A Restless Green : notes from the exhibition

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Susan Sontag on Howard Hodgkin:

Venice: Once, again. Imagining the imagined. When you want to see Venice again, and you have seen it many times, rising out of the sea, in winter perhaps, semi-deserted, what you appreciate is that it will not have changed at all.
Or you stand at the railing of the boat going up the Nile, a day's journey from Luxor, and it's sunset. You're just looking.  There are no words you are impelled to write down; you don't make a sketch or take a photograph. You look, and sometimes your eyes feel tired, and you look again, and you feel saturated, and happy, and terribly anxious.
There is a price to be paid for stubbornly continuing to make love with one's eyes to these famous tourist-weary old places.  For not letting go: of ruined grandeur, of the imperative of bliss.  For continuing to work on behalf of, in praise of, beauty.  It's not that one hasn't noticed that this is an activity which people rather condescend to now.
Indeed, one might spend a lifetime apologizing for having found so many ways of acceding to ecstasy.*

 

Painting, travel and memory.   My latest series of paintings didn't start out having that thread, not consciously.  In May and June of this year I travelled through Southern Italy and the south counties of England. Originally sparked by an invitation to a party in Sicily for special friends the journey soon expanded into a mini Grand Tour of gardens, ruins and the European countryside.   Upon reflection, but also unavoidably apparent while I was within it, it was an experience which left an idelible mark on both my approach to painting and the direction my life will take moving forward. 

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For a painter I have travelled terribly little.  My last trip outside of Australia was with my mother in celebration of my 21st birthday.  I am now 35, and the intervening 14 years have been spent avoiding and denying a terrible fear of flying in aeroplanes. A problem made more insurmountable by Australia's geographically remote position on the globe: for in order to reach the grand metropolises of other continents, with their museums of art history, their romantic architectural relics,  it is inescapably necessary to first spend 20 long clammy hours hurtling at 35,000 feet across vast oceans and Middle-Eastern deserts.  So, frozen by my fear of heights, and with my feet planted firmly on the ground, I simply thought I would never go.

 Howard Hodgkin with Susan Sontag.

Howard Hodgkin with Susan Sontag.

But, go I eventually did.  The Susan Sontag passage above became a sort of mantra for me; a hymn to the romance of art and culture and travel.  I wanted to go to those places, I wanted to travel by boat up famous rivers, see golden sunrises on Mediterranean hillsides.  I wanted to see some Hodgkin paintings. And a Giotto. And my favourite Singer Sargent work "Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose" at London's Tate, and the Monets in the Orangerie in Paris, and Vita's tower room at Sissingurst Castle, and the serpentine rill at Rousham.... Eventually the reasons for going became more heartachingly urgent, stronger, than the fear.

~

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Hodgkin himself travelled regularly throughout his long life, particularly to India, and to Europe. His later works are among the most beautiful and inspiring paintings I know.  Delicious evocations of time and place, gestural recordings, not of literal events but layered onto the canvas or board through the hazy curtains of recollection.   Working from memories, his paintings are poems.  Often on my travels I thought of him and of Sontag's words, usually when watching the throngs of tourists urgently recording it all through the camera viewfinder, and when watching myself, a reluctant tourist, nevertheless joining everyone in the preservation of memories with pixels.  I wished that I could  just let experience be enough, and at times I did, but still I came home with my phone's data space full and a million photos to trawl through.  "Very important source material for my paintings" I declared to myself, the irony of which I was yet to discover..

 Howard Hodgkin in his London studio.

Howard Hodgkin in his London studio.

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There is something very human, very vulnerable, about the act of painting. It's a baring of the soul, and so each painting created in the world is also an opportunity to open up to the emotions and memories of others.  They are messengers, with the ability to convey huge emotion without the need for words and language: they can transcend time and place as much as they can record it.  When I see a painting which moves me and I think about why, I find it is always the essence of humanity in the paint, the human mark and the struggle and effort and markmaking that is so touching. The painter leaves something of themselves behind and that is very moving. 

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So, 7 weeks in Europe and the UK and then back home to South Australia.   Into the studio with a head full of ideas and a camera full of valuable references.  Aha!, I thought, I've finally got it all planned out!, all these photos, all these possibilities!, this painting will be like this, a melding of that photo with that one, with the light from that image taken in that place.  I began on the new paintings, roughly marking out compositions, positioning horizons and flower stems, mixing colours to match photographed skies.  That was until my camera froze.  Or, to be more accurate, simply went suddenly and immovably black one day.   According to the tech guy at the Apple store: gone, fried, finito, lights out.  I had filled up my phone with so much data, dismissed all its repeated pleadings that it was too full, ignored its strange warning signs, that it had keeled over like an overworked mule.  All my reference photos, the whole photographic reel of my journey had vanished into the dismal depths of a circuit board the size of my thumbnail.

And that is how the paintings came to be about memory. Which, creatively speaking, is what actually set them free.

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These paintings are landscapes but they are also dreamscapes, memoryscapes.  There is something about art, about painting that is really magical. Still magical, in this image-saturated age of marketing culture and noise, and short attention spans.  For me, painting is the hearts-ease for all of this.  I think about my paintings as objects, not images, I aspire for them to have wondrous surfaces, with depth, with layers, and with mystery.  I like to think of them as emmersive, transporting, escapist.   This is not to say that they are created in the pursuit of fluffy comfort zones.  Like nature, their biggest inspiration, I hope that they are beautiful and brutal and soft and tumultuous, and luminous and murky, and calm and unpredictable, and delicate and weighted.  They are driven by instinct, intuition, emotion, and memory; sometimes light-filled and sometimes as dark as nightfall. 

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To view images of the full exhibition, please visit the New Work page here.

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* Juncosa, Enrique, ed., Writers on Howard Hodgkin. Tate Publishing, London, 2006. p108

Morgan Allender