Tuesday, 19 February 2008

John McDonald says that Sydney Harbour "is at once too complex a subject and too ubiquitous a presence in Sydney to be summed up in a collection of 42 items" regardless of "the ingenuity expended on selection and presentation" of the show he comments on.

The show is on at Macquarie University Art Museum and ends on 8 March. I will try to see it. The John Olsen etching below is included. I think it is lovely. Olsen, whose son I went to school with, and who lived at that time in a renovated fisherman's cottage in Watson's Bay, captures something of the frenzy of movement that characterises the start and end of each week day.

Sydney is a working city and the bridge is a major traffic conduit, linking the aesthetically-pleasing north side with the teeming eccentricites of the east and west. Olsen sees the chaos of cars and exhaust as a blot on the landscape, whereas in reality it is due to this frantic rushing of bodies and machines, that artists such as he is, live in comfort.

Slow drips of cash seep through the cracks of the carved bowl of capital, located atop its iron plinth. Small cascades run over the lips and into the mouths of the culturati, waiting patiently (like penitents in an earlier age - shamed by their rudeness and by the hideous implications of truth) below.

Whiteley fares not well at all. He is classed among those who provide a "more straight-forward appeal". This is required because (as McDonald correctly observes) "On the whole, we like nothing better than those things we already know."

Curiously, a Chinese friend, who didn't know Whiteley from a bag of cement, stood transfixed before the above canvas when we visited the Art Gallery of NSW recently. The Asian influence is obvious, she said, and we admired the dead man's clever use of negative space.

This kind of work is akin to the extraordinary and sensuous calligraphic elements North Asians use to communicate with, on a daily basis. We forget how close to real objects these 'characters' (called 'kanji' in Japan) are. They are still linked to the concrete object: the snail, the man, the mountain, the woman.

Or, indeed, the silicone chip ('semiconductor' translates neatly into three specific characters, in Japanese).

What strikes one when viewing the two images above are their different approaches to an identical object: the Harbour Bridge. Whiteley's classical elegance contrasts strongly with Olsen's left-brained squiggles and dense diagonals.

McDonald also gives the nod (in the 'straight' camp) to Lloyd Rees. Rees' etchings of Sydney Harbour remain some of my favourite images of this body of water, on whose lush and fickle shores I grew up.

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