Jan Sen­bergs hit the mark with screen­prints of tense, dystopian worlds, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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