“New” National Gallery of Australia

On the weekend I went to the National Gallery in Canberra. I think it was my first time this year, after making multiple visits each year since 2011 when I first started painting.

Every time I went to Canberra, the gallery would be one place I’d regularly visit. On one occasion I spent a whole day there, apart from an hour when I walked down the road to the nearby National Portrait Gallery.

This year I’ve done very little painting, and as a result had less desire to go to the NGA.

A few weeks ago I caught a short news item on TV about recent changes to the Gallery’s exhibition spaces.
In the simplest terms, there had been a switching of the International and Australian galleries. What had been downstairs, (International paintings) had been swapped with those that had been upstairs (Australian paintings).
Another claimed change was the lighting of Pollock’s Blue Poles. New lights had been created specifically for the Pollock to give a truer view of the colours used, so the painting for the first time would look exactly as it should.

This was my first visit since the changes, and I was very disappointed with what had been done.

Firstly the place seemed over-lit. The brightness created a clinical sterility.
Secondly I felt there was no logical flow of ideas, styles or eras in the display of the art.
I could also see no difference with Blue Poles, despite the special lighting.

On the positive side, Colin McCahon’s Victory Over Death 2 had a much better location. It was once again hanging at a more favourable height after spending a couple of years of hung 4 metres above floor level over an enquiry counter.VOD2

Also, near VOD2 I saw Abendland [Twilight of the West] by Anslem Kiefer for the first time. A massive 4 metre x 4 metre heavily textured work that I loved. Abendland [Twilight of the West Anslem Kiefer

It is now one of my three favourites in the gallery. The other two being McCahon’s VOD2 and Imants Tillers Terra Incognita, another massive artwork that is full of detail; a painting that could be viewed for hours to find all of the images and text it incorporates.
terra invognita tillers

Self Portrait 1, 2014

This is the latest of my self portraits.
I don’t want to offend friends and family by trying to paint them. I’d rather offend myself as I experiment with “portraiture”.

This one started out as something purely abstract. I started it after looking at some of De Kooning’s work and his use of colour.
I had it propped against a cupboard for a few weeks until I could decide what to do with it.
Then I turned it around and saw a vague head shape…


2013: First Paintings

A landcape and a self-portrait

1 2013

2 2013

The landscape was mostly created with heavy sprays of water onto the paint, causing it to run across the tipped canvas (A slight Frankenthaler influence). I then added a few touches with a brush. I’m quite happy with the result which reminds me of some of Fred Williams work (if only!)

The portrait was done on a canvas that I’d been using for months but always with disappointing results. Colours from the failed paintings show through the swirls and smears of paint that I quickly applied on top.
After I covered the canvas I turned it this way and that until I saw a potential face.

Other angles had shown different possibilities but I was hesitant to add to Albert Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil series. Some of those potential images I saw in the swirls bordered on the creepy.

If Only I Could Paint Like Ben Quilty!

Painting has been difficult over the last couple of weeks. I’ve not been happy with anything I’ve done since I finished the paintings illustrated here:


Most of my time was taken up painting the one below, to which I’ve given the title “Prophet”. But I’m not happy with it. I quite like the colour and texture of the face, but not the features. Around the face I’ve included stencilled phrases from scripture, but I’m not happy with those I chose to include. They give the impression that the face represents Jesus Himself – but that was never the intention.

(this was photographed at an angle to catch the light on the stencilled words – the shape of the face therefore appears a little distorted.)

Until I decide what to do next, I’ll put this one aside and start to try something different.

I think the attempt at a portrait came about because I’ve recently seen a couple of documentaries about Ben Quilty, a young Australian artist who recently had a short stint as a war artist in Afghanistan. I’d seen him previously in some tributes to the late Margaret Olley whose portrait he had painted, winning him the Archibald Prize.

Quilty isn’t known for delicate and detailed work. He makes a lot of use of pallet knives to apply thick layers of paint squeezed not from tubes but from large cartridges more like a building product than an artist’s material. Even though he applies paint like a bricklayer applies mortar, the results have a detail capturing much more than the physical appearance of his subject. He somehow manages to capture their heart, their thoughts and their emotions.

My own attempts at portraiture have a long way to go – but I’ll keep returning and giving it another go. One day I’ll get it right (I hope).
See this excellent article about Quilty

Comparisons and Judgements

This is my second year as “an artist”, maybe a year and a half since my first painting attempts, and my art journey has been one of trial and error: learning as I go from practical experience. I’ve bought many magazines and books about technique but I’ve never really followed their examples. Instead I have preferred to see art and read about art and find inspiration from what other people have done without trying to copy them.

I see how my painting has developed and I’m happy not to have copied techniques from books. What I do is far from perfect and it can be frustrating when something isn’t working out in the way I want. But I think I’m developing my own style and my own approach. I may have ideas inspired by what others have done but I haven’t tried to duplicate anything.

Throughout this year and a half my intentions have not changed but the method of putting those intentions into paint has changed significantly. Starting with attempts to paint text only my work has moved on with influences from various art movements and several individual artists. Parts of this process have been mentioned in previous articles.

