Monday, January 30, 2012

Brett Whiteley listens to Rimbaud


Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley listens to Rimbaud,
charcoal on paper, 59x42cm

Brett Whiteley found Arthur Rimbaud's poetry intensely meaningful. It spoke to him of his own inner turmoil. I suspect it gave voice to his anguish over addiction.

"I am weary, I die. This is the grave and I'm turning into worms, horror of horrors! Satan, you clown, you want to dissolve me with your charms. Well, I want it. I want it! Stab me with a pitchfork, sprinkle me with fire.

Ah! To return to life! To stare at our deformities. And this poison, this eternally accursed embrace! My weakness, and the world's cruelty! My God, have pity, hide me, I can't control myself at all! - I am hidden, and I am not."
[Arthur Rimbaud, 'Night in Hell' from A Season in Hell. Read it HERE] 

He would listen Steve Kilbey's recitation of A Season In Hell as he worked.

You too can listen to Steve Kilbey in this Youtube clip.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Brett Whiteley blue


Harry Kent, Whiteley blue,
ink and pastel on paper, 59x42cm

I sometimes imagine BW as a larrikin schoolboy, clowning down the back of the class. I imagine his easy-going Aussie charm and winning ways hiding the Black Dog of depression from view.

I picture him in my mind's eye painting with exuberant flair, music up full bore, alcohol subduing the intimidation of a blank canvas.

I see him lost in a reverie of charcoal and paint, sailing close to Nirvana. There was Zen in the making of a mark. And i picture him seek for meaning in the traces his charcoal made, pondering from whence the sublime curves came. He felt a carrier of metaphysical messages, a shaman seer.

Yet i'm also left feeling that he could never quite be a believer.

Instead, a permanent seeker. Seeking a way in. A way out.

I'm not a biographer. I am a visual artist. I am not reviewing the life of Brett Whiteley. I am merely responding to his art and to what i've seen and read and heard about him. It is this impression, my own personal impression (what other can i have?) that informs the images i make.

They are not intended to be great physical likenesses. Nor accurate depictions of the personality his acquaintances and those close to him once knew (indeed, this work is as much inspired by German Expressionist woodcuts).

Rather, the images in this series are the creative products of my understanding (flawed as it might be) and of my creative imagination (limited as it might be). This is art, not biography, history or documentary. They are mine own art.

While this is my own personal Brett Whiteley, my hope is that the works in this series will also touch something in those kind enough to give them a viewing.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brett Whiteley contemplates old age


Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley contemplates old age,
pen on paper, 27x23cm

In his 40's Brett Whiteley was nicked-named Peter Pan.

He seemed to have the spirit of eternal youth. He had the playfulness of a pickled boy.

At 44 he felt that although his body was aging he still had the same spirit as when he was 14.

When he looked in a mirror he could see a body aging. He could trace the slow ravages of death.

In his early 50's he died.

He never knew old age. Just the dread.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Brett Whiteley fades away


Brett Whiteley, Brett Whiteley fades away,
charcoal on paper, 59x42cm

"there is something unsettling in the way the BWS [Brett Whiteley Studio] is part gallery and part shrine to the memory of man who was once vital, and then faded away."
[blog this art life]

This quote comes from an article on the blog this art life. There is no name attached to the article and the blog has numerous authors, so regrettably i cannot acknowledge the authorship.

The article has an unfortunate smug tone about it. It's not just the use of the royal plural throughout. It's mostly the attempt to gain some critical vantage over BW's work by constructing it as disappointingly dated 1960's hippy effluvia.

Of The American Dream, "we began to feel freaked out, the way people in the 1960s used to get “freaked out”. It was a bad trip, man."

Of Alchemy, "we cannot, however, escape the thought that the work is also horribly dated. Anyone who is sentimental for the mythic past of the 1960s should take a look at this picture to be reminded of the reality – although it was painted in the early 1970s, its hippy concepts are so overwhelming it’s hard to take it seriously."

