Elisabeth Cummings: ABC Interview

Cummings in studio 2015

Was so delighted to see the ABC interview with Elisabeth recently. She expresses herself vividly on camera and you get to see a little more of her beautiful bush studio and workspace, and of the bush around which so invigorates her perceptions. The interview was prompted by her participation in the Destination Sydney three-gallery exhibit meant to showcase Sydney and its surrounds. Does this mean she is now officially “discovered”? (Or is this, as she would say, a ridiculous concept?)

The link is here – in an earlier version of this post I used an outdated link, sorry, and thanks to Cultural Conversations for the correction.

And if you go to Youtube, there are some great interview segments with Elisabeth, as well as one with her and Luke Sciberras.

She is showing at Manly Art Gallery and Museum, along with Brett Whitely and Lloyd Rees – stellar! – but the show finishes soon (February 14th) so if you are a Sydney local and a big fan better get there soon.


I think this is actually a picture of Darwin Harbour but the feeling could be Sydney.




Not long ago I wrote an appreciation of Elisabeth Cummings here (see Elisabeth Cummings: Slow Art,  March 24th 2014). The theme of the piece echoed comments by art critic John McDonald, who has repeatedly championed Elisabeth’s work and expressed dismay at its failure to receive the acknowledgment it deserves. He expressed astonishment that her work had not been included in the NGA show of 200 years of Australian landscape painting headed for London in 2013 (SMH, January 21 2012).  She had also been excluded from the Wynne Prize more than once, although that was not the case in 2013 when her  Sunrise, the Kimberley out-glowed everything else on the walls, although it did not win. Imants Tiller’s Namatjira was a puzzling although not unworthy choice.

Cummings Sunrise Kimb Wynne 2013
Elisabeth Cummings. Sunrise, Kimberley. Oil on canvas, 175 x 300 cm.

When I sent my 2014 post to Elisabeth, a personal friend for decades, she protested mildly at my emphasis on the scandalous lack of critical recognition and my reference to her being “overlooked”. She was right to do so. If certain precious art-world critics and habitues had nothing to say about an older woman landscape artist … Excuse me? A what? … many others especially collectors have no doubt about her worth. Her  paintings (and prints) sell reliably from her long-time gallery (King on William) at show after show, some at astronomical prices for a living artist.

Over the past couple of years a new appreciation of her work has become widespread. By late 2015 you could hardly move in fine art circles in Sydney without someone mentioning her name. She was being described as “Australia’s greatest living female landscape artist”.  At a lively discussion around Luke Sciberras’ Hill End diner table in October the question was raised whether or not the “female” descriptor could be omitted. Hmmm.  Luke, her semi-protege, who could reasonably think the title should be his,  didn’t know how to respond.  This year she and Luke collaborated on a stunning show in Hong Kong, responding to that spectacular Asian city with the same kind of delicacy and intelligence as she had long shown for remote Australia’s dry creek-beds and scrubby sandhills.

cummings hong kong 1
From on High 2015.  Oil on canvas 91 x 86 cm

Such a tragedy that this exhibition will never be seen in Australia! Most of the pieces have been snapped up by private collectors and will rarely if ever emerge again in their lifetimes.(“Flying Goose Hill” at the Nock Art Foundation, Hong Kong, October 17 – November 14)

lis and luke
Elisabeth and Luke being interviewed for the Hong Kong show, 2015.

Now she is named alongside John Olsen among Australia’s greatest living artists, along with Cressida Campbell, Peter Kingston and Kevin Connor. The summer exhibition (Mosman, Manly and S.H Ervin galleries), offers 140 paintings and drawings celebrating Sydney as a source of artistic inspiration. The SMH arts and books writer Linda Morris hails the group as the living successors of Brett Whitely, Lloyd Rees, Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston.


Both Connor and Kingston have had recent major exhibitions in Sydney while Cummings’ current King on William show ( until 19th December) was an astonishing record of recent work and almost sold out by the opening night.

Stemmed Flow 2015.  Oil on canvas 115 x 130 cm

It is so wonderful to see Elisabeth  moving to this level of recognition.  She has been utterly consistent in her vision and commitment over her entire career as an artist but the development of her work has been powerful beyond expectation over the past ten or so years. She shuns fame and all the hoop-la but we should be so grateful for everything she has offered not to mention what is yet to come.


Lines of Resistance: Vattimo and Weakening Philosophy

white cloud marble
White Cloud marble: lines of resistance in nature

Gianni Vattimo is an Italian philosopher who has written on modernity and the metaphysics of being. A Festshrift for Vattimo recently appeared under the title of Weakening Philosophy (2007). Although Vattimo’s philosophy seems heavily indebted to the Italian tradition, including its entanglement with Christianity, his ideas can be used to open up some new considerations on art in contemporary context.


The publisher’s blurb says:

Moving away from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism and Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, and building on his experiences as a politician, Vattimo asks if it is still possible to speak of moral imperatives, individual rights, and political freedom. Acknowledging the force of Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” Vattimo argues for a philosophy of pensiero debole or “weak thinking” that shows how moral values can exist without being guaranteed by an external authority. His secularising interpretation stresses anti-metaphysical elements and puts philosophy into a relationship with postmodern culture. 

Vattimo’s core idea is that although metaphysical power has been weakened under modernity the post-metaphysical world is not completely free and arbitrary. His thought leads away from arguments for absolute randomness, unstructured chaos and indeterminacy. These are important issues for contemporary philosophy, for example in recent thinking on aleatory materialism and radical contingency. No matter how apparently free-flowing thought and moral values might seem, there are lines of resistance which introduce a kind of structure of their own, even though it is not the product of a metaphysical intention (eg the mind of God). These ideas offer interesting perspectives on contemporary art among many other things.

Dense bark on old trees: lines of resistance as protection

We can take his idea of “resistances” and think about the emergence of global art movements, for example. As the signs carved out and organized in different forms by different cultures have been loosened from their previous determinants (beliefs, practices, cultural conditioning) they have begun to deposit a kind of magma which determines their possibilities of flow. Just as the grain in wood or stone makes the material easier to cut in one direction rather than another, so does thought and human expressiveness develop in ways which create a certain conformity even though this is not intended or in any way “planned”. It is a kind of neutral determinism.

If we follow this line of thinking, we might consider that the condition of being human, with all the animal and cognitive capacities this implies, always/already creates the possibility of flows of thoughts, ideas and interpretations, and the existence of deep structures in language makes this even more likely. This argument is notably contra the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) and, by extension, much contemporary postmodern thought which argues against any form of “determinism”.

Lines of resistance creating the landscape: Yangpo River, Tibet.

Lines of resistance do not imply that universal laws exist (although at the deepest material level they may do). The productions of human action in whatever form create ebbs and flows which are self-reinforcing, just as a small trickle of water can cut out a creek-bed and finish up as a river. Being should not be thought of as a one-way street, but rather a network of freeways, roads and by-ways which travel in more than one direction. Some result in dead-ends, others become more and more essential, until they dominate the options for existence. But this does not mean that they cannot come to a sudden end. There is no better indication of this than the many recent discoveries of versions of archaic humanity which seem to have appeared, flourished, and then disappeared without trace.

“Hobbits”: reconstruction of hominids found in Indonesia, half human size, long extinct

We can no longer think of the emergence of humanity as a single unified sequence of development with a logic of constant progression and improvement. Rather it seems to have been a winding inconsistent process of genetic networks and climatic outliers only some of which led to the present condition of the species, more or less by accident. But there are species continuities: the recent discovery of a new hominim species in South Africa (named Naledi) seems to have ritualized the disposal of the dead, maybe 2.5 million years ago. But everyone seems to forget that elephants also dispose of their dead, or at least attend the funerals.

mourning elephants

Vattimo’s is a radical critique of universalizing metaphysics like that begun by Heidegger, though in a very different time, context and technological capacity.

