It wasn’t planned this way, but this week’s post begins with a discussion of the work of the artist Tom Polo and his latest exhibition Future Figurative (New Personas). The show is just four small paintings on canvas and four drawings on paper. The work is confident, adventurous and bold, rejecting the classical hallmarks of so-called painterly “quality” and demonstrations of artistic “talent” for an idiosyncratic journey though the theme of identity and figurative painting.
I say this post wasn’t planned this way because just a few weeks ago when I was writing on a trio of shows that had connections to the practice of drawing, a reader commented: “Andrew Frost is writing on art for the Guardian? Stand by for a gushing article about Tom Polo.” I admit I felt embarrassment because I have written Polo a few times. And interviewed him for a podcast, and featured his work on an ABC TV series … and he once asked me to contribute work to a group show he curated, and we say “Hi” to one another at openings. So I guess I have favoured Polo as a subject, but was that writing gushing? I had to think about that.
The comment certainly made me feel self-conscious when I was looking at Polo’s show. Why did I like it? What was it about Polo’s work that keeps drawing me back? And spinning the question out into a bigger context, why does the work of certain artists do that to its viewers: what makes us connect with an artist?
Maybe the answers have something to do with the emotional tenor of the work. As much as art is about a subject it’s also an emotional experience, and the work prompts a response. For me, Polo’s work has always had a self-deprecating charm that, while acknowledging: yes, this is art, an intellectual position as much as sit is a series of aesthetic choices, also has a palpable degree of humour and joy.
The drawings The Future of Honesty 1-4 featured in the show have the subtle, playful aesthetics of European modernists such as Jean Dubuffet, and certain Australian painters from mid-last century, particularly Sidney Nolan at his most avant-garde. Lest anyone assume I’m saying Polo’s work is equal to the masters, I’m not. What I’m saying is that Polo’s work succeeds on its own terms while containing echoes of art history precedent. That’s what you want from art – it makes me feel good when I look at it.
I’m also a fan of ambition in art. As a friend said of horse racing: you bet more you get more, and that’s equally applicable to art. Overreaching ambition usually ends in disaster – it’s easy to think of examples of artists who created art meant to define the zeitgeist or say some very important thing to echo down the ages, only to end up as the butt of a joke.
But the wish to make smart, intelligent art is a much more manageable position – albeit one that few artists can pull that off, with most opting for decorative obsequiousness or intellectual pomposity.
Polo is an artist who has worked his way through a number of theme-related projects in various media – performance, photography, installation – but painting was always, and remains, his strongest suit. The painting Multiple Personality is a gem of simplicity, capturing the artist’s project in a few lines, patches of colour and at small scale. In the heroic history of Australian painter bullshit, this is the kind of art I want to support, to write about, but more importantly, to simply look at, because it says real things about a real subject.
Published as What makes us connect with an artist? Guardian Australia, July 2013
Pic: Tom Polo, Multiple Personality, 2013.