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)