Nietzsche, considering European nihilism in the summer of 1887 said that under conditions of post-metaphysics those who will emerge and flourish are the most moderate, who have no need of extreme articles of faith, who concede and even embrace contingency and nonsense, who do not need to ascribe overwhelming value to human Being but do not diminish or belittle its significance.

One very interesting connection with art under modernity is the idea that the weakening of metaphysical power in the West was in a way announced by or even presided over by the withdrawal of apparent communication in the realm of art in modern times. Vattimo speaks of Kandinsky in this regard, but a better example might be Rothko. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s discussion of Rothko in their book The Arts of Impoverishment (1993) opens up these horizons (to come in a later post).

Mark Rothko
Rothko Chapel, Houston

Ryan Hoffman Paintings: “Third Person”

Ryan Hoffmann:  Liverpool St Gallery Sydney 11th August – 3rd September

Ryan Hoffmann is a young artist from Sydney’s National Art School, one among few to have been given a solo show in a reputable gallery while completing his Masters of Fine Arts degree.

There has been a buzz around Hoffmann for some time, and this show gives him an opportunity to demonstrate why. It doesn’t entirely succeed although the concept is great. But the “hang” and the lack of documentation are a problem. Most pictures in gallery shows exist in their own right, each with its unique qualities, capable of standing alone. Hoffman’s are part of a larger vision and the viewer needs to know more about how they relate to each other and we should care about them.

As pictures they are of varying quality. Overall they seem barely painted, more like gestures, although they look much stronger as photographs for example on the gallery website. The images are thrown together on varying supports, some very small. The smaller paintings are no better resolved than the larger ones, if anything they are even more random and sketchy.

The gallery wall is covered with what looks like cloth or paper or maybe paint in a vague wash of pastel colours. Most of the paintings are hung close together in what seems to be a random array, large and small, bright and monochrome, square and rectangular. A few of the larger paintings – the “hero” pieces- occupy spaces of their own and two of these are especially striking (more on this later). Art lovers like to see paintings in a show as separate entities, each existing in its own terms, able to be translated to a different space, for example to a wall at home or in an office. Diptychs or triptychs are fine, creating a single visual statement, but otherwise each painting is seen as its own entity. Are these images telling a story? Is there something we should know but haven’t been told? Well yes there is, and it is quite complicated.

Installation, Liverpool St Gallery
Installation, Liverpool St Gallery

Hoffman has exhibited these, or related, paintings in at least two previous shows.  While Artist in Residence at the Glasgow Art School earlier in 2015 he offered a similar show with more paintings, at least fifty.  Some of them, many in fact, are also being shown here.  The concept for the hang was the same: a single wall, a lot of pictures jammed up together in seemingly random order.

Later, in a show called RREALITY PROJECTIONS, part of the requirements for the MFA at Sydney’s National Art School, the same layout includes many of the same paintings. An exegesis accompanied the show, called “Readymade digital photographs: Virtual reality as autobiography”.

The show is engaged with digital photography, and is telling a kind of autobiographical story. This story can be told in many ways. No images take any particular priority, they can be arranged in any order. They are not art photography but the kind of images which everyone now shoots on their phone. If they bother downloading the images at all they can rearrange them in any order, make new “albums” from them, send them round the world in various forms, pin them on Pinterest, send them to their Instagram account. These seem to be paintings of casual snapshots on the digital device, to be treated in the same random way.

NAS final show

Ryan Hoffmann, RREALITY PROJECTIONS (exhibited as a requirement of a MFA at the Nation Art School accompanying the exegesis ‘Readymade digital photographs: Virtual reality as autobiography’ )  room #2, 2015; oil on linen; dimensions variable (Photo courtesy of Peter Morgan).

Earlier still a show called The Inter Galactic Image Factory at Liverpool Street brought together four of the NAS 2014 cohort including Hoffmann (with Seth Birchall, Mason Kimber and Conor O’Shea). Hoffmann’s paintings in this show are different to those in the later shows but clearly show the same impulse. An artist’s statement appears on Hoffmann’s website which explicitly connects his practice to the use of smart technologies and the Internet. While this statement is in a rather tortured form, it illuminates what this work is about.

Images are now simultaneously representing, existing and omnipresent as a form of “virtual reality”. 
By regarding the digital image as a form of readymade imbued by its time, place, culture, Hoffmann’s practice investigates the potential for a new paradigm in painting which courts a contest between photographic representation and painterly application. Through the negation of linearity and hierarchy in subject, Hoffmann locates images in painting from this “virtual reality” to form an autobiography. 

And so we see that, without explicit reference, Hoffmann is in Gerhard Richter territory, struggling with the same issues about reality, image, painting and autobiography, now in the digital age.

It would have benefited the Liverpool St show if something to this effect had been made available in the catalogue or on the wall. There is an argument against spoon-feeding the art public but in a case like this the “sense” of the work shifts into a radically new position when it becomes clear that we are looking at deliberate engagement with a specific problem in contemporary representation. There is a difficulty with work which lives on the border between commercial art practice and art theory: how to connect the results of such a practice with the conventions of the art-buying public. Around less than half of these works had been purchased in the first two weeks of the show. Some were the smallest works, barely sketches, priced very modestly. The others were the strongest and generally the most “stand-alone” pictures in the show, with the very strange exception of the main hero-piece, “Penumbra”, which in spite of its striking qualities and painterly aesthetic had not been snapped up.

Penumbra. Oil, polyester, wood and copper.99 x 78 cm

 Penumbra, 2015, oil on polyester canvas, 90 x 78 cms

 By far the most effective works for me were those expressing the manifold possibilities of semi-monochrome. Small works such as Alpine Resort shine with hidden depths as, on the very small canvas lights beam out in pale reflection.

Alpine Resort 2015

Alpine Resort, 2015, oil on linen, 30.5 x 35.5 cm

 Some of the most interesting works feature grids and shadows on windows, or views through windows into empty spaces. In the relatively large-scale I forget where we were there is the sense of the sudden experience of light and dark which opens up to an unexpected which could be anywhere.

I forget where we were I forget where we were, 2015, oil on canvas, 63 x 138cm

In the tiny very sketchy Passing the viewer looks out of a window at a building in a snowy landscape. Inside, there is a sense of enclosure or capture, but also a feeling of relief at being safely in an interior while the outer world is unknown.

Passing 2014

Passing, 2014,oil on polyester canvas, 26 x 31 cm

One of the most effective pieces in the show is the graceful, well-balanced landscape Tracks. The eye moves between the snowy peak on the horizon and the network of traces proceeding from the viewer’s position into the distance. The trees form a kind of entryway into the mid-distance, where the traces disappear. The absence of human figures is contradicted by their presence, the landscape could not look like this had they not been there but now they are evacuated. The subtle colouration in this painting is picked up clearly in photographs although in bright sunlight on the gallery wall it is much harder to discern.

Tracks 2015

Tracks, 2015 oii on canvas, 94.5 x 115cm

Among the numerous small pictures are several sketches which suggest the reality of a journey which could be universal, any airplane, any seat, any destination. The composition in Untitled is very powerful but on such a small scale and with so little depth on the canvas it is hard to feel engaged. If this was a painting on a much larger scale – one which emphasised the abstract aesthetics of these moments of everyday life – it would be extremely effective. As it is, it is easily overlooked.

Untitled 2015

Untitled, 2015, oil on polyester canvas 61 x 89cm

Another striking image is offered in Sniper. In earlier work Hoffman clearly reflects on military themes. But this sniper might not be military. He (or at a pinch it could be a she) is sighting down the barrel at an unknown target: it could be people coming out of a picture theatre or some other expression of the random mayhem in the contemporary world. The thin vagueness of the paint and the limited use of tone and colour in this little picture makes it particularly effective.

