WE ARE ALLOWED TO LOOK OVER AMOR’S SHOULDER, IN EFFECT, AND WATCH HIM AS HE DEVELOPS AN ARTISTIC IDEA
found motif is modified in the process of making a picture can be followed in the next sequence of works. In the first, the artist has identified a subject in which he sees a symbolic potential, the unfinished Bolte bridge, of which he executes a fine and even meticulous watercolour study on a large scale (1998). The striking thing is how carefully he notes every detail of the bridge as it actually appears, before later returning to the subject and proceeding to strip away what is inessential to his purpose in a series of further studies.
The artist cannot always know exactly what that purpose may be, and therefore needs to record everything significant about a real motif, natural or man-made, like a botanist or entomologist collecting a specimen in the field. The process of deciding what to discard or modify begins, in this case, seven years later with a quick pen sketch (2005), in which we already see that the artist’s intention is to transform the unfinished bridge into a ruin. In a subsequent large-scale charcoal drawing (2006), the scaffolding that surrounded the end of the bridge is replaced by the ragged shape of crumbling reinforced concrete, while the structures in the foreground are reduced to skeletons.
The dock and harbour on the right are replaced with a swampy plain that signifies, in Amor’s pictorial world, a wasteland; in the distance, an unexplained plume of smoke balances the composition and contributes an additional element of menace. In the final painting, Coast (2006), the translation into oil painting emphasises the unnatural yellow luminosity of the sky against the dark silhouette of the ruined structure, emphasised by clearing away some of the remaining buildings on the lower left.
A similar working process is evident between the small gouache study of Brooklyn Bridge (1996) and the large oil painting Burning car (1997), in which the original view is animated by the sinister subject of the title, which also supplies a bright and hot highlight and contrasts with the gentle warmth of the sunset sky, and a little figure standing and watching on the right adds a further note of disquiet. Again, we can see how two scrupulously observed studies of real sites, Construction, Footscray (1998) and Western Suburbs (1998), precede a quick pen sketch that leads to the full-scale oil painting Study for Peripheral Landscape (1998), in which so much of the original information is pared back in the quest for the essential and the expressive.
Particularly striking in this whole process of gathering and discarding is the role of different media. Time and again, it is watercolour that is employed in the original notation of a site: it is a highly portable medium, far more convenient for plein-air work than oils, and capable in expert hands of rapidly setting down a wealth of information. At the same time, aesthetically speaking, this medium, in which the pigment is absorbed by the paper, has a tendency to flatness that is at once graphically effective and in a certain sense quite abstract, and there is a particular pleasure in the way that simple stains of different tones convince us that texture, form and depth are being evoked.
Ink drawing, in contrast, is used not for rendering appearances, but turning back into one’s own mind and thinking out compositio- nal ideas; it is, as it was for baroque painters, the pure medium of invention. And charcoal is employed to flesh out the ideas first sketched in ink, to work up the large shapes and the tonal structures of what will become a painting. The whole process, needless to say, is far removed from the cliche of the painter attacking a white canvas in an unpremeditated and feverish fit of creativity.
Even further from such popular misconceptions is Amor’s use of grids to determine the most effective placement of elements within his compositions. Sometimes artists are reluctant to show such drawings, whether because they are loath to reveal the secrets of the trade or are anxious about appearing to lack spontaneity. But here several works allow us to ponder the artist’s thinking and intentions. One is a charcoal study of a clump of trees; the drawing area is roughly 3:4 in proportions, and is divided into sixths both vertically and horizontally. Diagonals are drawn through the whole composition, and subsidiary diagonals in the right-hand half of the composition, while another diagonal line runs from the bottom midpoint to the first sixth at the top. It is this geometric pattern and these lines that help him make sense of what would otherwise be an unruly clump of trees.
A simpler case to understand is that of Empire of the Sea (1999), which begins with a careful watercolour study of an enormous buoy — the scale is given by the 44 gallon drum next to it resting on a jetty. The object sits to the left of centre on the rectangular sheet of the watercolour paper, but in the final composition it is to occupy a square canvas. Accordingly, a large charcoal study, in square format, is gridded into six squares vertically and an equal number horizontally. The central axis of the buoy corresponds to the diagonal of the square, while its upper right boundary is on the secondary diagonal from the lower right corner to the middle of the top line.
Particularly refined is the use of geometry in the beautiful watercolour study for The Silent River (2001), in which the height of the composition is divided into eighths. Fine pencil lines have been drawn from the bottom right corner to the third, fourth and fifth lines on the left, all significant intervals because the fourth represents the midpoint of the height of the composition, whereas 3:8 and 5:8 represent approximately the division of the height by the golden section (1:1.618); it is thus on the line from the corner to the golden section that the half-sunken carcass of an old boat is situated.
Such calculations may seem arcane to the uninitiated, but they are in reality an ancient part of the sometimes unspoken knowledge of painters, the first conscious and increasingly intuitive understanding of the invisible lines of force within the compositional matrix, as important for the artist as it is for the violinist to know where to place his fingers on the unfretted neck of his instrument. And they are an essential part of the transformation of the world in the process of invention, or of what for the past two centuries we have tended to call imagination.
Indeed this exhibition, with both its sketches from life and its artificial compositions, could serve to illustrate the continuum between the pre-romantic sense of the term imagination, as the ability of the mind to represent phenomena to itself, and the romantic sense, in which that process of representation entails a profound transformation. And it reminds us that the world remains a vital source of inspiration for the artist, even if it must also be reinvented and imbued with poetic meaning.
From far left, Amor’s Bolte Bridge Under Construction, South Side of the
Yarra (1998); charcoal work Coast (2006); and Coast, an oil on canvas from the same year