Roy Jackson, John Peart, Syd Ball

November 2, 2013
Roy Jackson, Wang Wauk, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 150cm.
Roy Jackson, Wang Wauk, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 150cm.

One morning in July I was in Wedderburn, filming an interview with the artist, John Peart. The theme of the conversation was a recent trip to the Kimberley, and the new body of work it had inspired. Inevitably we also spoke about John’s longtime friend and neighbour, Roy Jackson, who had died of lung cancer shortly before his retrospective exhibition would open in Canberra. The next day John emailed me a copy of the eulogy he delivered at Roy’s funeral.

Less than three months passed (although it hardly feels like a week) before John Peart was also gone, felled by a heart attack brought on by smoke inhalation, when he wandered into the bush to investigate the approaching fires. Roy’s demise may have been gradual, but it didn’t make it any less tragic for those who were close to him. John’s death was cruel and sudden. He had recently begun working in a large, new, purpose-built studio, and was painting with renewed vigour. Everyone who saw the pictures in exhibitions at Mary Place Gallery and Watters Gallery felt he was on the crest of a wave.

It’s been a bad few months for Australian art, but we may not yet be aware of the extent of our loss. To revert back to art historical mode, one has to say that Jackson and Peart were both seriously underrated artists. Neither was the kind of painter who camped on a curator’s doorstep looking for attention, or sent out press releases. The work in the studio was the only thing that counted. Although they had found stability in later life, both men had a string of broken relationships that testified to this overwhelming nature of their preoccupations.

Neither Jackson nor Peart were represented in the Royal Academy exhibition of Australian art in London, although their work is palpably superior to the trendy junk that made the latter part of this show such a disaster. It is a reminder that the best artists are not always the most visible, the most celebrated, or the best collected – at least by our public institutions.

These artists were painters’ painters, largely ignored by official channels but tremendously influential among friends and former students. It may sound like a small achievement, but that’s not the impression one takes away from Jackson’s retrospective at the Drill Hall, which is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen this year. That show is nearing a conclusion but there is every hope it will travel to a range of other venues.

Jackson is an artist who drifted in and out of sight over the course of several decades. There are times when it seemed his work had grown repetitive, stuck in a corner that he couldn’t paint himself out of. Yet seen in its entirety the twists and turns of his career make a kind of sense. I couldn’t say ‘perfect sense’ because Jackson’s idiosyncratic working methods were never rational and straightforward. He would lose himself quite deliberately, and struggle to find a way out of the self-made labyrinth.

Painting was a constant series of problems that permitted only the most provisional and partial solutions.

Jackson was intensely self-critical, prepared to murder a painting rather than let it settle into a comfortable pattern. Over a career of 50 years this led to a tremendous variety of works – some forbiddingly abstract, others as full of stories as a novel or a diary.

Terence Maloon and Sioux Garside have put together an exhibition that does justice to Jackson’s ambitions and idiosyncrasies. Very large paintings are offset by small works on paper, and displays of the artist’s journals. The show is not arranged chronologically, but in a loose, thematic fashion suggestive of ‘elective affinities’ rather than series. The work is kept constantly alive from each room to the next. It is one long, exhilarating sequence of surprises.

I remembered some of these works from various commercial exhibitions, but was totally unprepared for a piece such as Mereenie Loop (1996), where the drawing is as loose and livewire as a Bruce Petty cartoon. Jackson manages to keep one’s gaze in continuous circulation, with forms inscribed in an unclassifiable shade of purple/brown/black, on a white ground animated by tiny yellow and blue highlights. It’s miraculous painting – a museum piece in which many disparate elements come together in a composition that is never exhausted.

It’s like looking at a completely different artist when one compares this work with densely patterned canvases such as Wang Wauk or Rain (both 2001). The repetitive marks are strongly reminiscent of Aboriginal painting, and convey a similar impression of a landscape seen from the sky.

