Taking over again

It's taking over everything © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It’s taking over everything © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

In other exciting news, this little guy is still charming people, and has just landed in Melbourne where he is a finalist in the prestigious A.M.E. Bale Art Prize in the medium of oils. I’m very happy to be showing alongside my arch-nemesis/side-kick Ryan Daffurn.

Alice Bale (1875-1955) was herself a brilliant painter, doubly hindered in her artistic education by isolation (in Australia, far from the cultural haven of Europe) and womanhood. She was one of the few but determined Australian women painters who forged a path for those of us to come. Her painting Leisure moments (1902), with its modern and ambitious Künstlerinnen, was a pleasure to visit at the Queensland Art Gallery again and again.

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Jahreszeiten

The suburbs (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

The suburbs (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

 

In Australia I attempted, as I always do, to live as fully immersed in where I was as possible. I painted the view from my veranda, partook in barbeques, read books on Australian painting, drove a big, powerful car, spent time contemplating the Lamberts, drank flat whites and talked until a reasonable hour about what it means to be Australian, went to bed on time and got up early for work. Something in this sweltering cocktail of true blue experiences sparked a new awareness in me of an Australian myth. I realised that though I had failed to be taken in by this myth, most of those around me embraced it heartily, and it stirs in them a genuine and deep love for that sizzling, sun-drenched rock.

Copies after George W Lambert, Brisbane

Copies after George W Lambert, Brisbane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernard Smith’s book Australian painting: 1788-1960 filled many gaps in my patchy understanding of Australian history, by the more engaging route of chronologically tracing the history of painting. Beginning with dry accounts of botanical artists (including, freilich, Austrians much praised by Goethe) and topographical depictions of early settlements, and warming up with the moderate efforts of trained European artists on extended antipodean sojourns, Smith finds the germ of Australian culture in this beginning afresh on a wild frontier. Our painting reveals all: awkwardly transplanted into a hostile terrain, without a folk tradition, without peasantry to romanticise, the Australian attitude and Australian painting grew from similar stony soil. As convicts became stockmen, their brutal, hardworking, authority-shunning attitudes set the tone for the Australia we have built today. The bushman, writes Smith (1962: 28), ‘became the new representative, the new symbol, of a life freed from the restricting conventions of civilized life. His was a life lived close to nature, dangerous, adventurous and often heroic.’ By the time Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Condor came along to forge a homegrown visual homage to this myth, this unpretentious, full-throttle attitude was firmly fixed.

Brisbane

On warm winter afternoons I would sit back and think how remarkable and improbable it is that we managed to build anything at all—so isolated, so set upon by an inhuman climate, so ill-educated and insolent. This is indeed no place for theatres and galleries or any other ostentatious show of good breeding. For well-bred we are not, and embarrassingly proudly so: ‘The rich an’ educated shall be educated down,’ as our highly-regarded poet Henry Lawson wrote in 1893 (Smith, 1962: 131). I suppose it is the worship of physical labour for the sake of physical labour (‘hard yakka,’ in Australian) that has permitted us to achieve what we have, and undoubtedly a healthy dose of vitamin D; but I can’t help but wonder: at what cost?

Brisbane

As my eyes opened to this patriotic pride, the pride that glories in levelling the field, in making us all equals, in pressing a giant ‘reset’ button on the European class system, I began to really listen to my countrymen’s convictions. They would say to me things like, ‘Of course, it’s very beautiful in Europe. But the standard of living there is disgustingly low. I would never stoop so low.’ Or, ‘Sure, the food is nice in Europe, but what about progress? We can’t just maintain a comfortable level; there must be improvement.’ And upon hearing that people my age regularly work a twenty-five-hour week rather than forty, they burst out in disgust, ‘Lazy fuckers!’

