This job entails constant requests to open exhibitions but most are politely declined. So it was rare for me, last week, to undertake openings on successive nights in two different parts of the country.
The first was a survey by Edwin Wilson at that proudly unfashionable venue, the Royal Art Society, Lavender Bay. The second was The Adventures of William Yaxley at the Rockhampton Art Gallery. Both shows are first-ever retrospectives by artists who stand on the fringes of the art scene, partly because of the untutored nature of their work and partly through an unwillingness to put art before other occupations.
The most prominent of the two is William (Bill) Yaxley (b.1943), who has pieces in the collections of a dozen public institutions including the National Gallery of Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery. Yaxley shows with commercial galleries in Brisbane and Tasmania, and was part of the Ray Hughes Gallery in its heyday.
It’s a shame Yaxley’s exhibition will be seen only in Rockhampton and Ipswich, because it would be a hit anywhere, any time. Although his career has been low-key, Yaxley’s largely autobiographical work is filled with the kind of uproarious fantasy that stops viewers in their tracks.
The artist has been making paintings and sculptures since childhood, and says that if he isn’t working on a piece he feels edgy and unhappy. Therefore it may seem odd that so much of Yaxley’s life has been spent in the the most backbreaking and frustrating of all occupations – namely, farming. He has grown pineapples in Yepoon, citrus fruits and avocados at Byfield in Central Queensland, and had an organic vineyard in Tasmania.
Yaxley thought Yepoon was paradise but became debilitated by recurrent bouts of heatstroke. He also endured a raging fire that turned his farm to pineapple fritters. Later in Tasmania he would experience an even more fearsome blaze that destroyed his house and farm in seconds, along with many years’ worth of paintings and sculpture. Given a choice of occupations who’d be a farmer?
Yaxley always had the option of giving up on the land to concentrate on making art. He was good enough, and had numerous collectors and admirers. He says he persevered with the farms partly through a lack of self-confidence, but also because he believed it to be real, productive work. He felt his artwork would become compromised in some indefinable way if he began making it professionally, treating it as a commodity.
He still feels like that today, even though he has retired from farming and is finally a full-time artist. Most of the work in this show is deeply meaningful to Yaxley, recording places and events that have been important to him and his family – such as a painting from 1969 that shows the artist and his wife with their backs turned to us, watching the pineapple farm go up in flames.
Forty-four years later he painted Fire Storm, Copping (2013), an apocalyptic account of the Tasmanian bush fire which must rank as one of Australia’s greatest-ever natural disaster pictures. Smoke and flames leap across the sky like rows of crazed centipedes. A tongue of fire has set house, shed and truck ablaze. Brilliantly coloured, fastidious in its detail, the painting is an Antipodean answer to the end-of-the-world pictures created by Victorian artists such as ‘Mad’ John Martin.
Yaxley records his migration from Far North Queensland to Tasmania in two large paintings: Goodbye Paradise (1990), and The arrival (1991). He and his wife, Helen, have been transformed into purple-winged butterflies leaving a deliriously colourful Garden of Eden that has been encircled by a snake with a human head. In the companion work the butterflies are descending on an island shown almost complete from the air – a fairy kingdom of snow-capped peaks, deep rivers, rhythmically aligned hills, mountains and valleys.
If Yaxley weren’t so ridiculously humble, one might call these visionary works. He is motivated more by a spirit of fun than by spiritual or philosophical ideas but many of his images act as potent symbols. In Storm over Brisbane (1985), a man in a blue singlet watches from on high, as threatening clouds gather, and the Brisbane River metamorphoses into a monstrous black serpent. One thinks of El Greco’s stormy sky over Toledo, and the floods of Biblical proportions that have plagued the city, but Yaxley says the “storm” had more to do with the disintegration of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s hold on power at the time.
Yaxley’s sculptures are just as impressive, with his imagination often being stimulated by the form of a twisted piece of wood. The two-headed Mangrove monster No. 2 (1986), is part crocodile, part eel, part tree. To get the reptilian skin of the croc Yaxley has used mandarin peel coated with resin. The bird-like Machete man (1995) sprouts rusty blades from the ends of his arms and legs, and various other places. His skin is made from old bottle tops and shells.
Much of the discussion about Yaxley’s work has focussed on whether he is or isn’t a “naive” artist. It’s a term that has a pejorative ring, even if it merely refers to a self-taught artist who has settled on a distinctive style and doesn’t feel the need for technical perfection. Yaxley’s works use a simplified visual language but they are tremendously inventive.
A true naïf paints every detail, leaving nothing to the power of suggestion, but in other ways he or she may be as sophisticated as anyone else. Yaxley has found his life to be one continuous source of wonder. As an artist his chief task has been to preserve that feeling, both for himself and his audience.
Edwin Wilson (b.1942) could easily be viewed as a naïve artist. His figures are rudimentary in their modelling and he takes an apparent delight in colour for its own sake. In recent years he has developed a labour-intensive form of pointillism that sees him covering his canvases with thousands of dots. Judging by the flatness of his pictures, Wilson seems to have little interest in the third dimension. He is eager, though, to explore the fourth – whether this means leaping around in time or distorting a landscape with surrealistic intent.
Like Yaxley, Wilson’s art is inspired by the day-to-day events of his life, mixed with injections of fantasy and humour. Like Yaxley he has been continuously driven to make art while holding down a day job. In Wilson’s case this has meant working at rather more civilised places such as the Botanic Gardens and the Australian Museum. He long ago became accustomed to his marginality as an artist and his annual rejection from the Archibald Prize. It is only in retirement that he has been able to indulge his art habit, with a corresponding increase in productivity.
One thing that suggests Wilson is far from ‘naive’ is his life-long dedication to poetry. This has resulted in a succession of books, the latest being a weighty words-and-pictures compendium called Stardust Painter-Poet (Woodbine Press). His verse is formal, elegant and slightly old-fashioned, with an immaculate sense of structure. When he hasn’t been writing poetry he has been compiling guidebooks, novels, memoirs, or helping to grow new varieties of orchid. For most of his working life he has been more scientist than artist, but has never stopped swimming in a sea of words.
The show at the RAS is packed with work from all periods. Wilson’s best, most fastidious pictures are probably the landscapes of Mullumbimby, town of his childhood, but for sheer bravura it’s hard to go past a piece such as Circular Quay III (2011-12), another pointillist extravaganza, in which the role of the Harbour Bridge is played by a red stegosaurus, and the Opera House by a dish rack.
Wilson swears he never knew Eric Thake had already pictured the Opera House as a dish rack in a print of 1972. He did, however, know about Martin Sharp’s ebullient pop images of Sydney illuminated by fireworks, and his own view of the city is every bit as celebratory. Indeed, one could see the entire RAS show as a personal celebration by an artist who has waited many years get the products of a restlessly creative imagination out of the store room and on to the wretched wall.
The Adventures of William Yaxley
Rockhampton Art Gallery, QLD, until 29 May
Ipswich Art Gallery, QLD, 11 June-18 Aug.
Edwin Wilson: Stardust Painter-Poet
Royal Art Society, until 1 May.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 16th April, 2016