|ARTICLES REVIEWS & ESSAYS
At one with nature
Nicholas Harding: Drawn to Paint, at the SH Ervin Gallery, is the first museum survey of an artist who has been exhibiting for nearly three decades and who gradually came to prominence as a significant contemporary painter in the 1990s. Wider recognition came when he won the Archibald Prize in 2001 for his portrait of the actor and director John Bell. The Archibald win meant Harding could at last devote all his time to his own work.
Harding was born in Britain, and although he came to Australia as a boy, his style remains deeply rooted in the language of modern British painting: the examples of Frank Auerbach and more particularly Leon Kossoff have been fundamental. In fact the title of othis exhibition recalls the London National Gallery's 2007 show Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting.
But there are also earlier references including Walter Sickert, recalled in the beautiful Bedroom Nude (2000) and even Gwen John in The Red Coat (1994), a portrait of his mother. There is something unmistakably British about all of these painters, although Auerbach was born in Berlin and Kossoff in London of Russian parents (both were pupils of David Bomberg in the post-war years).
Stylistically, what they have in common is a concern with texture and matter which, although ultimately related to the work of Rembrandt, is quite different from the styles that make up the continental mainstream of modern painting: impressionism, neo-impressionism, cubism and others that have been discussed recently in this column.
The mainstream modernist styles belong to a tradition stemming from the Renaissance; Britain, as has been noted before, was cut off from that complex artistic current by the iconoclasm of the Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was only able to reconnect in a deep sense with the genres of portrait and landscape.
For this reason, British painters in the 20th century never really understood the logic behind the modernist movement and the doubts raised about the constitution of an intelligible visual world.
In a sense the very process of picturing the world was mysterious to them, and in the bleak aftermath of World War II, the problem became inescapable.
The question, as they saw it, was less optical or logical than metaphysical; How could a mass of pigment become something else? The Italians, and the tradition they gave rise to, took the visible, objective world as a given and sought for ways to render it; in a dark and introverted northern alternative, the artist begins with the matter of paint itself and struggles to give it life.
This is why the pictures of Auerbach and Kossoff, and the early works of Harding, too, are so thickly painted, piled up with impasto to the point of compromising the legibility of the image.The colours, constantly mixed and worked, or as they aptly said in the 17th century, tormented, tend to become dull; but they are all blended into a narrow range of harmonising hues and tones. Appropriately, the dominant colours are those of the earth itself.
There is something about this process that is almost more tactile than visual; it reminds one of a sculptor modelling clay. This is the style of the earliest paintings in the exhibition, such as Erskineville Railway (1992) or Near Wooli (1995), with their sober green, grey and brown palettes contrasting with the restless animation of the paint surface.
But Harding is also visually gifted and a fine draughtsman: the later notebooks with their sketches of figures at the beach demonstrate how skilfully and economically he can capture attitude and movement. In Study for Near Wooli we can see him thinking out the composition, feeling the movement of the earth and the rhythms of light and dark in the scene.
Interestingly, the finished painting abandons much of that formal and tonal architecture and exposes us to the experience of a landscape that is not merely uneventful but verges on the amorphous; the single tree, linking earth and sky, holds everything together.
Harding did a number of very fine large exhibition drawings in the 1990s and after, sometimes of interiors, but mostly of scenes around railway stations and similar urban subjects. We can feel him struggling, in a sense, against his own facility in the representation of complex spatial relationships: he has an unerring sense of structural composition, but the heavy paper is worked and scraped and redrawn as he strives for material density and formal unity.
In the past few years, Harding's style has undergone a profound change. He has abandoned the thick impasto, the gritty textures and the dull palette of the earlier works for an altogether brighter range of colours, applied in fluid strokes rather than built up like clay. It is a more accessible manner, less anxious about being too legible.
There are some risks in this new approach, though, and they are most obvious in the enormous Central Hall (2007). This is in some ways a very impressive painting. From a distance the effect of space is striking, and Harding has vividly capture the sense of people moving around, with their characteristic attitudes and gestures.
But there there is something that makes one a bit uncomfortable. The whole scene is brilliantly evoked, but it is too literal an account of a real place at a given moment. It has not undergone that alchemical translation into the artifice of painting that makes a picture memorable as a work of the imagination.
This may seem to be a strange thing to say about a work that is so full of painterly bravura, but if you look closely you will perceive the paradox: from a distance, the pictures effect is almost illusionistic, but from close up it appears a kind of mosaic of individually painted patches within a carefully designed structural armature. This was not the case with the earlier works: they were neither illusionistic from afar, nor did they break up into patches at closer range.
Compare the small Eddy Avenue Bus Stop (2002) that hangs next to this big picture. Here everything is of a piece, the painterly surface a continuously woven texture, the colours and tones flowing effortlessly into each other, and all the figures captured with just the right movement and energy, the right degree of differentiation and of articulation for people who are not meant to be individuals but types.
The result is that what might have been a banal little vignette of station life is transformed into a concise and suggestive image of an aspect of human experience in the modern world. There is waiting, movement, attention and inattention: a lightly evoked image of a liminal or transitional moment in the urban day.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the new flatter and more fluid manner of painting does not lend itself as well to the aesthetic transformation of urban scenery as the earlier style. Buildings are already artificial things, finite and bounded in form, not unbounded and infinitely suggestive like the things of nature.
That is why buildings generally work best in paintings as part of a landscape, stable forms that anchor the indefinite and organic ones of nature. If the new manner is in some senses more literal, it may be ill-matched to things that are already too finite to be of great intrinsic interest.
On the other hand, the new manner is particularly successful at dealing with plant forms, because they are in their very nature fluid and organic. Hardings flowers are surprising and delightful, painted as though from an inner knowledge of their form and dynamism, much as in the theory of Chinese painting the artist must be at one with the bamboo or the iris in order to embody its life force in a few strokes.
The Minnie Water Pandanus (2006) is an extraordinary explosion of vitality, and the corresponding pandanus drawings are also remarkable things.
The black-and-white versions sometimes recall Chinese ink drawings, but the colours too are outstanding and feel less copies or matched than spontaneously arising out of an intimate understanding of the plants.
Harding is similarly very good at painting the colour, movement and mood of water, but to my mind the beach pictures are the least successful part of his ouvre. The figures are too big, too literal, too lacking in imaginative interest.
The river scenes, on the other hand, with their much smaller figures, are admirable.
The water of rivers has an entirely different character: it has a current rather than a swell, and for that reason is one of the most spontaneous metaphors for the passage of time; its motion is apparently simpler but in fact unpredictable, and under its quiet surface it can conceal perils for boats and for swimmers.
Swimming in the sea has an ecstatic aspect, communing with the sublime; swimming in a river is a more reflective, even melancholy experience. But rivers are seldom uninteresting; Mallarme said in the autobiographical note he composed for Verlaine that one could spend whole days boating on a river and never feel that time had been wasted.
This is the setting of Harding's river pictures, as is the vast mass of the cliff faces opposite the river beach: immemorially ancient forms probably carved out in the course of millions of years by the unassuming waters flowing by.
The pairing of water and rock is ubiquitous in Chinese painting too, the eternal interaction of female and male, yin and yang in the life of nature.
All successful art requires a matching of expressive means to subject, and in this case Harding's more recent style is well suited to what he wants to paint.
The rocky faces of the cliffs cannot be rendered literally, especially on the scale he adopts, without losing all sense of their stark grandeur; Hardings bold and heavy strokes of paint become a pictorial equivalent of the sheer cliff faces and the heaped boulders by the shore.
It is one of those curious paradoxes of art that quick and desisive strokes are required to give an adequate account of forms that have arisen over a long period of time. As with the flowers, an intimate attunement to the nature of the subject is more important than minute imitation.
On the beach, beside the fluid impassivity of the river, his figures stand or recline. They are not doing anything, not interacting with each other. But whereas the seaside figures seem bodies empty of consciousness, here something more profound is taking place.
The atmosphere is still and silent. A woman looks over to the river; a man floats on his back under the cliff. Another wades in the water near the edge. There is a strong, in this last case almost solemn, sense of their presence in the place and in the moment.
In these pictures, painted only last year, Harding has achieved something that is very hard to do today: to paint the figure in the landscape, and thus to evoke the experience of being in nature. They are memorable images of ordinary people in unselfconscious communion with the natural environment.
Dr Christopher Allen
Visual Arts p11-12 REVIEW The Australian 6-7 February 2010
In 1991, Nicholas Harding wasn't painting much. But at a production of The Merchant of Venice in a tent at the Sydney Showground - the atmosphere like a very hot Globe Theatre, its audience in shorts and thongs - he began to think about painting John Bell, playing Shylock before him.
Five years later, Harding made a drawing of Bell in Coriolanus. Harding's dealer and friend, Rex Irwin, sold it to a patron of the arts who gave it to the Bell Shakespeare Company. On the strength of the Coriolanus drawing, Bell sent Harding a note, telling him that if he ever wanted to 'do him' for the Archibald he wouldn't be averse to the idea.
Nicholas Harding has been to many Bell Shakespeare productions since the company formed in 1990. He's loved the story of Lear since school; as a youth he went to a production of the play with his father, and he could never forget seeing Paul Scofield in Peter Brook's 1971 film, shot in the harsh emptiness of Jutland. In 1998, Harding sat in the front row of the Bell Shakespeare/ Barrie Kosky King Lear; his senses flooded, the moment he got home he drew John Bell leaning into a triangle of light, his shadow cast on the flats behind him.
