Kevin Connor’s paintings aren’t pretty but they are attractive, having the peculiar magnetism of anything done with no thought of an audience or a peer group. This only begins to seem like a virtue when one thinks of all the art made as part of a career strategy, or by those who want to be artists but have no genuine source of inspiration.
If Connor ever thought in terms of his career it was a long time ago. Turning 81 this year he has reached a stage where his only concern is to capture those aspects of the world around him that beg to be translated into a picture. His choices are entirely idiosyncratic, arising largely from the process of constant drawing in bars, cafes and public places. Connor’s favourite stamping ground is Paris, and several paintings in his current exhibition at Liverpool Street Gallery are from the Jardin des Plantes or a bar called the Chateau Rouge.
Other paintings found their gestation in Los Angeles, in Sydney, or in a combination of environments. Connor’s predilections are almost exclusively urban: he paints buildings, street scenes and figures. While he swears there is no political angle to his work his subjects often look weather-beaten, craggy and impoverished, more like gargoyles than yuppies.
His pictures bear a family resemblance to those scenes of urban misery painted by artists such as Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and Yosl Bergner in the 1940s, incorporating elements of Expressionism and Social Realism. Yet Connor is the last artist to think in terms of styles, schools or movements. His visual language has evolved in an organic way. He gravitates to what he finds most absorbing and is happy to let others figure out possible meanings.
The major painting in the show, The Boulevard of the Stars and veterans, Los Angeles, is a study in social contrasts. Connor was struck by the fact that the famous Hollywood tourist attraction in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is also a haunt for broken-down invalids and war veterans. His canvas is filled with these characters in their baseball caps, looking like refugees from the Weimar Republic. The dominant colour is a sickly yellow, offset by a crest of blue-black darkness. It feels as if we are viewing this scene by the light of a cheap, jaundiced lamp.
Connor’s studies of figures drinking in Parisian bars or walking in the Jardin des Plantes are hardly less grotesque, although there is none of the implicit irony of the Hollywood pictures. He has exaggerated the features of these characters, giving them long noses, pouting lips and bulging foreheads. It’s not that different from the way a cartoonist might caricature a politician, although Connor rounds out these anonymous portraits with layer upon layer of brushstrokes. It’s obviously important to him that his drawings and paintings have distinctly different identities.
The most purely lyrical painting in the show is Evening light (Liverpool Street west) with courthouse and cat – a Turneresque view of Darlinghurst. It’s impossible to avoid this association after having viewed the travelling Turner exhibition now in Canberra, but it’s probably by coincidence rather than design. We seem to be looking at the ruin of the courthouse, with a skeletal outline in red superimposed on a scrubbed yellow-ochre blur. The dense black shape of a cat acts like an anchor in the bottom right-hand corner. Even when Connor aims for glimpse of beauty he feels the need to add that disturbing element.
It may be a curmudgeonly impulse but he seems to believe that a painting shouldn’t be too easy for either the artist or the viewer.
Ricky Swallow at the Darren Knight Gallery represents the other end of the spectrum to Kevin Connor. Having enjoyed tremendous success while still in his twenties Swallow (b. 1975) is still a long way from mid-career, although he is one of those rare artists who displayed an impressive focus and maturity from the very beginning.
Nowadays Swallow lives in Los Angeles and exhibits with dealers around the world. It’s rare that Darren Knight gets a new body of work from his star attraction, whom he has been showing from the earliest days of his gallery. It was all-but-impossible when Swallow was obsessed with carving elaborate trompe l’oeil sculptures from wood – a process that preoccupied him day and night.
The artist seems to have gotten over that labour-intensive fixation, although he remains fastidious about details, and gives the impression he never stops thinking about his work. The eleven small bronzes in this exhibition are brilliant feats of craftsmanship, full of teasing references to other works of art. The most obvious homage is to Picasso, whose constructed guitar of 1912 quietly stood modern sculpture on its head.
In Reclining guitar with dials and Double Split Guitar with Drapery, Swallow revisits Picasso’s Cubist guitars, but with a twist. The latter resembles the concealed object created by Man Ray that would have such a seminal influence on Christo. The former retains tiny folds and creases that exactly reproduce the cardboard maquette from which it was made. The patina is also the colour of cardboard, or perhaps clay. We are drawn into a vertiginous spiral of cross-references, as this modestly scaled piece takes on one identity after another.
SkewedDoors/Arched is reminiscent of the archways in a classic De Chirico painting and the architectural fantasies of the Siennese primitives. Standing figure with animal and shield recalls the metal sculptures of Julio Gonzalez, who taught Picasso how to weld, although on close examination one can see that Swallow’s original forms have been cut from cardboard packing tubes.
There is nothing in this show that doesn’t repay a few minutes reflection. This is no chore because the surfaces and patinas are so mesmeric. It’s more than a game of making one material resemble another, in the manner of an artist such as Hany Armanious who uses a sophisticated process to cast grunge. Such works often come across as bad jokes, but there is no trace of satire in Swallow’s bronzes. He is not making fun of Picasso and his peers, but extending their ideas into new, unexpected dimensions.
If Ricky Swallow is a thinker, I’m almost obliged to declare Gunybi Ganambarr a genius. In three exhibitions at Annandale Galleries since 2009, Gunybi and other Yolngu artists from Arnhem Land have totally revolutionised our perceptions of their chosen artform. While their imagery and symbolism remains entirely orthodox, these artists have made the important discovery that what we think of as “bark painting” doesn’t have to be on bark.
The title of this exhibition, Found, refers to Gunybi’s practice of using found materials as a basis for traditional painting and sculpture. He may craft a dugong from chicken wire, cut a complex relief pattern from a sheet of pressed metal, or paint an elaborate design on a slab of rubber taken from a conveyor belt. Everything from wood and metal to shiny building insulation is drawn into play by an artist for whom nothing is off-limits.
Gunybi is a master of thinking-outside-the-square, for whom the first question is always: “Why not?”
For this show he has created a bewildering range of paintings, sculptures and relief works, including a large bronze sculpture of a pair of brolgas. His most striking innovation, however, may lie with a series of painted poles that preserve all the knots, bumps and undulations of a tree trunk. Until now, artists have always looked for the straightest, smoothest trunks to paint on.
Found also includes a series of extraordinary paintings on board by Djirrirra Wunungmurra. Taking her cue from Gunybi, she has incised the designed into the surface, but the delicate, complicated patterning is uniquely her own. Pictures such as Yukawa feature dense, interlocked leaf forms in grey, pierced by two hooped lines of pale, reddish ochre that extend from opposite ends of the board. Inside this roseate loop, the same leaf patterns are repeated. Whatever the deep background to these pictures, I’ve rarely seen works of indigenous art so uniquely concerned with light.
Yirrkala may seem a remote and obscure location for a radical upheaval in Australian art, but the quality of work coming out of this community is startling. Apart from Gunybi and Djirrirra, there are another seven artists in this exhibition who demonstrate their willingness to experiment with new materials and techniques, producing work on glass, Perspex and corrugated iron. It’s not the studio, the tools or the quality of materials that makes for outstanding work – it’s the spirit of excitement that drives an artist from one challenge to the next.
Kevin Connor: Paintings, Liverpool Street Gallery, July 27 – August 22, 2013
Ricky Swallow, Darren Knight Gallery, August 3 – September 7, 2013
Found: Gunybi Ganambarr, et al, Annandale Galleries, July 23 – August 31, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 10, 2013