Sniper 2015

Untitled (Sniper), 2015oil on linen43 x 56cm

This brings us to the key issue of whether the conceptual qualities of this work can engage with the commercial market. The ideas behind the project are compelling, but the images need to be able to stand alone, unless of course someone chooses to purchase the entire suite of works, which would make best use of them. Many seem to be barely painted, which creates an interesting quality at one level but is not what the art buyer is accustomed to. Hoffmann has a lot of raw talent and strong presence on the wall but the work needs to be re-oriented or harnessed differently if it is to move forward into the fraught terrain of post-art school life.

Anne Judell “Void” – Review.

Anne Judell. “Void”. Janet Clayton Gallery, 2 Danks St. Waterloo NSW 2017. 10th September-4th October 2014.

Anne Judell Void 2


Anne Judell is a quiet presence in Australian visual arts. Her public profile and challenging works are seldom out front in the hurly-burley of the contemporary art scene. Even those who deeply appreciate her achievements struggle to articulate what it is that compels and enchants them.

Her recent exhibition at Janet Clayton Danks St gives a glimpse of her subtle technique and surprising mark-making. Yes, these are “drawings”, but not in any ordinary sense. Two forms of vision are offered. Layers of pale pastel on Canson paper create an effect which seems to hover at a microscopic level while expanding into universality. These pastel works are small in size and mounted in white frames, so they seem to blend into the wall-space. The mixed media works on Hahnemuhle paper are loosely attached, the heavy paper slightly curved in places, creating shadows and depth behind the work itself. The pastels are profoundly dense and subtle, calming; the mixed-media pieces, constructed mainly in multiple dark and light tones, demand a different kind of attention. These works use acrylic, pastel, charcoal and gesso, worked deftly and pushed repeatedly into the surface of the paper. (Above, Left: Void 2). Judell has said:

 I spend half my life closely observing the natural world. The other half I spend in the studio, attempting to translate this experience into two-dimensional form. I am always drawn to the minutiae exposing the evolution of form. Fragility, intimacy, cycles and sequences are what interest me, as opposed to the heroic and the sublime. (Judell 2005).

Judell’s work requires time: time to produce, and time to view, to sit with it quietly and let the subtle effects engage your consciousness. A somewhat noisy gallery is probably not ideal. The initial impression can be puzzling. What are we looking at here? A comment by Stella Rosa McDonald is offered to gallery visitors. She speaks of comparisons and similes, suggesting that Judell may have “figured out how to hit pause on the universe”. A lengthy interpretive essay by Luke Davies goes straight to quantum physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, seeing Judell’s work as embracing a negative capability, a border-zone between abstract and figurative, the felt and the known, the seen and the heard, the physical and emotional. Davies speaks of meditation and trance, suggesting that her work offers “portals” into another frame of experience, between “outward expansion and inner compression”.

These are strange claims for works created in small scale on paper. Such works are often associated with a feminine delicacy, and certainly Judell refuses the usual apparatus of heroic masculine art. Yet this work is far from gentle or decorative. The mixed media works have something of the visual impact of the older indigenous desert women’s dot paintings, without the colour field. Designs and suggestive associations emerge from dense marks which offer many possibilities. Nos 18 and 19 especially have an animal quality, reminiscent of fur or scales. Others might be reflections of the surfaces of tree-bark or the earth itself. Strong, deep shapes emerge without warning. Paleness, greyness, hints of blue, dark stripes in stipples, “Glory be to God for dappled things” (Gerard Manly Hopkins). We could be traversing roads, mountains, depths of earth, the night sky, the infinite universe, maybe even the reflection of stars in different galaxies of darkness.

Anne Judell Void 1

And there is the “thump” of Rothko, especially the Houston chapel works. It may seem an odd comparison, the grandeur of Rothko’s huge paintings and these seemingly modest works on paper. But in both cases the longer you view the more a sense of shimmering depths and a shuddering emerges, almost as if we are at the edge of emergent Being itself.


Anne Judell, Void 1.

The title of the show, “Void”, points directly towards this philosophical realm. More than just a cute title, the idea of the Void has been emerging recently into a new significance for metaphysics, artistic and creative expression, and in scientific debate around the nature of human experience. The idea of the Void is usually seen as a manifestation of nothingness, associated with the contemplation of emptiness. An awareness of a void at the centre of phenomenal existence has long been central to Asian metaphysical traditions. In the Heart Sutra, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”. The idea points towards an apprehension of a whole reality, before it is sliced up into concepts, especially via the effects of language. Yet the Void also points to a presence, rather than a lack of it, involving particles and antiparticles erupting into being, a constant hidden dimension of which we are usually unaware. Artists have tried to point in this direction: Alberto Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) 1934 was an early example, while Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void 1960 tried to capture the sense of something in nothingness as the human body engages with space and gravity.

Recent research at the University of Ljublana, Slovenia brings together the need to redefine the problem of the Void, in particular the idea of the generation of “something” and ultimately of Being and the universe. Empty space, it turns out, is not empty but the seat of the most violent physics. The theory of relativity and quantum field theory have altered our understanding of the fabric of physical reality, in which the void becomes the key element in the structural functioning of existence itself. Heidegger, in his essay “The Thing” (Das Ding) poses the void as the deep essence of thing, as opposed to its manifestation in the form of material objects as such.

Ann Judell’s work seems to be guiding us towards these unsettling perceptions. The limitations and potentials of the human body, the vision system and its links into the sub-microscopic level of cells and life-forms are called into action in the contemplation of her work. It is as if she is telling us to Be carefully and cultivate our own awareness of the absolute mystery behind everyday existence.

Anne Judell, Moonlight 3. Mixed Media.


Anne Judell, 2005. http://marsgallery.com.au/anne-judell/

Mr Turner: very Artistic but what about the art?

Turner with mystery painting

Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, a soi-disant biopic concerning the final fifteen years of the life of Britain’s most famous artist , was released in the UK on 31st October following its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival where it competed in the Palme d’Or. Timothy Spall playing Turner won Best Actor; cinematographer Dick Pope received the Vulcan Award for his outstanding work.

This is without doubt a very artistic film. It drips and oozes its credentials from first to last, with scene after scene composed and shot in homage to famous paintings of the past. Some of these scenes especially the hazy glowing skyscapes on which the camera lingers so peacefully could be Turner paintings. Others are constructed as if we have entered into interiors painted by Dutch or Flemish masters of the previous century.


Film Still Dutch style

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in London’s Covent Garden and died in 1851. Best known for his romantic land- and seascapes in oils, he also worked in watercolour, producing remarkable works of astonishing scale and detail.  The contemporary art world seems to be increasingly enraptured by Turner. This is strange, considering the turn away from classical and traditional forms and the critique of painting which has dominated our cultural consciousness for decades.

The film is being released to coincide with a major exhibition at Tate Britain, from September 2014 to January 2015, a blockbuster entitled “Late Turner: Painting Set Free”. For those who don’t do their sums, the movie covers almost precisely the period of the works being shown in the exhibition. As the intro explains, the show “celebrates Turner’s astonishing creative flowering in these later years”. The fine work of this period was “controversial and unjustly misunderstood”. So, we might say that the film illuminates the life, while the exhibition illuminates the work. Side-by-side, they should open out, reveal, the reasons for a new appreciation of the remarkable talents of this scion of British art.

Why should it matter? Why do we need to engage with Turner now? There are several clues. The first key is in the sub-text to the exhibition title: Turner’s is “Painting Set Free”. The blurb accompanying the exhibition is at pains to position it as a challenge to the myths and assumptions around his later work, to highlight his “radical and exploratory techniques”, and to connect his perceptions of modernity – the machine age – with the deep historical and mythological themes arising from the cultural traditions of his era.

In this revisionary art history discourse, Turner turns out to be okay, even though he was a painter who did pictures of sea battles, ancient cities and historical narratives – Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, Dido and Aeneas – as well as the extensive hazy sky-dominated landscapes for which he is best recognized today.