Vienna

I returned to Vienna as autumn gently settled over the city: the air became crisper and the leaves began to fade and fall, spiralling lazily like a steady golden snow in the ancient city streets. I went to the Volkstheater, built on the blood and sweat of the workers who themselves believed in the power of dramatic storytelling, and I drank beers and philosophized in the lavish red velvet upholstered bar glinting with chandeliers, contemplating the seasons and the importance of cycles. And yes—perhaps the key lies in these cycles, wholly natural in Europe, contrasting starkly with the fierce linear progression of single-seasoned Australia. For while Australia provides day after day of blinding sunshine, demanding day after day of (preferably unpleasant manual) labour, urging us on to greater and greater material success, Europe caps the height of summer with a frosty turn and invites a melancholy introspection. Dark times will come, and perhaps there is beauty in this natural regression.

Schoenbrunn

Australia prides itself on a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, friendly disposition, but this lightness hides a danger I am not willing to overlook. Perhaps hard work alone will not allow us to build ourselves up to where we dream of being. Perhaps progress is an illusory goal. When I return to Europe and I find that people take pleasure in simple things—in locally-grown food, in starting the day later, in bicycling in the fresh air, in putting human well-being ahead of economic gain—I have the sense that I have circled back to an earlier time and picked up afresh something important. And I think we must do this again and again—reawaken, and bask in the frenzy of summer, but allow ourselves to wilt and fade a little, to retreat and reflect, and prepare ourselves to sprout anew. It’s difficult to explain precisely what it is about Australia that feels so foreign to me, but perhaps this begins to illuminate it.

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And so I join the exodus of Australian painters that began even at the dawn of colonial Australia, and my departure itself signals a ‘challenge [to] the values of Australian society’ (Smith, 1962: 332). Along with many of my fellow Australian painters over the last two hundred years, I must ‘come to terms with it, or else spend [my life] abroad until old age or death.’ Smith’s (1962: 332) summary of Australia is tough, but, I think, accurate: Australia is no place for the artist, because

‘the uneducated Australian is indifferent to art; and the educated Australian, upon whom the role of patronage normally falls, is, as often as not, a second-rate European with such a strong feeling of inferiority that he is embarrassed by the voices of his own countrymen. Lacking a folk-tradition of long standing from one section of society, or a well-informed aristocratic patronage of the arts from the other, Australian artists have constructed what is national and distinctive in their art in the face of the anti-art values of their society. That is why good Australian art is so often tough-minded and sardonic: not because of the desert but because of the people.’

Prater

Smith, Bernard. 1962. Australian painting: 1788-1960. Oxford: Melbourne.

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Since paintings are to be looked at

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Paintings are to be looked at, and their reality in paint is an inextricable part of their being looked at—far different from their representation on screen—and so, last month Ryan Daffurn, Adolphe Piche and I banded together to exhibit some recent paintings. Since coming back to Brisbane in April, I’ve shared an artist’s residency with Ryan at the Sculptors Queensland shed at the back of the Old Museum in Bowen Hills, where Adolphe had likewise spent some time. Our show, held in the Museum itself—a grand red-brick, art deco construction set amongst lush, flowering gardens and palm trees—commemorated our time with Sculptors Queensland and displayed the fruits of our labours.

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The arched foyer of the Old Museum quickly filled with a flood of people, and showing in Brisbane proved a surprising experience. I was reacquainted with people I hadn’t seen in five, seven years, people from many parts of my life, from café jobs and university, even my philosophy honours supervisor. It was a great big soup of my past and present lives, and it was really thrilling to stand behind my work and have something to present for the intervening years. Yes, I’ve been busy.

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It’s always surprising to hear people’s response to your work. I rather apprehensively showed a self-portrait whose slow and painful birth produced an intense and dark painting, with crudely designed shapes for arms, with thickly-built-up hands that betrayed a long battle with planes and forms, and with a face perhaps among the most painterly-mature I’ve painted, certainly not effortless, but with a firmer control of paint, bearing a harsh expression (my very involved painting-face). And despite my reservations, it was well received, and people were even disappointed not to be able to take home prints of it.

