Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Brett Whiteley in Ultramarine


Harry Kent, Whiteley in Ultramarine
oil and acrylic on canvas, 76x102cm

Brett Whiteley loved Windsor & Newton Ultramarine.

In some of his most iconic paintings one drowns in a Sydney Harbours of blue, looking for splashes of white - a yacht, a bird, a palm - on which to cling so that, Alice-like, we aren't sucked down into some surreal world.

I finally feel ready to move onto oils after my charcoals and inks in search of a vision of Brett . So this image is based on my Brett Whiteley in lino block prints [here].

It is actually a large monoprint with some subsequent adjustments by brush and solvents..

Some days earlier i made a series of 16 monoprints in oil on A3 paper. They are intended to be viewed as a single work. I haven't been able to photograph and blog the set because of the danger of smudging the paint when handing 16 pieces at a time. And so i am posting this painting first although it follows on from them.

The bottom half of the background is actually Prussian Blue and i wanted the flame-haired Brett (following on from my Brett Whiteley sees red set below) to be be set against the darkness, both standing out against it and progressively being swallowed by it. Foremost in my mind was the tale of the passionate Aussie larrikin artist reduced to isolation and depression.

I crowded the head into bottom right corner, seeking a sense of 'being squeezed out the picture', of 'everything crowding in', of 'struggling to remain in the frame' of fame.

It is so hard to keep your flame burning when you are no longer flavour of the month.

close-up of print and brush marks
But this work is not chiefly about composition. It is very much about painterly mark-making and texture. In many ways, it is more a figurative abstract than a portrait. The the fresh primary colors and knobbly lavish paint-work is what  first strikes the viewer when presented with the actual work rather than a photo.

This effect is heightened by the size of the work. While not huge, nevertheless a height of over a metre gives it a decided presence.

Brett Whiteley sees red


Harry Kent, Whiteley sees red I
charcoal, ink and acrylic on Arches paper, 42x61cm

Brett once described his childhood as being filled with Napoleonic rage. (He liked everything in heroic proportions).

His sister Frannie, in her biography of Brett, writes of his childhood sense of abandonment when he was sent to boarding school and when the marriage of his parents failed and mum left home. And his grief over the loss of some close friends in death such as Joel Elenberg. And in his final years his sense of isolation, loneliness, and depression.

In his younger years he had been an obsessive hoarder (birds eggs, stamps, money, soft drink) and later, hoarding firewood made him feel secure. No one has said he was a kleptomaniac but he did used to pinch stuff. Frannie records the small skull artifact he stole from a Balinese grave despite the taboo attached. Blundell, in his unauthorised Whiteley, tells of the time Brett bestowed a massive collection of art books on a friend in London - all previously stolen from a library and hoarded.

I think all the above is symptomatic of Brett carrying a void within that longed to be filled. He hungered for love and belonging,  and sought an artist's fame and public approbation as the next best thing.

Harry Kent, Whiteley sees red II
charcoal, ink and acrylic on Arches paper, 42x61cm

When he met criticism or downright rejection of his work, he was cut adrift, disoriented, filled with despair ... filled with rage. Frannie records his sense of profound hurt when critics attacked him. She had seen him literally cry over harsh criticism. Instead of enjoying accolades after thirty-five years of hard work, in his final years he was bewildered as to why he should be dealt with so cruelly.

Harry Kent, Whiteley sees red III
charcoal, ink and acrylic on Arches paper, 42x61cm

His wife Wendy once said that while he was nice to live with, he could be vicious and switch from gentle to hard in a second.

He painted about rage. Rage against the dying of the light. The rage of the baboon with its paws nailed to addiction. Protective fury over his paintings if they were damaged or threatened. Fury at being told what to do by others.

Harry Kent, Whiteley sees red IV
charcoal, ink and acrylic on Arches paper, 42x61cm

And in his discourse there was fire.

Seems to me he spoke with passion and conviction, holding forth interminably as if to allow no silence in which doubt could creep in.

Frannie speaks of his his endless flow of wisdom, one-liners, put-downs and penetrating witticisms and idealistic tirades on everything from Communism, Australia's need to Asianize, war, pacifism, the Australian psyche, Bob Dylan, and always ...

