REES’S WORK DE­MANDS AND RE­WARDS CLOSE AT­TEN­TION

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

with­out paus­ing and ap­par­ently with­out see­ing any­thing, as though the work, and es­pe­cially the draw­ings, were some­how in­vis­i­ble to them.

The at­ten­tion they call for from us is the con­comi­tant of that which went into their mak­ing, and that, as we see from the fine early draw­ings of St James or the semi­cir­cu­lar por­tico of what used to be the Trus­tees’ Room at the Art Gallery of NSW (1917), is not just a mat­ter of scrupu­lously copy­ing what is be­fore the artist’s eyes. In the first place, each pic­ture is based on the se­lec­tion of a mo­tif in which ar­chi­tec­ture and trees, art and na­ture, form a dia­logue be­tween the in­ten­tion­al­ity of geo­met­ric de­sign and the spon­ta­neous growth of or­ganic form.

Sec­ond, each of th­ese works rep­re­sents a grasp of light and shade that re­mains in­vis­i­ble to the care­less eye. The rea­son for this is that the eye makes in­stant and in­vol­un­tary mod­i­fi­ca­tions to its light ex­po­sure — in ef­fect the aper­ture of the pupil — when look­ing into brightly lit and shad­owed ar­eas. It re­quires a con­scious ef­fort, al­most a de­lib­er­ate act of detached vi­sion, to per­ceive the si­mul­ta­ne­ous con­trast of light and shade across the whole field of the com­po­si­tion; but the re­sult is to pro­duce some­thing that, in its com­bi­na­tion of ac­cu­rate ar­tic­u­la­tion and dra­matic chiaroscuro, seems more real than our ca­sual im­pres­sion of the ac­tual.

This ef­fect is even more strik­ing in a beau­ti­ful draw­ing of 1931, The Fig tree, McMa­hon’s Point, where there is greater con­ti­nu­ity and at the same time more sub­tle dis­crim­i­na­tions be­tween the shades of light and dark. But The Bridge, South Coast Land­scape (1936), which was awarded a sil­ver medal at the Ex­po­si­tion In­ter­na­tionale of Paris in 1937, takes the pre­ci­sion, the de­tail and the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of light and shade to the point of re­veal­ing the para­dox of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in its own be­wil­der­ingly elab­o­rate ar­ti­fice. The im­pres­sion of vivid life­like­ness com­posed of lines, shad­ows and even tiny dots in the sky is es­sen­tially a fic­tion.

All th­ese works re­veal a fas­ci­na­tion with lin­ear def­i­ni­tion, and for that rea­son a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in the shelv­ing forms of rocks that are among the nat­u­ral lin­ear struc­tures of na­ture. And yet it is equally clear that the lines of the rocks are sim­ply the shad­ows that gather un­der them; we sense even in the fore­ground of the draw­ing just men­tioned, but es­pe­cially in the swelling masses of the hill in the dis­tance, the artist’s in­ter­est in those nat­u­ral shapes that evade the def­i­ni­tion of line.

The ten­sion be­tween what can be ar­tic­u­lated by the defin­ing point of the pen­cil and the or­ganic forms of life that evade ra­tio­nal com­pre­hen­sion is the sub­ject of the frag­men­tary Study for the Port Jack­son Fig (c. 1934), which con­cen­trates only on the al­most cor­po­real mor­phol­ogy of the knotty trunk. It is also what makes fas­ci­nat­ing his later stud­ies of ge­o­log­i­cal forms, such as The Sum­mit, Mount Welling­ton (1974), which we can see both in the vivid sketch­book view done be­fore the mo­tif and the fin­ished work, a mas­ter­piece that is rightly cho­sen for the cover of the cat­a­logue. The lit­tle paint­ing of The Road to Berry (1947) is in­trigu­ing for the same rea­son: the lin­ear el­e­ment of the road, how­ever deeply it seems to gash into the land, can hardly tame the un­ruly tumes­cence of the hills: no won­der the pic­ture ap­pealed to White­ley.

This bal­anc­ing act be­tween the grasp­ing of what can be grasped and the ac­knowl­edge­ment of what can­not, or more ex­actly the use of the for­mer, like the most del­i­cate of sci­en­tific in­stru­ments, to sug­gest and re­veal the lat­ter, is at the very heart of great draw­ing. And this is the sort of qual­ity we should con­sider in re-eval­u­at­ing the canon of mod­ernism. Great artists who change the course of art his­tory will al­ways de­serve an em­i­nent place, but there are only a few of those in a cen­tury, far fewer than we may be led to be­lieve.

There are many oth­ers, how­ever, who are ca­pa­ble of open­ing our eyes to things we had never seen be­fore: and there is lit­tle doubt that Lloyd Rees is among that num­ber, as we walk back through the park out­side the gallery, dis­cov­er­ing in the trunks, branches and roots of the an­cient fig trees there forms that he has made patent and al­most tan­gi­ble.

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