Tim Storrier’s new paintings are visual poems of loss, writes
In the end I suppose everything is lost, all gone forever. The only thing we leave is the miserable detritus of our supposedly exalted existence.
TTim Storrier, Bowral, 2015
he poignancy of an empty chair. A sagging old armchair that has moulded over time into the shape of the person who sat in it. Watched television, read the newspaper, spilled a drink. And now that person has departed and the chair has been discarded along with remnants of a life.
In his new series of paintings, The Poetry of Detritus, Tim Storrier seems to be looking both backwards and to the future. There is a sense of nostalgia in the vast empty landscape in which the chairs are placed, that of his childhood in an outback landscape on a farm, a longing for those who have gone and left a void, and a sense of mortality for an artist now in his mid-60s.
In an essay about the paintings, he writes of looking at the night stars with his father and returning to the fire at Umagalee homestead, “the warm light was a flickering glow on Dad’s arm- chair — empty now without his presence and yellow sweater”. Two decades earlier, as his mother lay dying he went outside to escape the “fetid aroma” of her bedroom. In the “throw out” area he picked up a damaged bentwood chair. When he returned she had gone. He still has both those chairs, repaired, re-upholstered and redolent with memories and loss.
But the real key to these paintings, he says, is van Gogh’s paintings of his and Gauguin’s chairs. The idea of a chair as a portrait.
“It is sort of like a metaphor, really. Not an original one. It has been a symbol for departure for aeons. Like abandoned clothes, or a hat.”
But his once plumped chairs are the enveloping armchairs of his childhood. “Those big fat neo-deco sort of chairs. I grew up with those sorts of chairs. I have made them sort of bigger I think because of childhood memory.”
When he first started painting them, says his wife Janet, “I thought, ‘Oh God, we are going to go broke.’ But they have really grown on me.”
Storrier’s house looms out of a tumble of autumnal trees. With its gracefully curving Dutch colonial facade and many chimneys it is an impressive symbol of success. And with its topiary, hedges, gardens, its perfectly proportioned rooms, high ceilings and sash windows there is something soothingly solid about this house. It is, says the vibrantly attractive Janet, “a magical place. Tim fell in love with it.” They moved here from another colonial property at Bathhurst nearly two years ago.
“Watch out for the pheasant poo, it is slippery,” she says, eyeing the mossy stairs as we enter the house. The offending foul wander imperiously around a small courtyard outside the house. There are dogs, including a three-legged whippet and a bad-tempered elderly labrador, heavily laden bookcases, signs of their blended family of seven children; a seemingly idyllic country life.
The Storriers married in 2004. Divorced with three daughters and a son, Janet says her father told her “no one will ever marry you because of all those children”.
Her father committed suicide when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “He was a doctor and knew what he was doing,” she says, driving me from the train station in her ute. “And Tim took me and the kids out to lunch. We were all a bit miserable. And he bought an engagement ring from the lady at the next table, who he knew.
“We hadn’t talked about marriage but when he was saying goodbye to my father he said, ‘Don’t worry, I will look after Janet and the kids.’ So he took on all these kids.”
This is Storrier’s third marriage. His first, to the then Vogue art director Sharon White, ended in divorce; his second wife, Jane, who battled alcoholism, died after they had separated. He has three sons from these marriages. Janet, says art dealer Philip Bacon, “is a wonderful thing that has happened to him. She is an amazing asset.”
When Janet’s father rang Storrier for the last time, he was in Perth with John Olsen.
“‘Farewell’ was all I could come up with,” he says now.
It is a constant theme, farewell. In the In Absentia series in 2010, emotively floating clothes were what remained of those now gone.
Storrier’s studio near the house was once the stables. It is here in these light filled rooms that he listens to “trash talkback radio” as he works. “Good music is distracting — well, you would have to stop and listen.”
It is here that he explores “the sweet poetry between a warm blue and a cold grey. Those are the special little things that a painter takes great delight in, they are ancient pleasures.” On the wall are passages from Hamlet and TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men.
“They sort of basically encapsulate what I am doing,” he explains. “I spend a lot of time reading and trying to decipher poetry. They [the paintings] are built like a poet builds a poem, in a sense. With an artist it is the same process to a degree, but rather than tempo you are talking about scale, you are talking about tone, you are talking about colour.
“These things are more about prayers or hymns than about making a statement. Trying to breathe the information with affection. It is not about a lament at all. I don’t think it is maudlin.
“We have all seen chair lying beside the road, we have all seen headlights on the horizon.”
For an artist who is known as a maverick, Storrier is intensely shy; he is a deep thinker, decorous and profoundly sensitive. These qualities have led to misconceptions about him being reticent and taciturn. “He hides a lot of that shyness in that macho bravado swagger,” Bacon says.
He is a maverick in the sense that he continued his own course of realism at the height of postmodernism. His work has remained resolutely beautiful.
“I can’t escape that ... I am basically trying to emulate the great masters in painting beauty, and of course you can convey enormously brutish and nasty ideas with beauty much more effectively than you can with doing it in an ugly fashion,” Storrier says.
He admits that he could be “indicted for being almost intensely sentimental but I have never really followed the modernist dictum that sentimentality was verboten at all”.
“Tim is considered not just a maverick but an outsider by the art establishment,” Bacon says. “And it has come at a cost.
“He has won the Archibald Prize and all the big prizes but it is almost as if it is grudging and the art world can never forgive an artist who