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Since paintings are to be looked at, and since we would prefer them not to be seen as luxury commodities, we freely offered hundreds of postcard prints of our best works. It’s nice to offer a memento, to permit a little piece to be taken home, to implant a memory of the night and of the work in someone’s mind.

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I was surprised to learn that many people—even those familiar with my work—consider me more of a writer than a painter. This is a dire new predicament in which I find myself. Though writing is undeniably important to me, and something I intend to pursue in a very serious manner, I think of myself first of all as a painter. I don’t consider my writing journalistic, but more philosophical and more about exposing the contents of a painter’s mind. Perhaps I’ve steered off course somehow, or let my writing—a skill I’ve had greater opportunity to flex—do more of the work than my drawing and painting. I feel that I might need to rest the writing a little more in deference to more painting and drawing, and that I might need to push a more visual presence on the internet. Certainly, it is important to write, and as Joshua Reynolds (1997: 167), himself a very adept painter, wrote: ‘The knowledge which an Artist has of his subject will more than compensate for any want of elegance in the manner of treating it, or even of perspicuity, which is still more essential; and I am convinced that one short essay written by a Painter, will contribute more to advance the theory of our art, than a thousand volumes such as we sometimes see.’ But it is good to have an opportunity to reflect on how you are publicly perceived, and to seize the opportunity to modify that perception.

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It was incredible to show with two painters I very much look up to, and to be raised up next to them. My work isn’t as strong or as complex as theirs, but I am, after all, a few years behind in terms of experience. And yet, they consider my work respectable company, and I relished the challenge of standing proudly in the shadow of people greater than me.

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The artist, so long hidden in her painter-cave, mixing pigments and scrutinising the fall of light across still and silent objects, must also be a very public creature, and must thrust the efforts of her labours on the outside world as regularly as she can. Our quiet diligence is rewarded with bursts of stardom, and the act of putting on a show is both a celebration and a very important feedback loop. Seeds of new ideas have lodged themselves in my brain, and I feel more certain of my course.

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Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

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Integration

North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve been fortunate to be having some serious brain time with Ryan Daffurn and Scott Breton of late. We’ve been discussing, from our own viewpoints and languages, our common understanding of the role of the painter, which is to pull the visible world apart, inspect it, learn it, attempt to understand it, and then to reassemble our visual knowledge into constructed, tightly orchestrated images. Scott is perhaps most clear and persistent in his language, and I will adopt his term here: painting is about integration.

Life drawing

Ryan’s recent work is an ambitious amalgam of observation, collection, reinvention and imagination, in a manner I’ve found difficult to explain to others because they are not ready to hear such ideas. When people have seen his representational work, they have asked such questions as, ‘where is that?’ And I’ve realised that people are approaching realistic painting with a very limited perspective, thinking it can only be a rehashing of something once seen. In fact, the painting in question began with a fascination for a bizarre playground in Berlin, which lodged its oddity somewhere deep in the recesses of Ryan’s brain. It developed as he redrew it from memory, drawing little thumbnails and growing new exploratory configurations out of his brain, organically and freely. On transitioning to the canvas he referred to photos collected in Berlin, but these photos were always subordinated to his own design, and subjected to new physical constraints: the effect of an unnatural green light, like that accompanying a hail storm, completely imagined; the removal of black from his palette, to set hues off against each other more thoughtfully, to create a more meaningful colour contrast rather than an overbearing tonal one. In the end, ‘where’ is not really an inquiry relevant to this painting, which is ripe with fascinating things to talk about. But people are not primed to talk about these things, and it is to these things I hope we can redirect their attention.

