All that matters is the work: Keith Looby

The comedian Steve Martin once observed that the French have a word for everything. Indeed, a word in French with a very different usage than in English is ressentiment. This is the “sense of hostility directed towards an object which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration”. This cause can be a person, an institution, a system of belief, almost anything at all, but whatever it is, ressentiment causes in turn a debilitating jealousy and a niggling sense of inferiority.

This ripe Gallic noun came to mind while watching Looby, a new documentary directed by Nick Garner and Iain Knight about the Australian painter Keith Looby.

Keith Looby, Resurrection (1964)

The thesis of the doco is laid out in its opening few minutes: Looby, now 80 years old, is one of Australia’s most significant painters, with an individual, iconoclastic style, a one-time teenage prodigy who would go on to win the Sulman, Blake and Archibald prizes, create and sell significant amounts of work, and have key paintings in the collections of Australia’s national galleries.

And yet, as one talking head opines, Looby was his own worst enemy.

Looby has had ressentiment all his life, and the cause of his debilitating hatred is the art world and pretty much everyone in it.

Looby feuded with institutions such as the Art Gallery of NSW and its director, the late Edmund Capon; with other artists, including his famous enmity directed towards painter Tim Storrier; and with dealers, collectors and gallerists.

he son of Irish Catholic immigrants and a dedicated socialist, Looby felt on the outer his whole life. The conservative art world seemed to exacerbate his sense of estrangement even while he was a part of it.

What is striking about the documentary is that it not only covers in detail the life of an artist many wouldn’t know, or perhaps have preferred to forget, but it also gives voice to an issue that besieges the Australian art world: jealousy.

Someone once said that the politics of the art world are so intense because the stakes are so low. And in many ways this is true. The measures of success in the art world are fleeting. All the accolades, prizes, critical coverage and sales mean very little when an artist eventually falls out of fashion, grows too old, or eventually dies.

Yet the validation of conspicuous success is something that many artists pursue, even while denying it. Social media and comment threads are awash with artists who have a principled stand against the art world, its values and contradictions, but who are more than happy to take funding when it comes their way.

Looby tried multiple times to win the Archibald, the most showbiz of Australia’s art prizes and, as the documentary details, he began his feud with Capon over what he perceived as a slight when his portrait of PP McGuiness was passed over for the big prize in 1979. Although he would eventually win in 1984 for a portrait of comedian Max Gillies, the win must have seemed to Looby like the end of a long bitter struggle, rather than a celebration of excellence.

Looby did what many artists do – he looked for allies and supporters – and found a kindred spirit in art dealer Ray Hughes. For more than two decades Hughes sold Looby’s work, first in Brisbane and then later in Sydney.

It was more than just a business relationship, it was a meeting of like-minded, heavy drinking Irish Australian lads – an artist and his best mate, them against the world. And this is where the documentary is at its most interesting. Being an outsider can be a choice as much as it is a circumstance. Looby was like many successful artists who have styled themselves that way. He may have annoyed a lot of people, but he sold work, won prizes, travelled overseas and owned generous houses in the country.Advertisement

But being an outsider means that being against things becomes almost more important than what you’re actually for, the seething ressentiment justified by an elaborate conspiracy theory of who runs things, and why.

I met Looby at an opening at Watters Gallery in east Sydney in the late 1990s where he told me that the art magazine I was working for at the time was owned and operated by a successful Paddington gallerist. Although I told Looby this wasn’t the case, he would not be dissuaded. The documentary reveals that my experience was fairly typical: Looby has his views on how the art world works, and who is behind things.

Many artists and their supporters take solace in the fact that in the end, all that matters is the work. If it’s good, or even great, it will last. And that makes everything OK.

Yet Looby’s late career is also a cautionary tale. The documentary ends with Looby at a storage facility that looks like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, an endless array of giant boxes. Inside one, Looby picks through the stacks of his unsold work and wonders if anyone is still interested. Perhaps a curator will put on a retrospective?

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Looby is entombed by his own creations. The sad part is that it seems no one will come to dig him out.

Published by Guardian Australia as Being an outsider artist is a noble pursuit – until nobody exhibits your work, February 13, 2020.

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