Saturday, December 18, 2010

The road to recovery - Ménière's and back

Recovering, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm
(click on image to enlarge)

The fourth in my Ménière's series, this one is concerned with recovery. Patchy recovery, but recovery - hence patches of orange and red among the grim blue-green.

Thanks to a pill called Serc my world is coming back into focus. The desire to paint is returning. The energy to paint is returning. The concentration to blog is returning.

Hello folks!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Material thinking, Heidegger, and the agency of oil paint

Ménière's III, oil on canvas, 61 x 46 cm
(click on image to enlarge)

Have just returned from four days R&R in Sydney and think it's high time i contributed something to this blog after my relative inactivity over the last few months. Sooooo ...

This is my third in a series seeking to express the experience of Ménière's. I wished to covey something of the sense of the mental isolation produced by a chronic swirling of the visual field, the sense of the ears being a locus of malady, the sense with Ménière's that one is falling into a state of mental dissolution.

Primarily, however, this work is a practical investigation into some current art theory relating to expressive mark-making in portrait painting (my Masters degree project). It is an exercise in agency of media, an aspect of what is called ‘material thinking’ in creative practice. Material thinking, as opposed to instrumental thinking, turns the painting process on its head to some degree.

Instead of starting out with a preconceived image in mind and then getting to work with brushes and paint, bending them to your purpose through a series of learnt painterly skills (‘tricks of the trade’), one starts out with a set of materials and tools, media and supports, that are at hand. Already at this point one is open as to what those materials might be.

In the case of Ménière’s III one of those materials was a very old tin of walnut stain varnish that had evaporated to the consistency of honey beneath a thick leathery skin. I cut through the skin and poured the treacle varnish onto a new canvas support and proceeded to spread it like icing on a cake with a large spatula, but allowing a thick pool to form toward the left-hand side of the frame. Into this pool i then poured oil paints much thinned with painting medium. I poured them roughly where i judged the proportions of my facial features might lie.

I hardly disturbed the combined paints and instead observed over the period of an hour that convection currents had set up within the paint-pool that of themselves created swirls and textures on the 'face'. I embedded some dried out oil paint scrapings from the palettes of previous work that i had kept (waste not, want not) and consequently happened to have at hand. Finally i drizzled on some more of the varnish, Pollok-style, to suggest features like eyes, mouth and  ears.

To Heidegger this ‘at hand’ aspect is of philosophical significance. “At hand’ is actually how we live our lives. We go to a school ‘at hand’. We eat foods ‘at hand’. We marry someone ‘at hand’. We get buried in plot ‘at hand’. So when we paint with media we find at hand we are engaging in the same exploratory open-ended processes that we use in daily living. And just as in life we are never really able to absolutely predict the outcomes of our choices and actions, so there is an indeterminacy when we use what happens to be at hand in our creative practice.

Barbara Bolt particularly draws on Heidegger’s notion of our co-responsibility with the media at hand in the creative process. She writes in her paper Heidegger, handlability and praxical knowledge , “Heidegger’s discussion of responsibility and indebtedness provide us with quite a different way to think about artistic practice. In the place of an instrumentalist understanding of our tools and material, this mode of thinking suggests that in the artistic process, objects have agency and it is through the establishing conjunctions with other contributing elements in the art that humans are co-responsible for letting art emerge.” ( p. 1)

In Material Thinking and the Agency of Matter she writes of a  "focus on the acting ensemble rather than the artist as the locus of art enables us to come closer to an understanding of the dynamism of material practice and to the radicality offered by the notion of material thinking. In this dynamism, the outcome cannot be known in advance. Thus although we may have some awareness of the potential of a tool or a piece of wood—for example, through previous dealings with wood and tools—every new situation brings about a different constellation of forces and speeds. The wood may be a bit harder, the tool sharper or blunter and our own energies more or less focussed. Thus our relation to technical things is inevitably characterized by a play between the understandings that we bring to the situation and the intelligence of our tools and materials. This relation is not a relation of mastery but one of co-emergence" (p. 3).

“Letting art emerge” – what a mind-expanding way of looking at the act of painting. We do not paint by numbers, colouring in tight drawings to produce exact likeness in a controlled way. Rather, we set up situations where watercolours or oils can behave the way they naturally do, with capillary action, with granulation and flocculation, with plastic flow under gravity, with oozing, with buttery resistance. Painting becomes haptic play that relies on the synchronous serendipity of media as one nudges and seduces it into place in a quest to realise one’s inner purposing and the paint’s potentiality or potency.