In due course, Harding developed the nerve to approach Bell about a portrait, and they discussed the idea over morning tea with Rex Irwin, a friend in common. While amenable, Bell was very busy and hard to pin down for a sitting. One appointed day Harding took his drawing materials down to the Wharf Theatre, where Bell was rehearsing Strindberg's Dance of Death. Having arrived early, the artist was sitting reading the paper in his car, when he spied a moustachioed Bell emerge from the building. Harding was arrested by the intensity of his expression - even though Bell was just walking a dog. For the sitting they went to a dance rehearsal room, but the moment they entered that 'nowhere' space Bell was a little uncomfortable with being scrutinised and the session didn't come to much. Later, in Bell's office in the Rocks, the artist drew him as he dictated a letter. Accustomed to Bell's on-stage vigour, Harding was surprised at his affability; but there was no time to waste as he set about capturing the actor's extraordinary lips and bone structure. The resulting Portrait of John Bell was a finalist in the Archibald Prize of 2000 - which was won by Adam Cullen's portrait of David Wenham. However, Harding had always had Bell's performance of Lear in mind and now felt equipped to pursue it.
Each year, following its gala season in Sydney, the Archibald exhibition travels to several other venues. As the works in the 2000 Archibald toured Australia, Harding, flat broke and living on a stipend from the Irwin gallery, began work on another painting of Bell: this time as King Lear, wearing the red double-breasted greatcoat from the Kosky production and so Bell's passion for Shakespeare would now become part of the portrait. In the meantime, the Archibald had reached Melbourne when Harding took a call from an arts administrator, who asked him if he was sitting down. It was the poor woman's duty to tell the artist that the corner of another painting had gouged the Portrait of John Bell while traveling from the previous gallery venue. The relatively fresh paint surface of the work had softened in transit, and as the other painting ground against it Bell's face was erased and a fissure was ripped through his figure. The damage was irreparable.
Before long, it emerged that what must have seemed like the worst possible news to the person who had to relay it came with a substantial silver lining. Over the years, Harding has scraped away more than his share of his own paintings in fevered frustration. But this time he was far from the scene of destruction. The insurance money was enough for him to secure the huge amount of paint he needed to finish the second portrait of Bell, as Lear.
Harding hasn't often experienced the thrill of feeling that he's carried a portrait off, but he felt buoyant about John Bell as King Lear. It was chosen for the 2001 Archibald exhibition without Bell's ever having seen it; and it won. John Bell conferred his Archibald favours very graciously, making himself available to pose with his likeness, as sitters traditionally do. In fact he went further. When the announcement was made, and the artist found himself too nervous to respond, he called on the thespian to speak in his stead. Bell, in his turn, made up a charming fiction of glancing down from the stage, and, seeing the artist sketching in the audience, taking pains to present his best profile whenever he could. Harding managed to stammer in his delight that as pleased as he was with the portrait's rendering of Bell's energy and power.
The year 2001 was an annus mirabilus for Harding; he also won the Dobell Drawing Prize with Eddy Avenue 3. Characteristic of the heavily-worked ink on paper drawings for which he initially became known, it was the first of Harding's works to be acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He explained to curators that he approached drawing with a 'primary concept' borrowed from Bonnard: 'the impulse to draw comes from something seen and a compulsion to understand it,' he said. For his drawings, he takes sheets of heavy watercolour paper and 'skins' the machine-pressed surface to reveal the soft stratum of pulp beneath. Working on two sheets glued together to make a thick, yielding medium, he draws with a square-tipped palette knife, emery cloth and a broken palette knife, using the latter both as a large square nib and as a correction tool. As the image progresses he corrects it by rubbing back through the drawing to reveal the white paper surface, ready to receive fresh marks and tone. He moves everything around in this way until it seems to him that he has created 'both a compositional tension and a synthesis of materials and content'.
Made in much this way, the ink, charcoal and contť portrait of Bell in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery appears to be a preparatory sketch for the finished painting; but in fact, the drawing formed alongside the portrait, rather than being created before it. It helped the artist find his way; but as indicated by the date of 1998-2001, it did so along the way.
Rex Irwin put the painting on the market hoping that it would be purchased for one of Sydney's cultural hubs but it was spotted, instead, by a Singaporean couple with a substantial collection of modern art. They agreed to a period in which they'd renounce the work if another buyer could be found, but they were very keen on it, phoning often to check on its status - and eventually, says Harding, it 'went where it was loved'.
John Bell as King Lear was tipped, by pundits, to win the Archibald from the outset. The only carping remark about Harding's victory came from a critic who asked if the portrait breached the rules of the competition, as it 'essentially portrayed a character, not a '"real" person'. Somehow, he had calculated that the portrait was 70% King Lear and 30% Bell - although he admitted that it was difficult to know where one left off, and the other began. Let's call the National Portrait Gallery's drawing, in which Bell is stripped of his regal trappings and his expression is a little softer, 70% John Bell and 30% Lear. Though Harding found Bell's performance in the great play riveting, the intensity of the finished work originated in that unguarded moment outside the Wharf, when John Bell walked out to clear his head, but hadn't yet disengaged from his art.
Dr Sarah Engledow
National Portrait Gallery
Portrait40 Magazine June - August 2011
Faced with the challenge of depicting a person treading water, many of us would draw the head and shoulders sliced off with a rigid line, as uncompromising as a cheesewire, across the collarbones. Something might emerge that looked a little like a bust, suspended in empty space; colourless, formless water defies amateur representation. Nicholas Harding is a specialist in depicting floating and swimming figures. The title of the painting recently purchased by the National Portrait Gallery, Robert Drewe (in the swell) describes the extraordinary effect Harding is able to pull off, seemingly without effort, again and again; the real, solid body of a person, invisible, yet present, obscured by water that supports and nudges at it.
As events have unfolded over the past five years, a better combination of artist and sitter than Harding (b. 1956) and Drewe (b. 1943) would be difficult to devise. The titles of Drewe's books the short story collections The Bay of Contented Men, The Bodysurfers and The Rip, as well as the novel The Drowner and the autobiographical/ fictional The Shark Net, both of which garnered myriad awards proclaim that his writing is anchored in the fundamental element of water. So it was that in mid 2005, the author was invited to open a group exhibition, The Sea, at Rex Irwin's commercial art gallery in Woollahra. Nicholas Harding was one of the artists represented. Harding had already won the Archibald Prize in 2001 for a portrait of actor John Bell and he had established a solid reputation with his paintings and huge ink drawings of innercity Sydney. For The Sea, he had drawn a pandanus palm and painted Pink Zinc (in the swell); in hindsight, they were prototypes for scintillating series of works that ensued. Harding had no opportunity to talk to Drewe at the opening; but shortly afterward, he emailed him about the possibility of a portrait. Agreeing to meet in neutral territory, in the Christmas holidays that year the two men and their respective families came together at The Pass Cafe near Byron Bay on the coast north of Sydney. They hit it off; and the portrait process began with a series of drawings made on the beach.
In a piece published on Harding's website, Drewe, who, like many men, has been used to thinking of himself as no oil painting and finds it hard to relax even momentarily for a photograph, describes the unsettling experience of being scrutinized at length by the artist. The first portrait was one of Harding's now characteristic littoral works, showing Drewe amongst other figures on the beach, the sea at his back. It was promising; Drewe saw something of his own grandfather in it; but Harding overworked it, and it was spoiled. A second attempt pleased no-one in the end. With a number of drawings, some photographs (mainly of water) and two failed portraits, the artist squared up for a third attempt, returning from Sydney to Byron Bay to renew their sittings. On this occasion, however, as Harding drew, he looked up from his sketchpad to see that the older man had disengaged, for a moment, from the portrait process. The expression Harding saw in that unposed moment was what he had been missing. At last, he knew he had "something to chase".
The artist was still oppressed, however, by what to do with the author's figure. Some time later, Harding was hanging in a quiet sea at Minnie Water. It was midday, and he was looking at the way the sea and sky melted together and colours faded and bled into each other in the heat. As he observed the way ambient light bounced off the water and the eyes of the people bobbing in it, and the way the water lapped around the figures more rapidly than it lifted and lowered them, the portrait of Drewe crystallized in his imagination. He went back to Sydney to create a painting of the author treading water.
As he worked on his third portrait of Drewe, Harding cast off the ballast of his previous drawings, photographs and paintings. Following Renaissance painters, by way of his twentieth century exemplars Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach, he tries to think of the painting field as a democratic space in which no one element takes automatic precedence over any other. He remarks that for a portraitist, under pressure to get the face right and, moreover, to achieve something beyond likeness it is a difficult precept to retain. In this instance, rather than fretting over Drewe's face, he concentrated on the negative space of the water. As he worked, the rhythm of his painting melded with his own memories of striking through the sea, and the way it felt as it flowed around and against him. Even as he arrested the water in pigment, while working to lay paint wet into slippery wet, he focused on how he would feel, immersed in the ocean's flux. In fact, the painting conveys the rhythm of the painter's arms, hips, and legs, as much as it conveys a sense of the solid torso and moving legs of Drewe. Yet the chest and belly of Drewe were never laid down; it is the pale undulations of the painted water, with its hints of refracted flesh colour, that give form to the body of Drewe, underneath. Harding recalls that he was standing before the painting in his studio, unsure of whether it was working or not, when his partner, Lynne, moved past it on the way to eat her lunch on the sofa. "Thats almost there", she said. That simple declaration fired the artist with the confidence to finish with the project once and for all.
