If one had to nominate the most high-profile show in Sydney this week, it would probably be Patricia Piccinini’s The Gardener at Roslyn Oxley9. Touted as the most popular contemporary artist in the world in 2106, after two well-attended surveys in Brazil, Piccinini has become a favourite with the art museums. One might compare her exhibitions to those ‘blockbuster’ superhero flicks that draw the crowds on Saturday nights.
Well, Avengers: Endgame may have earned US$2.7 billion at the box office, but it would be difficult to argue that it was a better film than say, Parasite, which earned US $264 million – or indeed, plenty of movies that struggled to break even. Piccinini’s ugly-cute silicone figures and other factory-made plastic toys look as if they’ve emerged straight from the special effects department of a Hollywood studio. To call these objects “sculptures” is to lend them a false dignity. As for the spiel about “bio-ethics”, the banality of this idea only increases with repetition.
For this reason, when I look around the galleries this week I’m more attracted to shows by artists who have worked through a series of creative processes alone in the studio. There may be an underlying structure of ideas but the final form is never predictable. One mark on a canvas leads to another in a way that develops its own momentum. To me this seems much riskier and more exciting than a design executed in a factory as per the artist’s instructions. It’s the possibility of failure – with no-one else to blame – that adds to the appeal.
Two exhibitions that exemplify what I’m talking about are Angus Nivison’s Complicit at Utopia Art, and Paul Higgs’s Material Energy at Defiance Gallery.
Nivison used to divide his time between painting and farming in the New England region. Nowadays he is a full-time painter but still lives on the land and draws inspiration from his surroundings. As the country is always hotter or colder than the city, with nothing to disguise the ravages of drought, flood or fire, there’s a freshness and intensity in the way the world is experienced.
In the city artists can pick and choose the themes they wish to pursue, but in the country subjects tend to select themselves. It’s dangerous to generalise, but one could hypothesise that urban work favours an intellectual approach, while rural art is more visceral.
The centrepiece of Nivison’s show is a large triptych called Everything is broken. It’s an apocalyptic landscape in tones of yellow, red, orange, black and white, that almost radiates heat. It’s not a bushfire painting, being based on the damage done to a relative’s property by a hurricane- strength storm that destroyed 90 percent of the trees. It’s a landscape viewed in disbelief, in which the spindly fragments of tree trunks, the bare fields, and looming discs of sun or moon, create an otherworldly atmosphere. I thought, momentarily, of Paul Nash’s paintings of the battlefields of the Somme.
The bushfires find their way into the exhibition via paintings such as Reveille 2 and Herald; and two darker, gloomier cousins, Perdition and Spark. There’s a depressive inclination in Nivison’s work that he continually tries to contain. Staring at a blank canvas he reflects deeply on the mess we are making of the planet, and the way we are complicit in our own downfall – hence the title of this show. In these works he has found a device for keeping the veils of blackness at bay, in the form of a perfect circle that reappears in one picture after another.
It may be the red disc of the sun as viewed through the smoke of the bushfires, but it’s also a vision of geometric perfection that acts to stabilise the artist’s taste for elemental drama. To locate the circle beneath the lines and swathes of paint is to feel that the earth endures, even as nature rises up in anger.
In another large painting, Different World, Nivison depicts the clouds, as seen through a screen that leaves the canvas streaked with vertical lines. It’s a blurred vista of the future, post-COVID 19, that mixes hope with uncertainty. Like all the works in this show it has grown out of Nivison’s shifting moods and impressions, with no hint of a message. The ‘themes’ we find in these pictures are hardly more than the artist’s day-by-day responses to the world around him. They are not products of calculation, but compulsion.
Paul Higgs’s Material Energy at Defiance, represents a huge step forward for an artist who has never lacked ability or enthusiasm, but often struggled to control his need to keep adding layers to a picture, to the point of psychic congestion. The difference this time is that Higgs has chosen to work on a bigger scale, and with greater self-discipline. As a consequence he has produced a breakthrough exhibition. Where many of his previous paintings seemed hermetic in nature, intent on keeping the viewer out, in these new works he is opening the door and inviting us to stay.
I’ve written a catalogue essay for this show but that’s the limits of my involvement. It was an experience that obliged me to jettison some preconceptions.
Although these pictures are essentially abstract it’s easy enough to see the inspiration behind each piece. Course plotter is a board on which Higgs, as a teacher, is planning a semester. Yet no whiteboard was ever so vividly coloured, so laden with scraps and fragments of experience in the form of small objects and torn shreds of paper. The “course” that is being plotted is nothing less than the artist’s life, with the words scribbled here and there acting as notes to self.
In the Daytime and Nighttime versions of Giza Plateau, Higgs is painting his memories of Egypt, where he has been travelling. The pyramid shapes in the distance are the simplest way of establishing a sense of place, but it’s the swarming detail in the foreground that captures the imagination.
The painting, Italian music, must be one of the sparsest works Higgs has ever produced. Twin slabs of coarse, white paper are offset by small touches of blue and red. The play of dots and dashes on the left panel bear a vague resemblance to musical notations while the blankness of the adjacent panel suggests silence. Mozart said: “The music is not in the notes but in the silence between,” and something similar might be said about this painting. It’s not just those busy marks that make the picture, but the blank spaces that allow room for reflection.
Angus Nivison: Complicit
Utopia Art Sydney. 29 August – 19 September, 2020
Paul Higgs: Material Energy
Defiance Gallery, 26 August – 17 September, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 September, 2020