That Wave

That wave
Pulled me right overboard
Into permanent morgasm
Emotional action painting
I flew down to the bottom of the sea
Where I questioned the fishes all about it
I was in heaven
Address cloud eleven
They danced and laughed spelling all I fell into was love.

That Wave, Andy Partridge (from Nonsuch, 1992).

Strange to think in this day and age that there might once have been a time when buying or even seeing something Japanese might be near impossible. Sakoku, as it was known, commenced around 1635 and remained state policy for over 200 years. In that time, the Japanese government prevented foreigners from entering and citizens from leaving. Export and import was non-existent; the legal exchange of ideas, culture and goods were non-events. So, while Ukiyo-e prints could be found in Europe from around 1795 in Paris (through diplomatic and personal contacts, rather than commercial trade) it was not until the 1850s when Japan relaxed its laws and trade began to flourish that the craze for things Japanese began to go, well, crazy.

The story goes that French printmaker Felix Bracquemond (1833-1914) encountered a picture-book by Katsushika Hokusai that arrived in France with a shipment of porcelain in the late 1850s. In 1859, a sourcebook by the potter and designer Eugene Collinot and Adalbert de Beaumont included Hokusai’s imagery.

By the early 1860s, French intellectuals such as Charles Baudelaire and Edmond de Goncourt began to take interest. Of course, it is well documented that his work landed in the hands of a whole raft of French artists such as Claude Monet, who acquired 23 of the Japanese artist’s prints and Edgar Degas, who took cues from Hokusai, in particular his thousands of sketches of the human form. The rapid embrace of his prints by European artists may have been in part due to his use of a Western-style vanishing point perspective. Other print designers in Japan employed the Asian perspective, which positioned far-away objects higher on the picture plane, an effect that, to a Western eye, made it appear as though the ground was tilting upwards.

Now you may not know the name Katsushika Hokusai. But I’m prepared to bet that you know at least one of his works: The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Nami-ura)’ from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjurokkei) (c.1830–32), more commonly known as The Great Wave. Arguably the most famous image in all of Japanese art, this iconic woodblock print depicts a huge, frothing wave that belittles and diminishes that other famous symbol of Japan, Mount Fuji – reduced in this image to an impotent ant hill. To reinforce the power of the wave, frightened and cowed fishermen cling for dear life to their boats, expecting the worse, praying for salvation.

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Katushika Hokusai: The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa, 1830. Woodblock print on paper.

Born in Edo (modern Tokyo) in 1760, Hokusai (to use one of his names) led a life that was both intensely productive and undeniably eccentric. I say one of his names because he used Hokusai (Studio of the North Star) from about 1798, when he was in his mid ‘40s and continued for a decade or so, through his 50s. This coincided with a time when his commercial output greatly diminished—a series of setbacks—intermittent paralysis, the death of his second wife, and serious misconduct by his wayward grandson—left him in financial straits. He changed his name in around 1725 to Iitsu and in response to his later life problems, funneled his energy into his work, beginning his famous series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (which included The Great Wave) in 1830. He went on to produce a vast output of ukiyo-e prints that have today come to define our modern view of him.

Hokusai’s final period began in 1834 when he started using his last name Gakyo-rojin Manji (Old Man Mad About Art). Here, he turned from commercial prints to book illustration and brush paintings. While these are powerful and message-laden creations, they somehow don’t match his peak period —the time of That Wave.

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Rhythm

T J Bateson – Iteration Part II.V
Tacit Contemporary Art
312 Johnston Street Abbotsford VIC 3067
Closed October 16

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T J Bateson: Drill Wire Polyhedron I (2016). Synthetic polymer on canvas. 190 x 160cm (approx). © T J Bateson and Tacit Contemporary Art, all rights reserved.