In Heidegger, handlability and praxical knowledge Barbara Bolt elucidates on these materials centred processes:  “The focus on artworks, rather than practice, has produced a gap in our understanding of the work of art as process. ... By focusing on enunciative practices, that is, the systems of fabrication rather than systems of signification, I argue that there is a possibility of opening up the field of an “art of practice” from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. According to such thinking, such logic of practice follows on from practice rather than prescribing it ... Here artistic practice involves a particular responsiveness to, or conjunction with, other contributing elements that make up the art ensemble. What is critical to creative practice is the type of insight that emerges through this handling. In artist tool matrix, engagement with tools and technology produces its own kind of sight”.

She concludes her train of thought with the startling proposition that “The work of art is not the artwork”.

Linda Roche, in her outstanding Masters exegesis Theatre of painting, writes eloquently of such process : “Paint in a tube is inert, silent, under control. To find its voice it needs to be activated. To do this, independent of the artist, it needs to be fluid. Fluid dynamics being what they are this can be problematic. One of the operating criteria within the project has been that the paint must remain on the surface, contained within the ‘virtual’ world of the image, where it can be considered and reflected upon. Paint, when fluid, has a tendency to want to escape, to overflow this field into the real world. The enquiry, as such, has the potential to dissolve into chaos, to become incoherent. Just as language needs structure to be understood, systems tease a sense of fluency and coherency out of paint. They corral the paint on a surface but at the same time enable it to operate freely in between predetermined structures. Systems control fluidity. Paint must be able to move freely across a surface in order to articulate itself.” (p. 17);


“ What is seen on the surface is simply how the paint has responded to a set of controls or to the exigencies of a system. Remaining true to this mandate means I often feel the system pushing up against my own subjectivity, my sense of the way things should be. At times my response to the material would be to refine the surface, firm up the edges, control the bleeds. The mandate is meant to form a collaborative engagement between system and material, an approach that suppresses the deliberate role of the artist in terms of both expressive intentionality, aesthetic and editorial concerns. Once a system is developed and set in motion there is no editing or rejection. The image gels into its final state with no subsequent authorial intervention. What emerges is what is presented.” (p. 20).

So where does all this leave portraiture as the depiction of the ‘likeness’ of a sitter?

Taking up brush and paint in order to produce a recognizable semblance of the physical appearance of another person (a likeness) is instrumentalist thinking. But once painting becomes process focused rather than product focused and paint is given agency, then inevitably the resulting image will evidence a reduction in the very cognitive control over brush and paint that is required for realism. One hopes that in place of physical likeness the work will realize a psychological likeness to the subject. Or if not the sitter, become a psychological reflection of the painter. “Every painter paints himself”, as the Renaissance had it. Though if there is no likeness of any kind to a particular sitter then i guess the artist has moved from ‘portraiture’ to ‘abstract figurative painting’.

Though i am now left questioning just how central 'likeness' is to portrait painting. To imitationalists it is the very purpose of painting and the measure of its success. To instrumentalists such as social realists it is often a necessary vehicle to their purposes. To formalists too it has generally been assumed to be the goal of managing visual elements, though exploration of formal elements lead to stylization and, ultimately, to abstraction. To expressionists (i count myself as a quasi-neo-expressionist) likeness often remains an intention but not at the expense of emotional impact. Likeness now takes second place. But what happens when likeness takes sixth place after emotional impact, catharsis, rhetoric, cross-cultural exploration, stylistic innovation, and agency of materials? Thankfully the institutionalists will work it out.

So here it is, an open-ended excursion into material thinking, into co-responsibility and partnership with media in creative praxis, into the agency of paint and the gifts that it brings, an interrogation of interpersonal perceptual processes and the question of ‘likeness’ in portraiture - Ménière's III.

Ménière's III (detail)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dreaming with dumpr

Gallery visitors immersed in Harry Kent's Dark night of the soul.

Yes folks, you too can dream.

You too can have your virtual exhibition with virtual art-lovers discovering your real worth. At last!

Or on a more serious level, test to see if you should be painting on a larger scale.

All you have to do is play with dumpr HERE.

Simply join (painless, i used my blog title for ID), and then import or upload your fav images that you think might look good on a large scale.

Some more examples below.

Have fun.

Keep believing.

Harry Invictus peers down at gallery visitors.

Regrets is another deeply personal work in this fine exhibition of Harry Kent's work.

