Last weekend saw a strange coincidence as John McDonald in The Sydney Morning Herald and Sebastian Smee in The Australian independently reviewed a show by the late Sam Fullbrook at Rex Irwin Art Dealer in Sydney.
Fullbrook is one of those artists who is perpetually being rediscovered and although it is said that he was at least equal to his contemporaries – Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Charles Blackman – he never got the recognition he deserved. Fullbrook was a pisspot with delusions of grandeur, whatever his talent might have been, and every time it seemed he was on the verge of making it when collectors or museums came knocking, he blew his chances by demanding absurdly high prices.
Writing about Fullbrook, it was an interesting exercise in compare and contrast between McDonald and his former protégé Smee. As much as we detest McDonald’s bitterness, we have to admit that he is a far better writer than Smee could ever hope to be.
McDonald is a great factual writer, threading information gleaned from biographies and histories into his pieces without ever coming across as a windbag. Although – as per usual – McDonald used the occasion of the Fullbrook review to take a tangential swipe at the Queensland Art Gallery for staging a show about the history of conceptualism in the Sunshine State, it was pretty much straight down the line. Smee should be taking a few notes. This is what McDonald had to say about the fact that Fullbrook is not given his rightful place in Australian art:
“It serves as a reminder that beyond the broad outlines of modern Australian art, there is room for a unique individual. No one has better claims than Fullbrook, shamefully underrated by art institutions.”
Shameful? Perhaps, but that is the perogative of the critic to make their claim. Smee, on the other hand, brought all of his usual writerly skills to bear such as;
Making absurd claims:
“In truth Fullbrook was utterly implausible: a big, square-jawed, craggy-faced man whose paintings produced atmospheres of almost unbelievable delicacy.”
Or, when in doubt, setting sail for the heavens:
“Fullbrook’s paintings have their way with you instantaneously, like a kiss or a certain kind of look. They offer up an intimation of paradise that you don’t almost dare credit.”
And there’s always the platypus factor:
“His platypuses – among the most dazzling images in Australian art – correspond perfectly to these fleeting effects. Platypuses after all, are just about the last word in improbability and their appearance in nature is always fugitive.”
Platypuses are only improbable if you come from Europe and they’re not fugitive if you know where to look. But the real show stopper in Smee’s review was his reasoning as to why Fullbrook is ‘overlooked’:
“Why don’t we know more about Fullbrook? The answer boils down to the usual combination of ignorance and conservatism on the part of the Australian public but also to a degree of persistent self sabotage on the artist’s part.”
Now, we hasten to add that we have never ever objected to Smee having an opinion of his own. That’s all fine and dandy. What we object to are the attitudes that lurk beneath the surface his writing such as the persistent and recurring notion that contemporary art is guilty until proven innocent. What we have in the above, however, is brand new. The reason we don’t about Fullbrook is because we are ignorant. It may be “to a degree” that the artist sabotaged his own career, but “what it boils down to” is that we are “ignorant”. How do you like those apples?