Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Exhibition review: James Drinkwater, Nanda/Hobbs gallery, Chippendale (2018)

When I was living in Queensland I used to go down in the car to Brisbane for the occasional day trip. I would park the car under the brutalist gallery building and go to one of the two galleries that are in the complex on the south bank of the river. One day as I was wandering around one of these big, imposing spaces I saw, from a distance down a hallway, a painting that gave me a jolt of recognition but I wasn’t able to put a name to it until I had got closer. Then it hit me: it was a De Kooning, and it was so ravishingly beautiful that it had entranced me and drawn me toward it from fifty metres away purely by dint of its awesome personality.

In this exhibition there is something of that quality plus something also of the equally striking painterly quality of the Picasso that the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought in 1981, 1956’s ‘Nude in a rocking chair’, and occasionally an echo of the gestural methods of the Russian artist Marc Chagall, the American Cy Twombly, and the Australian John Olsen.

Drinkwater’s paintings are often very large (240cm high by 180cm wide is typical for this exhibition) and they are populated by rough asterisks, pointed ovals (which have a quality about them that is reminiscent of shapes used by Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miro, or of shapes used in his murals by Australian artist John Coburn), curves, arcs, daubs, splotches, drips, runs, scratches, and splashes, or impasto dried and painted over. There are also sections of cross-hatching, often with strong diagonals that give form to the compositions. You will also see a mixture of neutral tones and vibrant highlights in red, blue, or yellow.

Drinkwater and his wife Lottie, who is half-Italian and is also an artist, had children and this made the painter think about his life, and about mortality. “A lot of my work is about wanting to protect those you love and wrap them in cotton wool,” the painter told the people in the room on the last day of the exhibition. I had come along to hear him talk. The paintings in the current exhibition are also a kind of homage to his grandfather, who had come to Australia from Milan, and had married a Scottswoman with red hair. She was a matron and he was a surgeon. He was exposed to radiation at Hiroshima and this led to his early death. After he died, his mother one day found the cupboard where his clothes had been kept, empty. When she discovered that they had been donated to charity, she cried, and this story added to family lore.

The asterisk or star motif in the paintings in the exhibition is the sea urchin. Even today, with his children, Drinkwater explores rockpools on the coast of his home town of Newcastle, where he grew up. The motif represents his grandfather, he said. It is the central motif of the exhibition. “An Italian-Australian would eat urchins,” Drinkwater said. His grandfather was a fisherman. His mum and dad bought his grandfather’s house so he knows the cupboard where his mother had found her father’s clothes missing.

Drinkwater remembered aloud watching a Fred Williams VHS he had found in Newcastle library when he was a boy. In the video, Williams was asked, “What are you thinking about when you’re painting.” His reply stayed with Drinkwater: “I’m thinking about every picture that I’ve ever seen.” He said painting is like conversing with your heroes. Ralph Hobbs, who led the discussion, mentioned Drinkwater’s “feverish intent” when painting.

“People comment that they feel very painterly,” said Hobbs, referring to the paintings on the walls of the room the people were standing in. “They’re not on board so I can’t glue or screw things to the surface,” said Drinkwater. He added that sculptures are things that give him solutions for his painting.

‘Arriving in the East End’ (shown below) is dated 2018 and it is 240cm high by 180cm wide (price $45,000; only one or two paintings had not been sold when I visited the gallery). The painting has an earthy palette and a strong design oriented around a collection of shapes and lines set on a vertical axis situated in the centre of the canvas. The central part of the composition is characterised by strong diagonals and bright colours (pale yellow, orange, and red) that contrast with the teal, brown, bottle green and dull pink of the areas surrounding it. There is something about the design that reminds you of the figure of a person, as there is a white shape near its top that might be a head. The figure might be walking, but you are not entirely sure. The blue shape near the top-right of the canvas might be the sky and the zig-zag lines in the same quadrant might represent sunshine streaming down from above.

No part of the canvas is devoid of vibrancy and your eye is constantly roving among the marks, that have been made by the artist’s brush on the canvas, as you seek to create meaning in your journey from one part of the composition to another. Are those eyes there in the head? Is that a mouth? The syncopated rhythm of the cross-hatching that is applied on the left-hand side of the canvas reminds you of the kinds of deliberately amorphous markings that the Futurists used to make in their works that showed street scenes. Here in front of Drinkwater’s canvas, you are surrounded by a sort of music, and the shapes and blotches of colour that populate the work generate movement and variety.

