For more than a thousand years the west was obsessed with the classical culture of Greece and Rome. In the cyber-age of today when all knowledge is available on the mobile phone, we can barely remember the cultural achievements of the past twenty years. This is partly because those who have been entrusted to preserve a cultural legacy have become selective in what they choose to remember.
In this new world of selective museum memory, the Art Gallery of NSW is holding a show by 39-year-old Daniel Boyd, that runs for seven months, while the National Art School Gallery hosts a six-week retrospective by Colin Lanceley (1938-2015). By any reckoning this would suggest that Boyd is a far more important artist than Lanceley, but to be precise, Boyd is merely the right kind of artist – Indigenous, political, devoted to the ‘decolonisation’ of the museum.
Lanceley, who died only seven years ago, has been forgotten with obscene rapidity, but he was one of the most original artists of his generation. Now that the book is closed, his place in Australian art history is assured, or at least shouldbe assured. With Boyd, the jury is still out, and will be for many years to come.
I know comparisons are odious, but some contrasts are so revealing they are hard to ignore. The huge turn-out for the opening of Colin Lanceley: Earthly Delights, showed what a strong following the artist still commands. He is remembered with great fondness for his warmth, charm, and intelligence, not to mention a life-long devotion to his craft.
In the catalogue, Lanceley’s widow, Kay, remembers him in London in the 70s, saying: “I love art. I love to make it. I love to look at it. I love to read about it. I love to think about it. I love to talk about it.”
This sort of enthusiasm is infectious, and the NAS retrospective, curated by Sioux Garside, is one of the most joyous, up-tempo exhibitions you’ll see this year. Lanceley took his inspiration from great modernists such as Matisse, who saw art as a celebration of life and argued that “a painting should always be decorative”. Nowadays we use this term to describe something empty and superficial, but for Matisse and Lanceley, decoration was inseparable from the avant-garde project of breaking down the boundaries between art and life.
The great Matisse ‘decorations’ are his large-scale paintings and murals that overwhelm us with saturated colour. For Lanceley, the challenge was to blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture to create a new kind of pictorial space. His canvases are laden with pieces of wood and found objects, smoothed and painted in such a manner that they seem to extend the composition beyond the picture plane. Most of his works are landscapes, but incorporating numerous references to music, literature, and other works of art.
A painting such as The Fall of Icarus (1985), refers to both Bruegel’s famous painting of 1560, and the poem W.H. Auden based on the work, Musée des Beaux-Arts (1938). Like Bruegel, Lanceley presents us with a view of the sun hanging over the sea, but now it’s a vibrant seascape in pale green and blue, watched over by a bright yellow disc. The ship and figures have been compacted into a dense grouping of coloured blocks, clustered around a pole that cuts across the picture plane in a serpentine fashion. It may be a homage to past masters, but this is a fantastically modern picture.
There’s a poetic justice in Lanceley’s retrospective being held at the National Art School. He attended classes there from the age of 18 and spent his later years fighting for the independence of the school and the integrity of its cirriculum. Never a fast worker, Lanceley’s devotion to the NAS probably robbed us of dozens of paintings.
While he was still a student at the NAS – or East Sydney Tech, as it was then known – Lanceley met two young, like-minded artists, Mike Brown and Ross Crothall. The trio began working together under the name, the Annandale Imitation Realists, collaborating on paintings, sculptures and junk assemblages, playing the role of ‘urban primitives’. They enjoyed a brief moment of fame and notoreity before internal differences sent the artists off on separate paths. The only collaborative piece by Lanceley, Brown and Crothall in this show is Byzantium (1961-62), a riotous, hyper-active blend of painting and collage.
In the years that followed, Lanceley continued to make anarchic junk assemblages, but these works would gradually become more refined and carefully composed. Mike Brown would see this as a sign of Lanceley’s bourgeois tendencies, but it was the natural evolution of a sensibility that saw art as an end in itself, not a means to an end.
The changes are revealed in a work such as Love me stripper (1963), in which we see two distorted female figures covered in beads, trinkets and gauze. What’s notable though, is the clear blue background that gives the work a spaciousness never seen in the collaborative assemblages. The move towards order is taken even further in Altar (1963), a work I witnessed being brought back from the dead last year at the restorers. In this piece the composition is rigidly compartmentalised, with bursts of expressive painting and collage confined to the left and right flanks.
In 1965, Lanceley won the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Scholarship and set off for London, with his new companion, Kay Morphett and her two children. Colin and Kay had both left failed early marriages and would spend the rest of their lives together.
The Lanceleys had a memorable decade in London, mixing with a brilliant group of artists, writers and musicians. Colin taught at the Chelsea School of Art and was taken on by the prestigious Marlborough Galleries. The family expanded by two, with Tristan coming along in 1970, and Felix in 1973. One of the disappointments of this survey is that it contains so little of the London work, the major piece being Suddenly Last Summer (1975), a vibrant, abstracted, circular canvas now in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery.
When he finally returned to Australia in 1981, Lanceley felt supercharged by the rediscovery of local light and landscape, and would create some of his best-known works, such as Balmoral (1984) and Songs of a summer night (Lynne’s Garden) (1985). I got to know Lanceley at this time and was struck by two aspects of his personality. Firstly, that he was as much a collector as an artist. Ever since his student days, Colin had been a compulsive acquirer of works of art, pottery, tools, knick-knacks… anything he could find in a junk shop, an obscure or wellknown gallery, or by the side of the road. Certain things went into his work, the treasures went on the wall, onto shelves, or into cupboards. In some way, this constant accumulation was psychologically necessary to his own activities in the studio.
The second aspect was Lanceley’s propensity to slow down whenever he experienced success. A sale would buy him time to spend even longer on the next piece, as he patiently painted, carved, sanded and rearranged components – engaged in the pleasurable business of working on a puzzle he never wanted to complete.
This total immersion in the art that inspired him and the work he was making, represented Lanceley’s own special kind of radicality. It would never have occurred to him that art needed ‘decolonising’, because nothing could be more diverse, more democratic, more open to everybody than a work of art. I suspect he would have been quick to agree that we all have the freedom to take what we like from an artwork, regardless of the maker’s identity. The true adventure of art lies is that it stimulates our imaginations and licences us to dream. Sooner a dream than a lecture any day.
Colin Lanceley: Earthly Delights
National Art School Gallery
24 June – 13 August, 202
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July, 2022