Block Projects, Cremorne 17th August 2013
I wrote this review for another site but it was never published. In researching the John Firth-Smith review, my interest in Australian Pop Art was reawakened and I’ve revised this review to pursue that. Regrettably the artist passed away on the 17th of June (2017) NB: at 2625w this is a longer review than usual.
Regrettably, this was no more than a one-day show, coinciding with the launch of a handsome monograph on the artist, edited by Andrew Gaynor for Art Information, a new publishing enterprise for artinfo.com.au. The book also includes a 30min or so DVD, usefully supplementing the text with interviews with the artist, critics and fellow artists, as well as further illustrations. It is to be hoped more art books adopt this cross-format. The show demonstrated that the works do indeed carry the expressive charge and formal elegance suggested by the book’s ample reproductions. The astute selection and hang, given the modest gallery space, also emphasised the striking trajectory to Woods’ career, from freewheeling and impressionable youth to steadily more inhibited maturity, from suffering a surfeit of influences and ambition to growing isolation and indifference to art world trends. The arc is a familiar one for artists of course, but rarely displayed as starkly, or – one is tempted to say – beautifully, since the experience of tracing the progression unquestionably acquires an undertone. The feeling is bittersweet, subtly troubling. There is a mysterious sense of loss – not to the artist’s skills or energy, much less to aging – but rather to a retreat to bland formal themes. The artist may have found greater freedom or engagement, but it is not something many will share.
The show and book are unlikely to foster interest in the artist’s abstractions but for anyone interested in Australian art history, Woods’ career provides a fascinating glimpse of the undercurrents to figurative painting following the impact of Pop Art through to the emergence of Neo Expressionism. Here the artist certainly merits greater attention.
Woods began with thoroughly traditional training at the Hobart Technical College (1961-63) equipping him as a conservative Modernist, gently stylising landscapes for shape, volume and tone, only to realise that the underlying issues are as easily pursued in still lives or interiors in his warehouse studio in central Hobart. Largely shunning greater abstraction, there is instead the sense of a reductive, enclosed and barren world.
Hangers (1966) 66 X 55.5cm oil on canvas (framed)
The empty coat-hangers and chairs measure an absence, the corners and windowless walls suggest seclusion, retreat. At some point the severe isolation is brought home to him and there is an abrupt switch to the figure, to models often in states of undress, their poses overlapping and caught in vigorous outline. But notably, the outlines are seldom filled in or further modelled, instead stress the linear, two-dimensionality to the form, overlapping and alternative limbs help to flatten or resist more volumetric reading. The figures thus remain, like the Johns-like coat-hangers or Dine-like ties, principally design. They are life kept at a remove, as brief or limited engagement. Similarly, the outlines to figures are sometimes superimposed on abstract grounds of spills or gestures, obscuring the figure’s location or context, suggesting turmoil at a formal level (The Most Arresting Sight 1967). Woods may have opened up his home to visitors, but one senses unease, an air of expectation.
Methodical Madness (1968) oil on canvas 127 X 147cm (shaped)
Influences from this time are an array of British contemporary painters from Francis Bacon to the Royal College Group and American counterparts including Larry Rivers. The influences are most obvious in the compositional devices of the picture-within-a-picture (Bored, Amused and Noisy 1965), abstract versus figurative (Unconscious Fantasy 1967), contrasting styles (Images of Reality 1965), and a flattened layout or orthogonal projection (My World 1964).
Images of Reality (1965) oil on canvas 128 X 86cm
My World (1964) oil on canvas 170 X 140cm
All attest to a rapid exploration of fashionable options, an urgency to assimilate current developments, an addiction perhaps to Studio International. Woods’ headlong immersion in these trends also signals his determination to open himself up to the world; to make more of both. Other works from this time toy with simple diagram combined with figures (No Perspective 1967) with shaped canvas (Psychoanalysis 1967) and Rorschach-like blots, either in combination with the figure (Smiling Front 1968) or as full abstraction (Perception 1968).
Psychoanalysis (1967) oil on canvas, 137 X 134.5cm (shaped)
Smiling Front (1968) oil on canvas 91.5 X 91.5cm
Other works include graffiti-like text.
A Man (1967) acrylic and oil on canvas 155 X 155cm
Understandably, the abiding impression is largely one of blind ambition in the service of terrible insecurity. The studio looms as both prison and fortress, safely filtering his exposure to the world yet ultimately circumscribing life. A number of works feature bird cages, signalling enclosure, pets and control, while others literally imprison the model, such as the ominously titled Each Soul a Prison (1965). Significantly, bars on windows become a recurring motif in later work. Other works from the time leave the model crouching uncomfortably, suggesting both the submissive and bestial.
