West of the Divide

It seems that at any given time there’s a Brett Whiteley show on somewhere in Australia. The late artist’s work remains hugely popular, the public drawn to its colourful abstraction, hippy spiritualism and the romantic aura of a now departed painter.

Whiteley’s best works were bought up 20 years ago by private and corporate collectors and public museums, and what’s left tends to be smaller, lesser paintings, works on paper and editioned sculptures. The artist’s posthumous reputation is thus the preserve of museums that tour his work, chief among them the Art Gallery of NSW and the Brett Whiteley Studio.

The latest such show is Brett Whiteley: West of the Divide at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, a collection of works based on the artist’s observations of the land around the towns of Oberon and Carcoar. The works range from an early landscape painted in 1958 to a giant triptych unfinished at the time of his death in 1992. It’s a pleasant enough show that displays all the best things about the artist’s work, but all the regrettable things too.

When an exhibition is organised by theme it inevitably brings out the repetitions of an artist’s work. Whiteley has been much imitated by lesser artists, and the things that were original in his painting – which is to say all the things he purloined from the likes of Matisse, Van Gogh and Gauguin and then mixed with elements of the work of modernist artists such as Yves Klein, Francis Bacon and Lloyd Rees – now look like clichés. These include Whiteley’s love of the frangipani, the weeping willow, the curvaceous switchback river and his habitual combinations of yellow, pink, gold and blue. On top of all that is Whiteley’s various period affectations, such as his penchant for collage, assemblage and an appropriation of “Asian” art forms that are now so resolutely un-PC they are a little hard to take.

Of the more orthodox mid-period works, Marulan bird with rocks (1980) is one of Whiteley’s post-impressionist mash ups, a little Van Gogh style with collage birds and actual rocks stuck on plywood. Of the more outré pieces, The Day Asia Got Born (1970) almost looks like the work of another artist: a compacted landscape festooned with multiple elements including magazine cut outs, an actual bird, branch and nest with bird’s egg, and a cicada.

Too much was never quite enough for Whiteley. The lyrebird (1972-73) is an unqualified disaster – a mass of real bird plumage stuck on the canvas like road kill, a swatch of paint representing the bird’s head as if blown off by a shotgun, and a roughly textured mound of dirt. In the corner the artist had written “a pointless painting needs looking at for a long time in order to think (about it)”. Wishful thinking really – the longer you look the less there is.

But one has to admire Whiteley’s will to experiment. Where he tried something really different there’s a hint of the great talent that was bestowed on him, and interestingly these are not the things that he’s widely celebrated for now. Whereas his spectacular if overdone paintings filled to the brim with gold and blue achieve their effect via sheer size, the smaller monochromatic works benefit from their immediacy. Oberon River and dark clouds (1980) is a small drawing, perhaps a preparatory sketch, that feature a few of the familiar clichés but somehow they are made new by a casual looseness missing from many of the big paintings. Whiteley was much more convincing with a pencil or ink brush in his hand and a series of small ink on paper works of the Fish River near Oberon from 1980 again remind us what a demon he was at a drawing.

Whiteley’s penchant for effect over substance was largely forgiven during his lifetime, but posthumously his paintings of the 1970s simply look awful now – badly painted, cheaply collaged – lesser works despite the gold leaf frames. His painting rallied at times during the late 80s, and by the time of his at death, aged just 52, there were hints that maybe things were changing. One monumental work Autumn (Near Bathurst) – Japanese Autumn (1987-88) has all the usual stuff – a triptych that mixes perspectives and distances, a snaking blue ribbon of water, a weeping willow, a stamp in lieu of a signature. Yet all this seems different – darker, more sombre. On the other hand, the unfinished The Balloon Ride (1991) is overflowing with generic Whiteley tropes.

If Whiteley had lived he’d be 74 today, no spring chicken, but certainly in the closing straits of a long career, a respected senior artist alongside his still living peers. Would Whiteley have continued with the greatest hits, the clichés and the special effects? Or was there a promise of something better to come? Sadly, we’ll never know.

Guardian Australia, September 2014.

Pic: Brett Whiteley, Autumn (Near Bathurst) – Japanese Autumn (1987-88).

©Andrew Frost 2014

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