A painting by a forgotten artist, glimpsed in an auction catalogue, opens a world of intensity and connection. By Patrick Hartigan.
Wilderness of the imagination
On the wall, a foot or two from my right ear, hangs a painting I have spent more time looking at than any other. It is of Uluru, although you wouldn’t necessarily know this. The patchwork of shapes, textures, lines, drips and marks, including those made by a finger, shows the red desert blanketed by a verdant wet. The large rock or mountain sits before a sky reflected in a lake in the lower centre. Through the eye-shaped hole, enclosed by a bold and roaming black line, we are taken into the picture and somehow given a glimpse of Earth from far away.
There is a silver-painted frame that isn’t quite square despite its best efforts. Its profile is conventional, though more rugged, a hand-sawn copy of one the maker might have seen. There’s a crucial blob of bright red paint on its lower left side, a haze of yellow dust along the top. Within these edges, which are about as wide as my thumb is long, is an inner frame of lamb’s wool – four narrow, overlapping strips. The silver charges the object while the wool connects and earths it.
The painting changes according to the angle from which I view it. Its varying finishes indicate the use of enamel but also crayon, grease and dust, a surface that opens and closes like the wings of a butterfly. It’s impossible to say what it is, or why it is what it is, except to say that it is perfect and unflinchingly there.
The message came during the early weeks of hard lockdown. It was from an auction house, offering a painting by the artist who made the Uluru work near to my desk: “You have been outbid on Selby Warren (1887-1979) – increase your bid to win!” Because of the lockdown, there was no physical viewing of the painting titled Wild Horse Yards (1965) – and yet I felt destined to have it because it had appeared in my mind only a couple of days before turning up in the catalogue. Perhaps I had dreamt it or was now dreaming.
I couldn’t remember from where I knew the work, or if I had physically seen it. After doing a search I realised it had been in a Selby Warren retrospective at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery. I had lent a couple of paintings to the exhibition and viewed its very limited documentation while overseas.
The painting was likely to be of Trunkey Creek, a village in the central west of New South Wales famous for its gold and bacon. Warren spent his life there, or camping thereabouts, as a rabbit trapper and bushman. His mother worried about his severe cleft lip – a mouth that didn’t quite close and might, therefore, ingest poison. There were hints of risky dealings – a number of court cases involving bankruptcies, the “negligent branding” of sheep, and other things that people near to him didn’t talk about.
Warren was a passionate storyteller and could recite whole ballads. During tea breaks he would sketch out the feats and fates of bushrangers using a stick in the dirt. He started painting at the age of 76, sometimes with brushes made from his hair. Until his death 15 years later, the paintings would rush through him like wildfire, with whatever materials and substances he could get his hands on. A brief moment of success came when he was discovered and represented by Rudy Komon, who ran a then-famous gallery in Sydney. In the 1970s, leading Australian painters celebrated his talent. Today he remains largely unknown.
After learning these facts from Roger Shelley, who recently submitted a doctorate on Warren, I visited Trunkey. I wandered around in the spring heat, drank a beer in the Black Stump Hotel, walked past a shed where Selby made and displayed his work, and visited the artist’s grave. Beneath tall, flaking gums and the incessant whir of cicadas, I looked at the slab and calculated the overlap: I was two when he died.
The land in Wild Horse Yards sat forward and faced me as if I were looking across a valley. A mesh of fences and trees cut and swayed across the frame in a manner more familiar to Chinese scroll painting than linear perspective, though without the sensitivity to edges. This and its refusal of positive and negative binaries, foreground and background, reminded me of Ian Fairweather. It was hard to work out what was ground and what was added. There was no stage, no beginning or end. I knew I had to own it.
The way the painting moved and settled suggested the view through a kaleidoscope, a quality echoed by its frame. The up-and-down, in-and-out rhythm of the vertical sides brought Greek caryatids and African carvings to mind, its more jagged angles making the object restless: swaying, jolting, climbing – on its way somewhere.
There were four main colours making up a palette that might be called dirty: reddish brown, bluish green, custardy yellow, whitish pink. They were daubed into what I initially thought was fibrous cement sheeting but was in fact cardboard, its horizontal corrugations disguised by the rubbery sheen of the enamel paint but showing through in scratchier areas. I’d seen Selby do that again and again: divine gravity and integrity from the most unlikely surfaces, anything from fibro and frying pans to butcher’s paper, petticoats and feathers.
In the days leading up to the auction I had turned the object around in my mind, pausing to imagine its edges and back – the little nails that attached the cardboard to the frame, an illegible title scrawled in biro, the not-quite-square corners where one type of improvised frame joined another. Written in large chalk or crayon would be the original price, about average for a Selby: $15. It would be great to actually hold the painting, which I knew would surprise me with its lightness. I’d hang it on the wall in my living room that glows in afternoon light.
When I logged into my laptop I was greeted with the message: Error: Page not found. In disbelief I clicked the link a dozen times, then rang the auction house. I felt panicked. This work I already imagined into my room was slipping away. This happens with work like Warren’s. Very occasionally it will break the surface of the secondary market, little noticed, and then it will disappear again, likely for decades, like a sea creature coming up for air. The auction house said the owner had pulled the painting out of the sale. It wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.
I first encountered Selby Warren in the side room of an auction house. It was a Sunday morning and I was wandering through the back channels of Parramatta Road. The auction was already under way, the gavel dropping over and over as uptight-looking men fought over Norman Lindsay prints.
I turned into a reception room and in a dark corner above some desks and filing cabinets, I encountered a gathering of rough and luminous compositions, Ayers Rock (1968) among them. I was a bit dumbfounded. I couldn’t quite place these offerings, according to when and who, but it was like I knew them. When I read the name on the sales sheet I wondered: why haven’t I heard of Selby Warren?
The experience of coming upon the paintings this way was a reminder that the quality of care in art doesn’t have a particular look or set of manners. It only has a feeling. It was a feeling that woke me; here was painting that had been sung up from within rather than from a stance of caution and knowingness, isolation and deprivation. There wasn’t a bland identification with things Australian, but nor was there a program of rejecting subject. In these pictures, matter was worshipped, dissolved into a set of relations – substance, form and mark, listened to and becoming the other.
It turned out none of the paintings sold during the auction, even with their very low reserve prices. I bought the lot and bundled them into a taxi. I have lived with them since. What these paintings manifest for me is the intensity of looking and a certain depth or quality of connection. As objects in the world they answer only to themselves and their own unique logic. They are so incredibly there: alive. Wild Horse Yards came into my life as an apparition. When it appeared in the catalogue I thought it was like the others, a presence destined to overlap with my own. For now, it remains in the wilderness of my imagination.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Incredibly there".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription