Paintings may greet the viewer with grand attitudes or ugly looks, but most of them know their limitations. We find ourselves staring at an arrangement of colours and forms on a flat surface that provides an imaginary window onto the world – nature seen through a temperament, to use Zola’s formulation. Having become accustomed to these conventions, there is something inherently impressive about a canvas almost groaning with heavy layers of oil paint, from which a landscape or a figure struggles to emerge. We are no longer looking at a view through a window, but at a volcanic mass that insists on its own brute presence.
This is the spectacle that confronts visitors to Nicholas Harding: Drawn to Paint, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, a 25-year survey of the work one of Sydney’s most committed artists.
In 1992, Rex Irwin succumbed to Harding’s repeated entreaties, and gave him a first solo exhibition. Eighteen years later, he is one of Irwin’s success stories, with a loyal following among private collectors. Harding won the Archibald Prize in 2001 and has been a finalist on many occasions. His shows nowadays tend to sell out rapidly. One small hiccup is that Harding remains poorly represented in the major public collections, with only Sydney and Canberra holding works. Even then, he can probably thank Margaret Olley for the occasional purchase and donation.
Drawn to Paint is a timely survey of an artist who combines an adventurous approach to paint with a traditional sense of subject matter. This makes him a little too radical for conservative tastes, but far too straight for the cutting edge types. On the evidence of the S.H.Ervin show, Harding (b.1957) comes across as an old-fashioned painter who puts enormous value on skills such as drawing and composition. He is also one of those artists who seem to be intoxicated by the smell and feel of oil paint – a passion that outweighs all career calculations.
There are two aspects of this survey that will be obvious to every visitor: Harding’s outstanding abilities as a draftsman, and the change of key that occurs in his paintings shortly after the turn of the century.
There are some artists, such as Russell Drysdale, who can only be seen in their entirety when drawings are exhibited alongside paintings. Harding is in the same category and this has been recognised by curator, Stephen Alderton, who has included a large variety of pieces, from small notebook sketches made with marker pen, to elaborate, large-scale works in charcoal. We see the artist as a compulsive sketcher who views everything as a potential subject. His larger drawings are labour-intensive exercises in which he has dampened the paper then worked and reworked areas until the surface becomes scarred. These works are claustrophobic but wonderfully expressive. There is nothing quite like them in Australian art.
To a certain extent Harding has modelled his drawing style on those School of London artists such as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who were his early sources of inspiration. In a drawing by Auerbach or Harding, a form may be attempted and erased many times until the artist feels that he has got what he wants. There is nothing objective about this process, and a disinterested observer may not be able to say why version 40 is superior to versions 2 or 39.
Harding’s early canvases such as Parked truck in Denison Street (1991), Erskineville Railway (1992-93) and St. Paul’s Place, Redfern (1993-95), are so close in style to the works of Auerbach and Kossoff that the resemblance can’t be ignored. Even a reclining nude has unmistakable echoes of Kossoff and Lucian Freud. If one hesitates to call these works derivative, it is because they are painted which such concentration and bravura. The painterly language may be borrowed, but the execution can’t be faked. There are no shortcuts when one is working with such quantities of paint, and all sorts of technical difficulties that have to be surmounted.
It is slightly odd that the British artists are not even mentioned in the Harding catalogue. This seems an unnecessary act of diplomacy.
As the nineties roll on, the School of London gloom starts to lift, and a picture such as Near Wooli (1995), finds Harding responding directly to Australian light and landscape. In the works made during the past five years those changes have intensified. Harding’s paintings have become much simpler and more rapidly executed – if only in comparison with his previous efforts. The paint remains awesomely thick but the colour is lighter and brighter, applied in brisk, fluent swipes of the palette knife.
One suspects that these recent works also reflect a greater sense of ease and self-confidence. The tortured, wrinkled surfaces of the earlier works are undeniably neurotic, whereas the later pictures could be textbook examples of the happy, well-adjusted personality.
It’s no surprise that many prefer the earlier work – when, paradoxically, Harding was still finding himself. I can sympathise, partly because the recent works are far less consistent than their predecessors. In a series of beach pictures titled In the swell, he paints the ocean in a manner than can only be called perfunctory. Swoosh, swoosh, that’ll do it. The same might be said of his portrait, Robert Drewe (in the swell) (2006), which is not in the same class as some of Harding’s earlier portraits not included in this exhibition.
This seems to be an aberration rather than a tailing off. In other beach paintings from 2008; two pictures called Caravan Park; and a large study of the interior of Sydney’s Central Railway building, Harding works in a more focused manner, constructing complex images from small slabs of vivid colour. In the most recent painting in the show, River figures (wader) (2009), he is totally uninhibited in the way he paints a great looming mass of rock.
Does it work? Yes and no. For while it’s thrilling to see a painter attacking the canvas with such energy, the final image teeters on the verge of arbitrariness, as if Harding could have gone on adding another knife load of paint indefinitely. We tend to think of confidence as unequivocally a good thing, but it’s possible that Harding is at his very best when feeling a little insecure.
In Australia, ceramics is often treated as a poor relation in the visual arts, and I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard. One problem is that we have all grown to associate contemporary art with big ideas, in ways that are occasionally profound but more often banal. Good or bad, this creates a kind of rhetorical expectation. Works have to be explained, interpreted and critiqued – we cannot allow them to simply exist as more or less pleasing objects in their own right.
With that mea culpa, I’m grabbing a final chance to discuss Jeff Mincham’s show at Object Gallery – the latest installment in an annual series called Living Treasures. While this is the last weekend of the Object show, it will be touring to no fewer than twelve venues, including seven in New South Wales.
Among Australian ceramic artists, Mincham (b.1950) is the outstanding figure in the generation that follows in the wake of old masters such as Milton Moon, Les Blakeborough and Peter Rushforth. Like those earlier potters, Mincham owes a huge debt to the traditions and techniques of Japanese ceramics, but it is startling to discover that he has never visited Japan. This is partly because of the artist’s independent spirit, his desire not to be drawn into the powerful nexus of technique and tradition that still dominates Japanese pottery.
Mincham’s imagination or ambition has not been blunted by his lack of first-hand Japanese experience. There is probably nobody in Australia who knows more about Raku techniques, and no other Australian potter who has experimented so relentlessly with forms, glazes, materials and firing methods. The various phases of Mincham’s career are documented in a new monograph by Margot Osborne, published to coincide with this show.
The Object survey is not a retrospective, but an opportunity to show a body of new work. These recent vessels, which also featured in a December exhibition at Sabbia Gallery, are unique in their evocation of the Australian landscape. It may sound commonplace to say this about ceramics, which always allude to the earth through material associations – but Mincham’s works go much further, being virtual landscape paintings wrapped around gently curving surfaces. They use coloured glazes in the most surprising and complex fashion, and are unashamedly beautiful. Do we need a bigger idea than that?
Nicholas Harding: Drawn to Paint, S.H.Ervin Gallery, January 16-March 7, 2010
Jeff Mincham, Living Treasures, Object Gallery, November 21- January 31, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 30, 2010