Robert Drewe recalls rather poignantly that when he stood self consciously, yet, it may be inferred, with some expectancy, by the portrait at the Archibald exhibition, nobody noted the real man beside his painted image. The Sydney crowd hastened, instead, to see the paintings of celebrities on display. It was the culmination of the experience of having the portrait painted, as a whole: the interesting sensation of having ones ego simultaneously inflated and deflated, as Drewe puts it.
Some years after seeing Harding's portrait of Drewe in the Archibald show, as I curated works for Idle hours, I thought about it again. While its subject, a man weightless in a benign and sunny sea, seemed perfect for the exhibition, the look on Drewes face was distinctly at odds with the shows tone of contentment. It evoked the protagonist of Drewe's short story The Bodysurfers, who sits on the sunny beach watching his children and new partner in the surf, "a cold constriction in his throat". The work was hardly nightmarish, yet there was something about it, too, that was reminiscent of Goya's The dog. For Idle hours another of Harding's swimmers, Robert Dickerson, was a better fit. But Robert Drewe (in the swell) was highly desirable for the Gallery's collection, and in due course, its acquisition was negotiated. Now, in fact, it may be one of the few paintings in the Gallery's collection that comes close to the widely held belief, or romantic fancy, that a painted portrait is unique in its uncanny capacity to reveal something of its subject's sitter's psyche or soul. Drewe, at least, seems to think so. "Apart from becoming good friends with the artist, a terrific bloke," he writes, "I got something valuable out of the experience, an appreciation of true artistic insight. In our many hours of posing and sketching, eating and drinking and chatting, I had always presented a cheerful face, I thought, cracking jokes and bantering my way through my self consciousness. I hadn't let on that my life was going through a very rough patch. But I saw it in my portrait. It was all evident."
In the years since Robert Drewe (in the swell) was painted, Harding's career has burgeoned; his paintings and drawings of the beaches, caravan parks and vegetation of the beaches north of Sydney are in hot demand from collectors. Some of them, like some of his earlier paintings of the inner city, have an element of magic about them. It is amazing, in Harding's work, that fat swipes of frankly garish paint can resolve, at a backward step, into magnolia flowers of the utmost elegance, unfurling against the spring sky. It is even more so that blobs and crusts of many-coloured oils can metamorphose, with only a little distance, into the slack eyepockets of a man well into middle age, and blue eyes that speak of the strain the artist had seen, for a moment, in the face of another.
Dr Sarah Engledow
National Portrait Gallery
Portrait37 Magazine September - November 2010
Studio Nude 1994
The Kedumba Collection of Contemporary Australian Drawings
On display at the Kedumba Gallery, Wentworth Falls, NSW
Nicholas Harding's trademark may be his thick, luscious layers of oil paint, but drawing, he says, is at the heart of his art.
Such is his passion for drawing that he pushes the medium to its limits, often gouging and tearing the paper's surface to create texture and three-dimensional depth.
This exploratory approach to drawing has seen him win numerous prestigious drawing awards, including the 2001 Dobell Prize and the 1994 Kedumba Drawing Award. He also has been selected to exhibit in other high-profile drawing exhibitions, such as Grafton's Jacaranda Drawing Award and Mornington Peninsula's Beleura National Works on Paper exhibition.
When Harding won the Kedumba award with Studio Nude, the judge, artist Ann Thomson, described the work as "taking the imagination into another place". After the announcement of the winners for that year, Thomson told me it had been a difficult exhibition to evaluate because of the high standard from artists such as Harding, Alun Leach Jones, Janet Laurence, Arthur Boyd, Peter Kennedy and John Coburn, who all took drawing seriously and who considered drawing a complete statement in its own right, not just as something to be later developed into a painting, sculpture or installation.
A few years ago Harding and I had a conversation about drawing. It was evident that, for him, drawing was the core of his work. "In my artistic practice, drawing is the bedrock of everything," he said. "Whether you are working with ink or paint or charcoal, drawing is at the heart of it".
There is something about a good drawing that can elicit a poetic response. When I recently asked respected painter Euan Macleod what he thought of Studio Nude, Macleod responded that he "loved the contradiction in this drawing: the violence of its production and the serenity of the subject matter".
"Nicholas Harding's surfaces are always incredibly beautiful," says Macleod. "In this earlier drawing the surface is especially worked at to a point where the paper is tortured almost beyond recognition, giving the viewer an intimate sense of how the drawing was created. However, the subject has remained fresh and light. There is a sense of inner calm at odds with the length of time and physical effort it would have taken to bring the drawing to its conclusion. For me this gives it a sense of timelessness and maybe says something about finding some peace in a harsh world".
Away from drawing, Harding, who was born in London in 1956 and came to Australia in 1965, paints distinctly Australian settings: the industrial and urban areas around his Sydney home and studio and the caravan parks and beach life of the NSW coast. He is, however, probably best known to the public for his Archibald Prize portraits.
Harding won the Archibald in 2001 with his portrait of actor John Bell as King Lear and has been hung in the Art Gallery of NSW finalist exhibition nearly every year since 1994. He has painted subjects such as Margaret Olley, Margaret Whitlam, artist Robert Dickerson (the portrait won the People's Choice award in 2005), artist Rusty Peters and writer Robert Drewe.
The Drewe painting was recently bought by Canberra's National Portrait Gallery for its permanent collection, along with one of Harding's drawing studies of John Bell as Lear.
The Australian 9 October 2010
People in Idle hours are not all taking a break from constructive activity; but they are almost all taking a break from self-consciousness, angst and restlessness. Idle hours is an exhibition of images of contentment - images of people disconnected, in some cases, and concentrating, in others, but all of them at ease with who and where they are. Most of them are at home.
In depicting family, friends and strangers doing nothing much, artists enter into an extended pact of quietude with their sitters. Brought together, such works trail the tranquil circumstances of their creation into the gallery space; contemplating the paintings, prints and drawings in the exhibition, the viewer is drawn into the silent stillness of the situations depicted.
Idle hours takes its name not only from the theme, but from the layout of the show - the works of which, regardless of the year in which they were made, are hung according to the time of day or night that they depict. The first room of Idle hours contains pictures of people waking up, breakfasting and enjoying the sun. By the entrance to the second room, the first person has fallen into an after-lunch siesta; others work through a basket of ironing, pick up their sewing, or sit down to afternoon tea. As the afternoon lengthens, people enjoy a beer, ease into a bath and watch television. In the last room, as night falls and deepens, others prepare dinner, put on a record or settle in for some serious talking. Moving through the span of a waking day, Idle hours is an exhibition about the quality of light as well as one that emphasises the commonality of middle-class Western experience.
From the gay blues, pinks and yellows of William Robinson's Morning and Hilda Rix Nicholas's Sylvia and friend at Mosman, to the velvety black, gold and suede-beige of Jenny Sages's Red shoes from Vinnies and Hugh Ramsay's A student of the Latin Quarter, the visitor to Idle hours moves from the possibilities of the fulgent morning into the soft cover of darkness.
Some of the works in Idle hours are typical of the artist's practice: of many works by Hilda Rix Nicholas that could have been included, for example, there are two; of many by Agnes Goodsir, there are three. Others seem unusual. Ken Done's hazy, wistful self portrait Trying to paint on a Monday is unlike his brash and hard-edged commercial designs. Rick Amor's painting of his baby daughter, Zoe, is not readily recognised by people accustomed to his disconcerting, lonely views of Melbourne streets and empty museums. And viewers accustomed to Brett Whiteley's agonised self portraits may be surprised by the absence of stylisation in his beautiful drawing of his wife, Wendy sleeping, or the love that bleeds from his Wendy drunk 11pm
Almost without exception, Idle hours comprises pictures of serene and equable-looking individuals. Many of the works in it are small. Paradoxically, however, one of the exhibition's most engaging portraits is distinguished not only by its giant size, but by the irascible expression of its subject - Dr John Shera, father-in law of the Queensland painter, novelist and filmmaker Davida Allen. Allen won the Archibald Prize for 1986 with this portrait of her husband's elderly father pouring water on his young trees, the sun hot on his back, the hose a cold vein against his leg. In the course of the painting's creation, she lashed the wet paint with branches taken from Dr Shera's garden. Though more arresting than gentle, better viewed from a distance than contemplated closely, it is an ideal work for Idle hours because watering, a constructive pursuit that requires minimal effort, is an activity that cannot be hurried. Ideally undertaken in old and scant clothes, it affords great opportunities for rumination.
