There is a science fiction aspect to the Australian art market at the moment, with commercial galleries inhabiting parallel universes. Most dealers have struggled to sell anything substantial for much of this year, but every so often a show comes along that sparks a feeding frenzy. Rex Irwin’s current selection of paintings and drawings by Nicholas Harding sold out after two weeks, but this seems modest alongside Australian Galleries, where the revenue from successive shows – by William Robinson, Tim Storrier and now, Jeffrey Smart – has touched or exceeded the million-dollar mark.
The fact that artists with a big reputation continue to sell while talented but lesser-known peers struggle, provides a revealing insight into the local market. It appears there is plenty of money out there, with buyers who are prepared to pay any amount for a tried-and-trusted name rather than rely on their own taste.
This is why running a commercial art gallery in Australia can be a mug’s game. A few big results, or the odd scandal, tend to distort the entire picture, making dealers look like fat cats or crooks. This is obviously the way the Rudd government views the industry. Having brought in a confusing, horribly flawed resale royalty scheme, they are now considering changes the superannuation rules so that art may no longer be acquired as part of a portfolio. This amounts to a double whammy on the art market. It also seems highly contradictory, because if art is enough of an appreciable asset to attract a resale royalty, why shouldn’t it be included in a super scheme?
Jeffrey Smart’s new exhibition is the outstanding exception to the general malaise of the market. Even before opening night, sales had reached $6 million and rising. This is almost certainly an all-time record for a commercial show by an Australian artist.
Almost everything about Smart (b.1921) constititutes an exception to the way Australian artists have reached the top of their profession. The usual pattern is to go overseas and return in glory, like Arthur Streeton, Brett Whiteley or John Olsen. Smart, by contrast, has lived in Italy for the past forty years, only returning for the occasional exhibition. This time he is feeling too old and unwell to make the trip.
While other artists, such as Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan, have become famous for painting the Australian landscape or local icons such as Ned Kelly, Smart has avoided the Australiana in favour of roads, apartment blocks, trucks, traffic signs and air terminals, that are virtually identical the world over.
Whiteley dazzled viewers with his technical facility and his showmanship, Olsen floored them with sheer joie-de-vivre; Arthur Boyd made an impact with large, apocalyptic pictures. Smart has never felt the slightest urge to inflict shock and awe on his audience. On the contrary, his pictures are calm, still and unassuming. They manifest no special skill, being executed in a careful, methodical manner that values composition more highly than the lyrical qualities of a painted surface. By temperament he is Classic rather than Romantic, seeing a painting as something that is constructed piece by piece, not dashed off in a burst of inspiration. There are no political agendas in Smart’s paintings, no hidden messages beyond the occasional in-joke.
Like John Brack, Smart’s output is small and considered, which is one of the reasons why these two artists have become so desirable for the auction houses. In last week’s Menzies auction, Brack and Smart were the big-ticket items. This is a world away from the over-productivity of artists such as Nolan and Boyd.
If one tried to be coldly objective, it is hard to discern any one area where Smart demonstrates a special genius. He is doggedly repetitious in his themes. His drawing is correct and inexpressive, while his figures can be crude and perfunctory. His colours follow a predictable pattern of contrasts. Even those leaden skies that form the backdrop for one picture after another hardly bear comparison with say, Tim Storrier’s finesse in this area.
And yet there is a mastery in Smart’s work that is undiminished by all of its limitations. He has created a distinctive world that bears a passing resemblance to the place we where live, while remaining subtly different. Planet Smart contains all the elements of modern life but arranged in an order that gives even the most uninteresting object a kind of revelatory force.
This is partly to do with the artist’s manipulation of light within the picture, partly down to our sheer familiarity with a body of work that has changed only by degrees since the 1960s. What is worth considering is that even those who are new to Smart’s paintings feel the same attraction. He is creating images that have an uncanny ability to engage the viewer’s imagination. Perhaps the best explanation for this phenomenon is that Smart’s pictures read like fragments of narrative clipped from a larger story. This is the single flash of insight provided by film director, Bruce Beresford, in a catalogue introduction that is largely about Bruce Beresford.
I’ve always felt that Smart’s paintings are inherently cinematic, like scenes viewed through the lens of a movie camera. In particular, one thinks of the Italian Neo-Realist films made at Cinecittà, or the spare, poetic style of a director such as Michelangelo Antonioni.
In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, the period of post-war reconstruction was an orgy of concrete, with ugly tower blocks sprouting on the outskirts of the big cities. This is the typical environment we find in most of Smart’s paintings, occasionally painted in lolly colours. These apartments lurk in the background of The bus stop, King of the castle, The red box and even the Portrait of Bruce Beresford.
The counterpoint to this motif is the wall or billboard covered in graffiti or torn, peeling posters. If the apartments denote the deadening uniformity of urban planning, the graffiti shows how individualistic impulses will inevitably bubble to the surface. A whispered dialogue between order and anarchy underpins most of these pictures, adding to that sense of truncated narrative. Something is always about to happen. Something’s got to give. This can be a simple sequence of time and motion, as in Civitella, where a truck is just about to disappear over the crest of a hill. The conversation – a very cinematic title – presents a more complex scenario, as we have no way of knowing what four men at a truck stop are talking about, or what will be the result of their exchange.
Smart takes great delight in these frozen moments. He also enjoys revisiting his back catalogue, dusting off old motifs and bringing them out for a second look. In this show, which gives the strong impression of an elderly artist looking back on his life, he has a number of paintings that self-consciously echo earlier works. The Portrait of Bruce Beresford is the most obvious. Not only has Smart put his subject in overalls, as he did with David Malouf in 1980; he also includes the coloured roller doors from a 1982 painting called Four closed shops. The latter were emblazoned with the names of well-known Italian artists, making a wry comment on the nature of the local art scene. In the new picture, the ‘closed shops’ presumably refer to Beresford’s difficulties in getting Hollywood to back his recent film projects.
One would have to be very hard-hearted not to respond to these hints and inflections. In painting, as in conversation, Smart has a droll and subtle wit. It is a pity that he no longer feels strong enough to make the long trip to the land of his birth because he probably has more admirers than any other Australian artist. The flesh may be frail, but the spirit is still kicking against the pricks. The painting on the cover of the catalogue, King of the castle, shows a figure sitting on top of a large segment of concrete piping. It’s not difficult to see this as a concealed self-portrait. At the apex of his career, Smart can feel secure in the knowledge that he sits enthroned on top of that mountain of gold and lead we call Australian art.
Jeffrey Smart: Paintings and Studies 2006-2010, Australian Galleries, June 22-July 10, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 26, 2010