Agrippina Landing with the ashes of GermanicusAggripinia Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus

Just to emphasize the point, one of the few late paintings remaining in private hands, Rome, from Mount Aventine, sold for over thirty million British pounds in December 2014, the highest auction price ever for any pre-20th century British artist.

rome from Mt Aventine

Rome from Mount Aventine

To understand what this all means requires a familiarity with the changes in art historical and critical discourse which has been going on hesitantly in recent times. There has been a slow creeping up of representational painting almost hidden away behind the continuing domination of installation, performance and video art since the turn of the millennium. Because of the vast level of financial investment in contemporary art, especially in Britain and the US, it has been impossible to grasp openly the implications of this shift. The writing has been on the wall for a while though. Julian Spalding in 2012 gave reasons “Why you should sell your Damien Hirsts while you can” and the commercially driven imperatives of the late global art market has been attracting more and more bemused critical attention from the artistic world itself – see Isaac Julien’s film Playtime for instance. Could it be that we have to take painting seriously again?

According to the received wisdom of most of the last century, Turner’s late work was pretty terrible. The decline in its quality was thought to be the result of many factors, notably a fog of poor eyesight, ill health, gloom, and personal disarray. The death of his father, who took care of all the most important but invisible elements of his painting practice – he selected and purchased the pigments, ground them, made up the frames and the canvas supports – was a significant loss. The film makes much of this, by the way. The lack of representational accuracy, the domination of his palette by an extremely unsubtle use of chrome yellow (which so disturbed the young Queen Victoria, a scene also featuring in the movie), his vague and hazy outlines, seemingly confused compositions and bizarre methods of working – being strapped to a ship’s mast in a snowstorm for instance – were all seen to explain the strange and disturbing quality of his late work.

steamer in a snowstorm

Snowstorm: Steamboat at a Harbour’s Mouth

Because he was a much appreciated figure in the art world of the time, in no small part due to the enthusiastic support of critic and aesthete John Ruskin, he continued to be hung in the annual Academy exhibitions, albeit in a back room or annexe. His art still sold, due largely to his name and to the patronage of high-born figures such as the Third Earl of Egremont whose lavish family seat in Surrey was the site of many visits and exhibitions. Nevertheless, the late Turner was until recently a rather sad footnote to a brilliant artistic career.

Now, though, we are asked to revalue this work. Late Turner turns out to be a father of Impressionism. His very vagueness and haziness are to be seen as part of a deliberate strategy of radical innovation, a means of overcoming the stringent, boring and traditional practices of British art in order to usher in a new kind of vision consonant with our current understanding of what good painting could be. His late style, the energetic brushwork, the lack of details and the modern subject matter of some works of this period surprised his supporters and lent abundant material to his critics who compared his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash. We moderns however can see beyond this strait-laced view and embrace the late Turner as one of our own.

The British critics so far love the film. Without didacticism or any clear plot or narrative strategy, the points for revaluing late Turner are made clear in scene after scene. Mike Leigh of course is another favoured son of British art. His films are unique in their approach and resonance, built on character rather than narrative and characterized by an almost total lack of screenplay. The actors go beyond Stansilavski, especially those playing the main characters, Turner, Mrs Booth and Hannah the housemaid. The film is very long, at 150 minutes, but never drags or loses the viewer’s attention, in spite of the lack of story arc which is typical of a Mike Leigh film but very unusual in mainstream popular cinema. Given the general public and critical enthusiasm, it seems picayune to complain about the way it depicts Turner as an artist.

If the viewer knows nothing about painting or the practices of plein air work or the use of pigments in oil and water or the physicality involved in working on a large scale in a studio at an easel it all seems so very easy. Turner rushes about with a little leather satchel and produces a pencil from it, drawing something or other in a little notebook. He holds the pencil near its end. He never seems to need to sharpen it. We never get to actually see what he puts in the notebook, or how it relates to the picture he ultimately paints from it. Although he worked astonishingly well in watercolours as well as oils it is impossible to tell what medium he is using at any one time, although when he asks Mrs Booth the landlady at Margate (with whom he finally shacks up) for a bowl of water we must assume those sea views are being painted or sketched in watercolours. When he stands grumpily and half-bent over at an easel scrabbling into the canvas surface with a thick stubby brush we might imagine this is an oil-painting but then he starts spitting on it. Why? Would an artist spit into oil-colour? Surely not. So this must be one of his watercolours, but if so why would he be working at an easel? We are given occasional glimpses of half-finished canvases but they are obscured and the glimpses are transient. We do see some of the finished works – are we to assume these are in fact the very works themselves, or copies of them? – and we see him daubing onto a canvas while the picture is already hung in the annual Academy exhibition. Actually we see a lot of painters daubing away on what seem to be finished works. This would be very strange. Finished paintings were meant to be dried and then varnished before entry, and certainly retouching them in the exhibition itself would be most peculiar.

The publicity for the film makes much of the fact that the actor Timothy Spall went to great trouble to get his painting and drawing right, taking art lessons for two years. If so, his art teacher has a lot to answer for.

I was, in short, astonished that an artistic film about an artist would take so much artistic licence with the art itself. I then came across an excellent piece in the Guardian by Andrew Wilton, “A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right?” (The Guardian, Monday 27 October 2014). Wilton is a world expert on Turner. He is on the Turner House Trust and was consulted by Mike Leigh and his team, but already they had decided what they were doing with the film and any advice Wilton may have given them was apparently superfluous. Wilton called it a “deeply moving and beautiful fim” but, modestly, commented that “it’s not quite the Turner I know”. He gave his reasons, which are simply stated and based on the art itself. For example, Turner’s sketchbooks are full of tiny water colours full of topographical and atmospheric detail, showing delicate and subtle observation. His oils, for example the famous “Steamer in a Snowstorm” (exhibited 1842) were painted with great care, although you’d never know it from the way the act of painting is shown in the film. As Wilton comments, Spall’s depiction of Turner’s painting practice is full of smears and spits and swiping, which is what modernism has asked us to believe, because we are meant to see this film as a demonstration that Turner, great British artist, was after all a modernist, like we are today, and not one of those boring traditionalist representational painters who worried about technique and composition. Wilton also addresses the myth that Turner was some kind of abstractionist. Although the Tate show claims to do otherwise, it reinforces it, casting Turner as a rival to the American abstract expressionists. Wilton is so right: this draws us away from the real quality of Turner’s art.

Wilton’s comments infuriated many readers. It is a real education to go through all 106 of them. The great majority pour scorn on Wilton for failing to recognize that this is a “film”, not a “documentary”, which means apparently it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether it gets the details of the art right or not. According to this logic, Turner could have been painting Jackson Pollocks for all it would matter to the viewers. As one said, “why can’t art snobs appreciate artistic licence?” and compared the problem to that of World War 2 movies using the wrong tanks. A few commentators tried to bring the issue round to the key question, namely the fact that how you put paint on canvas makes a difference to the results you get. But the majority thought these arguments smacked of elitism. If you know how art is produced you are an “expert” and so you should shut up about “movies” because you make it less fun for others. So art critics are not allowed to be film critics, because they don’t understand that “screenwriters on non-documentaries” can put in and leave out what they please.

There is a problem, though. What people see in a film, especially one which claims to be about a real historical artist and how he made his actual artworks (ones now worth millions of dollars) is likely to be what they understand to be the truth of it. This is not the place to discuss the contentious problem of historical truth in cinema, but it certainly warrants some more consideration than the viewing public is willing to give in this case. It seems, rather, that what they like is the depiction of an artist who is ugly, unattractive, badly dressed, poorly spoken, gross and often vulgar, having it off with the unfortunate eczematic housemaid at random intervals, enjoying himself with his landlady and generally behaving just like an early nineteenth century Bad Boy might be expected to behave. Yes, that is the artist we like to see today, and if it means we think he spent his time spitting all over his canvases, that just adds spice to the mix.