Often, the people with whom we feel most at ease are partners and family members - even in-laws - and it is no coincidence that more than half of the works in Idle hours depict the artist's partner, children, parent or sibling. It is a privilege of a lover or family member to observe a sleeper, and a long wall of Idle hours is devoted to slumbering figures, most of them well-loved by the artists who depicted them. Kevin Lincoln evokes the utter obliviousness of his grandson in a spare drawing of him flat on his stomach, head turned to one side. Rod Ewins depicts his new bride, Bev, drowsing in their English flat, her clean hair falling across her face and her robe lying open over her pale breast. And alone in their seaside house, Ivor and June Hele repeatedly enact an erotic tableau, the artist scrutinising every crease of his prone, compliant model; sometimes she is naked, her hair loose around her, but more often she wears bits and pieces of garments and outfits - a frilled petticoat, silky pants, seamed stockings, high shoes or a soft slip. When we contemplate images such as these in Idle hours, we do not just look at the insensible subject, but picture the quiet minutes in which the artist rendered the recumbent figure; the minutes that passed while the humdrum turned into art.
Grace Cossington Smith travelled to England and Germany before the First World War, taking a motoring holiday with her father and sister Mabel. On her return she moved into the new family home in the undulating suburb of Turramurra north of Sydney, where her father had built her 'a dear little studio down at the bottom of the garden, a perfect studio'. She was to live at Cossington for the next sixty years, drawing and painting domestic scenes, objects and flowers. As a young woman she often sketched her siblings, Madge, Diddy and Gordon as they read and snoozed in the house and garden.
Several of these drawings are featured in Idle hours, including a lovely charcoal of Madge, rendered with a tender kind of objectivity as she dozes through a warm Turramurra afternoon. It was in her first few years at Turramurra, too, that Grace began to experiment with coloured paints, rendering her surrounds at different times of the day and night; but there are comparatively few paintings in which the Smith siblings appear as themselves. For The sock knitter 1915, its strong forms and bright blocks of colour revolutionary in Australian art, she used her sister Madge as a model, setting her looking upright and intent on making a sock to send to a soldier. There are other paintings in which her sisters are pressed into service in this way; but it is simply Diddy who stitches in the bright light and fresh morning air of the open window.
Some of the loveliest drawings of a sleeper in the show are by an artist at the peak of his career to date, Nicholas Harding, whose retrospective exhibition at Sydney's SH Ervin Gallery coincides with Idle hours. Harding has built his reputation on mighty drawings of railway tracks and scungy streets of inner Sydney, rendered in ink scored deeply into thick paper, and lush, scintillatingly atmospheric paintings of the holiday coast a few hours to the north. He is also an accomplished portraitist; his portrait of John Bell won the Archibald Prize in 2001, and Bob's daily swim, included in Idle hours, was a highly commended key image in the Archibald of 2005. His paintings are typically thick impasto (never thicker than in his portrait of art dealer Rex Irwin, included in Idle hours, which requires several art handlers to lift it). The exhibition also features six captivating drawings Harding made of his son at various times, ranging from quick sketches to beautifully refined work. Reflecting on the gift of spending time with loved ones, Harding writes that 'to gaze upon those whose company holds profound meaning stirs many, sometimes conflicting, emotions. The joy of presence and promise tempered with anxiety for possible jeopardy. Drawing slows down the fleeting moment, attempting to grasp the impermanent and is an empirical affirmation of this intimate bond. To look to the point of fascination is a purpose of drawing and to draw our son is an act of devotion.'
In Sam reading, one of the quick drawings on perforated paper that was to hand, Sam lies with his head propped up rather awkwardly, chin buried in his chest; his eyes burn unswervingly on his book, his large shorts are drawn up high. His foot flops sideways, rolling his whole leg over. In this drawing, seemingly utterly unposed, Harding really does seem to have succeeded in his attempt to stop time.
Like several subjects of works in the exhibition, Sam appears transfixed by his book. Yet relaxation is not always expressed through inertia. Children, especially, are often most at ease when upside-down or sideways, under the table or behind the sofa. Brian Dunlop and Fred Williams made paintings and prints of their daughters this way. Dunlop, an artist well-known for paintings of solitary figures in empty interiors, often drew his children Sophie and Claudia when they came to stay in his Fitzroy house in the 1980s. In Dunlop's sunny living room, Claudia weaves her fingers in the wicker, idly enjoying the room viewed from an angle.
Looking at Girl resting in a wicker sofa we can feel the hard canes her fingers grip, and remember how when viewed from floor level, the ceiling of the room looks much more spacious than the floor; a place of great possibilities. Jenny Sages is well-known as a portraitist; her paintings of Emily Kngwarrey and Helen Garner are amongst the most popular works in the National Portrait Gallery. In 2002, Sages made a remarkably intimate series of drawings of her adult daughter, titled Red shoes from Vinnies. Sages's daughter was in her early thirties and living on a property outside Toowoomba, Queensland, with her family when she contracted Ross River fever. Her mother went to help her, but her lasting gift was this visual narrative, showing the young woman moving from her bedroom to the kitchen and preparing a meal over the course of one afternoon and evening.
As her mother observed, 'her time clock as a mother told her that the children needed feeding, she attended to that as always with care, after they were fed she wiped down the old kitchen table and with despair gave into her illness again.' Sages recalls 'she had bought the red shoes from Vinnies for five dollars several weeks before, they seemed to be the only bright spot in her life at that time.' The works glow with the yellow light of the hot weatherboard kitchen against the blackness of the windows, punched with stars. The last drawing in this otherwise observational series shows the subject's all-but-naked body braced in the red heels, knees locked back. The kitchen stools are now unoccupied, two little spotted glasses sit starkly on the table; but the young woman's face is blurred: a blank. In effacing her, Sages poignantly expresses both her daughter's exhaustion, and her own powerlessness to make her well. Both of them must simply wait.
Moving as it does across the span of a day and night, its subjects ranging from babies to the elderly, Idle hours is a microcosm of life's brevity, the necessity for everybody to come to terms with his or her essential solitude as well as the love and learning that make living worthwhile. Cressida Campbell is a Sydney artist who works in a studio in the back garden of her home in Bronte, listening to the wireless and talking on the telephone while she builds up the delicate details in her prints of plants, vessels and interiors. 'It's a slow process,' she has said. 'You can't do it faster than it needs to be done.' A few years after they met in the early 1980s she made a portrait of her husband, writer, critic and editor Peter Crayford, rustling his paper in repose. Cressida Campbell's and Peter Crayford's is a moving love story, documented in Crayford's November 2008 Spectator article describing his recurrent illness and his determination to produce a book that would do justice to his wife's beautiful work. Although they have been together more than twenty years, 'I think both of us fascinate each other', Crayford has said. There were tough times ahead for the graceful couple; but rendered here in finely-modelled, youthful profile, Crayford gives off a lovely air of equanimity.
Almost nobody is smiling in Idle hours. Some of the men and women depicted are so self-contained that we might question whether they feature in portraits or still life compositions. But the human presence in the works means that many of them seem to invite us to listen as well as look; if we do so, what we will hear is a limpid stillness. Idle hours is balm for increasing numbers of us who wonder why we work longer hours than our parents and grandparents; why we seldom finish reading the books piled by our beds; why we spend so much time in the office and shopping mall. It invites us to ask when we began to accelerate; to become little more than a tangle of traits, habits and needs that we donít admire in others. It is a show about self-possession, constructive routines and close attention to loved ones - about contentment, and complaisance. On reflection, in fact, it is a show of happy portraits.
Dr Sarah Engledow
National Portrait Gallery
Portrait34 Magazine December 2009 - February 2010
Nicholas Harding's new body of work on show at Philip Bacon Galleries continues his fascination with this nations love of sand and surf. Through his most recent shows, Harding has almost singlehandedly transformed our view of beach culture, breathing new life into this languid Australian summer day pastime. Through the deceptively complicated compositions and luxurious, jewel like paint of his vibrant images he is able to elevate our sloth like habits into meaningful acts of sun worship.
At first glance, there appears to be a black-and-white simplicity to the images, but within the hard contrasts of light and dark lies a plethora of subtle tones. In Swamp oak shade (four figures) 2009, the oak and pandanus plant, motifs repeated throughout the show, provide more than shelter from the harsh sun. Its shadow becomes a device that leads us into the focal plane. On second look, the gloomy, dark pitch conceals beautiful deep reds and violets, working together to give the shade life. There is a stark jump into the harsh light where the weight of a figure on sand is heavily placed into a mix of white and sienna underlay. Harding has worked hard at creating figures of solidity and depth using this tonal approach in sections only. What initially looks stark is actually a puzzle of compelling paint qualities and details. The outlines of the figures with their sharp angles, cut across and into the backgrounds, broken by the odd arbitrary splat. This judicious use of spontaneous blobs works as an important link between figure and surround. What could be hard to make convincing figuratively is playfully dealt with, breaking up forms to create a unified whole.
In the flatter planes, elegant passages work in combination with determined areas of layered graft such as the simple but absorbing Beach grass figure (with waterbottle) 2009. Harding admits to some early failures in tackling these beach scenes, which frustrated his progress. However, through diligent observation which builds upon previous explorations of this subject matter, these new works reveal his increased confidence in paint handling, which adds to the subject matter and the reading of the works. He says when he is at his best and firing there is "no thinking, its raw communication in paint".
A sense of awkwardness arises from the structure of these works: unbalanced compositions; bodies that tilt and are placed in perhaps not the most obvious positions; a boldness at odds with the attention to detail. There is real life and a sense of completeness that draws you in the more you look at each work. The life subjects and their quickfire looseness spring from the many black ink sketches that litter his studio. Some seemingly simple outlines are laboured over, while other passages that appear to be more involved are done in seconds.