Art lovers admiring the intense color and expressive impasto that is Harry Kent's Twilight in the Gorge

Monday, November 22, 2010

Another for Julia Kay's Portrait Party

Dan for JKPP, pen, chalk and watercolor on paper, 26 x 36 cm

Another contribution to Julia Kay's Portrait Party., the Flickr group of near 400 artists who post photos of themselves and then proceed to draw and paint each other. Great fun. Great people.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A personal vision of Paul Lennon

Our Premier, acrylic on paper, 50 x 70 cm

I was browsing Google images today after a prominent Tasmanian  was once again in the news making his personal views public, when among the photos of the man I saw the image of a painting of I did back in 2007 - Last night I dreamt of Paul Lennon (see below). This is an obscure, early experimental, almost throw-away learning piece so i was initially stunned to see it out in public without an escort. And since Google has seen fit to project it into the public domain i thought the least i can do now is to formally publish and give some background. (Skip to the final two paragraphs if you are not interest in Tasmanian environment politics, civic issues, matters of social justice and good governance).

At the time of painting, the subject of the portrait Paul Lennon, was Premier of Tasmania (equivalent to a State Governor in the US) and presided over a deeply divided community in this small island State. A former trade union official, Mr Lennon, holding the highest political office in Tasmania, pursued a personal set of values and beliefs with ruthless inefficiency.

I never doubted that he loved Tasmania, had its best interests at heart according to his lights, but as a working man he was blinkered by a limited eduaction combined with invincible convictions. Like many petty despots he was flawed by the erroneous belief that might made right, a bulling temperament, and limited capability for high office. For a handful of jobs he was willing to push through the construction of chlorine-compound based paper mill that would spew toxins into Bass Strait where traditionally our fishermen have harvested some of the world's finest prisitne seafood. The beautiful, idyllic Tamar Valley hosts many vineyards, olive groves, strawberry farms, organic food producers, oyser farms, waterfront homes and marinas. It is into this bucolic valley that the largest mill in the Southern hemisphere is to go. With his credo of jobs for forest workers he was dismissive of the dismay and growing resistance of the already existing businesses of the valley and their already many many employees.

Mr Lennon had a close personal connection to the board of the company that  intends to construct the mill. As Premier he pushed fast-track legislation through our State legislature which by-passed normal planning approval processes to grant approval to the mill just as the Planning Board was on the brink of rejecting the proposal. He threw millions of dollars in subsidies and in kind (cheap timber and water) at the project which he lauded as "world's best practice" though it patently wasn't (not chlorine free, not closed-loop).

But worst of all he enshrined in legislation the inability of citizens to so much as question in the coursts the basis of the government's legislated approval of the mill. Mr Lennon created a law that made recourse to law illegal. This deeply offended a great many in the population who saw their democratic rights abnegated out of perceived cronyism. Not a unique story. It plays repeatedly in third world countries. We never thought to see the like here. Paul Lennon, elected to represent the whole State, not just sectional interests, was the prime mover at the time and is unrepentant still today in retirement.

Is it karma or irony, but the forest industry he battled so hard to favour is now on its knees. The world's first Green Party was born in Tasmania and it has resisted old growth logging tooth and nail. The mill proponent's shares are now worth a fraction of their value just a year ago. Yes, the bottom has fallen out of wood-chip prices but i suspect the main reason, the one they can't admit to themselves, is their own mis-management of our forest resources and of the mill project.

The company has over the years bought out small saw mills that harvest timber for furniture and housing construction. Once bought out they were promptly closed down. The result was a monolithic near-monopoly that plundered the forests unhindered by competitors, abetted by government, and opposed only by peacefully protesting citizens. Even these they promptly sued for damages in order to silence their opposition. But the company, like their mono-culture plantations, is precariously positioned despite its size. Mono-cultures are not resilient. They are one trick ponies. The raze-old-growth-for-chips-and-chlorine-bleached-pulp trick had run its course. Repeated prognostications and warnings fell on deaf ears. Mr Lennon thought he knew better than to listen to a bunch university educated effetes who could never understand the working man the way he could. So now the forest contractors and timber workers are facing the heart-ache of financial ruin and unemployment - the complete reverse of what Paul Lennon had intended.

OK, back to the painting - Last night I dreamt of Paul Lennon - my personal artistic reponse the circumstances decribed above. This was a follow-on painting from the one shown at the top, Our Premier, my first departure from realism into something of a caricature and an excuse for me explore expressive use of color in portrait painting (though PL's nick-name was 'Big Red'). I wondered how I could make the polemic image above more emotive and thought i would trial some action painting as a means to an end. And so while the paint was still wet i attacked Last Night to vent my frustration over what had become of orderly governance and due process in my beautiful State. I wanted to create an image that would reflect the disorder and disharmony i felt this individual had visited onto our community.