Figures in studio rest (1965) oil on canvas 175 X 144.5cm
Viewed in retrospect the disquiet becomes palpable. Allusions to psychoanalysis, Rorschach tests, ‘Unconscious Fantasy’ ‘No Perspective’, madness and imprisonment flag an inner turmoil matched only by the artist’s restless eclecticism. But at a certain point Woods cannot accommodate all of his enthusiasms within even his freewheeling ‘Pop’ structures.
On a Harkness Scholarship to New York in 1968 and under the influence of Clement Greenberg, the artist switches to Lyrical Abstraction (as the style was called) using poured pigments in stripes and loose fields, somewhat after the manner of Morris Louis or Helen Frankenthaler, pacing Larry Poons and Jules Olitski. Predictably, it is a brief flirtation. Upon returning to Australia in 1970 he reverts to pictures within pictures (Positive Negative 1970), soon paints visiting friends again but now with greater focus, more formality, less nudity. The pendulum in artistic adventure now begins to swing back. There is an unmistakeable tightening up and tidying up. Figures are given more concrete settings, more unified compositions and sharper, more detailed drawing.
My Way (1972) oil on canvas 177 X 177cm
Shapes are now assigned mostly single colours that strive for an overall harmony. Significantly, the artist marries around this time, settles in Melbourne. The works are elegant, restrained; at times slick. Yet churning brushwork to colours does not always sit comfortably with the new, fussier outline. On the one hand the artist is bent upon exquisite control to outline, on the other, feels the need for more relaxed facture.
Jenny (1972) oil on canvas 121 X 151.5cm
Previously, the two would simply occupy different layers to the picture, now they meet at edges and the compromise gives them a brittle, forced quality. In theory, the artist might simply have applied flat colours, giving the work a sharper allusion to print illustration, in the manner of say, Patrick Caulfield or Valerio Adami. But that kind of detachment is contrary to the direct engagement Woods has sought from subject and style. Contrary really, to the whole informal flow to the Australian version of Pop Art, in the work of artists such as Brett Whiteley, Peter Powditch, Alan Oldfield, Robert Boynes and Gareth Sansom. Australian abstraction of the sixties embraces the cool of hard edges and flat colours, a programmatic and impersonal approach typified by The Field exhibition at the NGV in 1968. But strangely, Australian Pop Art has no equivalent of, say, Roy Lichenstein or Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton or Gerald Laing. Ken Reinhart comes closest, but his work is rarely concerned with painting. So-called Australian Pop Art is more an occasion to shrug off the Antipodean heritage, to shun the legends of outback life and celebrate beach fashions and a modern, affluent and largely recreational lifestyle. Stylistically, work now allows text and greater fragmentation to the picture plane, something like a layout or collage-like assembly and with it a more discursive subject matter.
For Woods that lifestyle occurs almost exclusively indoors. While style drastically simplifies his subjects and thus broaches abstraction more traditionally, outlines remain doggedly detailed. Particulars of costume, grooming and footwear for example remain scrupulously observed. Where the artist turns to still life, the large leaves of a pot plant offer the opportunity to stress a flatness or two-dimensionality, an interface between object and picture, while implying a contemplative, serene focus, at odds with the title.
Depression improves charcoal (1968) oil on canvas 91.5 X 91.5cm
The pot plants are models, not just of quiet growth and patient care but of the painting that then unfolds around them, the depth implied, the scale and shadows suggested. Woods returns to these themes in works such as Green on Orange (1971) now featuring a briskly mottled ground and in Artist at Work (1972) the figure significantly is placed at the centre of the composition.
Artist at Work (1972) oil on canvas 162.5 X 106.5cm
The green ground and silhouetted leaves add to the decorative drift and while the concern is with organic equilibrium, Woods broaches territory to be exploited more fully by Pattern & Decoration artists such as Robert Kushner and Robert Zakanitch in America at this time. They too arrive at the explicitly decorative from a background in Minimalist abstraction. Unlike Pop Art, their approach shuns the even finish of print standards (inspiration is often drawn from textiles) so that their touch or informality is close to Woods. The difference is in their adoption of repeating patterns for figurative motifs, something Woods’ work later only tentatively explores. They flaunt a more frivolous tradition, counter to the psychological freight of Woods’ stark arrangements. This baggage, as noted, literally simmers in the backgrounds throughout the seventies.
Caught to Eat (1973) oil on canvas 177.5 X 132cm
A rare glimpse of exteriors arises in studies of animals, commencing with Caught to Eat (1973). The frozen instant has an almost photorealistic quality to a close-up of a seagull scooping up a morsel and is markedly less linear than interiors. ‘Seagull’ was Brett Whiteley’s nickname for Woods, presumably capturing something of his hovering, scavenging instincts and the title amplifies this predatory aspect. Yet the work is atypical, indeed not easily recognised as a Tony Woods. In general, Woods avoids such symbolism, along with literary or mythic subjects. The emphasis is instead upon the biographical and literal, even where figures regard diagrams or abstractions.