Negative, even catty, yes. But the writer(s) also seemed to be a person(s) of sensitivity to line and to painted surface. While their tastes and evaluations were not mine they conveyed a clarity of perception, a consistency of perspective, and a sensitivity to atmosphere enough to make me look and think again about Whiteley's work. Certainly enough to make me ponder again about my own response to the Brett Whiteley Studio which I had visited a decade or so ago.

Brett’s studio and home are located in a building that formerly housed a T-shirt factory in Raper Street, Surry Hills, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. He bought it in 1985 and converted it into a studio and exhibition space. He lived in the factory from 1988 until his death in 1992.

Brett Whiteley Studio
by Jac Bowie 2006
Brett Whiteley Studio
by Jac Bowie 2006
These pics (taken by Jac Bowie), are much as i remember the Studio from my own visit.

So did i feel, like this author, that "What had troubled us was the deep and inescapable sense of sadness you feel inside the studio. Perhaps it was the ignominious junkie’s death, maybe it was the work that was in a serious state of decline in the last decade of his life."?

I certainly understand what the author meant. Yes, i had the sense that i was walking through the shipwreck of a once proud galleon, now beached, with the tide gone out on its exposed ribs. Yes, i felt sadness hang in the air like stale incense. But that is not all i felt.

For i also witnessed a drawing group in action there. Artists and aspiring artists were gathering around the remains to see if enough energy still wafted through the rooms to energise them too. Or perhaps it was they who were bringing their energy to lay on Brett's shrine.

No, this was not a hippy enclave. It was not the 1970's pickled in a jar. It was a living enterprise. It contained aspiration and inspiration as much as it contained nostalgia and reverence.

a drawing class at the Brett Whiteley Studio
[image link to]

Our author concludes, "Eventually the sadness was too much to take and we vowed we would never again visit the Brett Whiteley Studio."

But this is not my conclusion. I will return soon, just to unpick the embroidery of my constructions of Brett Whiteley, man and myth, artist and icon.

Meanwhile, i will press on with this series. A few more drawings searching for ideas (but i probably won't post any more of them) and then i'll start on the oil paintings. It may be some time before i post one of those.

So a holiday for some weeks, gentle readers, from Brett Whiteley.

Or rather, Harry Kent's scratchings and  scribblings about an enigmatic artist who serves as a window into the enigmatic processes of the creative artist.


Brett Whiteley's inisistent madness


Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's insistent madness,
charcoal and Conte on paper, 52x42cm

"One of the hardest things is to discipline oneself to keep looking until one sees to a point of almost insistent madness, to concentrate on one vision until it discloses its third and fourth veil, to keep seeing past what you have just seen requires feeling and ambition, the more open, the more unexpected and extraordinary the intervention ..."
[Brett Whiteley, from Catalogue of 1976 Exhibition, Australian Galleries, Melbourne]

Here i have portrayed BW with his red hair (he had curly red in life) acting as a kind a burning that both reveals and obscures his vision. I wanted a whiff of Promethean fire. I wanted a suggestion of dangerous craziness.

As Coleridge, the English poet, writes in 'Kubla Khan',
"Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise."


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Brett Whiteley Shipwrecked

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley Shipwrecked,
ink on paper, 59x42cm

"I notice a lot of gifted people shipwreck ... the whole notion of having a gift – there is this requirement in it to test it, to ride close to the edge. It seems part and parcel of the very notion of a gift to – to – to rebel against it. And to see whether it is really real. Because it can be very easily dissipated or damaged. Or, ultimately, destroyed. And I’ve had an immense problem with it. Because I don’t really want to spend a lot of time discussing the notion of the disease of addiction, but all my heroes have been addicts and I am an addict, and for the rest of my life, I will struggle against the embracing of the mysterious self-destructive self-murder, the urge to deny, defy, wreck, ruin, challenge, one’s gift." 