Last night I dreamt of Paul Lennon, acrylic on paper, 50 x 70 cm

So there we have it. A retrospective of two of my earliest attempts at non-realist portrait painting, from 2007. Just for the historical record.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Ménière's I, oil on paper, 30 x 40 cm

This is my first attempt at a monoprint. I roughed out the form in oils on glass and then, using a roller, impressed the image onto a sheet of Canson Oil Sketch A3 290 gsm paper.

I've decided to paint what i know, and what i know right now is Ménière's . So i'm going to seek ways to express what that feels like, how that alters my world, my perceptions, my sense of who i am.

To do that i need to induce visual frustration, a sense of nausea, a clouding of perception. And to do that, i think i need to find ways to loosen up my work, to step back further still from photorealism.

I figure the royal road to doing this is by taking away my control. Such as methods that use gallons of paint flowing everywhere, or ridiculously long brush handles (like a broom-stick), or oversize brushes for the size of the support, or media that don't mix (oil and acrylic paint at the same time). And in this instance, smudging monoprint from a fairly free doodle painted onto glass and then lifted off onto paper.

Is it worth doing? I don't know yet. At least it's fast and coincides with my world being a bit wonky. And gets me out to the studio.

UPDATE:   Here is my second attempt:

Ménière's II, oil on paper, 30 x 40 cm

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Big Brother

Big Brother, acrylic on board, 60 x 90 cm

The fourth of my 'emotionally recollected family' series - my other brother, the eldest.

He will tell you that he never gets lost, always knows where is, even when he has driven his van up a dead-end street. He knows everything and you know nothing worth knowing. He pulls things apart to 'fix' them but they never seem to work the same again, though my boyhood memories picture him building boats with immaculately finished hulls and tuning his piano accordion.

He is devoted to his mum. He never married. He used the time to devise small businesses that never made much money but consumed endless hours of dedication and energy.

He will lean back at the table, hands behind his head, gut thrust into the room, and hold forth for hours on any subject. His endless tales of his exploits invariably end with yet another proof of his almost mystical powers, convinced he is an expert at bending others to his cunningly laid plans and worldly savvy. 

But I sit across the table and see someone open to exploitation through naivety.

He needs protecting. How do you protect a rhino in your parlor?

Without getting trampled?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Owl of Minerva Only Flies At Dusk

RK & Juno, pen and watercolour on paper, 30 x 40 cm

I'm afraid i haven't been painting much recently. I haven't even come to my blog. Which makes me feel bad because then i neglect my bloggy friends and miss out on all their fantastic work. My excuse is that i have Ménière's and lately the world has been spinning a bit too much for me to focus.

But i did manage this small painting of Rachel today for Julia Kay's Portrait Party. You can see Rachel's amazing portraits on her blog here. I so very much admire her brush work and her profound understanding of form and light. And did i mention her exciting use of colour? She combines boldness and invention with nuance and control. Her portraits are simultaneously strong yet sensitive. So this is my vision of the noble Rachel and her inspirational helper, Juno. (For some reason i had this image of Athena with her owl in my head, maybe because Hegel once wrote that the owl of Minerva only flies at dusk and i have a bit too much dusk lately).

So sorry everyone if you've felt neglected of late. You are all in my thoughts :-D.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Brother, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

A third work in my Family series.

Done after a considerable break from portrait painting due to inter-state travel, a touch of health challenges, and wresting with a large landscape. It's hard to get back into the groove.

My older brother, long dead, was a vulnerable human being, a childhood survivor of the bombing of Dresden and a failed marriage that took his son from him. He needed so much love but never found enough. He was the James Dean of my family.

He will always haunt me.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Zefrank Scribbler

What A Tangled Web We Weave

This morning while checking out the latest contributions to Julia Kay's Portrait Party on Flickr, i came across the wonderful work of Maureen Nathan. Among her drawings was a one entitled self from memory.

At first i thought it had started life as a doodle but closer inspection revealed it was done with a computer program called The Scribbler by You probably already know it but it was the first i had ever heard of it.

It is a web-based drawing program where you do some free drawing with your mouse cursor and then, when you are ready, the program re-draws what you have done with those evocative web-like structures.

Needless to say i then also tried a self-portrait from memory, the results of which you see above.

You can have a go on Scribbler for yourself here. Have fun.

And by way of appreciation, i used Scribbler to draw a portrait of Maureen for JKPP from this photo.

This was the result.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Father, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Masque Goes On

The masque goes on, oil and crepe bandage on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

Are we really happy
With this lonely game we play
Looking for the right words to say?
But not finding understanding anyway
We're lost in a masquerade

We try to talk it over
But the words get in the way
We're lost inside
This lonely game we play.