The bright colour of a picture such as Blocking out West (1976) seems to belong to another civilisation from the one which produced a grey figure study, Sisters II (1988). The latter is a piece of personalised primitivism, as if we are looking at a photo of two women from a remote tribe reflected in water. There is also a sepulchral feeling, a suggestion of death and tombs. No-one could be insensitive to the mood swings in these works: the bursts of pure pleasure and moments of despair. They provide an unusually raw expression of the artist’s emotional landscape.

One could construct contrary overviews of Jackson’s career in which the tone was relentlessly positive or bleak. There may have been commercial shows that fit these descriptions, but the thrill of this retrospective is that it conveys a sense of one man’s entire personality, in all its contradictions.

Roy Jackson, First 2013 (Clinamen series), 2013, acrylic and oil emulsion on board, 224 x 180cm

Roy Jackson, First 2013 (Clinamen series), 2013, acrylic and oil emulsion on board, 224 x 180cm

Towards the end, when Jackson’s strength was failing, he found a remarkable new vitality. While he had often painted in a gridded format in the past, now he began working on small plywood panels that were combined to form large compositions. First 2013 (Clinamen series) is filled with squirming, fragmentary forms that feel as if they have been drawn from the deepest recesses of memory, where the boundary between fact and fantasy has been dissolved. This is implied by the word “clinamen”, which comes from the Roman author Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, and denotes a swerve between atoms. It was nothing less than an explanation for the way the entire physical world worked.

Jackson’s last ever picture, Night 2013 (Clinamen series), is both a masterly farewell and a new departure in his work. A series of plywood panels were painted black and handed to friends, and a group of children. Adults were instructed to create an image using only their fingers dipped in white paint, while children could use white crayons. Jackson edited and arranged the finished boards to create a work that is a genuine collaboration between friends, across generations, held in place by a single guiding intelligence. It’s a moving last testament – a work made in the shadow of death, filled with the promise of new life. As a grand finale there has never been anything like it in Australian art.

With so much sadness being felt at the loss of two important artists, it’s good to report that one senior figure, Syd Ball, is celebrating his 80th birthday with a show of monumental abstract paintings that feel completely ecstatic.

Sydney Ball: The Stain Paintings 1971 - 80 at Sullivan + Strumpf

Sydney Ball: The Stain Paintings 1971 – 80, Installation view, Sullivan + Strumpf, Zetland 2013

Sydney Ball: The Stain Paintings 1971-80, at Sullivan + Strumpf, is an imposing exhibition, accompanied by a very handsome publication. Standing in the midst of these large canvases one feels engulfed by colour splashing and surging in all directions. These are arguably the most exciting paintings of Ball’s career, and they feel just as fresh today as they must have felt in the seventies. The difference is that we are less capable of being shocked and offended by these painterly expostulations.

The 1970s was as notable for ‘prog art’ as it was for ‘prog rock’. It was cutting-edge stuff that came fully equipped with a swag of theories by guru critic, Clement Greenberg, that told you why this deliberately meaning-less art was so desperately important. After a period of rejection and mild embarrassment, it is now OK to leave the theories in the drawer and put the paintings back on the gallery walls. Perhaps it’ll soon be time to dust off those old LPs with cover art by Roger Dean or Paul Whitehead.

Freed from all the ideological baggage of the past, Ball’s Stain paintings come across as big, bold decorations full of confident gestures. While giving the immediate impression of random explosions in a paint factory, they have been carefully planned, and constructed with the most artful care allowed by a technique that consists of throwing buckets of colour at a canvas lying in the floor.

The longer one looks the more apparent it becomes that these paintings are full of devious rhythms. One splash of colour echoes another, tendrils of paint overlap and collide in patterns that are surprisingly harmonious. The style may be broadly derivative but one has to admire the spirit Ball brought to the work. Back in the 70s he was not simply the messenger that carried the Abstract gospel from New York, he was a super salesman.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 2nd November, 2013