However, in the wake of Pop Art, figurative artists at this time are drawn to other kinds of iconic imagery, to the ways metaphor is signalled stylistically.
Tasmanian Bull (1979) oil on canvas 66 X 83.5cm
The isolation of a subject upon a blank or monochrome ground is one way of simplifying and typifying it, signalling remote connotations. Again, this is a trait Woods is certainly drawn toward, without quite acquiring. His studies of bulls for example, largely surrender setting to a ground, reduce the bull to a silhouette, but Woods retains shadow and perspective to bull and fence, so that the bull remains, if minimally, an actual observation rather than mere icon. Interestingly, the latter option is central to New Image Painting, a trend in New York, surveyed in 1978. In an example such as Butterfly (1978) by Susan Rothenberg, one can see how close the two approaches come. For Rothenberg a black diagonal cross is neither in front nor behind the black silhouette of a horse but rather interrupts a straightforward icon (as X or horse). Figure and ground oscillate in the painting, express a troubling ambiguity. Woods encounters the same territory even when working in Australia, but cannot quite let go of the particulars nor confine them only to his treatment of an icon. He comes tantalisingly close to a key trait to the period, alone amongst Australian painters.
Sun Setting (1978) oil on canvas 52 X 62cm
In the series of barn doors he begins around the same time, the silhouetted doors are often presented frontally, emphasising an approximate symmetry. As actual observation, they trade in a linear play of light and shadow, more at home in photography. As painting, they allow more relaxed drawing, which calms the mottled grounds that had previously struggled against stricter outline. As an icon or a more decorative formulation, they subtly recall the cages of an earlier period. As the series continues throughout the 80s, slowly introducing furniture, stairs and various small objects, exchanging barn doors for other cage-like shadows, the theme unmistakably becomes one of enclosure, solitude or absence.
Green Chair (1983) 76 X 55.5cm oil on canvas
Why this should occur at this stage in the artist’s life is puzzling. As Sheridan Palmer observes in her chapter (p. 55), Woods comes full circle; returning to a life lived solely within the studio. The difference now is that light is given distinctive shapes, not easily traced to mere doors or windows, much less assumed sunlight. It is their unseen determinants that come to stand for visitors, their off-stage constraints that offer nominal presences. The rest of the studio quickly falls into darkness without them.
Following works, such as But What Does It All Mean? (1985) and Think like an Animal (1990), seem to deliberately address the troubling psychological issues associated with the mid-sixties work.
But What Does it all Mean? (1985) oil on canvas 76 X 91.5cm
They maintain darkened spaces, return to the female nude, crucially on hands and knees, against swirling linear patterns that bear no relation to light, but rather suggest sound or perhaps tides of feeling. The title, Think like an Animal uncomfortably recalls an earlier tendency to subjugation. They unquestionably signal despair, but there is an element of pantomime, of the artist playing up his predicament. The freer handling to the figure also announces some sense of resolution. The longstanding tension between outline and tone, figure and ground, interior and exterior, light and shade is quietly laid to rest.
That Day (1988) oil on canvas 101.5 X 66cm
By the 90s, poses and props become more routine and old concerns with framing, text, a picture within a picture eventually turn the artist’s attention to full abstraction once more, to an array of hard-edge geometric shapes and colour relations.
Light on Situation (1990) oil on canvas 120 X 152cm
Yet by the 90s abstraction too has moved on as well and no longer enjoys the purity of geometry, the forces of chemistry or pigment application; the gestures of committed or ingenious individuals. A Post Modern period finds abstraction middling, strictly relative. It has become a respectable, somewhat corporate enterprise. Artists like Albert Oehlen or Fiona Rae taunt or tease its boundaries, mock the absolute with endless concessions. Woods is in no position to join that conversation though. He belongs to an older generation, one for whom abstraction loomed as the daunting future of painting but who now find it reassuringly part of their past.
This too deserves recognition in our recent art history but Woods’ real contribution lies in resisting Expressionism to his figures, literary and allegorical resources to his painting and persisting in grim isolation in an interior life where finally only passing light beams are deemed a fit encounter for the painter intent on drawing the line between light and dark and where colour counts as freedom. It is a quiet vision of retreat or defeat; every bit as chilling as a Peter Booth, as disturbing as an Arthur Boyd, made all the more troubling for its reserve and the narrow terms it then grants greater abstraction.
All images courtesy of the artist. My gratitude for his time in preparing this review.
Other online resources
TONY WOODS 1940-2017