Harding likes to work within restrictions. From a relatively simple subject matter he is able to extrapolate larger possibilities in paint. Through hard won experience, he has understood the need for simplicity, yet there is evidence of those little battles that makes for good work. This simplicity allows the viewer into the work. Instinctively, the first response is to think that you already know what a beach scene looks like, or should be. But these works take the concept further, confounding what you thought you already knew with an ambiguous mystery of paint. Spectrum orange becomes a highlight on a figure against black and purple boardshorts. A permanent green beach bag placed next to a bather is crucial to the works colourful impact.
Harding's preference for applying paint in extremely thick layers is a primary element of his work, yet it doesnt predominate or become a facile tool. With these works, we are able to appreciate what he finds beautiful, an optimistic painter in a sceptical world. He takes us to places that provide more visual clues than what we would have thought possible. These paintings are lyrical, poetic elegies to our history of summer sloth. Through paint they remain muscular and are revealing of our base desires; not malevolent but joyous celebrations of sun and the harsh engaging light of Australia.
ARTIST PROFILE Issue 09 2008
The beach looms large and ever present in the Australian psyche, part of our collective history and nationhood as Antipodean other, wondrous island girt by sea. Our relationship with the beach is dichotomous. Simultaneously the site for relaxation and recreation and the setting for great tragedies, the beach is a stage upon which both humble and great acts in lifeís theatre are played out, from elaborate surfboard ballets to awkward first encounters with the ocean. It is a place of raging hormones and exposed flesh, both taut and flabby, peaceful solitude and summer book reading.
Nicholas Harding has frequently returned to the beach for his subject matter. The resultant paintings and drawings, executed in his characteristically bold hand with an impressively impasto palette, are ebullient studies of simple things. Harding's considerable skill is to capture fleeting moments - an enervated sunbather, a snorkeller coming up for air, a small boy mid somersault Ė and suspend them eternally in thick inches of oil paint without forsaking immediacy or spontaneity.
This is the success of the work; these are as much paintings about painting, the act of painting and mark making, as they are about a laconic pastime. Similarly, when Harding employs ink on paper it is with an audacity bordering on aggression. His pandanus study veritably writhes with life, the fecundity of the plant echoed in the abundance of the strokes. This is work replete with exhuberance akin to desire that evokes the essence of our relationship to the beach.
Alison Kubler 2008
Watching Nicholas Harding work is a lesson in the promises and problems of painting. He moves back and forth from the canvas, taking in the big view and then honing in on inscrutable detail. Figures are constituted from swathes of paint into recognisable forms then smashed into something enigmatic. To avoid illustration is his maxim. What matters for Harding is your visceral response; that the energy and motion of the pigments hit you, so you feel, as well as see, what is in front of you. Harding describes it as a process through which "at some point, the illustration falls away and it is primarily paint".
Itís a game he encourages: look closely at the figures and they liquefy into delicious globs of candy colour, stand back and you feel the harried rush of peak hour at Central. His extraordinary skill as a figurative painter is in creating tension between the luxuriant materiality of his surfaces and the dissolving illusion of pictorial reality. Like a poet, he doesnít hand us everything on a plate, but he does give us movement, shadow, nuance, texture, and then leaves us to use our imagination.
In his most recent work, Harding has left the coast and caravan parks and returned to the city landscape. Having absorbed new perspectives on colour, light and space from his beach series, these works are a very different fare to previous efforts. The colour is richer, and, according to Harding, framed by a greater understanding of how to use black. Urban clutter presents a different set of aesthetic riddles. The heavy impasto that evoked seaside languor must now imply constraint, architecture, grit, and commuter pace.
Harding recently said to me "Good paint wonít save a bad composition". The armature of these urban grids has been carefully considered through preparatory drawings. Look beyond the paint and notice how the lines lead you to points of focus and establish an urban perspective; itís through this structure that Harding coerces us into noticing the lurid orange jacket in the camping shop window, to feel the constriction of cyclone fencing, to measure the diverging motions of a crowd.
These urban scenes are not picnic destinations. They are stolen moments from the daily grind, when we step out of ourselves and notice something wondrous; the magic buzz of a crowded station or a pang of concern for a wandering dog. As great artists do, Harding makes us stop and look and imagine. Yet again, he not only shows us the continuing possibilities of paint but also the endless provision of our every day.
Paul Flynn 2007
'I got the eyes right, didn't I? '
"Having your portrait painted makes you appreciate artistic insight", writes Robert Drewe
Well, you can't say I'm no oil painting because I am. In fact, I'm oil on linen, 140 x 125 centimetres - and the fact that I look like a cross between my paternal grandfather and Pablo Picasso in his declining years is neither here nor there. If you have a phobia even about being photographed, having your portrait painted for the Archibald Prize is a rather fraught experience. If you've always found it hard to relax and look 'natural' for the few seconds a photographer takes - as I have - try looking 'normal' for several hours while an artist sketches you from every angle.
It's a bit like undergoing a full medical examination, without -thankfully - being asked to cough twice or assume the foetal position. And with the doctor repeatedly recording your symptoms and blemishes with a charcoal crayon. And not only recording the defective parts, but making up others as he goes along. But, let's face it, I was flattered to be asked. After all, Nicholas Harding had been an Archibald finalist every year since 1994, and won the prize in 2001 with his painting of the actor John Bell as King Lear. The same year he won the Dobell Drawing Prize, and last year his painting of the artist Bob Dickerson won the People's Choice award in the Archibald. I was already a great admirer of Nicholas' work, particularly his series of coastal and beach paintings. The man can bring a pandanus palm to vibrant life. With me it was a bit more difficult. It took him three attempts to paint my portrait. In his words, "The first was reasonably successful but I pushed it too far and it became overworked. The second was awful. The third time I got it". He got it by submerging most of me in the ocean, an excellent idea, and - apparently - giving me a body wax. And while his portrait, titled Robert Drewe (in the swell) 2006, didn't win the prize, it was a finalist in our oldest, most prestigious and certainly most controversial art award. And most popular. As Edmund Capon, director of the Art Gallery of NSW, which administers the Archibald, announced at the opening, "Sydney is a city that likes to perv on people. Portraiture is one of the most revealing and satisfying ways of exercising voyeurism". So I went along to the gallery to see if people were perving on me. There was a crowd in front of the Archibald finalists. The winner, 'The Paul Juraszek monolith (after Marcus Gheeraerts)', by Marcus Wills, had several people standing in front of it, shaking their heads. I found my portrait and went over to it, feeling remarkably self-conscious. There was no one perving on it. People passed to and fro, pausing for a few seconds before moving on. No one made any association between the painted Drewe and the real Drewe standing beside it. I wasn't sure if this was a good thing. But I was the only person perving on me.
The paintings they were perving on, of course, were the portraits of celebrities, especially entertainers. They were perving on the paintings of Cate Blanchett, Garry McDonald, Julia Gillard and Phil Noyce. They were even slightly perving on Justice Michael Kirby, John Konrads and Tim Flannery. If I had painted a recognisable portrait of Molly Meldrum or Shane Warne they would definitely have been perving on it. But it was an interesting sensation, having one's ego simultaneously inflated and deflated. Rather like a month of your life concertinaed into a single moment, and then put on vivid display. Apart from becoming good friends with the artist, a terrific bloke, I got something valuable out of the experience, an appreciation of true artistic insight. In our many hours of posing and sketching, eating and drinking and chatting, I'd always presented a cheerful face, I thought, cracking jokes and bantering my way through my self-consciousness. I hadnt let on that my life was going through a very rough patch. But I saw it in my
portrait. It was all evident.
"I got the eyes right, didnt I?" said Nicholas.
Robert Drewe 2006
Nicholas Harding's littoral translations celebrate a great Aussie tradition: a day at the beach
Australians tend to take the beach for granted but artist Nicholas Harding, 49, never has. When he arrived in Australia from England as a child in 1965 it filled him with a sense of wonder that has never palled.
"We'd been to the beach in England but when we arrived here we thought, 'Oh, so that's a real beach' ", says the Sydney artist who has concentrated on sandy subject matter for his exhibition at Philip Bacon Galleries. "We also noticed this wonderful light. Ive never lost my appreciation of that".
In recent years, the Archibald Prize-winning artist has focused on the inner city of Sydney in many of his paintings (he lives in Newtown) as well as his portraits, which have proved popular.
He has been a finalist in the Archibald every year for more than a decade. His impressive portrait of thespian John Bell won in 2001, and his painting Bob's daily swim, a portrait of veteran Australian artist Robert Dickerson swimming in a pool on his New South Wales property (hat and all) won him the People's Choice Award at the Archibald last year. He was a finalist again this year with a painting of writer Robert Drewe, who was depicted in the ocean.
"There's something about immersing yourself in the ocean", says Harding, a dedicated body boarder. "You enter another world altogether"
The sand lapped by that ocean is central to most of the paintings in this show but some of them focus on the ocean itself - featuring surfers bobbing on the bluey green water and amphibious people revelling in the sea.
Harding's heavily impastoed surface helps evoke the movement of the ocean. Standing in front of In the swell (surfboard and snorkel) 2006 you can sense the energy of the swells passing along the surface of the water.
