We are pleased to share this insightful essay, written by Jan Senbergs as an accompaniment to his current solo exhibition, Not quite the last picture show.
“Bushfires, drought, flood & cyclones are regular occurrences in Australia. Not many countries of the world can claim the four.
Obviously – as a city dweller – and away from the fire front – you cannot ignore the terrible destruction these phenomena cause.
They define Australia.
However, I was very surprised how little Australian artists have painted the bushfires…apart from the large painting in the State Library (of Victoria) of William Strutt’s Black Thursday, and John Longstaff’s Gippsland Sunday Night (February 20th, 1898, in the NGV collection), there’s very little to see of a sustained effort on this subject – sure – Fred Williams did some bushfire paintings – when his home was threatened back in the sixties at Upwey – Nolan did some – and some others – but not one artist has done a series on this subject.
I got to say here that I did a bushfire show some time ago at this gallery (Niagara).
My interest in bushfires was as a result of my drifting through various parts of Australia when younger.
I have always felt at ease in the bush – I did a lot of driving and exploring for myself – through the back blocks of NSW and Queensland, as well as a couple of journeys – from Perth to Darwin – zig-zagging through the Pilbarra and the Kimberleys, as well as visiting some Aboriginal settlements like Balgo – the bush was never threatening – the only presence of threat was of a human kind – that showed a sinister presence.
In this exhibition I’ve included only two of my ‘fire’ paintings – as the savagery of the flames and the overwhelming force of the fire – was more than a bushfire – it was an INFERNO.
The painting – INTO, 2019 – is more of a symbolic nature – a kind of a pause – and self assessment – under the protective and formal double canopy – there is that edifice that you built over the years, collapsing – and finding yourself standing out at the front of your broken past, being unsure of the unpredictable new year – a painting of anxiety – and doubt…
FLOATING – I’m not much of a portrait painter – sure – I do some self portraits from time to time – but that’s not my interest. However, in this painting – I wanted to show a tense and intense face – floating without a body – as the head is the last important thing one has.
Whenever I’m asked about my colour choices – I think of that wonderful title of one of Barnett Newman’s paintings – called – who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue well – I was for some time – I’ve gone through a wide range of colour with my work over the years – when I began those early paintings on Masonite – and Dulux enamel – that were glazed – that eliminated colour in order to create a ‘Kafkaesque’ gloom – I called them my ‘axle-grease’ paintings (after all, Picasso had his blue and pink periods…) they were crude and earnest – and it was important – to seek some light.
Later on when I was doing my larger invented structures – incorporating my silk screen techniques – the paintings became more formal and tonal – but I still needed a generally dark palette to convey the ambiguity of some of those structures which were mainly architectural and sculptural – inventions.
To use colour would weaken ‘the mystery of the object’. Similarly, to put a figure in would automatically establish scale of the structures – I wanted ambiguity.
The break away from the considered compositions of that period came when I decided I wanted to make a direct mark – that is – drawing which came as a form of release – which in turn gradually opened up my colour range over the years – to the point when sometimes I’m blinded by cadmium yellow!
Final Approach – I’ve always been interested in the various forms of travel – with its constraints – regulations and sometimes – absurdities – a cruise ship for instance is absolutely absurd – but forgetting its function is a great piece of sculpture – a magnificent art work – my first significant work in this area was a painting called The Flyer – of an aeroplane – at the point of lift off – where the tail of the plane is seemingly scrapping the runway as it lifts off to the sky at an alarming angle.
In my work I avoid a ‘literary’ rendering of a subject – but rather – re-invent an object – or see another way to show something – with an element of surprise perhaps.
Final Approach – is a view of an aeroplane descending after a long flight. Where it starts to shudder and out of the window, you can see the lit streets of the city – and even make out cars and traffic moving below.
This last phase of the flight is called the final approach – as the plane aligns itself to the runway – for the landing. In this painting – I have painted eight small planes of various sizes – surrounding the large composition – they are like small satellites to the ‘mother ship’ flying along.
The five – Urban Garden works are my latest works that are included in this exhibition – they are my latest probe in seeking a new direction – I think of Philip Guston – and his last stand – where he jettisoned his previous long standing abstractions and barged into his new territory with gusto – shocking critics and his followers – it took a while to re-gain acceptance – and admiration.
Now that I’m 80 – I understand Guston’s attitude even more so – these garden works have allowed me – to loosen up and search for new possibilities – it is important not to tread water as you age…
Melbourne Promenade – my fascination with cartography goes back a long way – when I began looking at the ‘picture maps’ of Antiquity – from the early attempts of maps of the world – the legacy of the geographer Ptolemy and on to the medieval picture maps of towns etc… They were the basis of my ‘modern day’ picture maps – of Melbourne – Sydney – Venice – Barcelona – New York – Boston – and others – some cities are imagined – some like the Melbourne paintings – come from local knowledge – Melbourne Promenade – is a schematic view of Melbourne – where I can emphasise certain aspects of the city – Melbourne is a city that likes a parade or some sporting or cultural event – or a promenade.
It is often said that one should not try to describe one’s works – it’s become an adage to say – let the work speak for itself – and generally I agree with that notion – however, there are times when some specific work can do with some introductory description – and to say no at every turn can be a bit precious and holier than thou…
So for good or bad I have tried to respond to some of the questions that were put to me about work that’s included in this exhibition. My comments here have been simply an attempt to describe – and note the circumstances of their production. I believe that an interesting painting or artwork in any medium firstly has to have some original quality – messages and causes, no matter how worthy, are of ‘secondary importance’. I think you can still make relevant comment and be enriched by simply looking at paintings.”
– Jan Senbergs, February 2020
Not quite the last picture show
3-28 March 2020