I didn’t want that. I was going in a different direction. I wanted ambiguity.’’
Senbergs then set dark shapes against lighter grounds, sometimes gradated in hue and tone like an evening sky. The imagery came by instinct, not by preordained plan, but each finished picture is stamped with Senbergs’s innate formal rigour. Like almost everyone in the late ’ 60s and early ’ 70s, Senbergs was affected by the prevailing taste for minimalism. But even when his imagery was simple, it was disturbed by an undercurrent of busy- ness that emerged from his restless experimentation with the medium.
The war in Vietnam was on everyone’s mind at the time and Senbergs found himself as affected as anyone. His imagery became increasingly suggestive of dark forces, imminent or actual collapse, the eclipse of nature.
To some, including Patrick McCaughey in his recent book about Senbergs, the imagery conjured up the military- industrial complex, a catchphrase that had only just taken hold. Like the phrase, Senbergs’s works of the time create a vague air of foreboding rather than describing anything concrete.
In 1969, Senbergs used the same stencil to create two screenprints, each showing two tower- like shapes. A bleeding effect on the second image creates the impression that black smoke is pouring out of the towers. The result is remarkably evocative of the burning World Trade Centre in New York, albeit 32 years before the fact. At the same time, Senbergs says, he was painting a work called Monument and Collapsing Skyscraper . Eerie? If you go in for that sort of thing.
Senbergs used some stencils — one based, for instance, on a photograph of a crumpled rag — many times through several years, suggesting different things according to the context. He says he was reading a lot of absurdist literature at the time and indeed his imagery has a demotic, surreal aspect that is only a step away from the animated graphics of Monty Python’s Flying Circus .
If he was listening to the radio and heard an announcer say ‘‘ the incoming ministers in Canberra have arrived’’, the phrase ‘‘ incoming ministers’’ would trigger an image and be roped in as the title. If he made a screenprint based on a postcard of three buildings, he might call the finished print ‘‘ Women’s buildings, University of Oregon’’, simply because that was what was written on the postcard.
By the mid-’ 70s, Senbergs was firing on all cylinders as a printmaker. As his technique became more refined and sophisticated, the imagery became wilder and more anarchic. Some of his best paintings from the period — several are included in the first rooms of this show — combined screenprint and paint with great success.
But by 1975 he became suspicious, it seems, of this success. He describes one print from that year, The Good Looking Print , otherwise known as Harry was Right, as ‘‘ totally absurd, slightly surreal, partly self- mocking’’.
‘‘ I was confident,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s nice to be confident because most of the time you are full of self- doubt. But it was a period when I was getting too confident. That print is almost a summation: it’s time I left this more detached way of working. It was time to leave it alone, go back to the mark.’’
Senbergs did go back to the mark, both drawn and painted, and in the quarter century since then he has achieved considerable things. But I am inclined to think he gave away something genuinely poetic and inspired in favour of a kind of ‘‘ rhetoric of the mark’’, a sincerely held belief in the virtues of drawing that tends to override in importance the success or otherwise of individual works of art. As for painting, I don’t think Senbergs has a special gift for it. There is something desultory about his efforts in paint, no matter how splashy and ambitious the works appear at first glance.
At any rate, see this fascinating show and decide for yourself.
Revealing visions: From far left, Otway Night ( 1994), acrylic on canvas; The Flyer ( 1975), colour screenprint; and Collapsing Structure ( 1968), colour screenprint, by Jan Senbergs