If you’ve spied a For Sale sign outside of 479 Old Pacific Highway, Artarmon recently, you’ve not only seen a real estate opportunity but a piece of Australian art history. For 65 years Artarmon Galleries has showed the work of leading Australian artists such as George Lambert, Norman Lindsay, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Lloyd Rees, Albert Namatjira, Adelaide Perry, Margaret Olley… need I go on?
Originally called The Artlovers’ Gallery, the business was founded by artist, John Brackenreg (1905-86) in 1955, and continued by his offspring, Philip and Julie Brackenreg. Lloyd Rees recalled in an obituary that Brackenreg senior found the gallery life so much to his taste that when quizzed on some urgent political issue, the reply was: “I am only interested in art.”
Artarmon was never exactly the centre of the Sydney art world but as Paddington became the favoured location for the city’s commercial galleries every other suburb was rendered peripheral. While dealers have established new footholds in Redfern and Surry Hills, the North Shore remains something of an outstation, complete with artists and collectors that rarely cross the bridge.
None of this seems to have worried the Brackenregs, who have continued in their own serene way, showing notable artists such as Clem Millward, Glen Preece, Tom Thompson and Patrick Carroll. It’s only now, after the grind of the pandemic year, that brother and sister have decided it’s time to close the doors – although Julie intends to continue working with some of the gallery’s best artists, holding occasional exhibitions in rented spaces.
So when Edwin Wilson asked if I’d open his Artarmon Galleries show, and said this would be the venue’s final solo exhibition, I experienced a twinge of guilt over having paid so few visits in the past. As I very rarely agree to open shows Wilson’s other decisive argument was his state of health. He’s battling cancer and is fairly certain this will be his swansong.
Wilson is an unusual artist – the apotheosis of the enthusiastic amateur willing to explore a bewildering range of styles and subjects. He’s also talented poet who has published his own collected works, and a horticulturalist with a longterm passion for orchids. He wrote a much-admired guidebook for the Royal Botanic Gardens, where he once worked, and has recorded the details his own life in two lengthy memoirs.
This relentless creativity has never earned him much time in the limelight. Wilson enters the Archibald Prize every year and is rejected every year. His books will never be bestsellers, and the museums are not queuing up to buy his paintings. Naturally he’d like to be more successful, but it’s the pleasure of the work itself that keeps him engaged. Too sophisticated to be a ‘naïve’ artist and too eccentric to be fashionable, Wilson is a study in perseverance who has never lost hope that maybe one day he’ll be recognised for his efforts. Maybe today’s the day!
Mullumbimby Revisited is Wilson’s tongue-in-cheek homage to the town of his formative years. The whole story is told in his autobiography, The Mullumbimby Kid (2000/12), in which he displays a prodigious memory for the small but significant incidents of childhood and youth.
The exhibition contains landscapes, portraits, nudes and figure studies, genre scenes, surreal fantasies, and cover versions of famous pictures by Modigliani, Manet and Gauguin, but pride of place is given to the Mullumbimby paintings in which the artist takes a sweeping overview of the town from an elevated position. We see ‘Mullum’ not as it is today, but as it was during Wilson’s schooldays in the 1950s. This veil of nostalgia seems to hang over many of the paintings in this show. Although Wilson has an uninhibited approach to colour his palette is generally muted, with many works taking on pastel-like tones. He’s not fond of shadows, and this contributes to the slightly ‘naïve’ appearance of some of his pictures – darkness always acting as a badge of seriousness. Like Dr. Johnson, if Wilson had thought to be a philosopher he has been undone by his own cheerfulness.
When he does use shadows, notably in his nude studies, Wilson turns them into solid bands of colour. There’s a habitual flatness in the way he applies the paint, interrupted by excursions into a homegrown brand of pointillism in which an image is constructed from thousands of tiny dots of oil paint.
One of Wilson’s idiosyncracies is a brand of self-promotion so unsubtle it’s almost charming. In his self-portrait, Stardust-Painter Poet – which provides the cover image and the title for a new edition of his most broad-ranging publication – Wilson stares out at us, his head held between his hands, alongside a stack of his own books arranged spine-outward so we can read the titles. In the Mullumbimby painting, The Stilt Walker, he slips the cover of his autobiography into the left-hand corner. It’s one of a series of emblems that float across the surface of the picture.
The Stilt Walker is probably the major work in this show, both in scale and the level of invention, but Wilson reveals a lyrical touch in landscapes such as Wollumbin or Roche Mouton, in which variegated blues and purples are offset by sharp dashes of pink and yellow. In other paintings in this vast, sprawling exhibition, his colours seem to be chosen to clash rather than harmonise.
In introducing this show, I fell back instinctively on Socrates’s maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I can hardly think of another artist who has drawn so much from his own life, in terms of both images and words. That life has been more interesting than most but not specially adventurous. Until his retirement Wilson worked at various full-time jobs, writing or painting in his spare time. He gave up art for many years but returned to it with a vengeance in later life. Now he believes his poetic muse has deserted him.
What we see in this show is a summa and testament of a man who has been forever burning with curiosity about art, literature and science. Not content to be a passive consumer he has made his own contributions to each of these fields. He has never seen art as simply a search for entertainment or distraction, but as a meaningful activity that feeds back into all aspects of life. Even back in the days when he was the Mullumbimby Kid I suspect that Edwin Wilson was secretly dreaming of being Renaissance Man.
Edwin Wilson: Mullumbimby Revisited
Artarmon Galleries, 20 February – 13 March, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March, 2021