Thursday 24 March 2011

On Tony Ameneiro @ Sturt Gallery

The Gymea lily, deep scarlet and fleshy atop a defiant spear of stem, has the mark of the Australian bush as fetid hothouse. It pierces the sky as it grows upwards, often twice the height of a grown man, it’s bloody flowers signaling an ancient and untamed biology. Australian artist Tony Ameneiro has been caught in the spell of this singular plant and produced a body of work that returns to it obsessively only to show it anew and give the viewer a sight of something deeper and more personal.

Ameneiro, who works with an equal facility across oils, drawing and multiple printing methods, has found his subject in the lily just as a painter like Giorgio Morandi found his in simple ceramic pots bowls an vases, the repetition of subject allowing him to concentrate on technique, on how different marks made in different media might offer different potential. It’s an intense and true ambition for an artist.

These works take out the extraneous. There are no backgrounds, no foliage, no context just the tightly cropped heads of these alien looking flowers. But the flowers are not the only only heads we see here, as petals can morph into the human. Ameneiro’s echoes og human physiology are more than visual tricks and whilst they might be reminiscent of Arcimboldo’s renaissance fruit salads their pulse and flow never lets them feel contrived.. Instead what we see is an extended meditation on things that are brief and mortal: flowers and human lives.

‘Flowering Head II’ has some of the blur of Seurat but none of the gentleness of pointillist space. The petals writhe like a feeding frenzy of blue and red fish and in doing so seem to form something like pumping and bloody guts. Flowers aren’t supposed to be this visceral but Ameneiro knows that nature isn’t supposed to be polite. That gives him access to a vibrating and messy life force on the paper.

Great printmakers can be taken for granted, they show their art and craft is more than the transposition of drawing to plate. Ameneiro’s success as a printmaker isn’t purely technical, he also has a strong and decisive line that marks can be seen across media, the tension between this and colour or shade is what gives his lilies life whilst making them anything but ‘still’. Here we see that mastery in single colour etchings, stripped back to technique and vision. ‘Gymea Lily Head #2’ crawls off of the paper in a multitude of greys, spits of burnt petal seem to cling to the surface and whorls of texture make the image look like a solarized photograph, something Man Ray may have pulled from the darkroom in shock.

If Ameneiro’s etchings have an earthy mortality his coloured pencil drawings of the same subject are celestial in lightness. These lilies are both dense and weightless. They might have been photographed by the Hubble telescope as they have that delirious colouring, where space dark petals might be enclosing ancient galaxies, and create that same sublime wonder. They do something that touches on a deep romanticism too. These organic wisps of line feel corporeal, almost like James Gleeson’s fleshy clouds whilst always remaining botany. In coming close to a surreal portraiture they remind us of our proximity to nature just as they awe us with its complexity and beauty.

Themes of life and death have long been explored through still life painting and through vegetable matter in particular. There is something that seems to be coalescing in so many of Ameneiro’s images, it isn’t an optical trick rather the feeling that the marks he makes on paper or plate have been wrung and wrestled from a powerful and sentient nature and like nature the images seethe and mutate into and often strange beauty. Tony Ameneiro doesn’t make any didactic claims of intent and that adds to the power of these works, simply by looking and making marks he is finds and makes meaning that never sits still. If art is anything it is the ability to allude to something universal and ineffable through something finite and particular, each time Tony Ameneiro creates another flower he is doing just that.