lifedrawing1

We are drawing from the model regularly, and returning to my sketchbooks I see with satisfaction how much of a workspace they are. While people have dogged me to make more finished drawings, and to reconsider my ‘style,’ and to think about what my preferred audience might respond to, I am pleased to see that I have wholeheartedly claimed these drawings as a working zone. Each life drawing session presents a new opportunity to investigate something new, and it’s not always a piece of anatomy. Recently I’ve been attentive to the way I make a mark, and how to train myself to make such marks. There are the soft lines that tentatively feel out the forms, and then the brazen, dark sweeps that claim them. I love to use a tiny butt of a pencil that fits inside the palm of my hand so I can ruthlessly stab the page with decisive marks, and every single week I practice this decision-making to varying degrees of success. And having uncovered some older drawings, I’m pleased to note that there is a greater elegance to my lines, but also that this elegance is laid down with such confidence and certainty. It is not only the weight of curves set off against each other that I am practicing week after week, but the very manner in which I lay them on the page. Nothing but sheer repetition and practice cements such things. As Sir Joshua Reynolds (1997: 281) writes of Michelangelo:

‘The great Artist … was distinguished even from his infancy for his indefatigable diligence; and this was continued through his whole life, till prevented by extreme old age. The poorest of men, as he observed himself, did not labour from necessity, more than he did from choice. Indeed, from all the circumstances related of his life, he appears not to have had the least conception that his art was to be acquired by any other means than by great labour.’

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Ryan and I talk about the student’s perpetual search for surprise and freshness in their own work, the constant chopping and changing of media in an effort to chance upon something that they simply have a knack for, or that reveals something new—the apparently overriding fear of staleness. While this exploration is not without merit, it seems to prevent giving any one problem due attention. We have both remained faithful to the humble pencil, and reverent of its unlimited potential. While other media open up new thoughts, our ultimate goal is a deep and intimate understanding of and facility with our chosen medium. What we’ve learned via pencil can be transferred to many other media, but other media won’t substitute for the ability to set new tasks and doggedly pursue them. Actually, in stripping every problem back, in setting stiff parameters, we give ourselves a chance to isolate each task, to puzzle over it with clarity, to observe every minute shift in our approach and thinking. We have complete control over our learning and exploration, because we are so finely tuned into our chosen tool. We trust that accidents will never approach the rewards of systematic understanding.

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The pencil lets us isolate, struggle with, and hopefully resolve distinct problems. But those problems are never really discrete, and are actually far more intricately bound with problems of colour, texture, light and atmosphere. But the life drawing studies demonstrate an important part of being an artist—the determination to pull apart and investigate—the indispensable precursor to being able to reconstruct, to compose an image, to integrate our knowledge into a wholly new and meaningful design.

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Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

For a more regular drawing fix, have a look at my Tumblr! x

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The perfectionist, revisited

sewingmachine

My Nanna came to visit from New South Wales and I was very pleased to spend some time sewing under her direction. Nanna, born Aleida Grul—though forced to give up her name through anglicisation and marriage—grew up in Holland, where her father was a tailor, and she herself trained in the same field. As a young woman, she sewed for a living, paying board to her parents and saving up the equivalent of ten full weeks’ wages to buy her own sewing machine—a fierce and serious Swiss-made tank of a machine, driven by a pedal at the knee, which has accompanied her for the rest of her life. Her school was determined to take her on as a teacher, but toward the end of her studies, she and her family immigrated to Australia. Nanna paid her own way with the income she made from sewing. She and her younger sister took over a local sewing business in New South Wales, but eventually the demands of family life took precedent—her own family grew to five children. Still, children need dressing, and grandchildren too, and Nanna has continued to sew prolifically.

cutting

When she came up to visit us, I pulled out some lovely, soft, creamy, floral fabric I had found in Vienna, and an unopened vintage sewing pattern I had discovered in Berlin. The pattern pieces were flimsy and sage-coloured, marked only with perforated words and symbols—‘EINHALTEN’, ‘FADENLAUF’—and the instructions ran in stiff, old-fashioned German. A combination of my German, her Dutch, and her practical knowledge of patterns allowed us to piece the thing together.