Jason Benjamin. Everyone is Here.

Jason Benjamin.   Everyone is Here.   Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, 1st August – 28th September 2014.

Benjamin She's Searching for You 2013

Jason Benjamin She’s searching for you too (Adaminaby NSW)                       2010, oil on linen

This touring survey exhibition, curated by Gavin Wilson, offers 35 paintings and drawings from Jason Benjamin’s recent work. The media release “talks up” this selection as a re-affirmation of a landscape tradition “at the heart of the Australian experience”. Edmund Capon, in the catalogue introduction to the show, speaks of scale and the infinity of time and space in the work. The collection suggests an intense feeling of being alone with the earth, an entry into the space of a particular form of nature, spare and haunting, a poetic reverie said to be saturated in poetry and beauty.

Benjamin 2

Jason Benjamin, The Waiting Garden, 2011, oil on linen, 180                       x 180 cm.

The exhibition is moving around several large NSW centres including Cowra, Wagga, Bathurst and Katoomba. The arrangements for such a touring show must be complex and the motivation for an artist such as Benjamin to engage in the venture are not exactly evident. Certainly it is great for the rural NSW art-lovers, but there must be more to it than this.

Benjamin is a brilliant and unique artist. When I first saw some of his work exhibited in a Melbourne gallery a few years back I was astonished by the scale and technical ability of the works, far beyond anything which normally appears as “landscape” in the contemporary art scene. His work is realist, maybe at a brief glimpse hyperrealist, but underneath this superficial impression are layers of profound subtlety. Time and space are expanded and condensed. Horizons tremble, seemingly alive. Skies are overwhelming and absorbing. Details of rocks, leaves, grasses and trees are rendered with what almost seems like love. I thought at once: I want to buy one of these paintings. I had never heard of Benjamin and imagined his work would be at least affordable. Wrong. These large landscapes were selling for $30,000 and up, and almost all in this show had been sold.

Benjamin was born in Melbourne in 1971 and began exhibiting in 1989. At the age of 16 he received a scholarship to the Stony Brook School in New York for a diploma followed by work at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He has won many local prizes in Sydney (Mosman Art Prize, Kings School Art Prize) and has had been a finalist in the Archibald in 2011, 2013 and 2014. He has also had solo shows in Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Rome. His work is far outside the conventional expectations of the contemporary art world. As Maurice O’Riordan commented in an Art Monthly piece in 2010/11, his work at first sight seems to be “acritical”, beautifully rendered but earnest and conventional. This impression was based on seeing jpegs of the images; once seen in the gallery or studio the full impact is a revelation. O’Riordan saw the exhibition Shelter at the Michael Reid gallery in Sydney (4 May – 5 June 2010) and noted the moody colour and obsessive detail, realising the importance of encountering the actual surface of the expansive oil-on-linen works. These were not works of mimesis, but evocations of emotion and psychology.

Benjamin’s career began with an encounter with Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist canvases in New York, very far from his current landscape work. The monograph on his work What Binds Us, 2007, goes through the various phases and genres of his work, including his portraits of Tony Abbott, Bill Hunter and others. Nevertheless, he is best known for his landscapes.

Benjamin Tim Rogers 2014

Jason Benjamin, Portrait of Tim Rogers,  I Just Wanna                                        Dream. Archibald Finalist, 2014.

In 2008 Benjamin and his family were invited to stay at the station Burrabogie on the Hay Plains, from which the work in this show emerged. Benjamin considers that this experience resulted in a “drastic shift” in approach (p.11) It is not really clear what this shift consists of. Journey, centred on a huge, partly dead tree, offers a simple composition with an odd centredness. Poem, from the same year, is highly repetitive in structure, with a few dark birds scattered across the detailed sky. One of the most moving works is She’s Searching for You Too (2010). A gently curving road stretches across a rise into the far distance. A setting sun illuminates banks of clouds while the sky behind is a tremulous pale blue. In many works the semi-circular grey granite rocks look like sheep resting in a paddock. The large square composition, Can We Stay Here Forever (2012) again offers a very formal composition of rocks on finely detailed grass, with the same turbulent sky and scattered birds above.

Benjamin Post-History

Jason Benjamin.  Can We Stay Here Forever?  2012.

The material in the touring exhibition does not seem up to the quality of his best work.  His paintings are sometimes criticised for being picturesque or sentimental.  That is not the problem here.  Rather, there is something formulaic and perhaps casual about it. In part this may be the result of the smaller scale of the works, and perhaps the scope of the palette. The introductory interview by Gavin Wilson offers many insights into his thought process in depicting the granite boulders and shifting skies, the sense of elation and foreboding found in the place. The dead tree limbs set up the compositions. Benjamin has studied Chinese and Japanese traditional art and philosophy, which seems to provide inspiration and interpretation especially through the concept of the Zen garden.  The idea is great, but sometimes the execution seems to lack immediacy, the sense of rapidity which underlines Zen/Chang art.

The works on paper are beautiful and extremely elegant. I particularly liked the heads of birds: kookaburras, parrots and owls, rendered in exquisite detail. I have never seen Benjamin’s drawings before so this was a particular pleasure.


Overall though, in spite of the curator’s efforts to affirm some kind of transcendental significance to this show, it is not at all apparent why we are seeing in his recent art a “gradual transformation of the physical into the metaphysical” (p. 10, Catalogue publication). Or, at least, it is unclear how this show in particular demonstrates this more than his earlier landscape works. On the wall these paintings look far less powerful. There is a blankness to the earth, and a kind of hysteria in the heavens. Somehow the fascinating balance of the Monaro and high plains landscape seems to be just missed here. One hardly dares to suggest it, but what might be needed is a genuinely new approach, one which moves away from the well-established and recognizable Benjamin “style” and leads the viewer to stop, and ask: who is this painter? Whether a change of landscape subject in itself is sufficient to provoke this, or whether some very different grasp of the issues in perception and representation might be called for, is an open question. However, the current tendency, or insistence, on the “signature” of the individual artist in the works may be reaching its limits in Australian landscape painting today, and Jason Benjamin may be the first in line to suffer for it.


www.bathurstart.com.au/…/347-jasonbenjamineveryone-is-here.html [accessed 10 October 2014).

O’Riordan, Maurice. 2010/2011. Jason Benjamin and the importance of being earnest. Art Monthly #236, 68-70.

Marx, Jack. Jason Benjamin: What Binds Us. MacMillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2007.




Freud Naked Man with Rat

Lucian Freud, Naked Man with Rat (1977-78).

Comment on Kitty Hauser’s piece in Public Works, The Weekend Australian, October 25-26 2014, p. 11.

One of the most challenging and “shocking” of Freud’s large-scale paintings – 91.5 cm square – it was quite surprising to see it in full colour in the Weekend Australian. The painting is reproduced in some of the published books on Freud’s oeuvre but for some reason I had never realised it was acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth in 1984. This is another of those super-mysterious Australian art-acquisitions about which I am thinking of writing a short study. My interest in Evariste Luminais Sons of Clovis 11 (1880) has been mentioned elsewhere, and I am writing a preliminary outline. The research I have done to date on Clovis (including at the excellent library at AGNSW) has revealed a lot of short comments and magazine and newspaper reviews published at the time of its purchase in Paris in 1886 but little detail on this surprising decision by the AGNSW – we don’t know who was involved, how it came about, why it was this particular painting and not the second, almost identical version which was acquired, and so on. I imagine the answers, if there are any, must lie deep in the archives, but if there is material there, it should be accessible.

