Thursday, 21 October 2021

Hang five: Reg Mombassa, ‘Telegraph poles on the Golden Highway’

This is the second in a series of posts looking at my art collection. I’m taking questions from an old school friend and answering them. Roger lives in the north of the state and I live in Sydney but we’re both passionate about art. He asks five questions, each of which I answer below. In the following interview, Reg Mombassa is the alias of artist Chris O’Doherty. 

Chris O’Doherty’s artistic career began when Watters Gallery included his work way back in a 1975 exhibition. One of his early supporters was Patrick White (who also lionised Brett Whitely). Patrick bought several works from the first show. He said he loved the suburban landscapes. Do you think both men iconised suburban Australia in their respective fields and do you see similarities in the sometimes distorted psychological views they take, turning mundane reality on its head, and reflecting an interior life?

That’s an interesting observation that tells me you must’ve thought for a long time about O’Doherty’s work. I like some Patrick White novels (The Solid Mandala) but not others (A Fringe of Leaves) but I never thought of him as a poet of suburbia. With O’Doherty, the charge is perhaps more relevant to my perception of the artist and I do think his small houses (it was at least one of these Patrick White bought) are both iconic and distinctive. As for similarities between the two artists, it’s difficult to say due to the length of time separating their earthly existences, but I do appreciate the art involved in both cases. Art is, in the end, what I am searching for when I spend time with a book or when I decided to make a financial outlay in order to acquire a painting or a sculpture. 

Chris was establishing his wider popularity via Mambo graphics as 'Reg Mombassa', while we were finishing high school. I wonder if this gives him special interest to us, as part of a formative time in our lives? 

Certainly the sense of humour implicit in every Reg Mombassa work is something that appeals to me. It was in those days that Double-J was set up by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it was called then; it changed its name in 1983) and so you and I belong to a generation that took for granted certain truths promulgated in the wake of WWII – a concern for the environment, the importance of human rights – but we also had a chance to react to expressions of them that had been established in popular culture by the generation immediately before ours. Our parents’ tastes were no longer serviceable but the models available as supplied by older Australians – people 10 or 15 years older than us – didn’t quite fit the bill so we had to find new ways to talk about the world. Anti-establishment views were de rigueur but they had to be funnelled through laughter, hence Mambo’s T-shirts and other products. At least I think this is the reason for the comic bent Reg embodies.

Chris is best known for his many offbeat, surreal, and caricature-styled pictures. Almost a comic book take on the James Gleeson legacy, with many pop-culture references thrown in, and sly digs at contemporary Australian life. But you have picked some of his more subdued and traditional landscape works, though still quirky, for your home. Do you prefer that side of his oeuvre, or is that what was available / affordable at the time, or are there other reasons? 

The Reg Mombassa work we’re talking about is distinctive – borrowing things from what you call “subdued and traditional landscape works” – in that it uses a cartoonish line, solid blocks of colour with minimal variation, and a wavy, erratic outline to make the painting look like a solid object. The outline is also used in the other type of work – which are signed “C O’D” – but with the Reg Mombassa works you have a feeling that you’re looking at something by the same guy who made the Mambo T-Shirts and surfboards. The street vibe is deeply embedded within Reg Mombassa works, and landscapes like the one I’ve chosen for this review straddle two worlds, making it easier to bring the ideas associated with one of them into the other. 

I think this is O’Doherty’s main achievement. In the present case I chose these types of works in contrast to the larger, more political works O’Doherty was selling because I wanted a lyrical tone to add to my home. They were also less expensive.

Chris has been a renaissance man of Australian culture, with his music career in Mental As Anything, graphic design work for Mambo, and not least his prolific work as a fine artist. Even the Sydney Morning Herald has been selling a selection of his prints, while copies of Reg Mombassa-designed record albums can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. One could almost say his commercial promiscuity has put him at risk of over-exposure. Do you think he is saturating the marketplace and can this devalue his work? Or is he taking up the baton from great showmen/entrepreneurs such as Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol who excelled in self-promotion, ensuring a place in the firmament of immortal artistes, at least from a more modest, Australian perspective?

It's a very astute observation to compare O’Doherty to Warhol and Dali, and I do think that he fits in this pantheon. Being a New Zealander, O’Doherty is situated within the small town ethos, and he brings that to his Australian work, but it’s this outsider status that I think distinguishes him from his more famous forebears. I’d like to see him become as well-known as the other men, and perhaps one day this will happen, but just as the Shire from LOTR was ideally placed in NZ, Antipodean artists tend to operate in a minor key.

When you add a work to your collection, are you filling a niche in your personal gallery, as an ongoing curation where continuity is important, or are the purchases more random and impulsive? Further to this, is Chris O’Doherty part of an intended focus on the Australian landscape and do you see this focus changing at all with the more suburban location of your new home, as a house and garden removed from the cityscape?

I’ve been buying a lot of landscapes on Facebook Marketplace because many are listed there from different vendors. I took a trip up to Wyong not long ago to get one but I’ve bought more from sellers located in Sydney. The landscape is so important as a theme, and this is true now more than it’s ever been, but the Australian landscape especially is affecting because of the unique characteristics of the continent, with its dry centre and lush coastal areas. I don’t think I’ve otherwise focused on the landscape, or at least what you suggest hasn’t been a conscious tendency in my thinking. I buy works of art if I react strongly to them, and because there is such a wide range of styles nowadays it’s sometimes difficult to resist the appeal of works I see in emails sent out by commercial galleries.

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