2 January 1994

Young at art: the New Painters

Back in 1994, my editors demanded that painting was not dead and tasked me to go out and prove it.

IF REPORTS from the front line are to be believed, news of the death of painting is vastly exaggerated. Despite the challenge of other forms of contemporary practice within the art world itself (from conceptual art, installation, performance, photo-media, sound, video and computer-generated art), painting remains most people's idea of what art is all about.

Paintings, it would seem, are for living with, and people continue to part with their hard-earned in order to live with paintings. And while the art market was hit particularly hard by the recession, now that life's at last becoming a little more liquid, the time is ripe to seek out those emerging painters whose work might still be picked up for a song, so to speak.

So just who should we be looking at today for clues as to the art of tomorrow?

Tony Bond, curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of NSW, says there is a desire in the market to "recreate painting and there's always people who have a commitment to painting, per se".

"But to be honest, Brian Blanchflower, who is not a youth, is actually the person coming closest to making something new in painting.

"I think Brian is the find of the century, frankly. His work has a feeling of being a real thing that transports you and I think that is actually quite unique.

"He's somebody who's really out in front but not acknowledged as such; I mean he's not hanging in the entrance court of every museum yet he's probably better than any straight painter in Europe."

Of the younger generation, Bond says Louise Hearman "stands out a mile".

"She's actually able to paint, which is a bit unusual. With Louise, everything about the mood of the painting is conveyed through its formal qualities. It's something not many young artists are able to do, or even see the importance of doing, but it makes all the difference in the world."

Bond also nominated the Sydney abstract painter Matthew Johnson and Richard Bell of Brisbane.

"If you're looking at abstract art then I rather like Matthew Johnson's work. His paintings are very elegant, beautiful and seductive. Frankly, there's been too many pretensions about the meaning of abstract art lately. In the end, when all the semiotics has been washed through, all you're left with is this thing, and in the case of Matthew, quite a nice thing."

Bond is similarly enthusiastic about Bell: "Very direct, very up-front, absolutely clear what he's on about and very humorous. I think irony and wit coming into the Mabo issue and into contemporary Aboriginal art is a great help."

Judy Annear, curator of the Australian component at last year's Venice Biennale, is also particularly keen on Bell, whose work she describes as"challenging and politically relevant".

"Richard is one of the new contemporary Aboriginal artists, and he presents an urban experience to his overview of the Aboriginal condition through using Western painting techniques.

"He's brought a new attitude to painting but they're not the sort of stuff your average socialite would want over their sofa. He doesn't use dots and he doesn't get caught up in the sort of mysticism that makes Aboriginal art easy to sell."

Other names to look out for, Annear says, are Gail Hastings of Melbourne and Anne Ooms from Sydney. "Gail Hastings is better known for these big installations but she also does do really beautiful watercolours. Highly salable. Very beautiful and delicate ... seductive."

She notes that Ooms, a 1993 graduate of the Sydney College of the Arts who has just won the 1994 Samstagg Scholarship to work overseas, is still very much in her formative years.

"She's very entertaining and she's only been making art for the last couple of years. Her last show at Artspace included objects which she painted with face powder. So they offered not just texture but perfume. The colours and shapes relate to you on an amusing and unconscious level - they are very jokey. I'll be interested to see what she's doing after her year on the Samstagg Scholarship."

Nicholas Baume, freelance curator and public programs co-ordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, says a fortuitous mix of factors is needed to make people sit up and notice emerging talent.

"It's a mixture of luck, the prevailing mood - what curators and dealers and collectors are looking for - and finally the power of the individual artist's work."

The work of abstract painter Christopher Snee caught Baume's eye at this year's Perspecta show at the AGNSW.

"Of all the abstract painting in Perspecta - and there was quite a lot - to me Christopher's work stood out.

"It was quite beautiful and formally successful as abstract painting but it didn't seem to be repeating anything I'd seen before. Very atmospheric."

Baume is also taken by the work of Peter Atkins, who has been chosen to represent Australia at the Indian Triennale in Bombay this year.

"His work seems to grow out of very personal experiences rather than addressing the grand themes of abstract painting or art history," says Baume.

"So it has a very warm, intimate quality that's very appealing."

The director of Sydney's Artspace, Louise Pether, would only agree to comment with qualification.

"I wouldn't necessarily say that painting is the place to watch for the future artists of Australia," she says. "I think the most interesting work is happening in photo-media and painting is less lively."

That said, Pether nominates Louise Hearman (again) and the Aboriginal artist Harry Wedge as two painters to watch. Of Wedge she notes: "He's one of those artists whose work just leaps off the walls at you.

"Those are the two I've known for the longest and they've held and maintained my interest and I'm just cursing that I didn't buy their works when I first saw them. I've since realised that if one is going do that, you should always follow your instincts."

The editor of leading art journal Art + Text, Paul Foss, is also guarded in his views about painting. "In Australia right now the younger set are into scatter art and installation - though this situation will no doubt change," he says.

"If I were to name any emerging painters here, I think Kerrie Poliness and Melinda Harper from Melbourne are worth mentioning, as is Sydney's Elizabeth Pulie. But the one to watch is Louise Forthun, who shows with Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne."

To conclude on a note of controversy, haven't we been told, in the realm of art at least, that modernism was a stillborn, forlorn project which gave way to these post-modern times, where there's nothing new under the sun and appropriation and pastiche are the order of the day?

In that context what makes today's art and our younger artists any different from times gone by? Is there an even newer broom sweeping the cultural landscape or are we merely seeing the arbitrary turnover of artistic fashion?

Nicholas Baume went out on a limb to sum up the Zeitgeist.

"There's a feeling that an authentic kind of contemporary art starts from one's own experience," he says. "And most of these up-and-coming artists are using their own experience in a very direct way and I think that's what gives their work authenticity and force: they're not slavishly following international trends or getting their ideas from the latest art magazines. There's a maturation there in terms of recognising that what really gives art its power is the personal intensity that the artist brings to it."

Date: 01/01/1994
Words: 1326
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Spectrum
Page: 42

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