But more than receiving a little guidance, I was treated to a wonderful insight into her past and her attitude to work and to life. I’ve always known her as cheerful, contented, and unfazed by difficulties, but I failed to appreciate her quiet acceptance of her compromises, her driven and hardworking nature, and her adherence to the high standard she demands of herself. As we carefully measured and remeasured fabric, pattern and me—‘where is your tape measure?’ (my mother recollects Nanna ever having her tape measure hanging from her neck, never out of reach)—she spoke softly about the past, as though the act of sewing were a method of time-travel, a direct portal to the times she had sewn before. And this time I was permitted to travel with her.

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At the very beginning of our work, Nanna confessed to constantly unpicking her own work to this day, which surprised me. I wondered that she could be so unsure with her hands. But I quickly learnt that this stemmed from no uncertainty, but from very exacting demands. Should an unwanted pucker appear, should a collar sit too tightly, should a gathered edge not sit pleasingly, it must be undone. From my own viewpoint, of ‘good enough is good enough, no one will know the difference,’ it was a pleasant surprise to be held accountable to someone who produces the best work she possibly can, no matter how ignorant her audience.

Cat sewing

For no one would notice the length of my stitches should they learn I had sewn my own blouse—they would only be impressed, useless as they are with their hands, that I had made something. But Nanna, from the adjoining room, called out gently, ‘your stitches are too short. Small stitches look very unprofessional,’ a judgment made from the sound of my humming sewing machine alone. I lengthened my stitches, I worked more slowly, I took care with the intersections of seams, until my mum expressed surprise at the steady and controlled pace of my machine.

Sachsen Bluse

Following instructions is one thing, but working under the guidance of an expert is another entirely. There are things to learn that don’t read well in explanations—like how to make the back of the shoulders ‘roomier,’ and precisely where to overlap the seams of specific pieces. I began to be less assertive, asking for more help instead, hoping she would reveal more secrets to me at every step. Without malice, but matter-of-factly, Nanna told me, ‘the difference between what you know and what I know is very obvious.’ And I realised with what arrogant confidence I go about the works of my hands! Whether I sew, or knit, or paint, or draw—and this confidence, this ‘just and manly confidence in himself,’ as Joshua Reynolds calls it (p. 211), being ‘among the first moral qualities … which a Student ought to cultivate,’ is undoubtedly necessary. But equally necessary is the humility that comes with recognising a greater power than yourself, and the magnitude of the path they have already travelled, and that lies yet before you.

Three monkeys

I also realised that perfectionism coupled with diligence is no terrible thing. For all her unpicking, Nanna, Aleida—now Alice—is ever moving forward, and no amount of redoing sets her back, discourages her, or prevents her from finishing something.

Nanna

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The Old Museum

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Exciting things are afoot! In just three weeks I will be exhibiting alongside two painters I respect very much, Ryan Daffurn and Adolphe Piche. We have been fortunate enough to be able to work together in a crumbly old shed in the Old Museum grounds in Brisbane these past few months, where we are currently artists in residence of Sculptors Queensland.

The Sculptors shed has given us a much-needed inner-city sanctuary to escape other demands and get down to some serious work. As the freight trains rattle by and the police bagpipe band put in dedicated hours of practice, we paint and sculpt from complaisant models. A one-night showing of our most recent efforts–much of it heat-swollen, bulging with tropical fruit, skin scalded pink–seems a fitting tribute to the generosity of the Sculptors Queensland society members, and we do hope you can drop by and join us for a little celebration.

 

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Antipodes

Framed

This little guy has travelled a long way in search of fame and glory. He is the result of a month-long sojourn in Berlin, and made a well-received debut in Vienna. I’ve just collected him from the framers, dressed up in lush Tasmanian oak in anticipation for his forthcoming appearance as a finalist in the Moreton Bay Region Art Awards in Brisbane.

Come along to the Strathpine Community Centre on Friday, May 15, and wish him well. Free wine! Eye candy! Eternal glory!

The show runs from May 16 to 24,  2015. I’m thrilled to be exhibiting alongside some painters from my Brisbane circle, and would like to extend warm congratulations to Hadieh Afshani, Brian Deagon, Mark Feiler and Kay Kane. Time for some Southern Hemisphere adventures! x

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