"It's so effective it makes me feel a bit seasick"' confesses gallery owner Philip Bacon.
Most of the works focus on the shoreline - the littoral world of the beach and the people who gather there for recreation and relaxation. For Harding the beach is a great place to people watch. Here, stripped of the uniforms of the workaday world, it is an egalitarian scene.
"The beach is a great leveller" Harding says. "Whether you get out of a Mercedes or a Toyota, once you're on the sand with your clothes off everyone is pretty much equal".
And people on the beach aren't worried about an artist sketching away nearby. Harding says he has tried to draw figures downtown but finds people self-conscious in that environment.
For a boy who spent his first nine years believing a beach was cold and covered in pebbles, Hardings paintings of beach life follow in the great tradition of Australian painting. The early Australian impressionists often painted beach scenes, and while figurative expressionism is more his bag he is carrying the torch of that tradition.
As well as the people it's the colour he loves. The yellow ochre of the sand, the blue of the sky and the bluey green of the water. Then theres the rainbow supplied by towels, goggles, balls and bags.
He's not just a voyeur here, he's a keen participant, bobbing in the waves on his body board when he's not sketching on the sand.
Brisbane News p33 July 5-7 2006
Paintings and Drawings @ Rex Irwin Art Dealer
November 21-December 16, 2006
Something odd is happening up and down the coast. Beaches are looking more and more like Nicholas Hardings work. The shift was hardly noticed at first in little details of hats and dogs and heaps of towels. Then as he hit his stride a couple of years ago, whole stretches of the coast began changing before our eyes. Even the colour of the sea is different now. Whatís been milky blue all my life has turned Nicholass deep, streaky green.
His beaches are the ones we remember from up the coast. Now theyve come to town. Theres space again. Sunbakers lie in their own patch of sand. The crowd is quieter, plainer and older than it once was down here in the city. No flirting. They sleep and read. Grandfathers ride the swell on inner tubes.
This is the world before melanoma. Its late afternoon. The sunís been beating down all day. The winds getting up. But people are still out. Those scrappy pandanus that seemed barely alive before Nicholas noticed them, are huge in the landscape now. Forget Norfolk Pines. Heís made pandanus the signature trees of the coast.
Up at the caravan park, everythings neat as a pin. Caravans take on a slumbering formality. Boats wait between fishing trips. The men sleep. Women stand about. Only dogs are on the go. But theres no rush and no need to rush. Tomorrow will be just the same. Hot early. Windy late. Glare all day.
We are astonished to see here whats been around us all our lives. Thatís this painters magic: to make us pay attention to the railway line up the street, a branch of magnolia in winter, the unglamorous world of the beach thatís never gone away - a place of sand and light where the business of doing nothing is taken perfectly seriously.
David Marr 2006
Rex Irwin Art Dealer, until December 16
Think paint or thin? It is one of the most critical decisions any painter has to make, yet it's a subject that's not often discussed. When it is, it's treated with the same sort of naivety that assumes bright colours always denote happiness and optimism while dark colours are inevitably a painter's way of indicating death or depression. Thus, painters who apply paint thickly are characterised as brooding and neurotic, full of apprehension and foreboding, while painters with a lighter touch are carefree sun worshippers, poets of light. On the one hand, Rembrandt and Frank Auerbach; on the other, Frans Hals and Matisse.
Guess what? It's not so simple. Paint is one of the most astonishingly versatile substances known to humans. The imagination responds to it with enormous complexity and subtlety. Understanding this, the best painters take liberties that confound expectations.
It's true that thick, sticky paint can be made to correspond to negative feelings of torpor or stuckness. In Australia, one thinks of Peter Booth, a connoisseur of human stuckness, who uses sumptuous layers of thick paint to evoke awkwardness, futility and an atmospheric heaviness. His figures often remind me of Kafka's Gregor Samsa, the character in Metamorphosis who wakes up as an insect covered in immobilising slime. But Booth also has a sensuous way with colour, and his deft touch with brush or palette knife can provide complicated pleasures.
Ben Quilty also uses thick paint with great elan. His subject matter can be violent, depressed or down-at-heel. But the thick, cake-mixture paint in bright primaries and fizzing pastels expresses enormous exuberance and vitality, the kind of reckless boisterousness common to teenage boys who don't know whether to deliver a hug or a thump.
Michael Fitzjames, meanwhile, uses the lightest of touches to render motifs dense with visual information. His cityscapes almost disappear when you get up close. His wonderful, utterly original recent paintings of toy soldiers deployed across carpet designs from Persia and Central Asia were all sumptuously coloured. But the paint itself was applied almost hesitantly. As a result, the paintings breathed, became porous for the imagination.
One of Australia's best-known thick-paint practitioners is Nicholas Harding. He won the Archibald Prize in 2001 with a portrait of actor John Bell as King Lear. Heavy subject, heavy paint.
His style is typically - and a trifle repetitively - associated with the so-called School of London painters, Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. The work of both artists suggests a compulsive, straining sensibility, a striving for intimacy continually thwarted and re-established, only to be thwarted again. The drama, conveyed by months of searching swipes, scrapings back and unplanned accretions of coagulated paint, is intense, especially in Auerbach's portraits. But it is not exactly Mozartian.
For many years, Harding has been putting distance between himself and these painters. But one of the opinions about Harding - a feeling I admit I held until now - was that he hadn't converted the thick paint idiom to something distinct and powerful of his own. If anything, the fact that he seemed to cling to more conventional, almost photographic likenesses made him seem weaker, less daring.
His latest show is not a radical departure from recent efforts. But in its confidence, its sheer conviction, it marks the point at which Harding's true arrival can be declared. The subject matter is ineluctably Australian, a world away from north London interiors or Camden Town intersections. Harding paints the beach circus of swimmers, sunbathers, snorkellers and surfers. He paints what is going on in the wings, too: the caravan park a little way back from the beach, the moping hounds, the magnificent pandanus trees.
The paint is thick. But instead of evoking heaviness and torpor, it suggests the deliquescing effects of the Australian light; also its abrupt tonal shifts, as sun-kissed sand becomes leafy shade or cliff-side shadow. There are exquisite moments: piles of haphazardly discarded clothing in bright colours, vivid rejoinders to the piles of fish on the sand in Turner's Sun Rising Through Vapour: Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish (National Gallery, London). The dark, gravelly materiality of the black paint used for the cliff. The deep green of the sea recalling Manet's trademark sea green. The big black inflatable tyre, its rim reflecting liquid yellow light. The female figure with long, wet hair thrown forward, her pose taken straight from one of Degas's bathers.
Best of all, perhaps, is the loving truthfulness of Caravan Park (Annexe and Wire): a rotund, sagging woman, a yappy dog, a caravan, a bucket, a fold-out seat. Stuff everywhere. Bright sunlight. The fine line between shelter and detritus. Nothing is permanent.
(Excerpt from Between lines and layers of paint
Four quite different Australian artists confound the stereotypes usually associated with light and heavy styles of painting)
VISUAL ARTS p36 The Australian 14 December 2006
Nicholas Harding: Figure and Paint
We can not think of Nicholas Harding without thinking of paint. Luscious, buttery paint. What Harding does with paint is important but of equal importance is what he paints. Harding is after all a painter of subjects: the figure, the street, flowers and most recently, the beach.
In a review of Harding's exhibition of 2002, the critic Bruce James aptly described Hardings' paintings as being "thick with time". This thick time, as James would have it, is the time of the figure, or Central Railway, whatever Harding's subject may be.
There is of course a faster time to consider that is tied into the making of the paintings. It begins with observational drawing and Harding makes many drawings; they line his studio. As a raw collection of data they are indispensable to the act of painting.
I have asked Harding about this issue of time in his work. "Fast time as you put it contains within it the memory of time spent observationally drawing prior to the commencement of the painting process and then, depending on material impediments which affect paint drying times the painting develops over a matter of days".
In 1997 when Nicholas Harding exhibited at Theo Waddington in London, he was working in the idiom of painters such as Auerbach and Kossoff. Harding had seen in their painting what might be possible, but what he has taken for himself, what we might call a near and far view of a painting, is significant.
This one idea, both simple and memorable, is a single hook upon which much can be hung. If thought of in close up, a Harding painting is object - like, a thing of clotted and basted surfaces. Figure and pigment have been combined at some speed and with uncanny precision. The drawing beneath always seems to survive - somehow.
At a distance, a Harding painting brings one into play with an image. For example, in the foreground of Beach life (frisbee, bags and goggles) 2005, a trainer, goggles and a pile of clothes emerge from a slew of paint. They are barely there in image terms, are more likely to be just colour and form. Beyond, a body sinks into the sand, toes-skyward and further, two skinny legs teeter above a prone figure. Sun is applied to buttock and shoulder blade and through the swathes of sandy paint comes a waft of summer.
Harding has made this type of painting his own, working as he does, between an inherent abstraction and an image. Over time a new form of naturalism has emerged in Harding's paintings. This was made even more possible by his painting the flower pictures of last year.
For Harding, flowers presented further opportunities, in his own words, "to explore and invent in drawn paint". Similarly "flowers, with their vigorous brief life cycle of fecundity, bloom and decay, become a metaphor for the human figure". More significant was the boldness of colour and the fidelity to each particular flower. Stems vibrated with the browns, greens and creams of the frangipani. No less in the sky beyond where the blue was true to the eye, a real and localised School of Sydney blue.
