Australian Art's New Conscience

Bruce James

Page 12 ( 2194 words )

Saturday, 08 May 1999

From section: Spectrum

Publication: Sydney Morning Herald



Annandale Galleries, Sydney


Closing today


WA's hermit-like Howard Taylor is a national artist at his fullest power, yet he is relatively unknown on the east coast.

THIS is a review that begins with an ending. Howard Taylor: Paintings is in the final day of its three-week run at Annandale Galleries.

Depending on when you peruse your Saturday Spectrum, you have between six hours and none at all in which to catch the exhibition, which is being run in association with Perth's Galerie Dusseldorf.

Installation View Galerie Dusseldorf Howard Taylor 80th Year Exhibition1998


The proprietors of that venue, Doug and Magda Sheerer, have been enthusiastic proponents of Taylor's paintings, sculptures and works on paper for almost two decades. Theirs is a responsibility to him as much of mediation as representation as Taylor is not easily given to social interaction or discourse.

The works selected for the Annandale show, in consultation with the artist and his wife, Sheila, aren't the stockroom leavings of a superannuated regional painter cynically recycled for east coast consumption. They're the real McCoy, chosen in a mood of dispassion and by the rule of integrity to reveal the painterly project of a national artist at his fullest power.

Hung with tact, assurance and in high museum style, they constitute something of an unintentional rebuke to the sloppier conventions of installation that sometimes prevail in Sydney's non-institutional galleries - and a few institutional ones to boot.

Not that we should feel elaborately ashamed of ourselves. Rather, it's heartening that this event coincides with comparably impressive displays of Clarice Beckett at S.H. Ervin Gallery, reviewed in these pages last week, John Brack at Rex Irwin, Dick Watkins at Martin Browne Fine Art and a double-barrelled Richard Larter 70th birthday bash in a joint venture between Watters Gallery and Legge Gallery.

Equity obliges one to add to these The Art of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, a survey of visual arts from the Warburton Ranges area jointly staged by Djamu Gallery and Casula Powerhouse. Top the lot off with the focus exhibition around Warlugulong, 1976, the iconic collaborative canvas by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and the late Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, at the Art Gallery of NSW, and aficionados of fine painting have a smorgasbord of riches to ingest in Sydney at present.

Even so, Howard Taylor comes close to marching off into the sunset, clutching the prize of ultimate mastery.

Howard who? In Sydney, you could be forgiven for asking that question. In Perth, you'd be hanged for it. Howard Taylor is not merely celebrated in West Australian cultural circles: he's legendary, belonging to myth almost more than fact. The 80-year-old, born in Hamilton, Victoria, enjoys a notoriety usually accorded only to WA's renegade entrepreneurs and politicians - occupying a place in the popular consciousness in the guise of a hermit holed up in the karri growths of the State's barely accessible south-west.

No end of curators, critics, dealers, artists and admirers, in caravans of powerful off-road vehicles, though, manage to nose their way to Northcliffe, WA, 6262. There, in a suite of rustic rooms he constructed for himself and his family, the recluse receives these emissaries from a hurly burly world he abdicated decades ago. What on earth does he make of it all, the adulation and flattery, the requests and insistent demands? The conversation? The noises of a distant place - brittle, sharp and other - assailing him through the intervals of the ancient trees that are the subjects, and the sentinels, of his vision?

Like a creature out of Simon Schama's epic analysis of forest mythology, Landscape and Memory, 1995, Taylor is conjoined by his tribe and called upon by his destiny to keep the flame of atavism fuelled and burning - on the cusp of two millennia, a tall and taxing order for anyone. It testifies to a basic benevolence of character that he does actually consent to live out this problematic imposture, though it must test his reserves of grace greatly and sorely compromise his sense of privacy.

In the manner of a senior custodian of sacred lore in Aboriginal society, he's expected to embody, moreover to preserve, the deepest aspirations of his community, emitting from within him an arcane, if not ultimately impenetrable, aura of wisdom.

This knowledge, or "business" if you will, is indistinguishably linked with the natural environment in which he long ago chose to be steeped and from which he draws both the rudiments of his technique and the rarefied ruminations of his mind. With Arthur Boyd dead, the many who regard Taylor as the conscience of Australian art have a strong argument.

Again, like an indigenous elder, he's consulted for his views and respected for his responses, however Gnostic. The art lover visiting Perth, anyone with a more than passing interest in culture, really, will be faced reliably with the inquisition: have you been to see Howard yet?

The use of his Christian name in telegraphic truncation, as though no other nomination were necessary, typifies the affection in which Taylor is held in his adoptive State.

Ted Snell, author of the comprehensive monographic study, Howard Taylor: Forest Figure, 1995, occasionally reverts to this unacademic usage in his text, as do many others. It can be irritating for the outsider, signalling an exclusivity, a parochialism, too, that contradicts the universality of purpose which, as confidently as one can say such a thing, is the pre-eminent truth about Taylor.

In his time, Taylor hasn't lacked either critical coverage or general reportage: Snell is instructive on that score. Newspaper reviewers such as Helen Pope, Hillary Merrifield, David Taylor, Murray Mason and Andrew Saw, mainly writing in The West Australian, monitored his regular Perth exhibitions throughout the '60s and '70s, in commercial contexts such as the Skinner Galleries and in institutional settings such as the University of WA, the WA Institute of Technology and the State gallery.

It was during this period that Taylor's considerable mystique matriculated from that of a producer of wacky "abstract" eyesores, many of them in the form of large-scale sculptures, and some of which were scandalously neglected, to that of grand old man of art.

Incidentally, the Western concept of abstract art only clumsily matches the lineaments of Taylor's aesthetic, which is notably more Eastern, or perhaps more indigenous, than it is historically Modernist. Some hold him to be a landscapist, pure, simple, and incontestable. Others, no less convinced of their view, intuit a scholar poet. A few care to apprehend him as a conceptualist.

One or two of us, casting back to the period of his postwar English study, particularly his interest in Paul Nash, discern in him the manner of a naturalised, that is, a tempered, surrealist. I suppose somebody could see him as a late-bloomed minimalist but it's hard to think how that would be justified in the face of Tree Fork Figure, 1997, a work of conscious, outrageous anti-minimalism.

Tree Fork Fragments1997

Oil on Canvas 123 x 92 cm


Common to all these interpretations, though, is an acknowledgement of the spiritual wellsprings of his practice. Like the suggestively larval flow of liquid coursing through Forest River, 1990, one of the nine paintings and four drawings in an unforgettable suite for which we should fall to our knees and give thanks, Taylor's artistry is irrigated by a passion for deity.

Forest River 1990

Oil on Canvas 122 x 92cm


The existence of a god of some kind is a notion now given free rein in the ex-Masonic hall of Annandale Galleries, no matter that it's a water spirit, a tree sprite or a flibbertigibbet faerie of the air and the light that refuses all attempts to give it shape. Taylor's god is never a creature with a face, not even in the sublime Double Self-Portrait, 1949-50, AGWA, where godly omniscience registers as a geometrically isolated eye.

His god is a presence. And it's a place as well, hence it participates in the qualities of a genius loci. A presiding, lingering intangible. An abstraction, I suppose, but not an abstraction as we would understand the term in art. The Tree Fork Figure referred to above, a painting I could imagine committing a crime to possess - and of its genre the masterpiece of this exhibition - reprises the deltoid configuration of the Double Self-Portrait. It's no less than a deliberate totemic translation of Taylor's own torso into woody material - no, into woody being. Truly,

I think he intends his audience to read it as his godhead.

Positioned emblematically against one of his signature fields of illimitable luminousness, the tree trunk - Is it alive? Has it been killed? - combines the planar tendency of Taylor's "non-figurative" images with a plumpness indexical of reality. It floats forward into three -dimensional wholeness while retarding all endeavour of sight to liberate it into space. This sensation of simultaneous advance and retreat is, once you experience it, the invariable companion to the viewing of any Taylor - the magnificent triptyches from 1994, Still Life With White Figure and Still Life With Black Figure, no less than the relief-like yet penetratively spacious Colonnade Study, 1995.

It is necessary, finally, to call Taylor a religious artist. Outside of Aboriginal art, and gainsaying neither the newly elastic definitions of the Blake Prize nor the spiritual pretentions of contemporary art by and large, Australia cannot boast more than a handful of those. They are precious to us. Important. Essential. Indeed, "religious artist" might not be as complete a designation as "artist of the sacred". Failing that, and so much in language does fail Taylor, Snell's "forest figure" might do equally well as the indication of his vocational status. Having been shot down as an RAAF pilot over Alsace Lorraine in 1940, Taylor had an early, dramatic opportunity to contemplate his maker.

Subsequently, he spent five years as a prisoner of war in various camps across Germany and Poland, a period of incarceration that allowed him to reflect just as profoundly on the ramifications of an artistic career, and one which lent a patriotic edge to his later renown. Fascinatingly,

Taylor shared some years in Stalag Luft III with another West Australian artist, the painter Guy Grey-Smith. (The pacifist Boyd and the wily deserter Sidney Nolan made less remarkable fists of their military service.)

Confronted with the more difficult of Taylor's works, perplexed journalists have been grateful to fall back on such reassuring biographical details, not only his POW tenure but his schoolboy athleticism, his drafting and constructional skills, his professional roles as teacher and colleague and his personal ones as husband and father. With the most extreme of his productions, especially his complex sculptural works, which even now can puzzle and alienate, this human dimension, this ordinariness, has retrieved him from premature dismissal by the dubious.

In the 1980s and since, Perth-based writerly academics as eminent as David Bromfield and Gary Dufour composed memorably on the artist's themes and achievements. Dufour's catalogue for the Art Gallery of WA's 1985 retrospective exhibition is, with Snell's, a primary source on the artist. Daniel Thomas, Mary Eagle, Ken Scarlett, John McDonald, Robert Rooney, Christopher Heathcote, Helen Topliss, Anna Johnson and other voices from the eastern States have added to the chorus, especially in response to Taylor's inclusion in national shows such as the Third Sculpture Triennial in 1987 and the Cleminger Triennial Exhibition in 1993, and to his continuing intelligent promotion by Dusseldorf at Australian Commercial Galleries Association Art Fairs in Melbourne.

Thomas, I recall, put Taylor in his bicentennial exhibition of 200 years of historical Australian art. Eagle mixed him with a gaggle of youngbloods in the inaugural Adelaide Biennial in 1990. Beyond the peripheries of WA, he's held in the permanent collections of the State galleries of Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, as well as the desirable hat-trick of the National Gallery of Australia, Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. I wouldn't be surprised if Andrew Sayers at the National Portrait Gallery is on the lookout for a self-portrait of, or portrait by, Howard Hamilton Taylor, AO.

Yet despite this minor Taylor industry, and the surfacing of a painting or sculpture by him at auction or exhibition now and then on this side of the continent, Sydney has remained peculiarly resistant to his charms as an artist. His sole previous Sydney solo outing in 1976 at Coventry Gallery, though positively reviewed in this paper by Nancy Borlase, was a financial disappointment. Interest was sparked in Tony Bond, then at the Wollongong City Gallery, and a few influential individuals in the curatorial and museological ranks, but the Art Gallery of NSW, for example, still houses no work by Taylor in its collection.


Maybe this is the moment to make amends for the lapse.