Reviews | The persistence of memory

In the storm-and-stress of this Post-Romantic age, where an artist’s ability is too often measured by their penchant for letting it all hang out, the more disciplined joys of the Classicist are too easily overlooked. The Classicist is someone who is aware of history’s influence on the way they view the world. Aware, as Neville Weston attests, of the impossibility of avoiding your training, even when you might not be thinking of X, your brush may be.”

It is this battle between what the eye sees and how the mind has been trained to react to that experience which has come to form the basis of Weston’s style. A painting by Neville Weston is a finely controlled dialogue between the moment he is experiencing in front of the chosen scene and his encyclopaedic knowledge of art history; a knowledge carried not just in his head but right down into his brush.

The result is a painting which, to the casual glance, appears straight out of the 19th century but which closer observation suggests has a sharpness of colour not used then; a conscious play with abstraction towards which Monet
- one of Weston’s important influences - was groping, and a loosely controlled brush mark that takes it past the clinical work of the photorealist landscape artists and into the post-Modernist. Ironically enough, Weston’s work began to come to the Australian art world’s attention with his 1987 show at the Robin Gibson Gallery in Sydney, when Monet was showing at the Art Gallery of NSW. “Save yourself half a million”, Weston suggested, “Buy a Weston”.

But it is more than brushwork which marks Weston out as a contemporary painter of note. After all, there are many painters whose aspirations run no higher than emulating the past, not with engaging it in dialogue. Faced with the situation Weston often finds himself in, confronted with almost the perfect composition for an Impressionist piece, except for the Renault in the foreground, the bitumen road, the advertising plastered on the crumbling wall of the chateau, they delete the very things which drag the scene into the 20th century: to Weston they are central to the work.

I first became aware of his work with the ‘East End Market’ series, painted in 1987, when Adelaide’s historic East End Produce Market was being closed down to make way for yet another series of boutiques and the obligatory 5-star hotel and conference centre. Painting on the kerb, often with the canvas lashed to the side of his car, Weston began recording the passing of an age, just as, say, McCubbin recorded for us the Melbourne waterfront in 1888. Seeing his work for the first time I was struck with how he had, more than any other artist in Adelaide, caught the rickety Dodge City skyline of old Adelaide in all its peeling, faded, nostalgic glory. It’s the kind of skyline from which you expect a surprised sniper to tumble to the ground, his Winchester falling with him. Weston’s brush was remembering Edward Hopper and Edouard Manet, tying them together with his own controlled spontaneity. I was also struck by the constant references to signage: the push-pull between areas of paint, as paint, and areas organised into words; most notably in the wonderful verse, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof”, which scrolls across the main entrance to the market and across the middle ground of Weston’s painting. The use of signage is the link with Weston’s first work. After graduating from the Slade, in 1958, and Birmingham College of Art, in 1961, he found himself caught up in the world of British ‘Pop’. Transport became one of his key themes, with ‘blow-up’ paintings of cars turned into icons. The theme returned in the 1980s with his ‘shipping’ paintings.

Travel has become the event which precipitates breakthrough in Weston’s work and it was an almost agonizingly slow, horse-drawn journey through Ireland in 1972 that forced him to evaluate what he was doing, turning him back to his very early love of landscape painting. In 1977 he came out to Australia, as Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, at the South Australian School of Art and for some years his encyclopaedic mind was used up almost entirely in the pedagogical mode, not the creative. But he never stopped sketching. His house is crammed with boxes of sketches dating back to his boyhood, and paintings kept developing from those sketches. The sketches kept feeding him ideas, and he began coming to terms with the conditions of Australian landscape painting.

The argument continues to rage – as witness Bernard Smith in the Winter 88 / 89 edition of ‘Modern Painters’ – around the Isolationist – Internationalist nexus of Australian painting. What is clear is that several European artists have been seminal in creating change to the way Australians paint, as they have applied their systems of thought to local circumstances. Weston found himself turning back to the light and landscapes he knew. There was an hiatus in his development, marked by a decade when he won no art prizes! It wasn’t until a particularly rapid set of perambulations around the globe that he was jolted to the point where it all came together.

In 1983 he was painting a commissioned work in the Alice Springs Sheraton Hotel when: “I had finished my book on Lawrence Daws, and was working in Alice Springs, when I was invited by Richard Demarco to talk about Australian art and art galleries at a conference associated with the Edinburgh Festival. Returning from Edinburgh I stopped off in Rome and spent time there and in Tuscany. In the space of three weeks I had been in Alice Springs, Edinburgh, Rome and Tuscany. This really started my thoughts about dislocation of time and space and the fact that most art is made from the debris of other art. It was not possible to paint water lilies in the centre of Australia without thinking about Giverny, for example.”

He returned to France in 1985 and 1986, painting in Brittany. In 1987 he was in Tuscany. In December, 1988 he was in a Welsh village. In between he was traveling and painting, both commissioned works for the Sheraton group and his own work. France was visited again in 1992, 1993 and 1995. Wherever he painted, he was aware now of those images jostling his mind. At Gunpowder Creek in the arid heart of Queensland, the images were of Monet. In Tuscany they were of South Australia’s Barossa Valley. In Canberra he saw Constableish clouds fleeting across the hills. He was realizing that any trained artist is “International”, no matter how hard they strive to deny it.

In 1987 another journey triggered the next stage in his development: a mail-plane ride up into North Queensland showed him the abstract map of Australia – the map Fed Williams was working on right up to the end. But where Williams saw it as if it were a series of New York Abstract Expressions, Weston’s European eye saw it in softer light and he still saw it as landscape, not as pattern. Weston will probably always insist on his English Landscapist origins, no matter where his work takes him. For, as he says: “I believe in the dignity of realism. I like the idea of there being a radical conservatism. I don’t mean conservatism as a right wing thing! I mean inheriting certain traditions and refining and developing them.”

Thus a Classicist defines Classicism.

John Emery
John Emery is a novelist, film writer and film producer.

© 2014 Neville Weston