Reviews | Catalogue essay by John Emery
The Advertiser , Saturday, August 26

Neville Weston challenges the noble – if less than appealing – notion of the impoverished artist suffering to preserve the integrity of his work. The Adelaide artist views the legacy of the small-scale, self-exhibitor as a relatively recent one and claims that, prior to this century, artists were feted with large, long-term commissions which testified to their skills.

A painter with 30 years’ fine-art experience, Weston believes similar opportunities exist today for those who can see beyond the skepticism. He has embraced corporate sponsorship, and says that a carefully forged financial relationship still enables him to pursue his ideals in the tradition of the great Romantics. His latest work and largest commission yet, a 42m long recreation of the Botanic Gardens to take pride of place in the new Terrace Hotel, equals the scale of the average exhibiting artist’s annual workload.

Can painters in Australia today make living wages from their work? The latest figures from the Australia Council’s the year 1986-87, practicing professional visual artists in Australia averaged $9200 from the sale of their works, and made a further $6900 from “art-related activities”. This represents a 7 per cent drop in real income since 1981, and gives a false indication of how most artists fare because of the small number of artists who make substantially higher amounts.

In Weston’s firm opinion, today’s artists are too narrowly defining the scope of their primary artistic activity by concentrating on the one-person gallery exhibition to the detriment of other modes of expression and income. “In Australia today, if you want an income of $25,000 a year from painting, you have to generate $100,000 in sales. The gallery takes 40 per cent. Framing, overheads, tax take up the rest. The average one-person show sells a half to a third of the pictures. That means you’ve got to sell pictures at $10,000 to $20,000 each to make any income. There are not many individuals in Australia, let alone in Adelaide, who will pay that,” Weston says.

But a new avenue is opening up for painters of his talent and technical expertise. It is the area of commissioned works for large buildings, a concept Weston first investigated in 1960 as a young graduate in Liverpool, England.

With five other artists he set up a company to market their combined design and decorative skills to architectural firms. The idea didn’t catch on then. Now, however, as Weston puts it: “The architecture has grown blander, and the need for decoration has increased. There’s a terrific scope for artists to build fantasy and imagination, and Romanticism, into the interiors of these large facades.. But to do it you have to shed all that super avant-gardism of the past 25 years.”

In the past few years, Weston has painted commissioned decorative works for hotels in the Northern Territory and North Queensland, as well as continuing his own exhibition schedule – including the sell-out East End Market series of pictures at the Adelaide Festival Centre. He has become recognized as an artist who can work with a design team and deliver large, exciting and Romantic. Does he see this as compromising his artistic integrity, his vision of himself as an artist? The answer is a resounding “No!”

“The Tiepolo family, in Toretto, Delacroix, and other really major painters of the pre-20th Century, worked to commission, usually on huge walls and ceilings. What we have now, the gallery system, and the belief in art for art’s sake, is only a hundred or so years old. The one-person gallery show for the Tiepolos was a whole town hall, palace or cathedral!”

Unlike those times, when one good commission could keep an artist for a year, today’s commissioned artists in Australia need two or three assignments to stay ahead, if they are to support their agent and themselves. Higher commission prices are given in Europe and the United States, where the tradition of art-in-architecture is far better established, and where artists are more comfortable working to a design brief.

“Quite a few artists have asked me, when they heard I had a big commission, how much my original concept was distorted by the clients. I tell them it’s not. You have a working relationship. If you know how to handle it, everyone should end up being satisfied that they got what they wanted. The client may start with only a broad idea. The artist doesn’t necessarily know what he or she wants either.”

In a large and empty shop in East Rundle St, Weston is recreating the entire Adelaide Botanical Gardens in 42m of painting, with each canvas between 4m and 7m long, for the new Terrace Hotel development across from the Adelaide Casino.

The size of the works is testing a lot of people’s resources. The only canvas-stretcher who can work this big is in Melbourne and each panel is freighted over here as it is made. Two of the panels need to be curved and the South Australian Museums’s conservation department is making them up on special aluminium frames. Neville has had the lighting in his temporary studio redesigned to duplicate the lights under which the finished works will be seen. The job necessitated special new insurance contracts to cover the works from the time they exist as empty canvases, which cost up to $1000, to being fully finished paintings with a value many times higher.

The commission represents the equivalent of 62 average-sized paintings – or three one-person exhibitions. That’s a solid year’s work. Neville has eight weeks to transfer his working roughs – done on location in the gardens – into completed panels, ready for installation for the hotel’s October opening.

The brief with which the architects, Brownell and Associates, approached his agents, BMG Galleries of North Adelaide, called for work that would suit relaxed dining, with a romantic mood. Their first thoughts were for work by a stage set designer, but the agents pointed out the on-going financial benefits of using a fine artist, whose work could be expected to appreciate over the years. They nominated Neville as the ideal person, and he was asked to submit his proposals.

Through the process of elimination, they worked from his love of Adelaide’s vanishing 19th Century skyline (architects don’t want to be reminded of what they’re knocking down), to his equal love for great gardens. The decision to surround the diners and the romantically inclined with the Adelaide Botanical Gardens seemed obvious, once it had been made.

“The garden is a huge romantic painting!” Weston enthuses, within the bare walls of his rented shop, surrounded by finished panels and raw canvases with the first gestural brushstrokes on them. “It’s full of light and shade and contrasts and periods of quietness and energy, and secret places.”

“I don’t believe the market should dictate the way you work. But I think it’s arrogant to ignore the market. The great artists of the past didn’t ignore their markets. I find this commission giving me ideas for huge, apocalyptic paintings, which I know I have the ability to execute. Painting has been large, bold, and gestural for much longer than it was small and domestic. As I work here I can feel myself as part of the great romantic tradition. I can feel myself continuing the great tradition of the Tiepolo family and Delacroix!”

John Emery

© 2014 Neville Weston