A fidelity to colour and to subject matter is fundamental to the beach pictures which Harding began soon after and is the subject of this exhibition. It is worth considering the impact Australia had on a young Harding when he first arrived from England in 1965.
"The light and space of the beach had a seminal impact on me as a child.. Squinting through the glare of the sun with squeaky dunes underfoot, ocean breezes and surf, sandy cozzies, the taste of salt and milkshakes".
Having exchanged the Stygian gloom of England for clear skies and infinite space, Harding can now make sense of this experience. The beach is for Harding a place of ceaseless human activity, a touchstone of his and others experience, moreover a place where figure and paint meet.
Brett Ballard 2005
Nicholas Harding: Recent Paintings and Prints
As you probably know, we like to fling the paint around in the Nightclub. In fact, there's nothing we like better than the sight of squished paint tubes, shaggy brushes and pigment-encrusted palette knives. Oh, yes, and a finished canvas or two doesn't go astray in the process. The Chattering Glasses finds evidence of all of this, and more, at Nicholas Harding's latest exhibition at Rex Irwin Gallery in Sydney. So here he is, Bruce James, in his very paint-splattered smock:
Nicholas Harding was the winner of the 2001 Archibald Prize with his Portrait of John Bell as King Lear. Heíd previously entered a buttery impression of the painter, Margaret Olley, and was a finalist this year with a well-larded portrait of another Aussie master, Rusty Peters. You'd get the idea from this that Harding spends a lot of time pushing kilos of paint around canvases to shape the faces and upper torsos of well-known artistic people. He does, but the bulk of his energy as an artist is devoted to capturing the unglamorous streetscapes of inner Sydney: Newtown, Darlinghurst and, especially of late, the indeterminate nexus of streets around Central Station.
His new paintings of Eddy Avenue are wonderful.
His urban subjects have always been accomplished, if at first with too great a sense of their English inspiration, but Harding is really in control of his technical means these days, painting up a storm without producing mud pies. The palette is lighter, evidenced mostly in the skies, and a lightness of gesture is now in play to rhyme with this. Is it important that Harding was born in London, home of both the early 20th century Camden Town School and the considerably later, so-called London School? I don't know. The artists associated with these schools certainly painted thickly - Camden Town's Gilmore and Ginner, for example, or the London group's Kossoff and Auerbach, but critics make their own kind of mud pies when they start listing influences. What I do know is that Harding's Eddy Avenue, structured according to the engineering of the ugly-beautiful sandstone edifice of the railway station, and the transport infrastructure close to, is a setting I recognise, and realise I love. Perhaps because I pass through it every day to Aunty ABC, and back again, and because many of Sydney's artist-run spaces on my beat are nearby, but this Eddy Avenue/Elizabeth Street quarter is familiar in that inexhaustibly banal way city spaces need to be if humans are to flourish in them.
We could be anywhere in the West, yet only, only here.
The painter picks up on the deliciousness of the humdrum in contemporary life. You won't find fire engines or street parades in his works. Pedestrians pass, passengers wait, cars park, buses hove into view. This is not surrealism. Maybe it's existentialism. Whatever it is, it makes the point that the passage of time, time itself, is the hard, cold matter inside every brushstroke a decent painter makes. Harding's cityscapes aren't so much thick with pigment as thick with time. That's the retardant working away inside to slow them down - slow us down as we look at them.
I see less evidence of this in the prints. Prints are very hard to invest with that sense of layered days and hours. When it came to inserting the operations of time into depictions of the built environment, Piranesi, or, better, Charles Meryon, could do it. At a pinch, Jimmie Whistler. Hardingís etchings are vigorous to be sure, but they're not yet in the same category of achievement as the paintings.
One of the striking things about them, the paintings that is, is the equal weight Harding gives to buildings from all architectural eras. A sixties office wedge, an Edwardian chambers, a state of the art bus shelter receive completely democratic treatment. Impartiality, I guess, is the term. No special favours are granted for good design or grand visions - thatís all left for the painter to provide. Thickly.
with Bill Leak
ABC Radio Monday 29 July 2002
Confounding the Critics
This year the Archibald trustees have chosen serious talent over celebrity gloss
Nicholas Harding's portrait of John Bell as a Koskyesque King Lear was one of three convincing contenders for this year's Archibald Prize. Jenny Sage's Jackie and Kerryn and Julie Dowling's Sister Girl complete the trio. Bruce Armstrong's Peter Carey in Kelly Country passes muster as a dark horse. Had the trustees honoured any of these artists, habitual critics of the art world's most confounding event could have taken comfort, as I admit I did at Harding's win. In the choice of the gifted, Sydney-based painter for the prize, psychic engrossment was rewarded over celebrity gloss.
It was the right decision. I think the trustees liked value for money, too. Kilogram for kilogram, John Bell as King Lear outclasses all competitors. Harding sculpts his sitter from thick impasto and thicker theatricality. An alarming sense of first-row specifics pervades the red dressed royal. Bell looks ready to expectorate on his audience, as his teeth grind down on the bitter pill of betrayal.
Seen three-quarters, the figure is painted larger than life, a magnification in keeping with the stature of Shakespeare and Bell, and Barrie Kosky, I hasten to add. It is Harding's gutsiest portrait to date, far superior to his deliquescing versions of Margaret Olley, for example, and further distanced from the School of London confectioners from whom he's taken his painterly curriculum for the past decade or so.
Harding is coming into his own as he advances from a position of early career promise to one of mid-career achievement. That his moody, heavily textured evocation of Eddy Avenue took out the Dobell Prize for Drawing is not surprising. If anything, this image is a notch or two up in aesthetic quality from his Archibald entry. Harding knows how to siphon the stereotype of the urban landscape, extracting nuances and strains which other artists fail to notice or find artistically inconsiderable.
If the fine Melbourne tonalist Clarice Beckett had been free to paint on a bigger, more assertive scale, she might well have produced street scenes akin to Harding's. He has infinitely more to offer us when it comes to roadways, traffic signage and down-at-heel, light-industrial vistas than Jeffrey Smart.
He's especially adept at drawing out the weird plasticity of passing time which colonises the built environment like a shapeless, yet solid thing. This substance is Harding's true subject. Whether it be dreary Eddy Avenue or a dramatic actor, each is steeped in the philosophical understanding that time leaves a tangible, seemingly biological trace.
It is not the barrenness of modernity that unhinges these vulnerable souls: instead it is the lurid repleteness it presents to view. A modern landscape, say around Central Station, and a modern face, say John Bell's, are sites of accretion, not desolation. They contain too much, not too little, of the wondrous slime of life by which humanity is identified and judged.
I'm disturbed the portrait painters of Australia don't exploit this greasy informational deposit more often. That bodies are archives, and that the atmospheres through which they move are crowded with registrations of remembered acts, surely these are key perceptions to enlist when you begin any portrait or figure composition. The artists who have been exemplary in doing so over the past century include Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.
William Dobell, a painter indelibly associated with the Archibald, doesn't suffer from comparison with these international masters. In my view, he paid the same degree of attention as Giacometti and Bacon to the visible texture of time in his work. Perhaps it was to a different end, but in his sketchier portrait efforts we witness lines of movement, pentimenti, shifts in scale and attitude, as well as telltale indications of the relativity of his response to his fellow human beings.
Harding has kept an eye on Dobell, if you will, not least in painting Olley. His portrait of Bell reminds us that his artistic forebear made a brilliant fist of capturing such actorly presences as Anthony Quayle, Helena Rubenstein and Robert Menzies. Harding carves out the bright carbuncle of Bell's head from the black foil of the background, a device Dobell himself relished, having borrowed it from the Venetians, Rembrandt and Goya. He creates the illusion of a figure breaching the confines of the frame, then retreating into place, making for a lively portrait and a livelier viewing experience.
(excerpt from Confounding the Critics
SPECTRUM p12 The Sydney Morning Herald 31 March 2001)
1997 exhibition catalogue essay
Theo Waddington Fine Art
A first glimpse of Nicholas Harding's work with its thick, cratered skin of oil paint, makes one think, instantly, of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. This is no coincidence, and Harding would never deny the extent to which he has been influenced by these artists. Hearing him describe his first encounter with an Auerbach painting was reminiscent of the way Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter described their first reactions to Samuel Beckett. Stoppard said he knew how a diabetic felt when the insulin went in. Pinter wrote: "The further he goes the more good he does me. I dont want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, way outs, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement - hes not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, hes not selling me anything I donít want to buy - he hasnít got his hand over his heart"
With Auerbach, as with Beckett, there is no sense that a work of art has been tailored to the expectations of an audience, or invested with some high moral purpose. The sincerity of the artist lies in being true to his vision, no matter how forbidding or introverted. To the viewer, such work must succeed or fail on its own terms, without obvious signs of belonging or trumped-up credentials. This the way Auerbachs work struck Harding, who recognised an artist who had carved an individual path through the scrapyard of late twentieth century art.
