For those of us who spend their lives going in and out of art galleries there’s nothing better than being surprised. Before entering Angus Nivison’s survey at the S.H. Ervin Gallery I felt entirely familiar with this artist’s work. I’d even written a preface for the catalogue when the exhibition debuted at the Tamworth Regional Gallery in June last year, although I never managed to see the initial hang.
The surprise was that this display was much stronger and more compelling than I had anticipated. When one knows an artist reasonably well it is easy to take his work for granted, but this complacency was swept aside by the revelation of seeing so many large-scale paintings in close proximity. Some artists are pitifully exposed by a survey or retrospective, suggesting they are best approached one piece at a time. Nivison, however, is a painter who seems to grow in stature when the work of two decades is brought together in one place.
Sandra McMahon writes in her foreword to the catalogue that she hopes this show will confirm Nivison’s status in contemporary Australian art, and this is precisely what is achieved – or ought to be achieved – by such an exhibition. The only difficulty is ensuring all the right curators get to see it. In an ideal world Wayne Tunnicliffe, Max Delaney, Glenn Barkley, and their peers in other public galleries should be right on the job. Whether they like the work or not is another matter.
The first thing one needs to know about Nivison (b.1953) is that he lives and works on a farm near Walcha in the New England region. Although he has tried to devote himself to full-time painting there are still times when he is called upon to do his bit with the family property. This connection to the land, which stretches back many generations, is the foundation of his work. He is acutely sensitive to the elements, and to the sparse features of the region.
For Nivison, rain is not a picturesque motif – it is virtually a cosmic force. This is demonstrated most effectively in one of the earliest paintings in this show, Hard Rain, of 1995. Coming at the end of one of the longest, harshest droughts in living memory the painting captures the cataclysmic moment when rain begins to fall – coming down in streams, bouncing off the dry earth, blotting out all other thoughts and sensations.
The mood is quite different in a later, more lyrical painting called Summer Rain (1999), where fields and distant clouds can be seen through a veil of thin vertical lines.
With the monumental Remembering Rain, awarded the Wynne Prize for landscape in 2002, we feel we are inside a building looking out at a dark, rainy night through the horizontal slats of bamboo blinds. It is a strange, melancholy work with a palette of violet-grey offset by highlights of vivid colour.
None of these paintings is strictly representational. In place of the familiar features of the Australian landscape, Nivison has devised a short-hand of vertical and horizontal lines that resemble freehand versions of Sol Lewitt’s minimalist grids. His colours are not naturalistic but chosen – largely through instinct rather than calculation – to convey a particular emotional effect. The two dominant shades in Hard Rain are red and black, which bring a brutal, bloody tinge to this image of cascading raindrops. The earth is being lacerated by an assault from the sky that arrives like shower of knives.
In later works such as The Language of Mountains is Rain (2005), Nivison has thinned out his preferred palette of red, black and white, to create a dream-like vista of a mountain range wreathed in cloud. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of the mountains in Chinese literati painting, which Nivison may have seen in an exhibition of pictures from the Shanghai Museum held at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2004.
This pale, beautiful work finds its infernal counterpart in Uncertain Light (2006), a fiery, sooty panorama of hunched, blood-red mountains separated by lines of poured and dribbled paint. Compared with the serenity of The Language of Mountains is Rain, this picture has an apocalyptic feeling. One thinks of bush fires rather than rain.
Such dramatic mood swings are characteristic of Nivison’s work, and are presumably part of his psyche. In the catalogue, Barry Pearce quotes a revealing line from an interview with the artist: “I think happiness is totally overrated in our society. This endless pursuit of happiness is dangerous, and I think a huge waste of time. Melancholy definitely has a place… You can’t be a complete person unless you know happiness and unless you know sorrow.”
This helps explain the way Nivison’s paintings seem to lurch between poles of darkness and light, figuration and abstraction. There is no overarching agenda behind these changes, which are often the result of prolonged, painful introspection as the artist tries to find his way out of a corner into which he has painted himself. Should the pendulum swing too far in either direction, he feels obliged to arrest and reverse its progress.
It may be this propensity to set himself challenges and obstacles that explains Nivison’s unusual preference for acrylics over oils. Even though acrylics have progressed enormously since the 1960s, when they were all the rage, they still produce a much flatter, drier surface than oil paint. Nivison is well aware of this. In the catalogue we find him saying: “The best thing is it absolutely dies… There’s no forgiveness in acrylic.”
He seems to believe it is only by pushing oneself to the edge; by testing the limits of one’s abilities and materials that any painting of substance is born. It’s hardly surprising this philosophy has sent Nivison in the direction of abstraction, and attracted him to artists such as Mark Rothko and Ian Fairweather
The abstract elements of Nivison’s work are prominent in all parts of this exhibition, reaching a crescendo in pictures such as Vestige (2011), in which a few spidery black lines struggle to escape from a misty cloud of white; and in epic works such as Chaconne (2009) or Fallen (2007), where paint is applied to the canvas in repetitive, vertical bands that suggest musical cadences. The reference to Bach’s Chaconne is not coincidental, but neither does it provide a vital key to the work.
Whether intentional or not, there are two obvious points of comparison: Fred Williams’s densely impacted studies of Sherbrooke Forest, from the early 1960s; and the waterfalls and schematic crucifixions of the great New Zealand artist, Colin McCahon. What is most impressive is that Nivison has managed to echo the sense of deep religious feeling in McCahon’s work while breaking down his clear-cut, iconic motifs into more diaphanous forms.
Fallen has the same introspective tendency, the same infinite regress into the self that one finds in Mark Rothko’s paintings. We have entered that disputed territory known as the metaphysical, or simply the spiritual. There is no way of predicting any individual response to such a work, but one suspects that for every viewer who can see nothing, there will be many who are deeply moved.
Fallen alludes to the Stations of the Cross, another favourite motif for McCahon, but one may also read this painting as a depiction of a forest, where a mighty tree has toppled over.
Unlike another artist who brings a spiritual dimension to the painting of the forest, namely William Robinson, as far as I know, Nivison has no religious affiliations. The metaphysical overtones of his work, which are becoming more pronounced with every year, are matters of feeling rather than faith. That feeling is found in the landscape, born of a long immersion in a particular environment.
One would like to think that when the National Gallery of Australia is putting together its list of Australian landscapes to be shown at the Royal Academy in London later this year, they would spare a thought for contemporary painters such as Nivison, who are taking the genre into new dimensions. The danger is that the R.A. show will go on a long excursion through colonial art, which is of marginal interest to the Brits, and end with the shallow novelties of new media. What a great thing it would be if the NGA were to tell the world that landscape painting remains the most powerful living force in contemporary Australian art.
Angus Nivison: A Survey, S.H.Ervin Gallery, January 5 – Febraury 10, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 12, 2013