No matter how hard we try
To understand the reasons why
We carry on this way
We're lost in this masquerade.
adapted from This Masquerade, Lyrics by George Benson, cover made famous by the Carpenters  (hear it on Youtube here).
I wanted to explore a bit further the use of crepe bandage in my art practice. I liked both its symbolic associations and the sculptural qualities of its surface.

And so, I  created this 3D piece. The nose and mouth are an impression taken from a plaster caste of my face. The impression was made by smearing the plaster with petroleum jelly (as a releasing agent) and then impregnating some crepe bandage with acrylic polymer gloss and pushing it into place to dry.
I wished to play with flat plane of the canvas. I was hoping for a tension of realities - through which channels do we get our information about a person? Which provides more readable information, the flat and barely suggested eyes, or the textured and fully-formed yet dark mouth? Do all the impressions we have of a person even sit together?
And how much of what we see of another person is mask, persona, social face? What lies beneath? Who is peeking out through the mask?

Society is a dance and we all come in costume, each wearing our masks. I was always struck by the line in T.S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, that we "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet".

The masks are not there simply there to conceal, but also to reveal. Or rather, to manage. Through our Persona we manage the impression we make on others. Our masks are a translator that conveys our inside world to the outside world in a way the outside world can receive and understand and embrace.

But one's social mask can also become a prison, locking us into a way of behaving and being that feels alien or that daily bruises the personhood within. The Man In The Iron Mask.

Though perhaps the worst fate of all is to identify totally with one's own mask, to believe there is no other mental reality, inner life or personal identity than our social face.

Or is that just a Western myth?

Enough musings for today. Below is a second photo of The masque goes on, but lit from right side.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Jigsaw Man

Jigsaw man, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

"... he began to feel as if he had as much effect on the final outcome of the operation as a single piece of a jumbo jigsaw puzzle has to its predetermined final design. Only the addition of the missing fragments of the puzzle would reveal if the picture was as he guessed it would be.              Stanley Kubrick

puz·zle (pzl)
v. puz·zled, puz·zling, puz·zles
1. To baffle or confuse mentally by presenting or being a difficult problem or matter.
2. To clarify or solve (something confusing) by reasoning or study.

1. To be perplexed.
2. To ponder over a problem in an effort to solve or understand it.

1. Something, such as a game, toy, or problem, that requires ingenuity and often persistence in solving or assembling.
2. Something that baffles or confuses.
3. The condition of being perplexed; bewilderment.
                                                              The Free Dictionary

Birchall's Tertiary Art Prize

Last night I attended the opening of the Birchall's Teriary Art Prize Exhibition at the University of Tasmania's NEW Gallery.

I was delighted to have been selected as one of the 23 finalists from the field of 43 artists who had entered works. This being the first time I have ever first participated in an art prize competition it was exciting just to see my name neatly lettered on a gallery wall!

The judges were West Tasmanian coast artist and gallery owner Raymond Arnold, a previous Glover Prize winner, and Bala Starr, senior curator of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne.

The winner was Hirad Yousefpour (congrads, Hirad) whose entry was Knock Me Not (hung to the left of the door in the photo above). His painting features the surreal image of a door-knocker over a cloud, a work questioning access to personal memories. On the right of the door is my entry, When your outside's in and your inside's out.

Big thanks to Birchalls of Launceston for sponsoring this acquisitive art prize worth $2,500. It sure is encouraging to struggling art students and is a great occasion for meeting fellow artists.

(Not to mention my catching up with the Professor of the Art Faculty, Noel Frankham, once himself a student of mine some decades ago! Doesn't life have its twists and turns!).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The 'Fairsea' docks at Fremantle

Landfall, automotive enamel and oil on hardboard, 90 x 60 cm
(click on image to enlarge)

This painting is from a very small black and white photo taken of my family upon our arrival in Australia as émigrés from war-torn Europe. Our ship, the Fairsea (link here), had just docked briefly in Fremantle on its passage to Melbourne, our destination. But we got off the boat just so our feet could be on Australian soil and we could be sure the dream was real. 

I didn't know much about Australia other than that it had poisonous snakes and you could fry eggs on rocks in the desert sun. And that it had never known war. No more scrambling through the rubble of bombed-out buildings searching for few pfennig of scrap metal, for me.

To my right sit my mother and father. To my left, my brother. All are dead now.

I sit in my blue corduroy bib-trousers, my best and favourite piece of clothing. I could still wear them at the Bonegilla Migrant Camp (here and here) but at Glenroy Primary School i learnt that often one has to discard what one loves, and hide what one is, in order to fit in.

Thank you Ritaflo for your nostalgic portrait of me (link) in my beloved bib trousers, school satchel on my back.

