Look homeward angel

November 2012

  • John Neylon

Stewart MacFarlane Paintings.

The Jeffrey Smart-fest which has seen a major survey of the artist’s work at Samstag Gallery, a spotlight on early Smart and Adelaide associates at the Royal South Australian Arts and yet another exhibition at Carrick Hill which surveys the artist’s early Adelaide years, has almost run its course. The Carrick Hill exhibition is still running until Sunday, February 24 next year and Barry Pearce’s Master of Stillness, Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940 – 2011  (published by Wakefield Press) has just been launched. That adds up to a significant opportunity to re-engage with the figure of Smart and to consider where he ‘fits’ within the broader narrative of Australian art. By repositioning Smart as a philosopher artist means he might get talked about as a metaphysical artist rather than cast as the Adelaide artist who made good and lived out his days in an Italian villa.

This issue of what happens when artists become too familiar or too distant comes to mind when reflecting another recently published monograph, Stewart MacFarlane Paintings (published by Wei-Ling Gallery). From monograph writer Nicholas Jose’s perspective on MacFarlane’s Adelaide connections (the artist was born and art-schooled in Adelaide) this zipped up city acted as the perfect foil for MacFarlane’s sense of adventurism which in the mid 1970s took him from Adelaide to New York and several years of grinding out a career as a studio artist in the toughest but at times the most inspirational of circumstances.

The scope and production qualities of this publication deliver MacFarlane in lavishly illustrated images and insights provided by writers Nicholas Jose and Timothy Morrell. MacFarlane’s imagery it seems has always been with us – for me a Damon Runyon world of louche characters and innocents abroad acting out some latter-day Hogarthian exposé on the venality and abject nature of the human condition.

The settings of cheap hotel rooms, gangster chic apartments, corporate boardrooms, highways, triple-fronted suburbia, rooftops and industrial wastelands cast these characters as actors in existentialist dramas without hope or reason. Compelling they have always remained, credit to the artist’s nuanced working of film noir tropes and his informed appreciation of how much can be implied by the merest of gestures courtesy Edward Hopper through another artist MacFarlane came in contact with, John Button. However to say that the distinctive nervous energy of the imagery is derived from such sources is to discount the raw feed of life experiences and a slew of alternative, popular culture influences (particularly music across a diversity of genres) which have provided the artist with a seemingly inexhaustible source of ideas. You know what I like about MacFarlane the most? His capacity to collapse time and space. I’m thinking of some works, not necessarily his best known, like Good Friday in which a traveller is checking his hair in a shop window next to a petrol station. This image is underpinned by the specifics of observation and place but has a universal quality which speaks about moments between one instance and the next.

Another reason is that MacFarlane, knowingly or otherwise, redefines this Adelaide connection. Jose and Morrell pump Adelaide’s tyres as an anally Gothic zone of dark secrets. But in underscoring the Adelaide resonances such writing does, as Barry Pearce in his book on Jeffrey Smart, propose some connection between city and personal perspective. One of MacFarlane’s teachers at the South Australian School of Art was Dave Dallwitz, a contemporary of Smart. Smart under the spell of classicism learned to temper his expression within elegantly calibrated compositional caprices. But Dallwitz took another road, which in his nude studies in particular, threatened to but never quite exercised a potential for darker statement. It was Dallwitz whose advice to the young art student Macfarlane considering a life of art, was ‘don’t’. How he ignored this advice, while at the same time drawing lessons from the senior artist, backgrounds MacFarlane’s search for his own voice and style. In support of this narrative MacFarlane offers his own personal diary of the unfolding events which traced his early experiences of surviving and establishing a studio practice in New York City in the 1970s.  His lying in burnt out basements account of taking it to the streets, subways, nightclubs and tenements of New York has the sparse character of Kerouac prose. Of course MacFarlane’s paintings aren’t about Adelaide. They are about an exotic ‘somewhere else’. But being in Adelaide sometimes means imagining this somewhere else in the same way that Jeffrey Smart in deepest, darkest Tuscany invests his caprices with the rectitude of South Australian light and a remembrance of the labyrinthine back lanes of Adelaide’s south west corner. MacFarlane is his own man in a riotous take-no-prisoners-way, as this splendid publication demonstrates, but if you want to look a little into Adelaide’s heart of darkness (and the world’s for that matter) read on.

Stewart MacFarlane Paintings
(Wei-Ling Gallery)

Images: 1. Kingdom, Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 167.5, 2012 (detail)
2. India with Flowers, Oil on canvas, 45 x 35, 2010 (detail)
3. Peace in the Valley, Oil on canvas, 153 x 183, 2004 (detial)

 

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