The second example is perhaps the most obvious, the controversial acquisition of Blue Poles (1952) by the National Gallery in Canberra in 1973. This seems to be generally attributed to the innovations of the new “It’s Time” Labor Government. Prime Minister the late Gough Whitlam personally approved the purchase even though the Gallery then did not have authority to sign off on purchases of over one million. James Mollison, the director, believed the painting would be a great start to the new national gallery, at a time when it did not even have a building. The painting was purchased from the collector Ben Heller of New York for the unprecedented sum of 1.3 million Australian dollars. (For some reason the sum of $2 million is now often attributed to the purchase). Clement Greenberg, New York art critic, was Pollock’s particular champion, and had given a lecture on the worth of Pollock’s abstract expressionist works which was challenged by the local theorist Donald Brook but supported by the Melbourne critic Patrick McCaughey.  Local response was largely one of outrage, involving the retelling of various stories current in books and magazines about the circumstances of the painting’s creation. “Barefoot drunks painted our $1 million masterpiece” said one newspaper headline.

Some other less famous but contemporary paintings purchased by Australian galleries include pieces by Willem de Kooning at the NGA, including Woman V of 1952-3. Australian public galleries continue to invest in old masters: the National Gallery of Victoria purchased Correggio’s Madonna and Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist (1514-15) from Sotheby’s London for $5.2 million, the single highest priced acquisition in the NGVs history.

Naked Man with Rat is a very interesting case. I think there is only one other early Lucian Freud painting held in an Australian gallery: And the Bridegroom (1993).   I mentioned it earlier in the context of the small exhibition at AGNSW of treasures from the Lewis Collection. So I guess it isn’t really in the same boat, i.e. the picture was bought by Lewis and then bequeathed to the Gallery, along with the much smaller painting Susie Sleeping (1988-9). It is perhaps a stranger painting than Naked Man with Rat, but both are outstanding examples of the bizarre quality of Lucian Freud’s vision and technical approach, and it is amazing that these two, at the least, are in public collections in Australia.

and the bridegroom

Lucian Freud, And the Bridegroom, 1993


Paul Cezanne,  Afternoon in Naples, 1975.

The NGA also holds Freud’s After Cézanne, a variation on the theme of Paul Cézanne’s L’Aprés Midi à Naples (Afternoon in Naples) (1875), which was purchased in 1985. This was one of Freud’s “day pictures” which he painted in nine months from December 1999 to August 2000. The painting is famous in part because of its peculiar composition. It was initially painted on a rectangular canvas, but when Freud found there was not enough room to put in the upper half of the maid’s head, he added some additional canvas. This is a completely unexpected mode of approach to composition, which normally takes the boundaries of the canvas on its stretcher as the limits of what can be displayed.

Freud after Cezanne

                                         Lucian Freud, After Cezanne,1999-2000

As far as Naked Man with Rat is concerned, the commentary by Kitty Hauser is short but to the point. She has some good gossip on the painting – this is unattributed but no doubt came from one or more of the books recently published on Freud – I suspect from the excellent and informative book by Georgie Grieg, Breakfast with Lucian (2013) – but also identifies the genre as portraiture, rather than a “nude”. Yes, the subject is naked, but the purpose is to create a portrait, without clothes. The subject is Raymond Jones, an interior decorator from whom Freud borrowed money to settle a gambling debt. Repayment was in the form of this portrait. The viewer is gripped by the very strange posture of the figure, the floppy genitals almost at the very centre of the composition and then the rat (and its tail) which is at first hardly noticeable and then impossible to ignore.

I am not sure what to think about the details of the involvement of the rat in this painting. What ethical obligations does the artist have to his subject, even if it is a rat?   This rat was dosed with sleeping tablets dissolved into a dog’s bowl of Veuve Cliquot for the entire time of the painting’s completion. Freud was notoriously slow and extremely thorough in his work. At the end of it, this rat was without doubt an alcoholic and addict. Nothing in the literature which mentions this picture gives us any further information about the life (and death) of this nameless rat, but we must agree that it is one of the heroic figures of contemporary art, truly martyred in the interests of great art.

Eric Fischl. Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas

Bad Boy. My Life On and Off the Canvas.   Eric Fischl and Michael Stone. Crown Publishers, New York, 2012. 357 pp, Index.

 Bad Boy cover

Books about the life and times of artists are not always what you expect. Biographies are often so dense with detail that you lose the sense of the
story, or tiringly familiarity in tone and observation. In part this is because we already know so many artists’ stories from media, movies, magazines and elementary art history lessons: consider Van Gogh’s ear, after all. And hasn’t this become the high point of the story, the bit we always focus on?

Very few artists write their own story (that is, write an autobiography) and fewer still see it in print while they are still alive and very much kicking. This is just one of the elements which makes Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy such a surprise. The voice of the artist is close to us, in time and outlook and feeling. Reading it, you feel you could make a phone call and discuss things with him, and his responses would make perfect sense. Besides this immediacy, it is a really great read. Whether this is down to Fischl, or whether the excellent writing should be credited to Michael Stone who appears as co-author – or is it ghost? – is not clear. But, beyond its technical excellence – lovely sentences expressing complex ideas, genuine engagement with the processes of memory without over-dramatisation – we enter into Fischl’s story, a long arc which has taken place in our own era and goes from psychologically tortured childhood in the affluent suburbs of 60s America, through an art-obsessed young manhood with the regulation overconsumption of cocaine and alcohol, to his current world of relative affluence and international glamour as a Golden Senior of the contemporary art scene. And we go through the art alongside the life. The one illuminates the other, a rare quality in this genre.

This sounds like a story that shouldn’t be enjoyed. After all we aren’t supposed to admire white male American artists especially when they offer figurative paintings with a lot of naked flesh in them. When I first encountered Fischl’s huge canvases of unclothed bathers on the beaches of southern France (what he painted, not where I was) I thought this was a contemporary Norman Lindsay even if the bodies were more realistic and the flesh more recognizably modern. But a deeper exploration quickly shows that this is not what Fischl is about. His art has grown from his own experience, in particular his early traumatic exposure to a very odd domestic scene disguised as perfect normality, and a sense of engagement with a kind of realism which is always imbued with something more, something deeper, something disturbing even while it forces an aesthetic admiration. As he has grown older the vision has, if anything, lightened. But he still stands as an observer, a viewer, a voyeur, a critic. He pursues surfaces only to insist on what is beneath them. Following his art from its earliest beginnings to the present offers a vista of a society and culture twisting and turning around its own sordid mythologies, centred on its own misguided fantasies, narcissism and self-defeating representations.  Fischl puts it thus in his second chapter, “Childhood, 1948-1965” (p. 11).

I began to experience a profound, dizzying sense of disassociation. I became acutely aware of the disconnect between appearance and reality, between people’s emotional needs and desires and the status symbols and objects they surrounded themselves with …. I became increasingly aware of the differences between what things looked like and how I felt as my world spun erratically and dangerously off its axis. It would later form the basis for much of my art. Almost all of my early paintings deal with the fall-out from middle-class taboos, the messy, ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions, and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives.

 This is the context from which his early, famous and controversial paintings arose. He struggled for many years in the art school environment to find a way to express himself. The account of his entry into the art world is vivid and totally believable. He relates his emotional life to the work he was doing, and his search for a viable attachment to a female partner became part of that environment. The connection between his personal, emotional, inner life and the creation of his art is a consistent theme throughout the book, but especially compelling in the first sections.

It was extremely unfashionable to be a representational or figurative artist at Calarts, the prestigious California School of the Arts which at that time (the 70s) specialized in conceptualism and offered the now-familiar critiques of all representational art forms, in the hysterical early post-modernism transferred from late 60s France. His description of the teaching methods at Calarts are dramatic and very funny. He, and a few others, were pushing against the tide of conceptualism, in an environment where manufactured images such as photos, movies and stills merged with the study of Wittgenstein and the French structuralists. He could not accept that painting is an art form necessarily associated with white European males and therefore inherently elitist, antifeminist and racist. He went on painting – abstracts of course – but with increasing disillusion. He dropped his long-time girlfriend Lannie, fell in love with another student, Laura, and moved to Chicago. The affair lasted six months while he spent his days at galleries and was hired as a guard at the Museum of Contemporary Arts. The affair with Laura petered out, he reconnected with Lannie, and they married.

