Colin Lanceley 1938-2015

February 7, 2015
Colin Lanceley (Australia, b.1938), 'Songs of a summer night (Lynne's garden)' (1985), oil, wood on canvas
Colin Lanceley (Australia, b.1938), 'Songs of a summer night (Lynne's garden)' (1985), oil, wood on canvas

Colin Lanceley was an artist of rare integrity who pursued his own ideals of beauty in an artworld that made a fetish of ugliness. He was a thinker, and a wonderfully articulate speaker who could address a large audience with the ease of a dinner party conversation. He was a dedicated advocate for causes such as the revival of the National Art School.

I used to see Lanceley with great regularity but have hardly laid eyes on him over the past few years. A chronic heart condition kept him at home and wore him away by degrees.

It’s sad to think of him so diminished by illness, because few Australian artists have been more passionately opposed to the doom and gloom, and false seriousness that characterises so much contemporary art. Lanceley’s mentors were artists such as Matisse and Mirò – the former for his courageous use of colour, the latter for his playfulness. These were qualities found in Lanceley’s own work, which attracted most attention in the years before he left for London in 1965, and shortly after his return to Sydney in the early 1980s. A picture such as Songs of a Summer Night (Lynne’s Garden) (1985), in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, has a freshness that seems to renew itself from one decade to the next.

There are artists who sell a picture and immediately hasten to make another dozen of the same type. Lanceley took the opposite approach: a sale meant he could spend much longer on the next work, refining his colours and forms; rearranging the three-dimensional objects he attached to the picture plane. If his early creations with the Annandale Imitation Realists were anarchic, his later pieces were almost classical. One could say he began as a Dionysian and ended as an Apollonian. Lanceley saw modern painting and poetry as closely aligned, and found constant inspiration in writers such as T.S.Eliot.

Hailed as a prodigy in the 1960s, Lanceley became marginalised in the final years of his career. His constructed paintings were essentially celebrations of life, and this was anathema to the highly politicised avant-garde of the 1990s. Lanceley may have been disappointed but never deterred, as he was making art for all time, not for a season. Those works will ensure a permanent place in the annals of modern Australian art.