Saturday, 20 November 2021

Hang five: Kate Smith, ‘Natives’

This is the fourth 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.

The human brain is inclined to search out recognisable forms in an image. This one has perhaps elements of a landscape, with maybe a pine tree in the foreground and a beach and headland behind. But these points of reference are loosely suggested and the overall mood is semi-abstract, while the elements of the image look swiftly applied in a moment of zen expression. The ambiguity of the picture invests the viewer in determining the subject matter... I wonder where it fits in an art timeline; are you game to place it in history? I would say possibly made sometime in the early 1970s. And do you ever see your collection as a personal microcosm of the history of art?

This was actually signed about 15 years ago but you’re right when you observe how it’s semi-abstract. The banksia flower in the foreground seems to be set against a background where a river flows out of mountains – or, as you say, it might be a shoreline. The colours militate against figuration however, so the blocks of colour (especially the fluorescent yellow) and the pure lines of the work come out at you. The 70s were indeed a time when the demands of figuration and of abstraction were in competition in individual artworks, and so you get artists such as Clifton Pugh who embody a struggle. 

As to the second part of your question, I buy something if it appeals to me, and because I’ve got a long association with art I am alive to many styles and respond to many influences. What makes the grade as a result of visits to commercial galleries, and where a purchase is made, is sometimes abstract because I buy many figurative works on social media and have inherited other works – a series of Danish landscapes, for example (we’ll talk about one of these next time) – of this kind. Putting a figurative work on the wall next to an abstract work can throw up surprising ideas, in fact.

We can talk about these things at a later date and in the photo above you can see the Smith suspended on its drops near some photos of mum and dad’s that I had framed that show the Maroochy River estuary. So the “river” in the Smith finds its analogue in the photographs. Actually along the shore in Cotton Tree stand many paperbarks.

The loose, yet sophisticated line-work with bright colours amid an untethered landscape, reminds me of John Olsen’s signature ’squiggle’ style paintings (coincidentally Olsen had a studio opposite Moore Park [near where this painting was purchased]), and yet the painting is almost a miniature [15cm high by 20cm wide] in size (Olsen tended towards mural-size). Do you see a similarity in style?  

This was bought at the Sydney Art Fair, where I went one day out of curiosity. I’d never thought of the Olsen influence before but when you talk about a “loose” line I think you are right. The way the “water” slows out of the “source” resembles an Olsen in its semi-abstract tendency. 

This is oil on board but the brushwork dances, and this lightness of touch appealed to me. I liked the way the artist plays on the border between figuration and abstraction, seeming to suggest things but then pulling away from committing absolutely. There’s no doubt however that the painting celebrates nature, and the flower and the “water” – water is suggested by the blue strokes in the background – bring to mind a riverine view. Banksias often grow near the shore, and in Australia shorelines are often broken by rivers.

Further, would you agree there is a strong oriental influence in the quick but skilful application of (watercolour?) paint, bold outlines, flat colour and flat picture plane, and the celebration of nature?

It’s interesting that you find oriental influences in this painting though I’d never thought of it in that way. The way I think of this artwork is as an expression of abstraction. For me it has a Modernist tendency – but of course many ancient Chinese artists, who were so skilful, use a kind of abstraction in their works in order to achieve the effects they aim for. 

Do you think works on a small scale have a special beauty because of their intensified / compact construction? And of course small pictures easily enable group hangs, where the various works can complement each other.

I think small size makes a work more intimate. It invites you to come up close to it and take in its special ambience. Small paintings are not often found as larger works are priced higher – unfortunately prices are largely based on size – and the way that art is normally hung, especially in galleries, eschews the salon hang (where works are sort of jumbled up together higgledy-piggledy) in favour of a more minimalist way of displaying artworks, with plenty of white space around ‘em. I mix hanging styles in my house, so that some works are featured while others are thrown together close to their neighbours.

I wanted the Smith to consone with the Pixie O’Harris monotype we talked about two weeks ago, and that’s why I kept it here on this wall near the photo of my father when he died. In fact mum got me to take a photo of her kissing dad’s face just instants after he drew his last breath, so the Smith and the monotype are like bouquets adorning a shrine.

It is well noted by historians and art critics that the invention of the camera freed up painters from being the go-to recorder of events, to explore more personal and far-flung visions (and more recently, desktop publishing has made everyone an ‘artist’). Abstracted paintings shift the focus from ‘copying’ nature to creating a very subjective viewpoint where form and colour are celebrated for their inherent beauty, an end in themselves. So has realist painting become an artistic cul-de-sac, at the mercy of the camera and its computer descendants, or do you think there is still a place in this post-postmodern era for continued innovation in all genres of art?

That’s a really good question and because I have many figurative works in my collection (many of ‘em bought over Facebook Marketplace) I am a bit biased when I say that figuration definitely has a role to play in visual arts apart from photography. A hundred years ago Communism seemed like a viable alternative to Capitalism because of all the obvious faults in the latter method of ordering an economy (inequality, for instance), so some countries tried the former method. Their cataclysmic failure showed us that it’s not necessary to completely reject one way in favour of another, and that it’s perhaps just a matter of tweaking the variables a bit to make the dominant form of social management more equable. I think the same goes for painting. You don’t need to completely reject figuration – though doing so can obviously have its charm (and I have abstract works in my collection) – so that maybe instead you can find a way to introduce into your painting elements that make a represented subject more liable to embrace the subjective, as we see in the works of the Romantics, for example. Even before abstraction became a thing, the subjective was privileged. If you compare a painting from the 1830s (something by Friedrich, for example) with something from 200 years earlier (a Lorrain, for example) you can immediately see how style dominates even in purely figurative works of art. Indeed, it can be asked: how might a work of art be “purely” figurative if it’s painted? 

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