The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

At the very end of the com­pre­hen­sive Jan Sen­bergs ex­hi­bi­tion at the NGV is in­scribed Ed­ward Hop­per’s ob­ser­va­tion: “If you could say it in words — there would be no rea­son to paint.” Many artists and writ­ers have said or im­plied the same thing, for art ex­ists pre­cisely to give voice to in­tu­itions and thoughts about hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence that can­not be ad­e­quately ex­pressed in the clear but nec­es­sar­ily two-di­men­sional lan­guage of ra­tio­nal anal­y­sis.

But while Hop­per’s prin­ci­ple could be ap­plied to artists of en­tirely dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ments, there seems to be some­thing par­tic­u­larly apt to its use in this case, for Sen­bergs is not only a highly in­tu­itive artist but also one who seems through­out his work to be par­tic­u­larly in the grip of his own sen­si­bil­ity: it seems to al­low him lit­tle space to stand back or time to pause from a dy­namic and re­lent­lessly driven process.

This process is il­lus­trated in a short video shown in the same room. The artist is seen be­gin­ning a large char­coal draw­ing. He ap­pears to be us­ing a smaller draw­ing in a sketch­book as a guide, but other­wise the work is ex­e­cuted di­rectly and in a medium that is ef­fec­tively unerasable, so that there is no go­ing back, no pos­si­bil­ity of cor­rect­ing a mark once made.

He be­gins with some struc­tures in the up­per left hand cor­ner, then draws a cou­ple of bold curved lines, which are to be streets. And then it is a mat­ter of de­vel­op­ing the street pat­tern and fill­ing in the build­ings be­tween them: the im­age is of streets run­ning through an anony­mous col­lec­tion of ur­ban build­ings. Once he starts there is no stop­ping: as Sen­bergs him­self says, the dif­fi­culty is al­ways in be­gin­ning, but af­ter that you have to keep on, to see it through.

The ex­hi­bi­tion opens with some rel­a­tively re­cent paint­ings of the same sort of sub­ject, but on a much larger scale, panoramic, aerial views of cities. These are not ideal town­scapes of har­mo­nious squares and broad, serene av­enues; they are con­gested ag­glom­er­a­tions of ed­i­fices that have sprawled out of con­trol like some ma­lig­nant growth, and they are linked to­gether by tan­gles of high­ways and fly­overs that im­ply rest­less and fre­netic mo­tion go­ing nowhere ex­cept around and around within the closed cir­cuit of the ur­ban prison.

It is a grim, claus­tro­pho­bic and, in a term fre­quently used of Sen­bergs’s work, dystopian vi­sion of hu­man ex­is­tence. But where did it come from and how did it evolve? This is the ques­tion that the ex­hi­bi­tion at­tempts to an­swer as the sec­ond room takes us back to the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer in the 1960s in Mel­bourne, where he had grew up af­ter mi­grat­ing from Latvia at 10.

The ear­li­est work has im­me­di­ately the flavour of the dis­tinc­tively Mel­bur­nian va­ri­ety of meta­phys­i­cal ab­strac­tion cre­ated by Roger Kemp and Leonard French, and it is not sur­pris­ing to learn that French was among Sen­bergs’s teach­ers at Rich­mond Tech. Later, when he stud­ied print­mak­ing, spe­cial­is­ing in screen- prints, he be­came friends with Kemp and other con­tem­po­rary Mel­bourne artists as well.

These early works, then, com­bine hu­man and me­chan­i­cal forms in dark, moody com­po­si­tions that be­come more ma­ture and in­de­pen­dent by the mid-60s, with the large and im­pres­sive The Night Pa­rade (1966), a dark and night­mar­ish city painted over three pan­els. It was in 1966 that Sen­bergs won the He­lena Ru­bin­stein trav­el­ling art schol­ar­ship that took him to Europe for a year.

There he en­coun­tered the art of Ed­uardo Paolozzi, the Scot­tish artist who used pop and in­dus­trial imagery in screen-prints, in in­con­gru­ous con­junc­tions that re­called the spirit of dada and sur­re­al­ist col­lage. In­spired by Paolozzi’s ex­am­ple, Sen­bergs com­bined screen­print­ing and paint­ing dur­ing the 70s in a highly orig­i­nal man­ner. The screen-print medium in ef­fect al­lowed him to im­port found imagery di­rectly into his paint­ings, and he be­came, in his own words, a scav­enger of im­ages, par­tic­u­larly ones that evoked the col­lapse of the in­dus­trial en­vi­ron­ment into dis­or­der and en­tropy.

One such im­age from this pe­riod is based on the old Par­lia­ment House in Can­berra. In the af­ter­math of the po­lit­i­cal events of 1975, Sen­bergs imag­ines the build­ing sur­rounded by shanties and col­laps­ing ten­e­ments, al­though per­haps most mem­o­rable are the cur­tains bil­low­ing out of the build­ing’s win­dows. It is a good ex­am­ple of the in­sep­a­ra­bil­ity of medium and process from the mean­ing of a work of art, for the screen-print-col­lage tech­nique is what makes pos­si­ble a cer­tain way of think­ing about forms and as­sem­bling ma­te­rial in a man­ner that de­fies con­ven­tional logic, util­i­tar­ian func­tion and even grav­ity.

From the late 70s there is a fine se­ries of draw­ings of in­dus­trial and ur­ban sites, as though the artist felt the col­lage process could be­come repet­i­tive and for­mal­is­tic and that he had to reach out to the vis­i­ble world to re­new his art. By the early 80s Sen­bergs has left be­hind the hy­brid printed-painted im­ages and the flat poster-like fin­ish this process en­tails. In­stead, he adopts a more ex­pres­sion­is­tic and pain­terly man­ner with thicker im­pasto, in step with many other painters of the same pe­riod.

Among the best works of this pe­riod is

Mel­bourne Coastal Set­tle­ment Al­tered Par­lia­ment House 1 (1976); The Flyer En­trance to Port Liardet (1981), com­bin­ing im­pos­ing forms and a cer­tain clar­ity and de­ci­sive­ness in the con­struc­tion of space, as in the lower right hand part of the com­po­si­tion, al­low­ing the viewer to en­ter into the pic­ture and its world in a way that is not al­ways pos­si­ble when ges­tu­ral an­i­ma­tion takes the place of con­struc­tion.

Also im­pres­sive is a se­ries of large pic­tures of the blighted min­ing land­scape around Queenstown in west­ern Tas­ma­nia. One of the strong­est of these, Sticht’s View to the Smelters 1 (1982) refers to an Amer­i­can met­al­lur­gist who be­came the man­ager of these mines in 1897 and in­tro­duced a new process for smelt­ing that re­leased huge amounts of sul­phuric gas, de­stroy­ing the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment all around.

Cop­per­opo­lis — Mount Lyell (1983) is an­other of these pic­tures that can be seen as early doc­u­men­ta­tions of en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion at a

Clock­wise from main, Jan Sen­bergs’s (1998-99);

(2009); and (1975)

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