[Brett Whiteley from transcript of 1989 video clip Difficult Pleasure: A Portrait of Brett Whiteley ... listen to Brett talk about his gift @ Australian Screen  HERE]

I tried to delve a little deeper to let this image float into consciousness, to move further away from naturalistic likenesses into suggestive, ambiguous imagery:

... the drowned sailor washed ashore with his hair matted in the strand kelp,

...  Ozymandias' head half buried in the desert sands: 
"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." [Shelley]

A favourite piece of music he would listen to in his studio, as he painted on the way to shipwreck, was Tom Waits's Shiver Me Timbers .
I'm leavin' my fam'ly
Leavin' all my friends
My body's at home
But my heart's in the wind
Where the clouds are like headlines
On a new front page sky
My tears are salt water
And the moon's full and high.

You can listen to it here on this Youtube clip.

Brett Whiteley Shipwrecked (detail)


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Harry Kent in Kosmos Journal


Harry Kent, Fukushima Ghosts, 2010 

I have just received my complimentary copy of the current Fall/Winter edition of Kosmos Journal (here) which features my painting Fukushima Ghosts I. (You can read about the painting here).

I was contacted last year by Nancy Roof, the editor, who had discovered my Fukushima Series in my Flickr account, Art Informel (here), requesting permission to publish.

Kosmos is a bi-annual journal  associated with the United Nations. It works for global peace and understanding, so I was glad to agree and to waver royalty payment.

Fukushima Ghosts I in Kosmos Fall/Winter 2011 p.69
My work is featured prominently on page 69 of this 82 page edition to illustrate the article 'An Inquiry: Politics and Consciousness' by Mark Gerzon which touches on the issue of the politics of the nuclear energy industry in Japan.

Great to see my work acknowledged as a meaningful voice on contemporary issues.


Brett Whiteley in the storm


Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley in the storm,
ink and chalk on paper, 59x42cm

"The calling forth, the mustering or stealing, or simply the deciphering of supernatural powers, ends only in a crumbling of pride, embarrassment, and intense confusion. Despair, despair - shocking despair"
[a Brett Whiteley diary entry while working on his painting Alchemy]

My Byronic vision of BW.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Brett Whiteley's Crown of Thorns


Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's Crown of Thorns, ink on paper, 59x42 cm

"One way of reading the meaning of a painting is as medical charts that show what the infliction of life felt like - the temperature of pain, the colour of ambition, the texture of pleasure ... The promise of death is that I won't care or know or think or feel anything, so what happens to my work is completely meaningless."
[Brett Whiteley in an interview with Rudi Krausmann for Aspect, summer issue 1975-76].

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Brett Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House


Harry Kent, Brett at the Opera House, ink on paper, 26x34cm

This drawing is another ink sketch in the series (here) commenced in the new year. These are all prelimnary exploratory sketches for an intended series of oil paintings about/around Brett Whiteley.

Brett Whiteley started to paint the Sydney Opera House 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 clearly visible. 

Brett Whiteley, Opera House, 1982,
oil and mixed media on canvas, 203x244cm
[image link from]
The painting was first exhibited in 1972, but in 1982, after some additional touches, BW gave it to Qantas (the Oz airline) in exchange for free air travel. They decorated their club lounge at Sydney airport with it for almost 20 years before selling it off at auction.

While some see this image as a menacing mass of shark fins, i see it as an exuberant, optimistic, flamboyant, crazy work of celebration. It makes one as happy as seeing the Opera House sparkle on a sunny Sydney day. Yet in so many of the photos of Brett Whiteley he looks serious, troubled, depressed, while his writings are peppered with commentaries on existential despair. So i wanted to bring the two together to celebrate that mysterious relationship which exists between an artist and his or her work. In our understanding, the two often inform each other.

Yet ultimately, the art can't be explained away by knowing the man, nor the man analysed away by knowing his art (Freud's musings on Leonardo border on being silly). Knowing BW had a heroin addiction or a psychotic episode helps get an angle on a few of his works but it hardly explains his talent as an artist.

You can see BW at work and hear him talk about portrait painting in this clip:

In essence, i am using photos of him and his journals and biographical information to construct my own 'Brett'. To those who knew him well, my construction may be way off the mark.

Which is all beside the point.

For me, the notion of Brett represents something about Australia, about painting, about artists, about critics, about life, love, suffering and celebration, and the questing of the human spirit.