I have made the figures small because i felt very small. I have located the group on a featureless black surround because I had arrived in Terra Incognita (link). I have, ever since, struggled to get my bearings.

This is still a self-portrait. But it also marks the beginning of some family portraits i have commenced based on family snaps (photos) from my formative years.

I want to paint the recollected family rather than the physical family, the echoes of emotion rather than naturalistic representation.

Stay tuned, gentle reader.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Thing of Rags and Patches

Thing of Rags, fabric, crepe bandages and oil on board, 60 x 70 cm

A wandering minstrel I —
A thing of shreds and patches ...
Through every passion ranging,
And to your humours changing
I tune my supple song!

from A Wandering Minstrel, I , Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado

“Après un certain âge tout homme est responsable do son visage.” Albert Camus in La Chute, aka The Fall

"At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves".   George Orwell's final entry in his notebooks.

My journey into expressive mark-making in portrait painting has led me to search for heavier texture. I was seeking for a low-cost solution that would bulk the surface into a decided relief, and in itself add underlying texture. I wanted a creative process that was essentially constructivist, building up an image of my face rather as i have been constructed over decades through the agency of social learning and personal experience.

I found a satisfying symbolism in using bandages to form the substructure of my self-portrait. They brought to mind the Invisible Man made visible, Frankenstein's creature taped and tacked together, the Mummy risen from its sarcophagus, trailing the emblems of its internment.

view of the thickness of paint compared to 4mm thick board

In a sense, each of us is a creation. First we are created physically by our parents. And then socially by our families, schools and friends.

And ultimately, we create our own selves through our life choices. Over the decades, within the limits of our genes, we craft our bodies and our character.

Camus and George Orwell would have us believe we thereby craft our own faces after decades of self-expression.

This is what it feels like to have mine.

close-up (detail) of A Thing of Rags

Friday, July 30, 2010

a private moment

Harry Kent, Private Moment, charcoal and oil on board, 56 x 72 cm

this is the third and last of my three charcoal-and-oil self-portraits for the time being.

i will now endeavour to head out in fresh directions.

firstly, new media ... i will try and create some self-portraits incorporating fabrics for texture, color, and pattern ... i will experiment with new kinds of paint, such as automotive enamels combined with traditional oils.

secondly, in developing my theme of aging, i will extend my focus beyond self-portraits. Still wishing to get in touch with feelings partially hidden from myself, i will attempt some portraits of family members, especially those invoking memories or reworking memories. I will use old family photos to revive buried memories. Needless to say, some of this will be painful for me.

But i believe the more it hurts, the more i will know i am in the 'zone'. The more intensely personal, sublimated into sound painting, the more universal its significance will be. Hopefully. The level of my success in that endeavour will be for my fellow bloggers to decide.

This painting, A Private Moment, is a precursor to that process.

My over-arching aim is to keep pressing forwards in my creative practice to discover mark-making methods that are both expressive and that feel native to me - my discover own unique style.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Howl with Alan Ginsberg

Howl, a self-portrait in charcoal and oil on board, 56 x 74 cm

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked ... 
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open
their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!
Children screaming under the stairways!
Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the
loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the
crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of
sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment!
Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose
blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers
are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo!
Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!
Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long
streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories
dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose
smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch
whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch
whose poverty is the specter of genius!
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream

from Howl, by Alan Ginsberg

listen to Alan Ginsberg read this section (Part II) of Howl on Youtube here

Howl and Other Poems (City Lights Pocket Poets Series)

This self-portrait is a refinement of the technique i developed and described here.

Still on the theme of aging, this self-portrait is a generational piece. It does not carry the same intimately personal charge as the self-portrait Regrets. Instead it concerns itself with the social visions and convictions of a generation.

This was the 'beat' generation of the 1950's. It was the generation before mine but their lifestyle and voices were to sound loud and clear through the 1960's and on into the '70s. The Ginsberg poem voices all the excesses, optimism, despair, restlessness and fervor of youth. It contains the protest voice of youth which was to reach a crescendo in the 1960's.

Youth and old age actually have a surprising amount in common. Both are not deeply immersed in careers and therefore deeply attached to the socio-political and economic order of the day. Both are relatively free to raise a critical voice which those raising families and paying mortgages are not as mentally free to do.

I believe the elderly, because they have seen so much, have a particularly important social role to play as reviewers and commentators.

Once again, the young and the old are called to be the prophets of our age.

This self-portrait aims to express a howl of pain at the state of global industrial civilisation, and a prophetic howl by once again invoking Ginsberg's rage against the corporate machinery, the urban madhouse, the planetary plunder that has marked this generation and has marred this generation.