Unexpectedly he was offered a teaching position at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The focus there was conceptual art, but his own background seemed relatively unimportant – they urgently needed someone to supervise classes. He was now making large abstractions, working with oil and encaustic. He became increasingly anxious, swinging between euphoria and spells of black hopelessness. Lannie left him. However he soon met April Gornik, who was to become his wife and partner in an enduring relationship. He writes extensively and with deep appreciation about April, herself a talented landscape artist.

By 1977 he was working in a new technique, using glassine, a milky transparent paper on which he painted in oil. Its transparency allowed him to overlap several drawings at once. The glassine works became the foundation for his explorations into narrative: they seemed like photos, “thinly sliced moments of reality” (p. 100). They suggested rooms, and the rooms triggered an association which he described as being like the emergence of a soap opera. This was taking him back to his own traumatic life and offered a new way of painting narrative. The glassine drawings were depicting relationships within a fictive family, but it was soon apparent that his own family was going to provide the basis for a different kind of art.

Because of his scattered art education Fischl had no formal training in realist painting, but he was increasingly impressed by others involved in traditional portraiture and landscape. His friend Bob Berlind at NSCAD worked alla prima, drawing with his brush. The difficulties of this technique are many, but Fischl was excited by the ability to capture a luminosity and clarity of light and shadow. Bob was an artist completely outside the current trends, but the rich visual experience stayed with Fischl, and was further enhanced by a trip he made with April to Europe visiting the major centres and galleries. In Madrid he studied Velazquez and Ribera’s old men. In Florence they spent their time with Michelangelo and Donatello. They returned to Canada and set up a new joint studio and living space.

In the late 70s they moved to New York. The alternative art scene was centred in SoHo and spilling over to the East Village and TriBeCa at a dizzying pace. The post-studio artists from CalArts had a landmark exhibit in 1977 where Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were making an art of feminist protest, while Italians Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente brought symbolist imagery and Julian Schnabel offered a neo-expressionist revival with his broken-plate works.

There was a downside to life in New York. Finances were tight, April worked at waitressing, while Eric painted lofts and became an art removalist. By late 1979 things were happening in the art world. Eric was alert to the changes in contemporary art but also was engaged with Manet, Degas, Bonnard, Beckmann and Hopper. He liked the enormous scale of the abstract expressionists and he wanted to do heroic work of his own. The glassines were not offering enough scale or scope, and in 1978 he made the first painting of the type he went on to produce for the rest of his life. Painted on four by eight foot plywood, Rowboat was a simple composition in bright primary colours. “The string of associations which led to Rowboat were mostly unconscious … They produced an image that surprised and transfixed me” (p. 117). He felt what could happen when a painting took off by itself from his own unconscious. It was the first of the “frozen moments”, a state where all the elements of a picture are balanced on a knife edge, harmonious yet about to change.

This was the beginning of his move into full-colour, traditional oil paintings. The next major work was Sleepwalker. On a six by nine foot canvas, an adolescent boy stands in a child’s pool on a suburban lawn at night, in a still darkness. Far from awareness, he is masturbating into the pool.

Sleepwalker ERIC FISCHL

This was the start of Fischl’s depiction of “taboo” subjects. At the time, the explicitness of his images was shocking and destabilizing. Paintings such as Bad Boy (1981) and Birthday Boy (1983) opened up a space which was then, and still remains, largely forbidden. Many of his themes arose directly from his family experiences, especially his deeply troubled relationship with his alcoholic and ultimately suicidal mother. Hypocrisy was to be stripped away, and the viewer was forced into a regime of Truth which modern life systematically obscured.

And much of my work was about skin, stripping away the layers of pretense in which my subjects clothe themselves, exposing the naked or unguarded truth of their lives, the posture beneath their meticulously arranged poses. (p. 199)

The eighties picked him up, along with many others, and swept them on a wave. The demand for new, young, or as we would say today “hot”, artists seemed limitless. Their work was snapped up, and by 1982-3 they started making good money. The early eighties were an amazing time in New York anyway: limitless cocaine, nightlife, restaurants, a whole city of openings, museum events, previews and screenings. The mid-section of the book conveys brilliantly the askew sense of urgency of the era, the narcissism it provoked, and the feuds which arose. Fischl had an especially difficult relation with Julian Schnabel. He was envious and upset that Julian had become the anointed one with an art which seemed to Fischl somehow full of fake emotion, operatic or theatrical in tone, too full of the existential heroic stance typical of the abstract expressionists.

However, he soon developed his own following and success and money flooded in. The economy was blasting through the real estate boom and the new global equities markets, and this produced a novel breed of collectors, moneyed and aggressive, tuned in to fashion and status, hosting movie stars and artists in lavish uptown homes. It was the dawn of the celebrity era. Eric and April now needed several thousand dollars a month for their expenses. He began paying in art works, and had a special budget for his cigar and cocaine bills. Success sharpened rivalries among the painters at the top of the tree. As Fischl says, for those who are ambitious there can never be enough success. The rivalry with Schnabel went on. But a reckless confrontation with a gangster after the opening of his show at the Whitney led him to stop all his drinking and drug use, which was no doubt a good thing considering what was coming.

By 1990 many other artists were challenging him on his terrain, featuring themes of sex, the body, desire, relationships and identity. And the art-market had crashed. Shows had been panned, including one of April’s, and the two of them fell into a state of depression. On the positive side, Fischl was beginning to receive a lot of attention in Europe, and he had done a series of paintings based on his travels in India which had moved away from the personal/sexual/analytic field. In 1992 they decided to move out of New York and away from the art scene. Another wave of the global wealthy emerged, in Russia, Brazil and China, looking to diversify their investments. And the Internet opened up new ways for art to be seen. However Fischl did not join the ranks of those who found success in this new environment. Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst had become the darlings of the art world. The spotlight had shifted away from realist painting on challenging themes. The faddish new work was what was selling. Fischl had not “made the cut” in the art market, and “the art market had become the art world” (p. 280). The process whereby the value of art was determined by its place in the market had begun. Artists had to conform to the dictates of what sells. Fischl went on selling, but not as one of the “artists who matter”. The art world had become part of the entertainment business, and it “favoured product that was splashy, replicable, and attached to an A-list, brand-name artist”. (p. 281).

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the extent to which other artists enter it. Fischl’s discussion of his relation to Edward Hopper is especially enlightening. He describes the mixed feelings Hopper raises in him. Fischl feels that Hopper lacks painting style. He describes a reductive technique, a kind of directness and honesty in an awkward kind of painting. “He’s not very good at rendering figures. They often seem overworked and turgid, and as such they reveal his puritanical anxiety about flesh; it’s as though he wasn’t in control of his medium”. (p. 299).

In spite of his critique of Hopper, Fischl was forced to accept that Hopper seemed somehow present in his own work. It was the same territory in painting. He had captured something about the experience of being American: “a bone-deep loneliness, a sense of alienation and anxiety that’s the flip side of self-reliance …” (p. 299).

Fischl then entered into a dialogue with two Hopper paintings, Summer in the City and Excursion into Philosophy. They embraced themes central to Fischl’s interests. These paintings were ten years apart but seemed to be telling the same story. They are about distance and abstraction, the gaps between lovers and life. His response was the painting The Philosopher’s Chair, a bedroom scene which enlarges the tension in the Hopper paintings.   This led into a series of paintings based on similar themes, “The Bed, the Chair …” . He used a theatrical or cinematic device to advance the themes. In each picture (eleven in all) he placed different subjects in the same room, so that space became the location of different dramas over time. The series’ principle characters became the bed and the chair, while humans engaged alongside, on, or in them. The discussion of the thought process which went into these painting is almost unique in contemporary art writing (see pp. 300-303).