A CURSORY glance at current, contemporary gallery exhibitions (and the comments of curators and critics who should know better) might lead one to believe that painting is on life-support, out of fashion, is mute with nothing left to say. It seems in today’s art world, if you want to succeed, you need to construct art from found and ready-made objects that can be manipulated, styled, reproduced and displayed with as much techno-trickery as you can find  (note: no creation here, just finding and endlessly reinterpreting – a recipe for self-consumption to the point of non-existence if ever there was one). But I digress; my point is that Bateson’s work, happily, disproves that idea.

Sometimes the best thing about art is the initial response you have to seeing it. Iteration Part II.V, by T J Bateson at Tacit Gallery is something to behold. My response is calm. Endless visage. Panorama. An unshaking belief that it’ll all be alright in the end. Bateson’s works – both paintings and prints, are entities of themselves. They ask for nothing – not approval, recognition, permission or acceptance. They just, like those famous monoliths on Easter Island, are. These works are meditative and reflective spaces, they encourage introspection, considered thought, calm and peace. They are salves, gentle oil for the soul. There is no answer here, other than the one you bring yourself. There is no salvation here, other than the one you find for yourself. This makes for a contemplative and near-out-of-world experience.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, these are the latest in a line of works that Bateson has crafted – and will continue to craft into the future. Previous iterations include works that evoke the style of the American abstractionist Gene Davis, other iterations include memories of Rothko, in this spectator. But it doesn’t do to get hung up on comparisons; I only mention these because they provide a convenient way for me to start a dialog with Bateson’s works; my previous reactions to these other works guides me, and perhaps helps me from becoming lost in the language, of mistaking the translation, of misreading the music. There’s majesty and honour in iterating – a continued tradition that recognises the worth of the work, the spark of the idea, the honesty of the concept. Colour in this suite of works isn’t important – line though is, as is a continued rhythm and syncopation that is set up by the flat picture plane, and perspective-less image. This of course, leads the eye and mind to try to create an image from a non-image, and equally predictably, fails to achieve this end. As with all abstract art, Bateson’s works exist as themselves as a record of non-visual response to something, rather than as an image, reproduction or facsimile of something or someone who one has seen. These then, are responses to existence and are the reflection of sentience, knowledge, understanding and sensitivity. They, in many ways, have more in common with musical composition that they do with figurative art it this sense. So, just as a composer plays with our ability to hear, Bateson plays with the our ability to see. He creates visual hooks, rhythms and passages, just as a composer does with notes, chords and melody, that draws us to look, to survey, investigate and through these acts become enmeshed in a dialogue with the image. Once engaged, we are no longer the passive observer for we are provoked into a response, a sophisticated, ethereal response to fundamental material processes.

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T J Bateson: Iteration Noritake Wire Polyhedron III, (2016). Synthetic polymer, dry point and wood block on paper (unique state print). 57 X 76 cm (approx).© T J Bateson and Tacit Contemporary Art, all rights reserved.

These works are embedded in the history of western art – they are direct descendants of the likes of Rothko and others, mentioned earlier. In Australia, they evoke in me the late ‘seventies works of Paul Partos and the surface rhythms of Robert Jacks and Lesley Dumbrell. Unlike these last two, Bateson’s works possess a substance that seemed lacking in Dumbrell’s works from the early ‘eighties – you might accuse her of all surface and design without substance –  with some justification. Bateson’s works will bear no such label.

The Swiss painter and art teacher Johannes Itten was one of the first masters to be appointed by Walter Gropius at the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar. From 1919 to 1923, with the preliminary course which he had developed, Itten influenced the principles of education in design at the Bauhaus. There, he devised a contemporary method of teaching based on insights gained from the progressive educational movement and the artistic avant-garde. Instead of urging his students to start by copying other artworks as was customary at the traditional art academies, Itten encouraged his students to explore their own subjective feelings and to bring creativity to design. He wrote, in Design and Form, his treatise on artistic design, that the basis of composition was really the establishment of contrast and the resulting tensions, balance, and dialogs that contrast creates. In his words, ‘As life and beauty unfold in the regions between the North and South Poles of our planet, so life and beauty are to be found in the graduations between the poles of contrast. In light – dark contrast, the artistic possibility of application lies in the many hues and tone values between black and white. Black and white are points of reversal, not end points of a continuum.’ These works are powerful demonstrations of that concept.

