Desperately Seeking Fox
THE LEN FOX PAINTING AWARD
CASTLEMAINE ART GALLERY
by Alexandra Sasse
Categories. They are very useful things. All sorts of unlikely objects or ideas can be clumped together simply on the basis that they have one thing in common. Art historians tidily sweep works into certain little piles from which a narrative can be plotted. Post Impressionism can go over here, tuck Baroque back a bit, pop in those Futurists there, and now where did I put the Surrealists? It’s a helpful tool albeit with limitations.
In art things are always much more complex. An artist like any human being has a multiplicity of influences, yearnings and aims. And a trajectory of work over a lifetime can veer like a drunken sailor, as for instance in the case of Turner who for many years produced highly rendered topographical views and house portraits before his work transformed into almost completely abstract whirling vortices of light and colour.
If it’s hard to categorise either art or artist, you can imagine the difficulty of administering an art award that has a $50,000 purse for ‘a painting of an Australian subject in sympathy with the work of E. Phillips Fox.’ The artists trying to get their work before a judge might pause and wonder what exactly this means. They would probably look at Fox’s body of work and try to divine his motives and concerns. A mere stylistic similarity would be an inadequate response, but his motives are pretty clear. Fox’s work displays a strong academic base with an impressionist sense of colour, worked out in pictures of intimacy: the portrait, the interior, the genre scene. His attempt to reconcile Victorian narrative, tonalism and impressionism speaks of a cautious optimism. He was not the fearless experimenter, his was a mind that took in developments in painting and attempted to adapt and reconcile, not to breakdown and start over. His was essentially a conservative spirit.
None of this seems remotely connected to the selection of most of these pictures, and it is difficult to divine the raison d’etre for the exhibition’s content, the upshot of which is a somewhat incoherent mix. The field of 170 entries is tiny for such a fat purse, (the currently showing John Leslie Art Prize for landscape painting at Gippsland Art Gallery attracted 426 entries with a prize of $20,000) and may reflect the fact that many artists, taking the rules seriously, considered their work ineligible. At my visit, three artists were in the room, in heated discussion about the criteria and its application.
So what did they hang, you might be wondering?
It’s quite a mix. Firstly, forget the Australian subject. Abstraction features loud and clear. I don’t for a moment buy the idea that if it’s by an Australian artist it’s of an Australian subject. That takes us into qualities entirely extrinsic to the work. Secondly, forget painting. John Nixon’s Briar Hill is a yellow canvas to which are collaged coloured bottle caps, some nattily showing their pretty silver underside, and pieces of coloured timber. It’s vibrant, has a certain sort of formal aesthetic balance which is pleasing but it’s not a painting.
Despite these difficulties, there are some very impressive paintings here, and some seriously good talent. Peter Wegner, known largely for his figure compositions offers us Thundercave, a swirling mass of his favourite chromium and pinks depicting sea thrusting upwards on the picture plane into a triangular shaped headland cave. There’s a little of Kossoff in it, the form arguing with the energetic storm of marks on the surface plane. Far removed but easily as good is Adriane Strampp’s small and delicately balanced First Light which offers us just a glimpse, like a dim memory of that intangible moment pre dawn when the world seems to float in a mystery, impenetrable to prose, where only poetry could make sense.
Jason Jones’ Stand of Grey Box could be the exemplar of a painting of ‘an Australian subject in sympathy with the work of E. Phillips Fox’. Its clump of eucalypts, in strong colour – neither realistic nor random – with simplified form and flattened space is neither old nor new in style, but a synthesis that I think Fox would have applauded. The same could be said of Janet Green’s Landscape Castlemaine, hung too high to be properly appreciated, but nevertheless wonderful. This painting of curving, looping, almost dancing eucalypts is entrancing. It’s realist in style but the note has been shifted just a half tone towards the surreal to induce a weirdly intoxicating mood. Restrained and harmonious in colour, the palest phthalo sky echoes the lichen covered granite boulders semi submerged in their citrus green and ochre undergrowth. These trees have been caught in a bacchanalian revelry, and driving back towards the city, I saw them everywhere. Kenneth Felstead’s Mt Sargeant, Sutton Grange likewise has a bit of the spirit of Fox and is vibrant and competently handled. Lynne Boyd’s tranquil high key Whistlerian seascape Pageant is a delicately balanced composition of the palest orange with warm and cool blues singing through layers and drips.
There is merit in winner Prudence Flint’s Wash, but it is easily equalled by several other pictures here. Art prizes are a little like supermarket shopping trolleys. You can leave one next to almost any car in the car park, and sure enough a whole clutter of them will shortly appear. Art judges seem as fond of precedent as those practicing law; if an artist has won something before, it is much more likely they will win again. It’s a safe choice and an opportunity for Castlemaine to acquire a solid mid career artist’s work. Flint’s painting brings to mind John Brack, her formal concerns and distorted figure create a ponderous intimacy; mundane activities made timeless with a sense of cool detachment.
It’s terrific to see serious money being contributed to the vital and vibrant tradition of Australian painting. A clear premise for an exhibition, such as the bequest outlines, should give coherence to a show and guidance to entrants. However, those elastic words ‘interpret’ and ‘contemporary’ (not in the rules but on the website description of the prize) have led to an exhibition padded with the mediocre and laced with the irrelevant. This misguided approach leaves Fox out of the picture.
The Len Fox Painting Award 2016, Castlemaine Art Gallery, 14 Lyttleton Street, Castlemaine (VIC), until 31 December 2016 – castlemainegallery.com