More precisely, a solution was suggested to the problem of how to make memorable figurative art that was not weighted down by tradition or indifferent to the innovations of modernism. Harding wanted a painting to be an object with a commanding presence, but he did not want to sacrifice the image altogether, in favour of the numinous wisdom of abstraction. In Auerbachs work it was a revelation just how densely compacted a painted surface could be, while still retaining the impression of a particular face. A picture could be as solid as a stone tablet, yet alive with detail and incident.
This was a turning point in Hardings stop-start career as a painter. In the years leading up to the mid-1980s he had started a Bachelor of Arts degree that was never completed, worked as a petrol pump attendant and as a freelance animator. He has never been to art school and felt he was groping in the dark with his work. By 1986, he had decided to give up altogether, when his discovery of Auerbach sent him back to the easel with a renewed sense of direction. In opposition to so many artists of his generation, he found the courage to avoid theoretical or conceptual programmes, and concentrate on the simple data of experience Ė the human figure, landscape, still life and portraiture. He began attending weekly life-drawing classes, a discipline he found infinitely rewarding.
In a series of exhibitions with the Sydney art dealer Rex Irwin from 1992 to 1995 Hardings work has grown immensely in confidence and character. The echoes of Auerbach and Kossoff have settled into a more personal style that shows him to be an emulator of artists, but not an imitator. The painterly language may have been learnt from elsewhere, but the voice is Hardings own, as are the subjects inner city Sydney, the countryside, family and friends. His palette is limited but comparatively bright, reflecting the harsh, bleaching effects of Australian sunlight. His portraits are not as schematic or pulverized as Auerbachs and he is less inclined to break a likeness down into its component atoms before welding it back together on a framework of spidery lines. The chief difference may be having no first-hand acquaintance with the teaching of David Bomberg and his search for the spirit in the mass. Harding is aware of Bombergs ideas, but is more attracted to earlier artists such as Sickert and Degas Ė the latterproving an inexhaustible source of inspiration. His work appears to be moving in the direction of a greater naturalism, which is perhaps more conspicuous in reproduction, where ones eye is less distracted by the sculptured quality of the paint.
Alongside those British "dungeon masters", as Dan Hofstdter dubbed them, Hardings art is less neurotic, less claustrophobic, less tuned to the height of intensity. It is tempting to see this as part of its Australianness. Harding emigrated to Australia at the age of eight Ė old enough to retain memories of Britain, but young enough to have his ideas and outlook formed by his adopted country. The School of London painters may have appealed to him because the atmosphere of their work reawakened childhood memories but there was never any possibility of working from nostalgia rather than life.
In large landscapes such as Riversdale, a property on the Shoalhaven River owned by the artist, Arthur Boyd, Harding has saturated the scene in dazzling light. This has been common practice since the time of Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton in the 1890s. Yet never before has the Australian bush been painted in such dense, exuberant swirls of oil paint, with the flattening effect of bright light being contradicted by the overwhelming solidity of forms. Close at hand, each plane is as distinct as a slab of pavement, but as one steps further back, the parts become subordinate to an overall effect.
In the city, Harding is drawn to apparently nondescript locations such as intersections and suburban railway stations. There is, again, a similarity with Auerbachs studies of north London, but also with the urban paintings of Australian artists such as Kevin Connor and Jeffrey Smart. Hardings compositions are often hung on a tight arrangement of vertical lines gouged into the painted surface, with the expressive handling held in check by the deadpan subject matter and low-keyed colour.
Perhaps the most ambitious work in this show is the large Bedroom Nude, for which the artists wife, Lynne, was the model. As with Bonnards endless portraits of Marthe, Harding has drawn and painted his wife time and time again, though never before on this scale. In typical fashion he attempts to capture the scene in a snapshot Ė as though the model is unaware of his presence. It was the unusual pose itself that suggested the picture, with the left hand reaching down to touch the left foot. From this point , Harding laboured to construct a composition full of dramatic, triangular shapes, that still retains an air of intimacy and informality.
There are marvelous details in this work such as the objects on the bedside table, that are slowly teased out of the heavy glue of oil paint. It still bears the marks of a struggle, but what is most significant in this and other pictures, is that Harding never lets the viewer take anything for granted. One must continually pause and consider the strengths and weaknesses of a composition. Nothing in this collection is ill-considered, nothing is dashed-off or mechanically pieced together, there are no grand pretensions or theoretical gestures. Harding is a late starter, but still a relatively young artist, and his work is pursuing a steep learning curve.
Having seen how Leon Kossoffs London paintings seemed to wince in the sunlight at the 1995 Venice Biennale, it is difficult to predict howe Hardings work will look against the backdrop of a British winter. Pictures that are filled with radiance in Australia can become dark and moribund in Britain.I hope that Hardings work avoids this fate, allowing viewers to appreciate the significant difference between his painting and that of the School of London artists. It is no use looking for anxiety in these pictures because their mood is generally laconic. Despite their agitated surfaces and multiple layerings, these are the works of an artist who believes that content is inseparable from craftsmanship, and that universal statements are made by focusing on those things which are closest to home.
....Sharpe is one of the great improvers among Sydney's younger artists. She is a hard-working painter whose draughtmanship and brushwork grow steadily stronger and more assured. Her work has a healthy respect for tradition and a wry sense of humour.
Most impressively, she has kept away from those blind alleys of avant-garde affectations that have ruined so many promising talents....
Most of my comments on Wendy Sharpe could also be applied to Nicholas Harding, another artist on the right side of forty who has made impressive advances in the past few years. His exhibition at Rex Irwin's has virtually sold out, but the proceeds might only cover his paint bill, because Ė in the manner of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff Ė Harding uses oil paint in an almost sculptural fashion.
Until recently, the influence of those two modern British masters has been so overwhelming that it has been hard to detect Harding's own voice. Gradually he has clawed his way out from under these shadows until the resemblances seem merely skin-deep, even if that 'skin' represents about six centimeters of oil paint.
While Harding has learnt the painterly 'language' of Auerbach and Kossoff, his colours are brighter and paler, while his figures, landscsapes and street scenes are far less tortured. There is an intuitive response to Australian light that makes his work seem lighter and more lyrical than Aerbach's churned-up views of Primrose Hill or Kossoff's silvery-grey pictures of Dalston Junction.
This is not to say that Harding is the greater artist, merely that he has managed to inject some new life into a style of painting that seemed to have its parameters firmly fixed.
Having passed through an imaginary apprenticeship, he is prepared to go looking for fresh subjects, as in a small still life of a red pepper, or a bush landscape called Near Wooli that provides a unique slant on the Australian countryside. Gone are the hard, flat surfaces, spindly gums and dry grass. In Harding's picture, the earth and sky have become molten lava clashing and intermingling. Yet the colours still have that washed-out look, as though faded by prolonged exposure to the sun.
Another impressive work is a large Seated Nude, with lemon-tinged flesh set against against a pink-purple chair. Two cups in the bottom left hand corner of the picture have been modeled and scooped out so deeply, one could almost drink out of them. Despite the volcanic application of paint, the figure itself is beautifully realized. One feels the way the body slumps into the chair, the awkwardness of the model, who is either sleeping or keeping her eyes lowered.
It is in his drawings that one finds a true index of Harding's qualities. He has reworked urban landscapes such as Summer Hill or Erskineville Railway so furiously that the paper has been scarred and torn in the process. While even this is in emulation of Auerbach, the final results need no excuses.
(excerpt from Brush Power Arts p15A Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald 21October 1995)
Four Sydney Painters/Rex Irwin Art Dealer
The four Sydney painters at Rex Irwin's reveal what other dimensions can be taken by artists....Nicholas Harding, whose portrait of Ken Tribe in the last Archibald will be recalled, is determined to engulf his silhouettes and contours with the thickest impastoed paint around. Indeed the trees, houses and street in Missenden Road Crossing are engulfed in tense even glutinous paint. The cars are bogged in it.
In The Red Coat, actually a portrait of his mother, the curly waves of red seem about to break and flood; they are almost carved out but are alive with movement as once more the medium is the message. The red glow lights the rather pinched and delicately rfined face with pink.
Smaller portraits reveal what power he can extract. He may be in the school of Lucien Freud and Auerbach, but the thrust and twist of his brush are his own individual revelation of mood and feelings.
(excerpt from Galleries Sydney The Australian, Weekend Review August 1994)
Nicholas Harding, showing new paintings at the Rex Irwin Gallery, has an anglophilic vision of the inner city, borrowing from the British Romantic painters a somber winter palette and from Frank Auerbach a fluid expressionist brushstroke laden with paint.
The lack of human presence in three ambitious paintings of Sydney streets and railways is made up for in a series of penetrating portrait heads, less abstract than Auerbach but with something of that master's insightful spontaneity.
But the most arresting and compositionally challenging painting here is St Paul's Place, Redfern, its creamy sky and warm pinkish buildings humanizing an utterly inhuman traffic intersection.
Preconceptions of urban alienation are usurped by the artist's poetic licence, transforming ugly anonymity into a painterly playground of sweeping curves and luscious colour. Traditional in its subject and concern for technical accomplishment, Harding's work does not sit comfortably in the context of much theory-informed contemporary painting.
The large paintings appeal to the emotions more than the intellect, romanticizing the harshest of urban environments and reminding us that it can be better to do an old thing well than a new thing half-heartedly.
(excerpt from Arts p20 The Sydney Morning Herald 10 December 1993