Dan Withey’s art is just like his conversation. He takes dark subjects and mines them for mirth. When he finds pain, he cures it with colour.
“I’m going to die and so is Oscar. It’s a horrible thought but hopefully it’ll be in a 1000 years time, long after Rupert Murdoch’s dead.” Dan Withey’s art is just like his conversation. He takes dark subjects and mines them for mirth.When he finds pain, he cures it with colour. Confusion becomes joyful absurdity. His studio is small. It’s about the size of a carport, but within that space there’s enough vitality to fill a gallery. Every available inch is crammed with paintings, easels, pots of paint, brushes, leaving just enough space for Dan to sit and work. I feel guilty interrupting because it’s obvious that he loves to be painting. Or maybe it’s because I’ve come to talk about death. As part of The Collections Project with the Art Gallery of South Australia, Dan Withey will be responding to a selection of works from the gallery’s collection. For the theme of his selection Withey has chosen mortality. “A cheery topic, but I figured I’d tackle it,” says Withey, who admits to thinking more about the big questions since recently becoming a father. For him and his partner, parenthood has come at a time when most of their peers are still wrapped up in their own adolescence. “We don’t know anyone else who’s going through these weird transitions. It’s great and awful at the same time. Honestly, it’s like you’ve never felt enough emotions in your entire life. It all gets twisted up in this little ball.” “I’m going to die and so is Oscar. It’s a horrible thought but hopefully it’ll be in a 1000 years time, long after Rupert Murdoch’s dead.”It’s with that weight of feeling that Withey has cast his eye upon the AGSA’s collection. He shows me an image of Henri Fantin-Latour’s Poppies, a crisp still life of white bloomage, but the one flower that has fallen from the bunch captures Withey’s attention. “The un-nurtured flower is left to die,” he says. In this way his interpretation of the theme leans towards the figurative and often allegorical. The same can be said for Withey’s work in general. Since we last met, his paintings have become larger and richer in psychological insight. One of his recent works, Confidence, depicts a man whose childhood trauma forms the hidden seed of his macho persona. Inside he’s still a vulnerable child, but on the outside he uses booze and brawn to deflect the aggression he sees everywhere. It’s a sad story, but Withey doesn’t judge or tell us how to feel. Like coded diagrams, Withey’s paintings attempt to show the world for what it really is, an unspoken battle. His characters are transforming between strength and weakness, but the tone is always the same: amused wonderment at the spectacle of change. Other selections on the theme of death are more direct, like the wooden skeleton that is Ricky Swallow’s The Exact Dimensions of Staying Behind and Bernardo Strozzi’s St Francis of Assisi Adoring the Crucifix. But there also, it is not so much the death of Christ that captured Withey’s attention as the heightened emotion displayed by St Francis. As part of the project, Withey accessed the gallery’s library to see the preliminary sketches of the completed artworks. The Collections Project is a Guildhouse initiative and follows on from the success of the Inside SAM’s Place program held at the South Australian Museum. By providing the opportunity for new interpretations of such collections the project aims to promote public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of visual art, craft and design; but also develop new and diverse audiences for participants. Withey’s audience has grown over recent years but this project is a clear milestone. With the success of his recent show at Hill Smith Gallery, as well as various interstate exhibitions, it’s clear that Withey’s drive to create is more than equal to the demand for his work. So the question becomes, what drives him? The forces that keep an artist working can be just as interesting as those that got them started in the first place. In many ways, an artist’s long-term success is about surviving the battle of attrition that sees the majority of contenders simply run out of steam. The artists who remain are often those who keep raising the stakes until the question of giving up becomes more than just a personal sacrifice. “The un-nurtured flower is left to die,” Withey says, and it’s obvious that the flower of his eye is his son, Oscar. It’s said that fatherhood can affect men in very different ways. Some men panic, others find peace. For Withey, it seems that fatherhood has come with a flood of meaning and purpose that overflows into his work. With his focus on mortality, this comes through ironically. “When I’m dead it would be nice to be remembered, that’s why all those artists have paintings in the gallery, that’s why we have gravestones. Everyone’s striving to not be forgotten but it’s inevitable that we will be. It’s refreshingly futile.” When reviewing art, there’s often a great deal of redundant discussion. You can describe a painting and the tradition that it references easily enough but it’s a little harder to judge the depth of an artist’s commitment. It’s something that’s difficult to understand until you’ve lived long enough to question your own commitment, and know its strength. For Withey, his painting is so much a part of his personality, the way he makes sense of the world and even his daily routine that I doubt he could bear to live without it. His art is simply a part of his life, and it always will be, until the end. danwithey.com