For Blake's dark satanic mills are still pumping the fetid effluvia of a long dead geological age off the coast of Florida to give an angry fix to a world hooked on octane, pelicans drowning in our black decay while we ineffectually jog off our obesity in trendy trainers from the sweat-shops of Asia.

And thanks, Elizabeth Anderson, for your comment below which put me in mind of Peter Finch's stirring prophetic outburst of outrage in the movie Network.

"I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!'

You can watch Peter Finch's stunning performance on Youtube here.

but the last voice here today belongs to Alan Ginsberg, so if you want another taste, read on:

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments!
invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries!
blind capitals! demonic industries!
spectral nations! invincible mad houses!
granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!
Pavements, trees, radios, tons!
lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!
gone down the American river!

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Regrets, oil on board, 90 x 60 cm

There is no flock, however watched and tended,
But one dead lamb is there!
There is no fireside, howsoe'er defended,
But has one vacant chair!

The air is full of farewells to the dying,
And mournings for the dead;
The heart of Rachel, for her children crying,
Will not be comforted!

from Resignation , Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It's not for laws I've broken
That bitter tears I've wept,
But solemn vows I've spoken
And promises unkept;
It's not for sins committed
My heart is full of rue,
but gentle acts omitted,
Kind deeds I did not do.

from Regrets, Robert William Service

Back to the serious business of expressive self-portraits.
With each one i focus on an emotion as i work, especially emotions i believe common in the adult world. More common with advancing age, yet seldom depicted in self-portraiture or even spoken of in the slick dream that has become our public media.
Today, yes, regrets i've got a few. Robert Frost had miles to go before he slept and still had promises to keep when he wrote his evocative little poem.
The elderly have very few miles left to go, and carry the burden of promises not kept.

Friday, July 16, 2010

collaborative abstract painting

back from my semester break, i turned up yesterday for the first critique session of the Post-graduate Painters Group at the Academy of Arts.

while i was waiting for the session to start my eyes toyed with the random patination of marks on one of the work tables. These had been incidentally built by students over the years as they spilled bits of paint, or over-painted the edges of their work, or scored the surface with a cut-off knife.

not having any work of mine own to blog, i thought i would photograph these marks by arranging them into abstract compositions in my camera view-finder. The results you have seen above.

are these 'Art'?
because i arranged them into a composition in a viewfinder?
does this make them 'photographic art', not 'painting art'?
does the lack of compositional intention on the part of those who made the marks matter?
doesn't a lot of contemporary art use randomness and serendipity, so how are these different?
can they legitimately be called collaborative art since there was no conscious collaboration between artists?
so what should we call these images?

the work-table in question is in the far corner of the Painting Studio (above). I've thrown in a couple of additional images of the Academy world i inhabit to help set the scene.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Brett Whiteley - in memory of

Brett Whiteley self-portrait, Remembering Lao Tse (Shaving off a Second), 1967
[image link from]

A few blogs back, a reference to Australian artist Brett Whitely came up, and since my Visitors Counter (no, my goons don't know where you live, just what flag you fly) now tells me I've had visitors from 125 countries, i thought i would introduce Brett to those in the wider world who might be unfamiliar with his work.

in Australia  Bret Whitely is a legend, a national treasure, an icon, an artist as well known as a football star.

There are plenty of biographies of Brett on the web, so i won't attempt one, other than give a few incredibly brief impressions of the man and his art.

Impression 1:
The ultimate self-portrait - a  painting of made oils, gold leafcollage, rock, perspex, electricity, pencil, PVA, varnish, brain, earth, twig, taxidermied bird, nest, egg, feathers, cicada, bone, dentures, rubber and metal sink plug, pins, shell and glass eye on eighteen wood panels, 2 x 16 meters!; not signed, not dated. It is a spiritual autobiography housed in the wonderful Art Gallery of NSW.

Brett Whiteley Alchemy, mixed media on 18 wood panels, 203 × 1615 cm, 1973
photo by Kitty Cate,

You can see very detailed close-ups of the work here and here.

Impression 2:
An Archibald Prize-winning (the Aussie Oscar for portrait painting) self portrait depicting the interior of his Sydney apartment (his face is in the hand-held mirror).