... art.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Brett Whiteley listens to Bob Dylan

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley listens to Bob Dylan I,
ink on paper, linocut image 20x15 cm

Brett Whiteley described Bob Dylan as ''the most satisfactory voice in pop, I think. There's sort of mango and Courvoisier and the best sort of hissing and low gravel Jewishness on it.'' (here).
But Dylan's importance for Brett Whiteley went beyond a mere appreciation of the voice.

His sister, Frannie, records in her biography [see below, p. 126] of Brett that
"He found an intellectual and spiritual brother in this man, whom he eventually met almost thirty years later. Brett was obsessed with poet-musician Dylan ... He collected his albums and was intimate with every song as though they were speaking to him directly. He listened to Dylan almost daily for most of his life."

I believe that he discovered in the person of Dylan the kind of intuitive artist, gifted genius even, that he himself aspired to be ... a bringer of gifts from the gods. He saw in Dylan a kindred spirit writ large. In short, he idolized the man and the musician.

Brett Whiteley had himself always wanted the gift of music making. He had wanted to be a rock star. If he couldn't have the fame, notoriety and kudos that came with rock stardom, then he would live the life of a rocker as an artist.

Brett Whiteley played Dylan's music full bore as he painted. He hated silence. Couldn't work in silence. He even soundproofed his studio so that working in early hours would not attract complaints from the neighbours.

Back in 1967  Brett Whiteley moved to New York for a couple of years. He made his home in the crazy Chelsea Hotel.

Hilton & Blundell  provide a lively description of the setting: "'The Chelsea was not part of America, had no vacuum cleaners, no rules, no taste, no shame,' wrote former resident Arthur Miller, 'It was a ceaseless party.' It was where Dylan Thomas died in a drunken stupor and Sarah Bernhardt slept in a huge coffin in the pyramid-like cottage on the roof. ... Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in its seedy rooms. It was Andy Warhol made one of his first films, Eugene O'Neill and John Huston wooed lovers and punk rock-master Sid Vicious would kill his girlfriend. It was the alma mater of New York pop culture. ... Rock hell-raiser Janis Joplin became Arkie's (Brett's daughter) occasional baby-sitter ... Brett would talk about how Jimi Hendrix would riff up and down his guitar when they were together."

The Chelsea Hotel was immortalized in song by Leonard Cohen with a song of the same name celebrating his tryst with Janis Joplin. At one time or another, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe and Gore Vidal had stayed there. The Mamas and the Papas and the Grateful Dead could be seen visiting.

It was also the centre of the Manhattan drug trade for artists, especially musicians.

The Chelsea Hotel was also where Bob Dylan lived in the 60's, where he wrote Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Brett kept a huge portrait of Dylan on the wall of his modest penthouse apartment there. It was an acquaintance and adoration that would last the rest of his days.

I sometimes wonder whether Brett Whiteley didn't style his Afro hairdo after Bob Dylan. Yes, Brett had naturally curly red hair that would grow into a mop when long (Donald Friend in his diaries described it as "a great frizzy 'Orphan Annie' halo"). But the shape and tight ringlets, and the comment someone made about how wiry and stark it felt to the touch makes me wonder if he maintained it using product to get 'the look' of his idol. Brett Whiteley's hair has become a motif for me in this series.

source fanpop.com
The 1967 is also when the rock musical Hair blew us all away with the same free-wheelin', high-energy, experimental, counter-culture celebration that i believe marked Brett Whiteley's out-look.

Hilton & Blundell  describe the occasion of Bob Dylan's 1986 Australia tour press conference. "Brett was frantic about what to ask his his hero. He sweated on it for weeks before the Great man arrived, while friends contrived to have Dylan's press conference held at Brett's 'stude' in Surry Hills."

Brett's circle said that he was thrilled to have Dylan there but also desperate for Dylan to respond and understand what he was on about. When finally it was Brett's turn to ask Dylan some questions,  it was as if Brett believed a cosmic collision of personalities was about to take place according to Kate McClymont. She saw Brett as wanting verification from Dylan about his own sources of inspiration and his benediction. But this press conference did not deliver the public affirmation Brett had wished for that he and Dylan were inspired artistes together.