Bateson’s practice and experience  provides him with an extraordinary repertoire of techniques and processes that he manipulates to create the subtle, beautifully inflected and resonant surfaces of his works. His art is one that invites contemplation and the sensual enjoyment of the concrete materiality of the work itself. Each, be they works on paper or canvas, structured from ink or paint, in all their inventiveness and rich variety, demand close scrutiny and always repay the viewer with visual pleasure and new insights into the act of looking. Power is this, self-knowledge and peace; an opportunity to recharge, rethink, reassess. I can’t wait for the next iteration.

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T J Bateson: Iteration Noritake Wire Polyhedron II (2016). Dry point and wood block on paper (unique state print). 75 x 90 cm (approx). © T J Bateson and Tacit Contemporary Art, all rights reserved.

Art Tackles Sport

Basil Sellers Art Prize 5
The Ian Potter Museum of Art
The University of Melbourne
Swanston Street (Between Faraday & Elgin Streets)
Closed November 6, 2016.

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Grant Hobson: Konibba Roosters 1906 to 2016, (2016). 29 panels; 95 X 80cm and 75 X 57cm (approx.), Inkjet digital print on aluminium composite, steel nails and laserjet prints on paper © Grant Hobson, all rights reserved.

‘ART is not sport’ – said Degas, disdainfully, to the son of one of his best friends who insisted on tramping around the countryside, easel and paintbox at the ready, intent on capturing and subjugating the landscape, like a hunter, in colour and form on canvas. Degas was of the view that creating images was mental exercise, not physical; an activity more about taking time to craft and refine an initial idea, rather than respond to a ball or target dangling in front of one’s eyes. Art, above all was definitely not a race for Degas. If such was the case, he’d finish stone motherless last in any speed painting competition; Monet would murder him every time. Continue reading

..Went up to London to visit the… sunflowers

GOING to London? Great. Art is a must-see for the traveler to the heart of the new capitol of nearly-but-not-quite Europe. So much to see though and probably so little time. The biggies include the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery just around the corner in St Martin’s Place, Tate Britain at Millbank and the Tate Modern on Southwark, the Courtauld Gallery off the Strand, the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington and the summer show at the Royal Academy (RA) in Piccadilly (opposite Fortnum and Mason) Continue reading

Surface is illusion, but so is depth

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Albrecht Dürer: Self-portrait at 22, 1493. Oil on linen, 57 x 45 cm. The Louvre, Paris.

PERHAPS the finest engraver, painter and art theorist of the early Northern Renaissance was the Nuremberger, Albrecht Dürer. The range and diversity of his work is astonishing. His woodcuts made him famous across Europe, his engravings unparalleled. As a painter, he was equally successful – commissions for religious icons and portraits for the rich, powerful and cultured were abundant and diverse. He was naturally curious and well-traveled, too. Continue reading

M. Degas arrive en ville

Edgar Degas: <i>Frieze of Dancers</i>, oil on canvas, circa 1895

Edgar Degas: Frieze of Dancers, 1895. Oil on canvas. Cleveland Museum of Art.

IN SIX weeks, the National Gallery of Victoria International opens its latest Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Degas, a New Vision. Works have been drawn from collections across the globe and, in the words of the NGVI’s press office, offer a ‘fresh and dynamic reappraisal of this legendary artist’s genius.’ Continue reading

Between here and there

APW FitzroyCarolyn Hawkins, Sophie Westerman and Kasia Fabijańska
Australian Print Workshop, 210 Gertrude Street Fitzroy.
Closed March 24.

A STORY of threes weaves through this exhibition of 35 works by three talented and capable artists working their chosen mediums. All were scholarship recipients in 2015 – this is the fruit of their work while engaged in those scholarships, awarded through the Australian Print Workshop’s program of support for emerging artists. Continue reading