This led into the Krefeld Project in 2002, a series of large paintings based on an unprecedented encounter between art and a kind of realism. Two actors, a man and a woman, were photographed performing different scenes in different rooms of Museum Haus Esters, originally designed by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. Fischl photographed them and finished up with more than 2000 photographs, which were digitized and uploaded onto a computer. Fischl then edited the photos into ten scenes which became the basis for ten paintings. Fischl gives relatively little discussion to this project, possibly because there is an excellent and extensive account of it published to accompany the exhibition. These two series brought together the storytelling devices he had been working on since the late 70s. They functioned like cinematic pieces using montage. Each painting worked on its own, offering an intense individual drama, but together they constituted a larger meditation on the nature of relationship, gender, power, place, intimacy and alienation – the themes which Fischl has been exploring throughout his career.

Krefeld Project 1

In one way, all of Fischl’s work can be seen as the construction of scenes within a series. The link between the elements of the series is not always evident, or can even be seen as deliberately obscured. Many paintings can be read in different ways and the relation between them is not necessarily temporal. If there is a sequence it is formed in the unconscious, so that the artist asks the viewer to make up his/her own mind about the narrative elements, the “what happened when”. Perhaps the pictures function together like a William Burrough’s writing sequence, reflecting back on each other while opening up new vistas.

It has proven very difficult to summarise this book. As in the narrative frame of Fischl’s paintings, the reader is constantly drawn forward into events, which reach a kind of soft resolution but then transform into the next phase. As we know, the full impact of an artist’s work cannot really be estimated until his death. Fischl remains very much alive and has a new show in London (October 2014), depicting sardonically the contemporary art “scene”. To read this book is to enter into a dialogue with art and life in contemporary America and beyond. It is also a philosophical and theoretical thriller, conveyed through wonderfully expressive writing and a sense of ethical engagement. It offers a treatise on the art world today, but more compelling is the sense of the person behind the art and the writing, a person struggling always with a level of truth even when it is distinctly uncomfortable and unflattering.   It would be hard not to admire and enjoy the company of this person.




Juliette Aristides. Classical Drawing Atelier.

Juliette Aristides.  Classical Drawing Atelier. A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice.  Watson-Guptill Publications, New York. 2006.

I had noticed this book several times on Amazon, while searching for works which addressed certain key technical issues which I felt were sorely missing in my own work. Drawing the figure is principle among them. Having had only the most rudimentary training in classical drawing, the idea of approaching it through a well-illustrated book written from the traditional perspective seemed very attractive. The reader reviews for the book ranged from quite enthusiastic to lukewarm. Coming across the work in a library gave an opportunity for a closer look, to assess whether it would be a useful manual or source of on-going training and study.

Aristides 1

This book is nicely produced and feels good in the hand. There is a great deal of text, many more or less compelling illustrations, and singularly little actual “training” detail. I have found the same with many other art books. It is often the case that a high proportion of the illustrative material is the work of the author, or of close associates, while outstanding famous examples which one would want to study closely are seldom included. Books with many drawings and colour plates are incredibly expensive to produce and it is understandable that publishers are reluctant to invest in these costs without being sure of recouping them. Since classical drawing and painting techniques more-or-less disappeared in the mid to late twentieth century it is only in a few circles that such works would appeal. However, when looking in more detail at the publishing history and availability of this work, it seems to be one which has been published in several variants and editions, sometimes with a slightly different title, and is now available on Kindle at less than $20. So there is a significant market for it.

The book describes itself as arising specifically from the Atelier context. Many today use this just as another fancy term for a studio. However Atelier refers to a distinct mode of art training, one which was more or less universal up until the twentieth century. Atelier training is rare today. There are some ateliers in the US, one of which is associated with Aristides, and many more in Europe. Atelier training involves not just a technical approach towards realist/representational art, but arises from a philosophy and aesthetic practice, even though this is not often articulated. There are hints of it in Aristides’ book, but no more than that. Her engagement with the deeper aspects of the “break” between classical and modern art is limited to an historical overview approach.

There are some reasons why this book could benefit would-be representational artists. Figuration has been undergoing a significant revival; and while many contemporary artists are perfectly happy to treat their figures with casual gestures, much recent work is moving towards a higher level of anatomical and visual complexity which might suggest that a knowledge of drawing is imperative for the complex large-scale figurative compositions which they are producing. Of course painting is not drawing, and the example of Lucian Freud suggests that the figure can be constructed in paint with no more than a few charcoal lines on the canvas for a drawing. The relation between drawing and figurative painting is an interesting subject for another time.

Aristides’ book begins by offering an historical perspective on artists’ training in recent times, where the idea of an established artistic heritage has been broken. Contemporary artists frequently repudiate any links to the art of the past, while education and formal training are considered “antithetical to genius” (p. xi). Aristides argues for the mastery of craft, and a focus on technical achievement, as precursor to individual self-expression. It is clear that for atelier-trained artists the knowledge and stylistic expression of art in the classical style, dating back to the ancient Greeks, is the bedrock of their art practice. That knowledge in turn was based on other ancient civilizations including Egyptian, Near Eastern and Aegean cultures. Ancient Greece became the standard-bearer for the highest levels of artistic expression, rediscovered in the Italian renaissance, where the humanistic perspective and the idea that man is the measure of all things flourished. Leonardo and Michelangelo remain the measure of great art of earlier times, although the idea of emulating or imitating their artistic practice might seem an anachronistic absurdity. Aristides rejects such a view, and focuses on elements of draftsmanship, for example the use of line in the expression of form. There are a number of useful diagrams and discussions, which lead to an understanding of the way lines are positioned in the earliest stage of a drawing, from which the key elements of composition and the visual hierarchy of various parts arise. The use of block-in in first stage drawing is clearly explained, which leads on to the examination of measuring to determine distances and relationships. The differences between sight measurement and relational measuring are explained.

The book goes on to examine other elements of drawing, including figure drawing from life, portrait drawing, and related matters. All of these discussions warrant close examination and a careful student would take the time to undertake sketches and copies of many of these, so as to get a sense of how the written text and illustrative examples “work” when being duplicated in real time.

Part Four promises to “put theory into practice” and unfortunately this is the weakest element of the work.   A very brief discussion of materials precedes some elementary notes on drawing spheres, for instance. The reader who has bothered to come this far is already likely to be very familiar both with materials and the drawing of spheres. A lesson on “Master Copy Drawing” again offers the barest account of how to go about copying from Master drawings, with only the slightest amount of detail at a most elementary level. Other “lessons” include “reductive figure drawing” in charcoal, and a simple approach to portrait drawing.

The book ends very abruptly, and there is no conclusion or any effort to link the practical elements to a broader consideration of how a revived interest and skill in classical drawing techniques is or might be playing a significant role in the emergence of new figurative/narrative drawing and/or painting. The very slight and elementary information contained in the “lessons” is so far from the aims and expectations of the kind of art student who is likely to be reading it that one wonders about the motivation for the project as a whole.

On balance, this is not a work which needs to be in one’s library. It would be good to ponder, and copy, many of the illustrations, and to be able to apply principles of measurement and ratio as they are explained here, but the ardent art student would be just as well-served by the purchase of less expensive drawing manuals, even if they are nowhere near as informative or well-written regarding the background of classical drawing. Finally, the availability of the book on Kindle may make it more attractive to those who want an introduction to some of the matters raised above. But the limitations of art books in electronic form are notable, especially if you want to use illustrations as a source of study and copy material. This is one of the best arguments for the value of the traditional artist’s library, although other kinds of art books especially biographies and memoirs may be preferable in e-form. This goes especially for the blockbuster biographies which are so thick as to be hard to open and so heavy that you can’t read them in bed. More on these later.



Australian Perspectives