Absolute Abstraction is an uncompromising title for an uncompromising show at the Manly Art Gallery & Museum. So far removed is this event from the laidback norms of Australian painting that it would surely read better in German: Absolute Abstraktion. That hard ‘k’ makes all the difference.
Charlie Sheard (b.1960) always knew he wanted to be an abstract painter but never expected it to be a simple matter of splashing paint wildly on a canvas. Having acquired no worthwhile skills at art school, Sheard set about educating himself in the techniques of the Old Masters. It turned out to be a long process, but today there is probably not another painter in Australia with the same depth of of technical knowledge.
Putting this hard-won mastery to good use, in 1995 the artist opened the Charlie Sheard Studio School, which promised students the opportunity to learn all the skills they would never acquire through a standard art education. The school, which offered a three-year course, was élite, expensive, and always fully booked. Its alumni include a long list of professional painters of both abstract and figurative persuasions.
Despite his success as a pedagogue Sheard eventually closed the school to concentrate on his own painting. One presumes that it wasn’t just a question of time – almost every artist who makes a sincere effort as a teacher finds that his or her work tends to suffer. It’s as if we have a limited quantity of creative energy that is siphoned off by students. The most renowned teachers often ended as minor artists. Think of Julian Ashton, George Bell, Fernand Cormon, André Lhote – all respectable painters of the second division.
Sheard feels he has been slow to mature as a painter but is finally hitting the right notes. His early works were small, dry, dull, scatchy affairs that looked like preliterate graffiti etched on the wall of a cave. These pictures were thoughtful and intense, but almost puritanically averse to colour.
By contrast the works on show at Manly, most of them created within the past decade, are saturated in strong colour. In Green Painting (2015-18) two protoplasmic forms float on a canvas of vivid emerald, offset by a small touch of red. Lyric Poem (2016-18) presents such an overpowering field of red that one automatically reads the dark patch in the centre as black when it’s really a kind of greeny-blue. It’s in collision with a caramel-coloured disc that descends from the top of the picture like a comet.
Even in these paintings in which a single tone is dominant, it’s surprising how many different colours Sheard manages to smuggle into a composition. More complex works such as Tableau No. 2 (2015-16) or Aitia (2013-19), encompass an incredible range of colours and textures. The impact of these paintings can never be conveyed by a photograph as the colours appear a little different depending on where one stands.
The reproductions in the catalogue are no better than an approximation, with none of the luminosity of the actual work. The secret, I expect, lies in Sheard’s predilection for layering surfaces, and employing a wide range of media. Most painters are committed to either oils of acrylics, with very little crossover. Sheard mght use both on the same canvas, along with vinyl and a bewildering range of other materials. Most of his larger paintings have taken years to complete, as he will only return to a piece when his intution tells him the moment is right.
This of course is an entirely subjective process, of a similar nature to Aida Tomescu’s need to keep scraping down surfaces and repainting them to arrive at an equally abstract result. Artists like to believe they are in dialogue with a painting, which whispers or shouts what it needs next. Sheard has suggested that a painting has a kind of immanent Being which the artist has to find and liberate. It’s not so different to a sculptor sensing the form latent within a block of marble or a hunk of wood; or perhaps the British artist David Bomberg’s mantra of finding “the spirit in the mass”.
One of the fascinating aspects of Sheard’s work is that he has found an intellectual substrate for an intuitive approach to painting. He is a reader of Heidegger and Pound, a student of art history with an interest in both the Italian Renaissance and the Chinese Old Masters. He has assimilated Kandinsky’s theories about abstract art and pushed them as far as he can in his own work.
With most artists I’d be deeply suspicious of such references, but there is a manifest discipline and determination in Sheard’s work that may be discerned by anyone who gives each painting the time it deserves. They fulfil the basic condition of successful art: the longer one spends looking, the more engaging they become. With bad art no amount of looking can turn base matter into gold.
One may discern a sensuous or a spirtitual dimension in Sheard’s works, but they are not expressive in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists. On the contrary, he seems to try as hard as he can to avoid deep emotional associations. If there’s beauty in these paintings it’s not the romantic beauty of a landscape, but more of a purely intellectual pleasure – a sense of rightness in the discovery that a collection of bright, contrasting colours, dry and liquid surfaces, somehow belong together. There’s a frisson in finding an underlying harmony in what seems immediately discordant.
There’s also a deep integrity in the attempt to achieve everything by means of materials, not through images, and especially not through the laundry list of ‘issues’ that passes nowadays as a badge of political and cultural significance. Sheard is attempting something much harder than making a statement or signalling one’s membership in a club. His quest for absolute abstraction is the pursuit of an ideal, and like all such pursuits is destined to fall short. It’s the will to keep persevering, in full knowledge of potential failure, that lifts these paintings to a higher level of aspiration.
Charlie Sheard: Absolute Abstraction
Manly Art Gallery & Museum
26 July – 1 September, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August, 2019