Among a surprisingly diverse range of works heralding The Triumph of Modernism in the Art of Australia, one work strikes me with a force that compels all of my attention for many minutes. Tim Storrier’s Empire of the reflected coals (2012) depicts the power of the dying ember at the scale of an entire landscape. A very large work, it radiates both a cosy warmth and a dangerous heat – as though offering the very last warmth that will fill your world. The neatness of lines that appear across the charred log create regular divisions, evoking the crumbling form of burning skyscrapers against a vast open sky inert to the destruction below. Or a scene from Star Wars. In the foreground, a stark reflection: a body of water? The entire mass resting perhaps on a plinth, on a terrestrial hearth, on a missile launching pad? The origins of modernism as an incredulity toward a scale of human-commanded destruction never before seen. Positioned at the heart of the exhibition, the work makes me stop and retrace my steps, reinterpreting the modernism of all the works that came before.
In response to The Triumph of Modernism, I offer three moments with three works.
Brett Whiteley’s Sydney Harbour in the rain (1976-77) has long been a favourite, and this was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to experience it. Another large work as befits Whitley’s style, yet this time the monochrome is a matted beige punctuated with vibrant objects and sites. As I stood further and further back to appreciate the work, I benefited from running into TarraWarra Curator Anthony Fitzpatrick, who pointed out that the raindrops had been painted onto the glass and not onto the canvas. Welcome news for my bespectacled eyes. Elongated exaggerations, the raindrops’ reflection back onto the work lacks depth, and while the large work is without a horizon, this makes it the apt complement of Lavender Bay with palms (1974) hung just a few metres away. That blazing blue work radiates light, and yet like Sydney Harbour in the rain, it’s a flat expanse. One field, one emotion. The height of modernism as a confident assertion of the national character.
I always respond strongly to John Brack’s work, and his Double nude II (1982-83) was an unexpected new experience, having never come across his nudes. What attracts me to Brack is his precision, his rigour. In Collins St, 5pm (1955) the colours and the forms of faces, bodies and buildings are presented as foreground, middleground and background as though detailing a continuous frieze, a figure-ground redundancy of light and hue. In Siege (1979-80), also included in the exhibition and part of a series that includes one of my favourites, Crossing (1978), the precision takes the fore, with innumerable writing instruments stabbing the working space, marching tall without the hand of the maker. Double nude II positions two female forms on stylised seats, at the head of a stark rug, on a wooden floor of painstaking regularity, with the entire scene drop-shadowed onto the canvas. The bodies eschew the erotic. The rug eschews luxury. The desire of modernism to set the body against a highly structured world, offering it back to us as merely one form among many.
The Triumph of Modernism in the Art of Australia
At TarraWarra Museum of Art until 16 August 2015
Curated by Edmund Capon OBE
Keynote address by Edmund Capon: 2pm Saturday 18 July