A Big Story In A Few Strokes

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday November 24, 2007

John McDonald

The difference between two abstract impressionists might be that one lost the radical edge and freedom of his youth.

Frozen Gestures: The Art Of Peter Upward

Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest. Until December 2

John R. Walker: Working In The Landscape

Utopia Art. Closes today

FOR an artist who valued the spontaneous expression of emotion, there is a melancholy feeling about Peter Upward's retrospective, Frozen Gestures. This long-awaited show at the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest traces Upward's career through a series of stages that start out with promise and energy but never fulfill their potential. This process ends in Upward's premature death in 1983, when he suffered a heart attack at the age of 51.

Whenever an artist dies in his prime, there is an outpouring of nostalgia and speculation about what might have been. Those enthusiasts who have carried a torch for Upward have not been disappointed with this exhibition. They see it as a triumph and a reinvigoration of his faded reputation. Foremost among these would be his sister Penelope, who has written an unpublished monograph on his work; the artist Julie Harris, to whom he was married for the last three years of his life; and the exhibition's curator, Christopher Dean.

In the catalogue, Dean writes: "If Peter Upward had been making and exhibiting art in Europe or the United States during the early 1960s, he might now be acknowledged as one of the leading international figures of the second half of the 20th century." This is a big call and, as much as I'd like to agree, it seems a fanciful idea. One could make a similar case for Stan Rapotec, Royston Harpur, Eva Kubbos or Henry Salkauskas - all local exponents of abstract expressionism. If Upward has an edge, it is through the sheer simplicity and dynamism of his early work.

By the early 1960s abstract expressionism had become an orthodoxy in the US, with similar movements blossoming in Europe and across the world. Upward had as good a grasp of the style as anyone, drawing his influences from modern jazz, beat generation literature and Zen Buddhist philosophy. He was ruthlessly contemporary by Australian standards, although his American counterparts had already moved on to colour-field and hard-edged styles.

Where Upward was especially daring was in the minimal nature of his approach. A typical painting might be nothing more than one or two swipes of a heavily loaded brush. The biggest and best of these is June Celebration (1960), from the National Gallery of Australia, a few spontaneous twirls of black paint on a white background that convey a powerful sense of joie de vivre. In his titles Upward would typically refer to time or states of mind, avoiding any hint of figuration. One is obliged to think about how the painting was made, not what it represents. By concentrating on the artist's gesture, one attains an understanding of the feeling he wants to convey. The ideal viewer for these paintings is like a Zen novice, meditating on a koan (riddle) set by the master, in the hope of achieving enlightenment.

These Zen-style paintings are still viewed as Upward's most notable contribution to Australian art. One can feel the curator's exasperation as he recounts how Upward departed for England in 1962, abandoning a style and a potential market for his work. In England, Upward became increasingly enmeshed in the counter-culture. He took too many drugs and participated in therapy sessions with the guru psychiatrist R. D. Laing. He read books by the mystic Aleister Crowley and the eccentric psychologist, Wilhelm Reich. His paintings featured simple iconic shapes daubed in concrete-like polyvinyl acetate (PVA), on flat, monochrome backgrounds. These Horoscope or Zodiac paintings all referred to individuals and came equipped with the subject's astrological chart on the back. Subjects ranged from William Blake, Shakespeare and Nostradamus to his friend and patron, Pamela Hicks. Later paintings featured no more than an elegant splash of coloured PVA on a flat surface.

When he returned to Australia in 1971, Upward had little to show from these years of hippie self-indulgence and experimentation. He began working at the National Art School, where he was a popular and charismatic teacher. Many of his paintings of the next decade were discs or tondi (to use the Renaissance term) where solid globs of polyester resin would intrude from the edges in precise, fluid movements. These are attractive works with a decorative bent, no matter what thinking lay behind them. Upward described his motivation in one word: freedom.

It is miserable to read that shortly before his death Upward told Julie Harris: "Just give me a few more years, I now know how it all works." Of such quotes are legends made. He had found the key and the triumphant culmination of a life's work was at hand but we'll never know what it was. Instead, we are left with a few hardy fragments shored up against the ruins of a life. There is simply not enough to make a persuasive case for Upward's importance, although it is easier to appreciate the qualities of his work when we leave any great expectations at the door.

John R. Walker (b. 1957) is another painter who has always showed flashes of brilliance but an overall pattern of inconsistency. Yet since moving to Braidwood at the end of 2002, Walker has been getting his act together, producing landscape paintings of ever-greater strength and complexity.

His exhibition Working In The Landscape, which finishes today at Utopia Art, is a huge step forward for this erratic but talented artist. Walker's progress was obvious in the painting Dry Land Gully (2006), which was one of the highlights of this year's Wynne Prize for landscape at the Art Gallery of NSW and also features in this show.

It is a ragged, episodic view in pinks, creams and ochres, which concentrates on a pale muddy ditch punctuated by thin strands of vegetation and barbed wire. It is neither classical nor romantic but a marvellous piece of observation that captures something essential about the landscape around Braidwood, scarred as it is by generations of human habitation.

Equally impressive is the ad hoc triptych Quartermary Gully (2004), which adopts a closer perspective, showing trees and clumps of grass sprouting and twisting upwards from the bleached soil. Because Walker paints in a serial fashion, it was only afterwards that he began to see these three pictures as an ensemble but it works extremely well, with each panel adding force to its neighbour.

A more sombre painting, Dawn, Tantulean Creek (2006) etches in the outlines of trees and paddocks in a kind of frantic shorthand, as though the artist has worked desperately to capture a particular effect of the light before it disappears. He has smudged and scratched away at the surface, before adding thin, grimy washes of paint that act like shadows falling across sloping banks of earth.

Throughout this exhibition it is Walker's ability to suggest many different moods in the landscape that sets him apart from so many painters who find a congenial key and settle down to complete a series. Walker's pictures are anything but comfortable: they are informal, ungainly performances, where features seem to settle into place almost at random. Perhaps nothing could be more appropriate in depicting the Australian bush - a restless organism that resists all attempts to turn it into a pleasing composition.

Walker has not set out to please. In fact, he gives the impression he doesn't give a damn what anybody thinks about these paintings. He has rushed in where his eyes and instincts have led him, and worked with the spontaneity of any abstract expressionist. It leaves one wondering what an artist such as Peter Upward gained from dutifully avoiding references to the landscape. Walker is also a painter of time, dividing up his canvases in such a way that one may view the same scene at different times of day. In every instance he responds in rapid, continuous fashion to what he sees in front of him.

The result is a set of paintings with the same conspicuous energy as Upward's early Zen-inspired pictures of the 1960s. While the "freedom" of Upward's later work was really the freedom to pursue a visual idea, not to create in a loose unfettered manner, Walker is motivated by a different sense of freedom. He displays a willingness to take risks, to paint in such a way that he recognises no dividing line between abstraction and figuration. This method has occasionally led him astray but at the moment he is painting better than ever. By contrast, one realises how truly disciplined Peter Upward's "radical" gestures were, and ultimately how cautious.

© 2007 Sydney Morning Herald

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