Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

John Beard, The Gods (1984-85). Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia Art Col­lec­tion, gift of Nun­zio Gu­mina, 1993. On dis­play, Lawrence Wil­son Art Gallery, Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia, Perth, un­til Septem­ber 28.

FOR three years John Beard painted por­traits of his fel­low artists for the Archibald Prize. Fi­nally, in 2007, he won the cel­e­brated award with his pic­ture of friend Janet Lau­rence.

In the two pre­vi­ous Archibald com­pe­ti­tions, he’d painted Ken Unsworth and Hi­larie Mais, and while those pic­tures didn’t take the top prize, they were hung in the fi­nal­ists’ ex­hi­bi­tion.

Beard’s cri­te­ria for choos­ing his por­trait sub­jects could be con­sid­ered pretty tough. He once said he had to like the artist, know them as a friend and re­spect their work; they also had to be ‘‘ rea­son­ably good look­ing’’.

While Beard is well known for his por­trai­ture, he is also ver­sa­tile in his artis­tic prac­tice: the year be­fore his Archibald suc­cess, he won the cov­eted Wynne Prize for land­scape with his paint­ing The Gap.

Born in Wales in 1943, Beard im­mi­grated to Perth in 1983 to take up the po­si­tion of head of paint­ing at the Western Aus­tralia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (now Curtin Univer­sity). Be­fore mov­ing to Aus­tralia, he’d been awarded the Welsh National Art Schol­ar­ship in 1962, aged just 19, and had stud­ied at the Univer­sity of Lon­don and the pres­ti­gious Royal Col­lege of Art, Lon­don.

When he re­signed from teach­ing in 1989, he be­came some­thing of a nomad, trav­el­ling ex­ten­sively and es­tab­lish­ing stu­dios in Lis­bon, Lon­don and, in 1997, Syd­ney. While he still con­tin­ues to paint and ex­hibit, he also has held sig­nif­i­cant ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tions, such as a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Given Beard’s dis­tin­guished ca­reer, it is in­ter­est­ing to look back at one of the first paint­ings he pro­duced af­ter mov­ing to Aus­tralia. The Gods (1984-85) doc­u­ments his ini­tial im­pres­sions of a land­scape as viewed from the per­spec­tive of the out­sider. Cre­ated dur­ing a pe­riod when he was in­ter­ested in neo­ex­pres­sion­ist paint­ing, it blurs the bound­aries be­tween ab­strac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion.

The Gods is on show at the Lawrence Wil­son Art Gallery, on the cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia, and when I visit Perth I’m shown the paint­ing by Ted Snell, Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia mu­se­ums di­rec­tor and a Perth-based art critic for The Aus­tralian.

When Beard ar­rived in Aus­tralia he oc­cu­pied a large stu­dio in Fremantle and his work adapted to the mas­sive scale the space af­forded. He pro­ceeded to pro­duce works such as The Gods, which high­lights thick lay­ers of paint and scraping into the sur­face.

‘‘ The Gods shows that he came out of the royal col­lege at a time when there was a strong in­ter­est in Pi­casso and Pi­casso’s late works,’’ Snell says. ‘‘ You can see that Pi­cas­soesque con­struc­tion of the fig­ure and very, very densely worked acrylic.

‘‘ John was work­ing in a stu­dio in Fremantle, an old ware­house which had a tin roof and it was fiercely hot. He is a ma­cho sort of guy and he loved the idea that he had to work so quickly be­cause it was so in­tensely hot and this acrylic paint was dry­ing so quickly.

‘‘ He was paint­ing th­ese very large can­vases and they were quite dif­fer­ent in terms of their sur­face and their pre­sen­ta­tion of Western Aus­tralia. He was us­ing a dif­fer­ent palette, a much more acidic and acer­bic palette than any­one else was us­ing.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Snell, Beard’s work came as a shock to many artists and he had an im­pact on many of his stu­dents be­cause of his en­ergy, his ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment.

‘‘ John was def­i­nitely the iconic fig­ure who was do­ing things that were to­tally dif­fer­ent, with en­ergy and an in­ter­na­tional fo­cus, and this was a dra­matic and rad­i­cal change in at­ti­tude to the way many lo­cal artists thought about their work.’’

Syn­thetic poly­mer paint on linen; 203.2cm x 251.5cm

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