Ildiko Kovacs / Simone Fraser

May 19, 2011
Ildiko Kovacs, Serpentine 1999, Oil on plywood, 155 x 275 cm
Ildiko Kovacs, Serpentine 1999, Oil on plywood, 155 x 275 cm, Collection: Museum of Contemporary Art, Gift of Ann Lewis AO

May is becoming a crowded month, with works for the Head On Photo Festival being shown in more than 80 venues across the city. In addition there is a new round of exhibitions at the Art Gallery of NSW, and also a touch of musical chairs. Sullivan and Stumpf relocated to a spacious new venue in Zetland at the start of this year; and now Conny Dietzschold and Breenspace are both moving to Surry Hills. This is also an opportunity to welcome Jensen Gallery from Auckland, which has opened a branch in Paddington, showing confidence in Sydney’s slumbering art market.

At the beginning of last week I found myself at the Opera House, for a viewing of Ralph Heimans’s portrait of Vladimir Ashkenazy, who has just renewed his contract as principle Conductor for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The painting will be displayed for the next fortnight in the Opera House’s southern foyer, while proposals to purchase it are underway. It is rare nowadays for an artist to work outside the gallery circuit, as Heimans does, relying on commissions and – in this case – a speculation.

Portrait of a Musician, by Ralph Heimans

Portrait of a Musician, by Ralph Heimans

With his exacting realism and sense of composition, Heimans is an artist with the popular touch. If the painting were entered in any of the current round of portrait competitions, it would have had a big impact. Indeed, the winner of this year’s Moran Prize, Vincent Fantauzzo, is a very similar painter, both in his technical expertise and his entrepreneurial spirit.

Following the demise of Modernism and the short postscript of Postmodernism, the art world has become so atomised that there are paths to success both inside and outside the gallery circuit. Realists may be as fashionable, in their way, as the most rigorous abstract painter or video artist. It has been a long time since works were judged on standards of academic merit, but now even the distinction between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘conservative’ is largely a matter of context and opinion.

Many still believe that abstract art is a radical gesture, but painters and sculptors who work in this manner often feel they are treated like dinosaurs. Abstract art has become far less ‘cutting edge’ than those conceptually motivated works where the artist hires a team of people to make everything on his or her behalf. Think of Jeff Koons, or closer to home, Patricia Piccinini. The more ‘radical’ artists are those with an aversion to getting their hands dirty – not left-wing firebrands, but capitalist impresarios who embrace efficient production methods.

This clinical approach has proved deeply alienating for those who cling to the romantic idea of the artist as a maker. Abstract art has become a refuge where artists strive to create signs, shapes and patterns that convey an intangible meaning. For the most part it is a hands-on form of communication in which the artist finds energy – and a hidden subject – in their innermost thoughts and feelings. The successful abstract works make us feel they are reaching out to us in some way, teasing us with the suggestion of a subject that remains veiled. The failures are simply inert.

Ildiko Kovacs is a dedicated abstractionist whom I’ve always thought of as a young artist. Visiting the show, Ildiko Kovacs: Drawing the Line 1980-2010, at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, I suddenly realised that she was born in 1962, making her a prime candidate for a mid-career survey. At least Kovacs was actually born. From their CVs one might believe that a remarkable number of female artists are not born at all, merely educated, presumably attending art school as child prodigies.

Perhaps it’s best to keep thinking of vanity-free Kovacs as young because there is a perennially youthful spirit in her work. Over the past thirty years she has never stood still. In the spirit of the early modern masters she is a seeker after truth, who has approached painting in a speculative, experimental manner. One may follow her progress from the busy early pieces, through a series of pictures where we gaze into a void; to those works where she takes a line on a dynamic journey around the rectangle. Her most recent paintings move in a new direction, using a roller to create thick, segmented lines that have a kind of internal vibration.

Throughout these changes Kovacs has worn her influences upon her sleeve. In early pictures such as Untitled (1989), the debt to Tony Tuckson is palpable. Later on she edges closer to indigenous artists such as Rover Thomas and the Western Desert painters. She was one of the first non-indigenous artists to learn from Aboriginal art, and begin to incorporate similar motifs into her own work. Her achievement lies in avoiding the descent into pastiche that usually accompanies attempts to emulate Aboriginal painting. Even some urban indigenous artists have been guilty of this offence, blithely assuming that their ethnic heritage confers the right to borrow freely from painters in the remote communities.

Kovacs has been inspired by this art but has managed to make something entirely her own. The key to her success lies in her control of surface effects and colour. The breakthrough came with In Memory of Garry (1992), named in honour of art dealer, Garry Anderson. The painting is dominated by a large, rusty brown mass pulled across the canvas like a shroud. As we examine this brown screen we notice all the marks, smears and signs of previous lives. Around the edges some of these earlier incarnations are visible, hinting at the cycles of creation and obliteration that underpin this imposing picture.

By the time Kovacs comes to paint works such as Full Moon (2001) or Domino (2004), she is producing the most mesmeric effects: shimmering lines with a faint aura; a feeling that light is emanating from within the picture; translucent arabesques that echo one another like musical motifs. While Domino is a masterly study in discreet tonal values, Kovacs has occasionally taken the most brazen attitude towards colour. Travelling pink line (1995) pits a shocking pink line against a bright blue surface. Even more startling is Serpentine (1999), a large painting gifted to the Museum of Contemporary Art by Ann Lewis. A slippery blue line concertinas its way across three large, pale green panels, twisting and turning like an enormous worm being zapped with an electric current.

For once, Hazelhurst has devoted its entire exhibition space to a single artist, and it makes for a spacious, impressive presentation. This is a show that deserves to travel, but needless to say there are no plans for a tour. It was also pointed out to me that although Edmund Capon actually spoke at a celebratory dinner for the artist last week, the Art Gallery of NSW has never bothered to acquire one of her works. Perhaps he thinks she’s still too young.

Having spoken about the expressive qualities of abstract art, it’s tempting to extend this discussion in another direction, by looking at Simone Fraser’s Timelines at Sabbia Gallery. Fraser is a potter, but that word hardly does justice to the busy, turbulent forms she extracts from clay.

It would be just as inadequate to think of Sabbia as a venue for decorative and applied arts. Partly through the reluctance of mainstream commercial galleries to consider works by ceramicists, glass artists, metalworkers, and so on, Sabbia has accumulated a first-class stable of skilled, innovative practitioners. This is gradually being recognised by the museums, with a forthcoming show by glass artist, Cobi Cockburn, having been acquired in its entirety by the Art Gallery of WA.

Although Fraser’s pieces still function as vessels, they are very different from the serene vases that most potters produce. The surface of a typical work has been vigorously manipulated by fingers and thumbs – making it look as though it has just been retrieved from the sea floor, like an ancient amphora. One thinks instantly of barnacles, but there are none: only an abstract play of hollows, lines and bulges. In some instances she accentuates this weathered effect by colour and texture, while other pieces are left completely white. The most daring, called Landscrapes, are a mixture of greens, yellows and blues, applied with the verve of an Abstract Expressionist.

For a ceramic artist to work with such freedom she must first have a mastery of technique. The next, much harder phase is to take leave of convention – and ceramics, more than most art forms, is completely besotted with its own traditions. Fraser obviously loves her medium, and pays homage to its antiquity in these works that look weathered at the moment of their birth. It is no small feat to create pieces that seem both ancient and brand new; vessels that are as hard as stone, but with the colour and subtle life force of a coral reef.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, May 21, 2011

Ildiko Kovacs: Down the Line
Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, until 3 July.

Simone Fraser: Timelines
Sabbia Gallery, until 4 June.