Here We Go Again

Uncategorized Mar 24, 2005 No Comments

Last year we said some very uncomplimentary things about Sally Smart’s work at her last Kaliman Gallery show. We couldn’t go another day imagining spiders and pianos and ladies pouring tea next to a ladder and a grand piano, all cut from felt and arranged like a kinder school paste up. When we say strident things like that it haunts us – perhaps a failure of nerve – and we can’t help wonder if we were wrong. After all, we’re just a bunch of people with opinions while it’s the artists who are the ones out there in a cruel world that hardly cares if they live or die. So it’s always a relief to see a show by an artist we didn’t like that much and discovering that they are doing something new.

Smart has a show of work at Kaliman until April 2 and we have to confess that we hadn’t gone into the gallery to look at the canvases. We had just intended to rest our weary feet on the big bench seat in the window but curiosity got the better of us. Smart has produced eight works, eschewing the loose unstretched surfaces of her last show for huge canvases, all over 2 meters high, one massive piece 3 meters by 2 meters.

The move on to canvas has also created a much tougher sense of composition in what had previously been a maddeningly loose and unstructured jumble of images. The works now a have better sense of the whole and sit well with an internal logic that isn’t obvious, but has a sense of resolution the previous works never seemed to achieve. Smart’s usual line up of images are here – spider webs, parts of bodies, tree forms – but layered on top of one another with the addition of drawn and photo elements the works gain a kind of complexity that keeps the your eye moving over the surfaces. The real shock of this show are the painterly qualities the backgrounds – uneven applications that add immediacy and depth to the work and the choices of colour are eccentric.

It takes a brave artist to try something new – nothing too startling, obviously – but a change of direction with some of the same previous elements intact for continuity sake does everyone the world of good. The artist gets refreshed, the collectors have something new to consider and the magazines have a reason to cover them again. The next problem is where to go after that. Retreating back to an old style may be a wise move financially but it really looks like a failure of nerve. At the Bill Henson retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW, it was interesting to see the “cut screen” collage works in a the context of his career. What had seemed at the time like an unexpected veer off into uncharted territory ultimately proved to be an anomaly as Henson returned to much safer and more familiar ground in subsequent series. From our point of view, this is where Henson’s work stopped being interesting. Many artists retreat from the challenge of the new and end up perfecting a personal language of expression that, while it becomes more slick and salable, it fades further from people’s minds as something demanding their attention. Artists are under no obligation to do anything, of course, but the consequences of refusing to evolve inevitably foretells of a long, slow drift into oblivion with a show every 18 months at Ray Hughes Gallery.

Over at Liverpool Street Gallery is a show by Dick Watkins, an artist whose work hardly ever seems to change yet is different every time. For an artist whose shows are like a celestial cycle of planetary alignments, his annual outings come and go and his gestural, calligraphic brush strokes are so confident and familiar it would be easy to miss the changes. Now showing with Liverpool Street Gallery, Watkins’ canvases are arrayed around the room like blocky Mayan glyphs done in colour combinations that take years to master. We remember the sage words of Colin Lanceley when he warned a painting class of ours that black and yellow, or red and black, or anything and black, was a no go area. Perhaps he meant that it was a no go area for talentless art school students, but Watkins is a painter who ignored such kitchen sink wisdom years ago and does everything with black with gusto.

The calligraphic shapes have faded away in this new show – cannily titled New Work 2005 – and what we have now are blocks and shapes that skirt the edges of abstraction and appear to include some form of ghostly figuration. A painting called Racing With Moon really looks like a wistful purple elephant while Europa and The Bull has the outlines of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck arguing over what season it is.

Watkins has for some time been doing a series of figurative works based on photographs of soldiers in World War 2 and they are so far outside what a “Watkins” painting is supposed to be that his gallerists have kept them away from public gaze. You can see within this body of work trace elements of these “other” paintings and we wonder if this secret series will ever see the light of day. Watkins occasional public forays into figuration – such as his portrait of Adam Cullen at the Archibald a couple of years ago – suggests that this is an artist who wants to make a 90 degree course change into an entirely new world. In the meantime, you can see why his gallerists are keen to keep the artist on track; very few artists paint with the kind of authority that Watkins exerts over these canvases and we would suggest that younger painters get down to Liverpool Street Gallery to see how someone can handle scale, colour and form with such maturity and self assurance.

The Art Life

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