Brett Whiteley, Self portrait in the studio, 1975.
[image link from]

The Gallery of NSW, for the exhibition Whiteley himself and his friends 2004, described him as:
"Twice winner of the Archibald Prize, Whiteley is one of Australia's best-known and popular artists. He was a charismatic and energetic individual who gained early success and international acclaim during the heady 1960s and 70s. From a very early age he was fascinated by the romantic vision of the artist as hero - or anti-hero - and enthusiastically pursued his passions in both his art and life-style. When he painted himself or other artists he was relentless in his insightful psychological investigations of his subjects. Artists he admired included Vincent Van Gogh and Francis Bacon. Their faces fascinated him, as did their work, and he created many portraits of these two extraordinary individuals".

Impression 3:
A sometimes marine artist ... in love with Ultramarine,  celebrating the view from his balcony over Sydney harbour.

oil on canvas, 203 x 365 cm, 1975

It was hanging beside a wonderful John Olsen, Five Bells (oil on hardboard, 1963) on the day i visited, which i thought most apt for the two were good friends. My thanks to the Gallery of NSW who gave me permission to take these photos of Brett's The Balcony.

Brett Whiteley The balcony 2 hanging beside John Olsen's Five Bells
in the Gallery of NSW.

Below are some details i photographed from close up.

Detailed views from Brett Whiteley's The balcony 2.

Also on the harbour is the famous Sydney Opera House which he started to paint in 1971 while it was still being built. He had just returned from New York and was now living at Lavender Bay from where the Opera House was very visible.

Brett Whiteley, Opera House, 1982, oil and mixed media on canvas, 203x244cm
[image link from]

It was first exhbited in 1972, but in 1982, after some finishing touches, Brett gave it to Qantas (the airline) in exchange for free air travel. They decorated their club lounge at Sydney airport with it for amost 20 years before selling it off at auction.

Although the proceeds went towards establishing the Qantas Foundation Art Award, aimed to encourage emerging Australian artists, this corporate trading of creative soul bring some lines from Bob Dylan's (with whom Brett hung out while in NY) All Along The Watchtower to mind:
"Businessmen they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them know along the line
What any of this is worth".

See Brett's view from his Lavender Bay window in this clip (trying to ignore the fatuous tone of the narrator)

Impression 4:
Animal lover.

Well, he did say,
"Art should astonish, transmute, transfix. One must work at the tissue between truth and paranoia".

Brett Whiteley, Baboon, mixed media on panel, 90 x 77 cm, 1978
[image from ]

Actually, this painting is part the self-portrait triptych entitled Art, Life and the Other Thing which won the Archibald Prize in 1978. explains the significance of this work:
"In the lower left panel is a baboon that represents the addicted self of the artist or the "monkey on the back". The baboon is handcuffed and pinned to the ground with nails. It has its mouth open, screaming, while a hand in the top left corner of the panel offers him a syringe of heroin".

Despite his struggle with his drug addiction, Brett was to eventually die from it in 1992.

Though as Barry Pearce explains,
"Brett Whiteley is Australia's most sublime painter of birds. They have appeared, often larger than life, in many of his most important paintings. To him, birds are the essential symbol of the song of creation… It is not too fanciful to think of Whiteley’s bird paintings as self portraits"

Brett Whiteley, Untitled (Bird), oil on board with mixed media, 82 x 86 cm, 1978
[image linked from]

Impression 5:
Portrait artist.

Brett Whiteley, Head of Christie, oil on board, 70cm x 61 cm, 1964
[image link from]
In this instance, of the British necrophile murderer, John Christie.

"Whiteley was an avid researcher for detail and the Christie Series in particular signify a fascination with the macabre. John Christie was a serial killer who lured woman to his home only to gas them to death and then rape the corpse. Whiteley spent many hours researching newspapers and case files to then create the series of photographs, screen prints and large mixed media paintings".  (Saville Galleries)

Impression 6:
Sometimes landscape artist in love Australian natural forms

Anything resembling the natural Australian female form, actually.

Brett Whiteley, The Olgas for Ernest Giles,
oil and mixed media on board,  210 x 240 cm, 1985.
[image link from]

This painting was inspired by Brett's trip to central Australia in the early 1980's and was painted in  tribute to the 19th century explorer to whom it is dedicated. It has been described as "all tits and bums", and yes, it does remind one of Brett's earlier nudes. Having been to the Olgas myself, I can attest to their rounded sensual forms, though walking among them gave me a distinctly eerie and numinous feeling, nothing like the rollicking love-buds celebrated here.

The Olgas sold in 2007 for AU$3,408,000.

UPDATE 6-1-12:
My interest in Brett Whiteley has surged again to the point that i have embarked on a series of works starting with contemplations in ink and leading via lino cuts to a large works in oil.

Harry Kent,
Brett Whiteley contemplates old age.

Harry Kent,
Brett Whiteley in Ultramarine

Viewers can jump to the start of the series HERE .