Tim Storrier

November 26, 2011
Tim Storrier, Reflected Fireline, 1996
Tim Storrier, Reflected Fireline, 1996

Pablo Picasso is not the only highly successful artist to imagine himself as an outsider. In Australian art, Timothy Austin Storrier presents a perfect case study. A 2000 monograph by Catherine Lumby was even called: Tim Storrier: The Art of the Outsider. If you’re wondering how someone as prominent as Storrier can imagine himself anywhere but the heart of the establishment, you are experiencing the first inklings of a great mystery.

There are a lot of clues scattered about in the survey exhibition, Elemental Reckoning: The Art of Tim Storrier 1981-2011, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, but some details are hard to explain. For instance: How can an artist be so self-critical yet so self-indulgent? How can he be so assertive, yet so insecure? There is no mistaking the grand ambitions behind Storrier’s paintings, but there is an equally strong desire for acceptance and understanding. It’s almost impossible for an artist to have this cake and eat it.

Elena Kats-Chernin recently joked that a composer can be poor and have a great reputation, or be successful and dismissed by the industry. It is not that different for visual artists. To achieve something great, artists have to take risks, but taking risks may alienate those who have fixed ideas about one’s work. Storrier has always wanted to be seen as an artist of integrity, credibility and vision, but he clings to favourite props and devices that give his paintings a sense of familiarity.

First and most obvious are the large golden frames attached to his pictures. I’ll avoid old jokes about the artist’s “gilt complex”, and simply note that for some unknown reason one work in this exhibition – Evening programme (pastoral domestic) (2009-10), has been taken out of the frame, and looks much fresher than anything else on display.

Tim Storrier, Evening programme (pastoral domestic), 2009-10

With no slight intended to the frame-maker’s art, the problem with this lavish blaze of gold is that it smothers the paintings. The real function of these frames is to make a work look expensive, appealing to a group of collectors that require some reassurance on their investment. This is anything but an exercise in disinterested art appreciation. In striving to show impeccably good taste it comes dangerously close to vulgarity.

Storrier is too intelligent not to know all this, so his addiction to the gold frames is best described as a marketing device. While he presents himself as an inveterate Romantic, one could just as easily see Storrier as a supreme pragmatist. He has a life-style to keep up, he has a market; he gives the people what they want.

But not entirely. If it were merely a matter of supply and demand he need never deviate from paintings of bits of burning rope – his most popular and durable motif. Storrier’s first experiments with this image came one evening in the desert in 1981, when he burned a lacquer-coated rope, strung between two points. It proved such a suggestive, poetic idea that he turned it into a painting. By now, he has painted enough burning rope to lasso Western Australia, but it is in scant supply in this survey put together by freelance curator, Gavin Wilson.

Wilson has chosen to emphasise Storrier’s engagement with all the elements. There are notable paintings of the ocean and the sky, demonstrating the artist’s immaculate technique. For sheer finesse there is nobody to touch him, but this craftsmanship is also a trap.

One thinks of Picasso’s famous claim that it took him four years to paint like Raphael, and the rest of his life learning to paint like a child. Storrier has not given up on Raphael, one of whose paintings will be shown at the National Gallery of Australia over the Christmas period, while Picasso is at the Art Gallery of NSW.

To be able to paint like this is no less impressive today than it was in Raphael’s time, but it is an accomplishment that few artists seek to emulate. At the end of a century of modernism such a high level of finish is now suggestive of l’art pompier – those slick salon pieces by artists such as Gérome and Bouguereau.

It’s interesting to compare Storrier’s The wave (garland) (1998), which appears on the cover of the catalogue, with a very similar work by Jan Senbergs called The Swimmer (1994). Both paintings use a surging ocean as a metaphor for a state of mind. In the much looser painting by Senbergs, a lone figure struggles against the tide. In Storrier’s picture there is no human presence, only a ring of flowers floating on the waves. It is at once a more precisely finished work, and a much bleaker vision. It is as though the swimmer – or perhaps an entire boat – has already disappeared beneath the surface. The garland, a symbol of fragile beauty buffeted by the waves, is also a wreath.

Tim Storrier, The wave (garland), 1998

This show is notable for the absence of human figures. There are plenty of dogs and snakes, even a zebra carcass, but no sign of a living being. Storrier prefers to rely on poetically charged images that suggest a human presence at one remove. A hat, a mattress or an empty set of clothes all conjure up flesh and blood associations, but these beings are omitted from the picture. It is as if the neutron bomb has been detonated in Storrier’s studio.

There is an even more apocalyptic message in many of these works: an elegy for the death of high culture in an age of mass entertainment. The scraps of burning newspaper and clapped-out TV sets are emblems of a disposable, superficial engagement with the arts. Storrier feels strongly that we are living in a decadent period, in which the noble pursuit of art has been swamped by a base indulgence in entertainment. In other words, we don’t see art as a means of cultivating the spirit, but a way of killing time.

When one considers the hours people spend playing video games, it’s hard to disagree, but in the past, those hours might have been spent playing cards. The information age allows everyone the opportunity for unlimited self-education, but a surfeit of possibilities invites a perpetual state of distraction. For every gain there is a loss, and vice versa.

Like so many critics of contemporary decadence, Storrier takes a melancholy pleasure in contemplating the ruins of the past. One of the biggest paintings in this show is a monumental canvas called The afternoon (1993), a vista of broken columns painted after a visit to Egypt. His view is no different from those artists and writers of the Victorian era who constantly felt the need to draw parallels between the mighty British Empire and the fallen empires of classical world. The ruined temples of the past are the shattered skyscrapers of the future.

Tim Storrier, The afternoon, 1993

This is more than an idea for Storrier, who is not preoccupied with ‘concepts’ at the expense of execution. His paintings are reflections of his private emotional underpinnings. The most revealing picture in this respect is Bunce and chain (Black dog dilemma II) (2007), where a dog sits chained to a huge slab of meat. As Edmund Capon suggests in a short film made for this show, this is pretty much a self-portrait.

The artist is chained to the thing that he loves doing, but is also tortured by it. The length of the chain marks the distance between intention and realisation. The black dog, as Storrier knows, is Winston Churchill’s nickname for his depressive moods.

Tim Storrier, Bunce and chain (Black dog dilemma II), 2007

Jeffrey Smart has said that whenever he was going through a bad patch, he would resort to painting blades of grass. This sort of repetitive, meditative activity is also part of Storrier’s make-up. His extraordinary skies with their delicately stippled clouds, his star-filled canopies, his canvases crammed with floating blossoms, are forms of therapy for a troubled soul. One suspects he is quietly proud of this dark side. Although he may have the golden touch, perhaps Storrier has to be thoroughly miserable to do his best work.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 26, 2011

Elemental Reckoning: The Art of Tim Storrier 1981-2011, S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 18 December 2011