One of the potential stumbling blocks that I face is the temptation to compare my work with the work of others, whether it be the well-known painters I’ve admired, or even the members of the local art society. I could see their work and see where it is more accomplished than mine. I could see what they are doing as being more valid, more technically proficient more GENUINELY artistic. I could see them as doing REAL paintings to a standard I haven’t achieved. But I need to take my own path, recognising my own limitations but not letting those limitations restrict what I try to achieve.

It would be a mistake for me to make someone elses work the standard by which I judge the validity of my own. It’s not as if there’s an ultimate authority in painting that all artists have to emulate and by which all art is judged.

Abstract Expressionism

On Saturday I went to the abstract expressionism exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra.

For the first time I got to see DeKooning’s iconic Woman V. It is part of the National Gallery Collection but has not been on show during my previous visits. It was one of the highlights of the exhibition. I’ve seen photos of it before, but in person it was far more interesting, with very thick textured paint and lots of vibrant colour.

I also saw my very first Helen Frankenthaler works. I’ve read that she used a similar approach to Jackson Pollock (also well represented) but she used highly diluted paint on untreated canvas. This allowed the paint to soak into the canvas instead of adhering to the surface. The result was a softer, more diffused application of colour.

Being an admirer of Ian Fairweather I was pleased to see more of his work, and also more of Tony Tuckson. Previously I’d seen few of their paintings in person.
I’ve not yet been disappointed by any of the Fairweathers I’ve seen, but my response to Tuckson is mixed. In my opinion many of his “paintings” don’t deserve that label and definitely don’t merit a place in any National Gallery.

The whole exhibition could have been named “From the Sublime to the Ridiculous”.

The De Kooning would be towards the sublime end of the scale, and one by Tuckson would be at the other end. It is basically a sheet of plain, untreated masonite/hardboard with a couple of lines of white paint. I wonder if this was something found in his studio after his death – something he hadn’t even started to take seriously. Believe it or not it looks worse in person than it does in the photo.

Overall the exhibition was excellent – and it’s continues until January next year: plenty of time to go back a few more times.

The only disappointment was the lack of a printed catalogue to take home.

In the Background

Here are some photos of the progress of my most recent project.

With my paintings I’ve usually been so carried away with the desired final image that I’m left with a flat, boring background that needs a lot of attention. Then it’s often not easy to fix up the background without compromising what I’ve already done. The division between the two can then seem contrived.

This time I tried to start with a background, building up layers of text and symbol in the beginning instead of trying to add something later.

I wanted to try this after seeing Heather Carr’s blog (http://heatherunderground.com/2012/01/30/flora-bowley-rocks/ ).

Here are the first stages of the background:

While working on the background I played around with ideas suitable for the eventual subject of the painting: such as this small sketch:

This idea was later added to the canvas using diluted flesh colour paint, highlights of red and detailed with a shiny pearl-white. The result was quite impressive from a distance if seen in the right light, but up close looked featureless and insipid.

I’ve now done more work to fix the “insipidness” by adding darker flesh tones,  but haven’t yet been able to take a suitable photograph. Additional photos of progress will have to wait for another post.

Painting Influences (part 3)

I have found inspiration in the work of  a few Jewish artists. While not necessarily religious in practice, they can’t avoid the presence of God in their culture and references to Him are addressed in their work.

My interest in Jewish art was increased through reading Chaim Potok’s two “Asher Lev” novels. They are the story of a Jew from an orthodox family who struggles with the contradiction his extraordinary artistic talent creates in his life. His art appears to pull against everything he and his family believes but he feels compelled to use his talent to portray his own perception of truth.

There are probably many parallels between the struggles of the fictional life of Lev and actual Jewish artists, who have played a role in modern art history.

One who interests me is Marc Chagall, who often used a collection of seemingly unrelated symbols in a single painting but somehow made them fit together. I’ve tried a couple of times to paint something inspired by him but every attempt seems to take a different direction and the end result has nothing in common with his work. But that’s a good thing. His work provides a spark to start a project but the resulting painting isn’t a mere copy of what he did.

My most recent painting started out with his work in mind but took on its own life the more I worked on it.

see photo here:  https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/painting-in-progress/

Currently a favourite artist is Samuel Bak, a holocaust survivor whose work is strongly influenced by his childhood experiences. He is another with a personal collection of repeated symbols. Perhaps his most moving/challenging are those he has based on this well-known photo:

Some of Bak’s paintings inspired by the photo are in an exhibition catalogue that can be downloaded from this link  http://www.puckergallery.com/pdf/Bak.Icon.2008.pdf

I have been reading a little about Bak and his paintings and have seen a video featuring him. There are several to be found on youtube.
Bak starts his work with detailed drawings on the canvas. That is something I haven’t tried yet, but I am keen to give a go to see what I can achieve with a more structured approach. So far my painting method has been very organic, trial and error, seeing what works and what doesn’t as I paint. It can be a frustrating experience, but when things start to work out it is very satisfying. On the occasions when I have tried to plan what I’m going to do it has never worked out the way I hoped, so I have mostly avoided planning too much beyond starting with a very basic idea. That idea sometimes doesn’t survive but will transform into something else as I paint.