Art Essays

Leon Kossoff, Ben Quilty and James Powditch

Published October 30, 2010
Leon Kossoff "From Degas: Combing the Hair (La Coiffure')" 1988, drypoint - unique print 56.5 x 75.5 cm

Looking at recent reports on the Paris art fair, FIAC, it was morbidly interesting to learn about the most eye-catching works and the prices they fetched. For instance, Barry X Ball’s Sleeping Hermaphrodite – a black marble quotation of a famous Roman sculpture, went for US$ 623,000. A bronze sculpture by Paul McCarthy, with the alluring title, Shit Face Fucked Up, sold for US $750,000, while a large cube of taxidermied animals by Abel Abdessemed was purchased for “an undisclosed sum”.
None of these artists is exactly a household name but the contemporary art market has an insatiable appetite for beauty and ugliness, sex and death, with plenty of room for the chic and the gruesome on the same platform. The really important thing is to be noticed – a fact that gives rise to a huge amount of attention-seeking behaviour. So much of this art makes its way into the Biennales and other large surveys that it would be easy to believe there is no longer room for anything quieter and more introspective. Here one may take heart from the unstinting popularity of Leon Kossoff’s work.
Despite having spent almost his entire working life in the London suburbs, Kossoff (b. 1926) has established a firm following in places such as Los Angeles, where he is represented by L.A.Louver gallery, and latterly Sydney. His current show at Annandale galleries, subtitled Drawing from Painting, brings together a large number of drawings and prints based on the artist’s early morning visits to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, where he is permitted to come and sketch before the 10 am opening.
Kossoff has been making these visits for years, drawing from paintings by artists such as Rembrandt, Goya, Velasquez, Poussin, Veronese, Constable, Cézanne and Degas. All of these studies are represented in the Annandale show. They are not painstaking transcriptions, but virtual re-inventions of the original images.
While Kossoff’s oil paintings undergo endless revisions some portraits requiring more than a hundred sessions, his drawings are far more spontaneous. Each is a rapid analysis of a painting, made so quickly that there was no time to pause and contemplate the next line. It is as if Kossoff seeks to transmit information from the eye directly to the hand with a minimum of self-consciousness, relying on his instincts to pick out the most salient features. When he stops to inspect the results of this frenzied activity the artist is probably no less surprised than the viewer.
In Kossoff’s drawings the Neo-classical compositions of Poussin are broken down into component atoms, dancing madly across the page. In his response to Degas’s La Coiffure (‘Combing the hair’), the original canvas with its deep, saturated red, has been captured in a mere handful of lines scratched uncertainly onto an etching plate. At first this seems to do violence to the original image, but gradually one realises that Kossoff has made us look at this picture in an entirely new way. By removing the colour he shows how little there is to the composition – a simple diagonal movement, as the maid pulls back a great handful of the woman’s hair. We see how the sensuousness of the original painting refers to the feeling of having one’s hair brushed, with Degas using the red haze to capture a tiny moment of abandon. That red is a smokescreen, banishing all other impressions.

This kind of restraint is rare in Kossoff’s work. For the most part he scribbles furiously over a page, rubbing out and drawing back over the main areas, until he achieves the desired emphasis. There are a number of unique state etchings in this show, as he has continually reworked his plates, pulling one impression at a time. Every piece feels like a work in progress, although there is no firm destination in mind. It is a process of going back to a particular work, over and over, until the possibilities of the motif have been exhausted, at least for the time being.
Some might feel that Kossoff’s vigorous graphics are a travesty of the Old Masters, but one could just as easily see these works as the sincerest form of homage. In these prints and drawings he tries to put himself into the shoes of Rembrandt or Poussin, working through the elements of a picture in such a way that hidden problems and deeper meanings are revealed. The Old Master paintings are not treated as historical artefacts but living entities, as vital today as they were when first exhibited.
I’ve written a small essay for the catalogue of this show, although that doesn’t alter my views on the work. One of the best aspects of the exhibition is that it coincides with David to Cézanne, the collection of French master drawings currently on display at the Art Gallery of NSW. This provides an opportunity to view Kossoff’s drawings in close proximity to those of the masters he admires. The comparisons are neither pretty nor elegant.
Between the late nineteenth century and today there have been waves of Expressionism and abstraction that have given artists a new way of relating to the world. Yet there is a sense of interiority in a drawing that holds our attention just as effectively, regardless of when the work was completed. This quality answers a deep need in our own psyches, as we always want to believe that any significant work of art has more to it than meets the eye. This is why all the stuffed animals, fashionable appropriations and measured obscenities will never ultimately supplant the basic arts of painting and drawing. The more spectacular items are quickly absorbed and forgotten. With a drawing the means may be simple, but the possibilities are unlimited.
Over the past forty years, Leon Kossoff has only consented to one interview – with Britain’s Channel 4 in 2007. Not many artists in these personality-driven days are able to exercise the luxury of being seen but not heard, although very rarely do the explanations add much to the experience of the work.
Ben Quilty is an exception in this regard, being an expressionist by inclination, but also a thinker. His new exhibition at Grant Pirrie is called Inhabit, a suitably ambiguous title for a sequence of sixteen medium-sized paintings and an extravagant metal bird cage. The sequence begins in chaos; morphs into a devil’s head; changes into two portraits of Captain Cook, as painted by Nathaniel Dance and John Webber; devolves back into a skull, and then into two self-portraits, which fade away leaving a blank silhouette.
Ben Quilty, Inhabit 2 - Inhabit 6 (studio shot) 2010 oil on linen 80 x 100cm each photography: Mim Stirling

Somewhere in this surreal narrative there is a point about the way Cook unwittingly brought about catastrophic changes for the inhabitants of the Pacific. Yet there is also a recognition that once we begin to inhabit a certain place, for a certain period of time, it becomes impossible to imagine another life. The self-portraits, with Cook as Quilty’s doppelgänger, are the artist’s way of asking questions of himself. The series is an extended reflection on time, change and mortality – a way of looking inquisitively at things that come ‘naturally’.

At a preview last week, Quilty discussed these paintings in an articulate manner, but had to admit that he could not really explain what they were about. This was rather more convincing than a long detailed exposition. There was no sales pitch involved because the entire exhibition had already been acquired by Nick Mitzevich, the new director of the Art Gallery of South Australia. It’s a bold way of announcing one’s arrival in town, I only hope Adelaide appreciates the gesture.

Today is the last day of James Powditch’s exhibition, Adaptation: New Work from Novel and Screen, at Australian Galleries. It is an impressive statement by an artist who has crafted a very original style out of a mixture of collage, assemblage, painting and print-making. He has also found a use for those old Penguin paperbacks that turn brown and disintegrate while sitting on the shelves of second hand bookshops.


James Powditch, Fountainhead IV 2010 mixed media 168 x 217 cm

Powditch’s works are based on well-known films and the books from which they were adapted. It’s a loose formula that gives him the freedom to play all sorts of visual games. There are also a lot of gags, some of them genuinely witty, such as a largely abstract work called The Fountainhead. While most of Powditch’s panels are wallpapered with yellowed pages from decrepit paperbacks, this work contains only a one-line reference to J.M.Richards’s Introduction to Modern Architecture. Nothing could be a more deflating riposte to Ayn Rand’s vision of the architect-as-superman.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 30, 2010
Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting – Annandale Galleries,  Oct 12 –  Dec 11, 2010

Ben Quilty: Inhabit – Grant Pirrie,  October 28 – November 13, 2010

James Powditch: Adaptation: New Work from Novel and Screen – Australian Galleries, October 12 – October 30, 2010