Guy Warren is the best proof that a positive attitude is the secret of eternal youth. Having just turned 95, Warren seems as vital as ever. I’ve known him for about 30 years and he hardly seems to have changed. He’s still painting and drawing, still driving, still alert and articulate. He’s one of those rare human beings that everyone seems to like. It’s a bonus that he also happens to be an excellent artist.
Genesis of a Painter is not a full-scale retrospective but an artfully composed survey put together by Barry Pearce, Emeritus Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW. It’s something of a mystery as to why the AGNSW doesn’t seem to make use of Pearce, who remains one of the most experienced and respected curators in the country. Instead, this exhibition is being held at the S.H.Ervin, which has become Sydney’s de facto home for shows of senior living artists.
The idea for the selection arose when Pearce was visiting Warren’s studio and came across a cache of pictures from the 1950s and 60s. “In spite of the dust and patina,” Pearce writes, “these smaller paintings told us everything we needed to know about the genesis of Guy Warren the painter.”
A sentence like this sounds as if it should be accompanied by drums and trumpets, but no artist could be more modest about his achievements. From 1951-9 Warren lived in London, at a time when one of the most prominent strands in British art was a form of landscape-based abstraction.
If we look at Warren’s work of the 50s and 60s, one can catch glimpses of painters such as Alan Davie, Peter Lanyon and Victor Pasmore. By the artist’s own admission this was a period in which he had been struggling “to find a direction”. It was only natural that he would be subject to many different influences.
In later works there are passing suggestions of the Tachistes, or the matter paintings of artists such as Antoni Tàpies and Alberto Burri. It was all part of Warren’s determination not get trapped into painting the same picture over and over. He remained open to stylistic influences while looking for a subject that was distinctively his own.
He found a lifeline in his memories of the years he had spent in New Guinea during the war, which had confirmed him in his desire to be an artist. He thought of the way the native people decorated themselves to the point where they almost merged with the jungle. This would become an obsessive theme for Warren in the decades that followed. One may identify it as the ruling metaphor of his work, as the figure in a landscape came to represent the interdependence of humanity and the natural world.
This is why the 2003 book on Warren’s work, which contains a beautifully written memoir, is called Looking for Gaia. As it says on the dustjacket: “Guy Warren’s paintings re-affirm the idea that the living earth and its inhabitants are as one.”
This is where the work of the 1950s and 60s is crucial to Warren’s development. The sequence of pictures in this show begins with Soldiers bathing in a river (1954), based on a photograph taken in Bougainville in 1945. This cautious piece of sub-Matissean modernism is soon overtaken by paintings such as Mother and child (1955) and Bathers 2 (1957), which include totemic figures reminiscent of carved tribal statuary. These canvases are divided into neat, geometrical compositions, but there is a greater variety of brushstrokes and a much bolder approach to colour. The jungle has turned bright red, and will stay red in the paintings that follow.
In works such as Princess and Torokina (both 1958), the lush green vegetation has returned, but the forms have become abstracted, more in line with the kind of painting coming out of St. Ives at the time. The evolution of the series shows the methodical nature of Warren’s mind. Faced with a creative crisis he goes back to basics, exploring his own memories and sensations as a way of finding out what is most important to him, both as a painter and as a man of sensibility.
From this point he rehearses a set of aesthetic manoeuvres until he finds an approach that strikes the right chord. It’s like teaching oneself a language. Everything that follows is a matter of increasing one’s fluency, a process that may last a life time.
Upon returning to Australia, Warren found Sydney to be “very dull indeed”, but he continued to make abstracted landscapes that reflected the cutting-edge styles of the day. Pictures such as Tiger in my garden or Estuary in winter, Shoalhaven (both 1963), have the spikiness characteristic of the artists of the CoBrA school (a big influence on John Olsen as well) but the palette of browns and murky greens, is as Australian as that ubiquitous style of local pottery.
This is a time of experimentation in which Warren produced works such as the Mungo Brush watercolours of 1965. Delicate wisps of colour are smudged damply onto pieces of paper that are allowed to retain much of their original whiteness. These minimalist pictures were a release from the dark, densely impastoed paintings the artist had been producing since his return to Sydney.
Warren’s experimental tendencies would see him working on folded canvases, and even using a small plane to create the monumental drawing, The Fall of Icarus, in the sky over Sydney in 1994. He has a fondness for the Icarus motif, which is often transformed into a more personal symbol – the Wingman. One suspects that Warren has always seen Icarus – the figure in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun on wings of wax – as a salutary warning for all artists. Fly too high, lose sight of the earth, and you’ll come crashing down.
Warren’s Wingman can be a good or bad angel, a symbol of soaring inspiration or pending disaster. It’s the struggle that is repeated in the studio with each new work, as a painting takes off or stalls.
The Wingman, and another favourite symbol, the Treefern Woman, have a raw, atavistic feeling that once again recalls the tribal art of New Guinea. Over the past two decades, Warren has returned to these primal motifs with renewed energy, giving substance to Pearce’s thesis that the work of the 1950s in London set the scene for everything that was to follow.
The major paintings in this show are the large paintings: Tribal (1997), Conference (1998), The Arrival (1990-98), and Hidden memories, secret lives (2006). The first two are Warren’s most ambitious iterations of the figure-in-the-landscape theme. In Tribal, human silhouettes flicker against a fiery red vista of undergrowth and shadows. It’s a painting that feels claustrophobic, almost hallucinogenic in its dense patterning. The dose is repeated in Conference, where the dominant colour is a smothering green in which the outlines of figures are divided by slivers of yellow light.
The Arrival is a more enigmatic painting which seems to have been reworked many times. It could be the arrival of Icarus or the Wingman, plummeting to earth or landing safely. I found myself thinking of James Gleeson’s surrealist painting of 1985, The Arrival of Implacable Gifts in the AGNSW. The inspiration for this work was the new Guinea cargo cults that saw the goods brought by aeroplane as gifts from the sky. For Warren the gift from the sky is probably the realisation that a painting has actually succeeded.
Hidden memories, secret lives, feels like the summation of a life’s work, but it is a testament that gives nothing away. That dark, looming mound that dominates the painting may be an intimation of mortality, but it also resembles a Buddhist stupa circled by restless spirits.
A stupa is a place of meditation that often contains sacred relics, and that’s what Warren has created: a place, shaped like a head, where memories and secrets are entombed, awaiting disappearance or resurrection. After so many years toiling in the studio he understands that this is, perhaps, the ultimate gift that an artist enjoys – the ability to snatch impressions from the jaws of oblivion and imbue them with a new life.
Genesis of a Painter: Guy Warren at 95
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 21 May
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 30th April, 2016