Visual Art

Two very different artists traverse the twin peaks of innocence and economy. By Patrick Hartigan.

Joe Furlonger and John Stezaker

John Stezaker’s Opening I (1994)
John Stezaker’s Opening I (1994)

Economy is a rare and important thing in art. Even when it looks to have been achieved, it will be snatched away at the last second – no longer merely there, but uncomfortably anchored by deliberation and agenda. The concept of economy in painting can be found in the briefness and immediacy of its gesture and the emptying out of anything unnecessary. Colin McCahon referred to that very first, very direct quality of response – something so close yet so unattainable – as innocence. But he also acknowledged the paradox and difficulty of achieving such a thing with the knowledge and awareness of needing it.

To find oneself in a room of uncomplicated works born out of complication and deliberation is always a treat; it is to be in the grip of nothing in particular but something very decisive. These things hold you in their grip rather than offering up the cheaper luxury of assessing their merits. That’s the experience I recently had in a small room at Sydney’s Hughes Gallery where a suite of Joe Furlongers currently hang. The works making up Joe Furlonger: Grainfield Markings include one large acrylic painting, a couple of ink studies and a set of gouaches titled Between St George and Dirranbandi (2014). As a group they quietly unlatched the door on an artist I’ve felt drawn to but struggled to be taken in by.

Furlonger’s paintings continue along a dotted line crossing the palimpsest paintings of Ian Fairweather, the muted tones of Sienese frescoes and the fleeting marks of Chinese brush painting. It’s hard to say what it was that bothered me about his paintings but I suspected it had something to do with their comfy Australian attire, the collar of that painterly language and learning in response to the landscape. Never entirely sure whether they were their own things or merely disciples of somebody else’s, the couple of Furlonger exhibitions I’ve seen over recent years had left me begging for an axe blow against that impetuous horizon line, some shadow of doubt at the very least.

Thinking along this line reminds me of an experience I had at a major Fred Williams exhibition a few years ago. There was a moment in it, during his You Yangs series of pictures, when the works overcame the pathology of the horizontal so entrenched in landscape painting, and rose into the toughness and tenderness of grace. A few of the You Yangs works weren’t vertical so much as directly strung between the side-to-side sweep of the land and the stalwart up and down of a gum or crucifixion. Among rooms of works more habitual and limp, they reminded me of how dreadfully complex, but worth the effort of negotiating, the Australian landscape is for a painter. For Williams the moment was, unfortunately, all too brief as he slid back into his horizon habit – those late cheesy Whistler-esque beachscapes, for instance.

I don’t speak about any of this lightly: the landscape has been the one subject through which Australian painting has found its mystery and grace. And while it persists in being something of the painter’s religion here, it shouldn’t be surprising that the lure and magnitude of that mystery led to certain habits. So why, in a small room of Furlongers, doing what his paintings seemingly always do, am I suddenly held captive? Why do I neither care about nor notice that unflagging division between top and bottom? Was it my own blind spot or gripe, or something in this hang and the presence of relatively few works that captured the breadth of his process? Taking scope into consideration it occurs to me there might be another clue in the form of an ink study, Combine Harvester (2012); perhaps that detail, the way it sullies the habit, provided a little key.

The reasons, while curious to this hesitant admirer, needn’t matter. Until the end of September, Furlonger’s works are right there, tenderly and effortlessly nailed down by their faith.

The qualities of economy and innocence find a completely different guise in the collages of British artist John Stezaker, currently on display at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney. When I first encountered Stezaker’s works at the Biennale of Sydney, huddled in a room of their own at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I found pleasure in the way they interacted, as a group and activity, with the prevalence of video art. Amid technologically savvy peers there was something both chaste and coquettish, a quaint lifting of the skirt, about these modest juxtapositions and excisions of foggy Hollywood memorabilia, of old studio portraits and production stills.

While collage, the technique of cutting and pasting as we generally know it, was keenly adopted by all schools of early Modernism, it continues to provide the playpen for Surrealists. Stezaker takes a canny, wilfully childlike knife to the formalisms of studio photography, sometimes emerging with worlds more odd and tense. While the associations found in his pasting can seem alarmingly neat and predictable, like ironed hankies, uncanny tension and poise is occasionally clinched in the slightest of interventions. It is the act of subtraction becoming abstraction, as found in the play of pleats and white in Opening I (1994) and Opening II (1994), which I think points to this artist’s special skill. I found myself walking by half a dozen or so works before being pinched by envy in response to the brutal precision of a single cut.

Stezaker is something of a souvenirist, quoting the tropes and games – split faces being the regular example – of the Surrealists with a boyish earnestness. This should be dull but something in the way it gets spliced with the tourism and glamour of his subjects results in works that are very much their own things. A key to this might be that these images are very specific objects and due to my earlier interaction with them in the context of video: these works talk to technology and the slippery dip into digital moving image but remain absolutely objects of the hand.

I’m not sure if it’s Magritte’s paintings or scrupulously tailored suits that have that erstwhile juxtaposer lurking close at hand to Stezaker’s collages. Likewise the playful, serialised pictorial experiments of Californian artists from the 1960s come to mind when peering into the tiny, thumbed postcard fragments from his Crossing Over series (2010). Somehow these phantoms help clarify vacillating regard for this work; the cog on which these collages rotate feels like it should be connecting to something – bigger cogs – but delightedly continues turning round and round, as if stuck in a minute of a more expansive artist’s brain. And yet when standing among them it’s impossible to begrudge their self-satisfaction, the cutthroat fancies of their creator producing moments of simple wonder.

The twin pursuits of innocence and economy, of saying everything through barely saying anything at all, provide a most enigmatic target across all forms of art. Commenting on Dogme 95 filmmaking and The Idiots, Lars von Trier compared filming to “being a nudist and not having to worry about what you aren’t wearing”. While accessing this garden of innocence may never be straightforward, requiring as it does the act of forever chopping and freefalling from the branch of learning one sits on, those moments will always be ones worth striving for and celebrating.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 30, 2014 as "Spate of grace".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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