Fred Williams used to say that if you can’t paint a portrait then your art is in trouble. He would have been surprised to see so many portraits included in his recent retrospective, as they were only ever a diversion from his landscape paintings. For an artist there is always the danger that one day curators or critics will make a big deal of the things you consider to be merely secondary, often at the expense of your more considered work.
One wonders what role still life will play in any future retrospectives of William Robinson’s work? Known as one of this country’s outstanding landscape artists, over the past couple of years Robinson has begun to paint still lifes, largely as a consequence of his advancing years. At the age of 76 he doesn’t feel inclined to go clambering over rocks, scaling slopes and wading through creeks, in order to keep producing panoramic views of the rainforest.
The landscapes he has created recently have a different, more intimate feeling to the large-scale works of earlier years. Those older paintings were not only views of the rainforest, they opened a window onto the cosmos. Like the German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Robinson imbued his pictures with a powerful spiritual dimension. He made the association clear by titling many of them “Creation landscapes”.
By contrast, the landscapes in his new show at Australian Galleries, such as Afternoon light Springbrook (2011), look more like bush gardens. The plants and details of the undergrowth loom large, the brushwork is softer and more diffuse. These works also seem noticeably darker, as if Robinson is gradually turning off the lights on this aspect of his career.
The bulk of this exhibition is devoted to still life, and it requires an adjustment of viewers’ expectations. Proceeding with his habitual care and caution, Robinson has put a lot of thought into this change of direction. These pictures are composed in a painstaking manner, with every object and every angle calibrated for maximum impact. They are also intensely knowledgeable paintings, filled with lessons from Chardin, Bonnard, and other past masters.
Look, for example, at the way Robinson disrupts the hard outline of a table by draping a piece of cloth off one side. Look at the way a knife or a spoon might jut out at an oblique angle, drawing the eye in a particular direction; and the way shadows are used as solid, defining features of a composition. The bright colours of fruit and flowers are balanced by the darker tones of wood, or the encroaching greenery seen through a window.
Still life paintings are oblique narratives revealing information about the tastes and personality of an absent individual – usually the artist. Robinson is happy to play this game, including small cameos of art books he has been reading, with reproductions of Titian, Bronzino and Ferdinand Hodler. We can also read the names on the spines of books, notably a volume on Matisse, in Still life, verandah and poinciana (2011).
In Still life with stars (2011) – a coded self-portrait – we see the painter’s old hat on a chair, along with a star-spangled tie that recalls his vivid paintings of the night sky. Most of these pictures are more generalised in their subject matter. They invoke a vision of the good life – food on the table, flowers in a vase, Persian carpets, comfortable chairs, books, a piano, a thriving garden. It is a bourgeois idyll that would satisfy many of us, although not the upwardly mobile types.
Robinson’s still lifes are records of a life away from the world, devoted to simple pleasures. They are intensely eloquent pictures, but have nothing momentous to tell us.
The oil paintings can feel slightly claustrophobic because of the fastidious way Robinson has covered every bit of the canvas, but in a series of pastels he allows the pure white of the paper to intrude on all sides. These are some of the simplest pieces he has exhibited for many years. They may be hardly more than exercises, but the artist’s enjoyment is palpable.
While Robinson has taken on this genre with the same skill and concentration that he applies to all his work, one can’t help feeling that his still lifes remain a footnote to the landscapes. He has approached the motif with the humbleness of a student who has much to learn. The result is a series of attractive, supremely competent paintings, but there is nothing that will stop viewers in their tracks, like the big rainforest paintings.
We are watching a performance that has reached a dramatic crescendo, and is now settling into a long movement in a lower key. It’s still absorbing to watch, but instead of a journey into the heart of a forest, most of the action is now confined to the top of a table.
Some believe there is an unbridgeable gulf between figurative and abstract work, but any good artist would see this as a naïve idea. It is a truism to say all painting is abstract, but just as banal to point out that abstract pictures inevitably conjure up concrete associations.
Aida Tomescu, who is consolidating a reputation as one of Australia’s most formidable living abstract painters, is no less enamored of Titian than is William Robinson. In an interview with Terence Maloon in the catalogue of her new show, Milky Way, at Liverpool Street Gallery, she talks about looking at Giotto, Titian, Piero della Francesca, and finally Tiepolo. One need only register the many shades of pink that leap from the walls of this show, to see that she’s not merely name-dropping. The sensuousness and delicate structure of a Tiepolo painting find a distant echo in these vigorous abstractions.
The other point that Tomescu makes is that she is not interested in arbitrary “mark-making” – she is after something she calls an “image”. Even though most people might associate this word with a recognisable object, Tomescu’s ‘image’ is very different. It seems closer to the image of Christ or the Virgin in Byzantine art, which was meant to embody the presence of the holy being in the work.
Paintings such as Iris or Sabine are all about this sense of presence, but it is not Christ or the Virgin we find here, it is the artist’s fierce excavation of her own memories, thoughts and feelings. When the painting succeeds we can believe these works are full of meaning, albeit devoid of signposts and markers. To convey such a feeling without relying on conventional forms is no easy matter. A large percentage of viewers will never see anything but splodges and squiggles. One has to be willing to take a long, hard look at these paintings, to be open to a language of gesture and colour.
In purely formal terms, the two most prominent colours in this show are pink and yellow. These are not shades that one usually finds in close juxtaposition, but Tomescu makes them look as if they belonged together. Pink denotes passion but also a vulnerability, while yellow is strident and extroverted. Beneath the surface, every painting has led many different lives, in layers that have been scraped off or buried under new applications. The frenetic, busy lines scraped out of the paint, like incomprehensible handwriting, provide a glimpse of those previous incarnations.
Any discussion of abstract art always entails a strongly subjective element. To rely on a precise description of only that which meets the eye, is a sterile exercise. This is no less true with Tomescu’s scarred and molten surfaces, than the precise, geometrical structures of Evelyn Kotai’s paintings at the Conny Dietzschold Gallery.
Like Karl Wiebke, until he moved to Melbourne, Kotai is a well-established Western Australian artist, whose work is little known on this side of the continent. In recent years she has developed a unique style whereby she cuts up her paintings into thin strips, and reassembles them as tightly knitted grids, using a sewing machine to attach the strips to a canvas with invisible thread. The method is infinite in its applications, and this exhibition is virtuosic in its stylistic variations.
While her structures may be rigid, Kotai uses colour to create patterns and rhythms that dance on the canvas. These pictures have a kind of measured excitement. Although resolutely abstract, they probably have more in common with one of Robinson’s exacting still lifes than with Tomescu’s search for an image in a wilderness of paint.
William Robinson: Still Life and Landscape Paintings, Australian Galleries, August 14 – 31, 2012
Aida Tomescu: Milky Way, Liverpool Street Gallery, August 01 – September 01, 2012
Evelyn Kotai: Infinite Threads, Conny Dietzschold Gallery, August 08 – September 08, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 25, 2012