Brett's sister Frannie writes of the time in 1992 when Bob Dylan came to Sydney for a return tour. Brett had bought tickets to every show and carried with him every night a copy of the catalogue from his recent exhibition in case he got the opportunity to present it to Bob. Dylan's minders were under orders not to admit anyone new to his dressing room. But Brett was not new and the opportunity came. Dylan looked at drawings and asked, "How'd you do that man?" Brett was elated over meeting, "Tastic".

But better was to come. The following day Dylan came to the Brett's studio. They spent a couple of hours together looking at Brett's work and discussing painting. All his life Dylan's student, in those sweet hours he now found himself his hero's teacher.

A month later, Brett Whiteley was dead.

And what of Bob Dylan?

On a 1990's recording of Brett Whiteley's favourite music, Dylan is heard to say in an interview,

''say hello to this guy Brett Whiteley. Is he still painting? He gave me some drawings the last time there and they still look good to me.''

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley listening to Bob Dylan II,
ink on paper, linocut image 20x15 cm

In this second version of my linocut i deliberately inked the cuts so that they would show, rather in the style of early German Expressionist woodcuts, while in the top version's printing i had masked out these cuts with paper to obtain clean areas of white. Which is better is a matter of taste.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Brett Whiteley in lino

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley in lino I, linocut on paper, image 20x15 cm

This is my first excursion into the world of linocut block printing. I've never previously attempted either woodcut nor linocut. But the direction these ink and charcoal drawings have been heading has made me want to 'have a go', as we say in Oz.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley in lino II, linocut on paper, image 20x15 cm

Brett Whiteley himself produced 8 linocuts in his career.
David Brigitte lists them here as:
1. Waves, 1977, edition of 8 + A/Ps
2. River 1977, edition of 8 + A/Ps
3. River & Landscape 1977, Edition of 8 + A/Ps
4. Fruit Dove 1980, edition of 25 + A/Ps
5. Sydney Harbour by Night 1981, edition of 20 + A/Ps
6. Light Globe 1981, edition of 10
7. Warming & Reading 1981, edition of 10
8. Reading 1981, edition of 10
and all were all printed by him and in low numbers, so are quite rare.

However, reportedly David Preston established Etchers Press in Brett Whitely's Reiby Place Studio in 1978 and  subsequently created numerous linocuts and etchings for Brett Whiteley, John Olsen, Judy Cassab and Charles Blackman.

I started to play with colour but it lacks the starkness that attracts me to B&W.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley in lino II,
linocut and oil on paper, image 20x15 cm

Here is one of the lino printing blocks. I took more care with the direction of the cuts second time round.

linocut block for Brett Whiteley in lino II

And finally, here is lino II slipped into a black frame with a double white matt.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley in lino II, mounted.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Brett Whiteley's meditation


Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's meditation,
charcoal on paper, 59x42cm

"To draw you must close your eyes and sing."   

Alison Croggon's review of Whiteley's Incredible Blue, a recent play about Brett Whiteley written by Australian dramatist Barry Dickins, contains a brief para summarizing not only the Dickin's play, but also Whiteley's artistic career:
"Whiteley is a compelling figure: part artist, part charlatan, myth-maker extraordinaire, he died of a heroin overdose in 1992, aged only 53, in a country motel. So much of his work is trashy product for the cannibalistic art market that at once made and destroyed him, and yet his sublime gift for colour and line gave us some of us our most iconic paintings. Dickins, however, isn’t interested in moralising, nor in biography. What he has created instead is a poetic riff that recreates Whiteley’s restless imaginative excesses, a theatrical meditation on art, beauty and self-destruction."
[read the whole review here].

While regrettably i have not seen the production (though would dearly love to), i was struck by the similarity of artistic intention between Dickins' play and my humble efforts in this evolving series.

The notion of a work being a 'meditation on art' stayed with me.
... and i began to think about BW's love for Eastern drawing traditions, interest in Buddhism, rapture for Tai Chi  (his sister Frannie says it was the closest he came to actual meditation).
... and i began to see his art works as Do-Zen, or moving meditations - the traces left by his body in meditative dance.
... and i began to look for Brett Whiteley's Buddha nature.

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