‘A series of calendars and urchins’ (shown below; 124cm high by 100cm wide, $10,000) is a smaller painting that relies for much of its design on cross-hatching and series of blobs of dark paint that are set in strings of boxes like the keys of a piano. The painting has echoes of John Olsen drawings, with their erratic lines and evocative blobs. There are diagonal lines and asterisks. The yellow and white paint that establish tonic moments in the composition add to the sensation of movement that the whole creates in your field of vision. As in the previous work, your eye is constantly roving from one part of the canvas to another as it seeks to create meaning amid the fields of colour and the vibrant lines. And once again, you think when you look at this painting of music and what it can do to people who listen to it. The composition adds something to your experience of the world, there is something alive in it that breathes and moves like an animal.

The next painting included in this blogpost is ‘The most fascinating person I know’ (2018, 200cm high by 140cm wide, $22,000) which again has a dominant central design that has something about it that reminds you of the figure of a human. Again, there are the strong diagonals and a vibrant composition made of lines and shapes in bright colours that are set against a more muted set of colour fields that form a background. There are modulated colours, like pale pinks and pale yellows, that contrast with the more penetrating colours used elsewhere. In this painting there is a large oval shape in a mid-brown near the left-hand upper quadrant that contains a lot of momentum, as though it had been flung onto the canvas by the painter, rather than carefully marked with a brush and colour. As with the other paintings discussed in this blogpost, your eye when faced with this canvas continuously moves from one sector to another as it strives to create meaning from the suggestive fields and lines of colour used in the composition.

‘Along Stephenson Place’ is also, like the others mentioned in this blogpost, oil on canvas. It is 200cm high by 140cm wide and sold for $22,000.  This painting has a strong vertical axis like many of the others in the exhibition. I asked Drinkwater about his design principles and he said the vertical organisation came from doing his sculptures, some of which are also included in the exhibition. They are made from steel. For the canvases, Drinkwater uses pieces of wood in his studio to make straight lines by applying paint with them. These tools get very grubby, he said. He added that a sculpture has to have a vertical principle of organisation and he mentioned English artist Francis Bacon as an inspiration for his designs.

The tendency of these paintings toward a kinetic value that militates against the static medium of paint and canvas lends them a spiritual dimension that we associate most readily with music. Music has always been associated with the eternal, and with the liminal, the space that lies between worlds – the divine and the mundane – that artists and priests have explored for millennia. Writer Gerald Murnane examines this moment in his 2017 novel ‘Border Districts’ and it also inheres in the smoking ceremonies that Aboriginal people in Australia use at cultural events. The act of walking through a pall of white smoke that has been created by the burning in embers of green eucalyptus leaves brings you closer to a state one step removed from daily life, to a place where you can contemplate the eternal things that have always entranced humans and that have always provided subjects for their cultural production. 

In Drinkwater’s paintings there is a synchronicity where different media – music, paint – converge in the matrix of markings that have been made on the canvases, forming safe spaces where your thoughts can find a temporary home on their restless progress. 

These days we are often reminded of the desire people have to find refuge from their thoughts. They listen to music on a constant loop and they watch TV shows by “bingeing” them, episode after episode. The modern world has made us restless and prone to seek places where our thoughts can find repose. I think that Drinkwater’s canvases give you something similar to this. They are entrancingly complicated spaces, full of the kind of variety that people need in order to feel happy in their skins. 

We need a certain level of complexity to feel happy. We also need to understand the vocabulary that is being used by an artist, but he or she must also avoid giving us things that we have already seen elsewhere. The precise repetition of successful art is what we call kitsch, but on the other hand an artist has to use phrasing that can be correctly interpreted by his or her audience. There is a balance between complete, slavish conformity to an ideal and outlandish originality that has no connection with the culture that produces it. Between these two extremes sit all contemporary artists.

The exhibition, which ran from 18 October to 3 November, was titled ‘Looking for urchins and Louis Ferrari’, the name being that of the artist’s maternal grandfather. The artist was born in 1983, graduated from the National Art School in Darlinghurst in 2003, and has had an exhibition every year since 2009. Hobbs noted that Drinkwater spent some time drawing in the western desert with John Olsen and Ken McGregor, who has written two books on Drinkwater. 

Here’s a photo taken on the day of the talk. There were about 30 people in the room as well as gallery staff and the artist.

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