My 'Brett' is a symbol, an icon, a talisman. And in this series i am working out for myself just what that talisman means ... with an audience looking on.


Friday, January 6, 2012

Brett Whiteley contemplated in ink


Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley 7, ink on paper, 59 x 42 cm

I have started work on a series of paintings and drawings exploring my personal response to that great Australian artist, Brett Whiteley.

In July 2010 I posted a blog in memory of Brett Whiteley. Now that I had had visitors to this blog from 121 countries i thought that this was an excellent opportunity to introduce the amazing Brett to bloggers around the world who may not have heard of him.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley 1, ink on paper, 59 x 42 cm

I've commenced my excursion into Brett Whiteley using ink and paper. These are preliminary drawings to get me thinking visually about Brett prior to commencing a series of oil paintings. For paper i am using a cheap 110gsm acid free cartridge paper. If these sketches start to show any promise, i may switch to rice paper, Arches or Fabriano. For now, i feel i have total liberty and feel dubious about even showing these early explorations in this blog. But hey, we are all visual artists and like to see work in progress.

Harry Kent, Brett at the Opera House, ink on paper, 59x42cm
go to here

Why ink? It was a medium he used often. Brett described pen and ink as,
"The great unalterable
like sensitive harmonicas
that die of a broken heart
pens love the test of violation".

Yes, the great unalterable. I love that ink is permanent. There is no fiddling. It's a 'one-chance' sort of mark-making. It is like a sword thrust - either a palpable hit or a miss.
As a Zen saying has it,
"When you walk, walk.
When you sit, sit.
Above all, don't wobble".

I love that there is no pre-drawing with a pencil. There is no safety net. ("Have you ever seen a pencil drawing that wasn't safe?", he once asked in a notebook). All my 'errors' are in plain sight. Yet the accumulation of errors can sometimes be so telling, somes so beautiful in their own way.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley opens up,
ink and charcoal on paper, 59x42 cm

These sketches were made using a reed pen that i made for myself from rushes growing by the Tamar River. I also used a goat hair Japanese calligraphy brush to help me get in touch with Brett. He so loved to work with Japanese brushes in the spirit of Zen.

But while i may use the media and something resembling his tools to get 'in the zone', I will not attempt to parrot his style. Brett could do Brett far better than i could ever hope to. All i can do is what i do.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley, Antipodean Explorer,
ink on paper, 59 x 42 cm

In the series i am now embarking upon i don't claim to produce portrait likenesses of Brett Whiteley. Does that matter? (See my discussion of portraiture and likeness here). These works will not be painted from life. They will, in part, be inspired by photos of the man. Does that matter? (See my discussion of portrait painting derived from photography here). These works aim to be expressive. They will be works of my imagination rather than likenesses. They represent what Brettness means to me, what it fires in my own imagination.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley blue,
ink and pastel on paper, 59x42cm

Initially they will be inspired by his art and by his writing. Ultimately, the images will derive solely from my imagination without reference to anything he has done or any image made of him.

They will be about his fate. They will be about suffering, and courage, and the triumph of creative genius over all that binds the human spirit.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's Crown of Thorns,
ink on paper, 59x42 cm.      go to here

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley in the storm,
ink and chalk on paper, 59x42cm. go to here

In essence, i am using photos of him and his journals and biographical information to construct my own 'Brett'. To those who knew him well, my construction may be way off the mark.

Which is all beside the point.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley Shipwrecked,
ink on paper, 59x42cm.        go to here

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley contemplates old age,
 pen on paper, 27x23cm.         go to here

See too my most recent Whiteley ink Apparitions,  like the one below, HERE.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's apparition #4, ink on paper,  56x76cm.

For me, the notion of Brett represents something about Australia, about painting, about artists, about critics, about life, love, suffering and celebration, and the questing of the human spirit.

My 'Brett' is a symbol, an icon, a talisman. And in this series i am working out for myself just what that talisman means ... with an audience looking on.

I've embedded a clip of BW at work and play for those who would like see him in action.