Friday, 14 January 2011

Justin O'Brien @ AGNSW

I've found the AGNSW's summer exhibition of the work of painter Justin O'Brien, subtitled 'the Sacred Music of Colour' curiously difficult to write about. It's a show I should love, a modern painter working with the iconography of the early (and pre) renaissance attempting to find relevance in traditional religious set-pieces and yet it there is something oddly unsatisfying . There is much to be charmed by in the beautifully hung upper rooms of the Sydney gallery but one is constantly struck by a contradiction between the restlessness of O'Brien's stylistic shifts and the stillness in the work itself.

The earlier work of O'Brien takes us through a search for a style, and whilst it's not entirely helpful (or terribly interesting) to take a trip through that restless search for a style it does show O'Brien looking for influences with painters who favoured extreme colour palates. Hence its of Cezanne and Matisse poke through even when the post-war dowdiness remains dominant. So it's not exactly surprising when you find a kind of Gaugin enthronement, It could be the garden of Eden or the Botanic Gardens 0f Sydney. Eve and the baptism are echoed in colour, but its Australian rather than genuinely tropical origins are betrayed by a predictably prudish fig leaf on the Polynesian Adam and Eden seems a very modest place.

Four portraits hung together are instructive, the subjects are treated so closely that it's a surprise to find they're not all self-portraits. These young men all have long stretched ovoid faces, wan and pale, chalky complexions and full lips they exude a certain sadness but little else, even as washes of wall swirl or scarlet clothes bleed into the frame. It's an odd effect characteristic of a visual tension in much of O'Brien's work between formal control and colourful abandon.

It's seen clearest in the fight between those fleshy mouths and the geometric planes of cheekbones, the stylisation (not unlike Modigliani) seems to suppress the individual force of faces and bodies. Colour, blocks and abstract swathes, seems more candid, but when in a portrait of one boy the split background suggests a split between purple storms and yellow lulls you are left with a disconnect between it and the serene face. I will generally run a mile to avoid an amateur psycho-biographical reading of painting but the tender restraint and studiously avoided carnality of some of these images made it no surprise to learn that they were painted by a young gay man in post Second World War century Australia.

It's not a boring exhibition by any means. Amongst the lushness are constant echoes, here we glimpse, Raphael's virgin, repeatedly Fra Angelico's blue and gold Enthronement, a kiss of judas every bit as strange as de Chirico but with the statuesque quaities of Mantegna or a Venus at here batch that might have been painted by Rousseau but with bodies of fleshy spheres and cylinders that are idealized exercises in solid geometry. The visual and iconographic restlessness of some of the work here also brings some sense to his settling on a few subjects (the dormition of the virgin, the miraculous draught of fishes amongst others) and a gently stylized almost Romanesque cubism (feel free to see it and describe it better, I see something of both). O'Brien values harmony, tonal and compositional, but he also represents moments of grace, acceptance and quiet dignity. Even in his Pieta, a tiny deflating Christ draped across a sculptural doe eyed virgin, the signs of his death a single faint stroke of the brush in a brown only a shade or two lighter than the skin, O'Brien finds peace in loss.

One thinks of modern artists appropriating the formal traits of the Renaissance and one expects a subversion or perhaps at least a constructive tension between that historically specific style and its codified subject matter. For instance Balthus frequently used Piero della Francesca as a model but released the dangerous heart of sex along with angelic longing. That doesn't happen with O'Brien in fact the opposite is true, the paintings seem to breath in and hold themselves tight in the hope of a graceful reception. It's almost the reverse of tension as compositions are politely balanced and colours are layered and complementary. O'Brien chose to paint things that sit on the cusp between medieval and renaissance style but doesn't even capture the tension between beauty and suffering, salvation and pain that we see in works by Giotto and Cimabue. O'Brien is clearly enchanted by the shapes and colours of this period but without the underlying tension between the human and the celestial that we feel in their original application these paintings seem little more than decorative.

And yet these works have a subtle and discreet power so it sin worth asking ourselves what else O'Brien might be trying to do. Many of O'Brien's images unfold as gentle sombre pageants, and soon you notice that typically most characters are there to bear witness rather than to act. That passiveness is further borne out by the smoothed line and imperceptible brush-strokes. Rather than bringing the expressionist whorl of modernism to an antique subject. These stretched figures can seem like bleached out El Grecos and perhaps that lack of mannerist drama is what makes them feel peculiar to a modern eye, especially when one considers the influence of El Greco on so many strains if modern painting.

In a show that shines with gold and lapis blue the most touching works are his subdued stations of the cross, pastel tissues of wash give life through restraint. There's a surreal minimal landscape, a washy polygonal delerium and a minimum of figures. The more restrained palette seems to release more gut spirit, a sadness and a clinging to life rather than a jolly gloss of pigment. The under drawings are penned in the firm sinuous lines of an engraver and their clarity also lends them a fragility . The Christ figure dominates, and although he's no less stylized than O'Brien's other figures he is far more physical thanks to the choice of pose, he falls and bends and each diversion from the perpendicular feels critical, a structure falling under stress. Viewed as a sequential series the work grows in power, it begins brighter then light fades from the polychrome of Pilate's condemnation to the bone bleached blue of the sepulchre. Hung in a U-shape in a gently lit room the sequence is gentle and meditative even as it is wracked with an inevitable path to the cross. It is a fine work in any context.

If you look beyond the subject matter and the blues and golds you get a sense that O'Brien painted light. Not the chiarascuro that needs shadow to bring it alive or the directional light as it flickers across impressionist water but the way that light bathes our overall perception. The chalkiness of the later still lives and the bone bleaching of some of the Greek landscape suggest less objects struck by light but the way it occupies the air. A Baptism on a Greek island might be set in a swimming hole, with its summery nostalgia for casual male nudity, but the gold above the pinky blue mesmerizes and you feel the warm soak of a summer day. This isn't the light of revelation or of the theatre, far from it as even in a scene of the taking of Christ in Gethsemane a lantern fails to emit rays, but rather a still radiance, an immersive substantial light.

Justin O'Brien was clearly an anachronism. It's less extraordinary that much of the very proper and restrained work here was made in the Twentieth Century that is was made in the 1960s, so much of it feels like it might have come form a more careful and polite period, one where individualism had not yet been fetishized. In fact such is the sense of quiet conformity that often Jesus's disciples look like a private school sports team on a day out. And perhaps that is the root of O'Brien's creative tension, that between conformity and individuality. Clearly anyone who decides to paint his own obsessive hommage to early-rennaissance frescoes at the end of the 1950s isn't a conformist. I'm willing to accept that there is something deep in O'Brien's work and that is veiled in a visual embrace of the gentle and the contemplative in the face of culture romanticizing shrill expressions of individualism. The sense of grace, of a surrender to ones fate, might not be terribly fashionable but that makes it no less vauable.