Lawrence Daws

Lawrence Daws
Recent Works 1999

Philip Bacon Galleries
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

This review was first published in The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Australia - September 1999.

Lawrence Daws "Asylum in Eden II"LAWRENCE DAWS is sitting, relaxed, over a coffee at 'Owl Creek', his 16ha property near Beerwah, north of Brisbane. It's a pleasant winter's day, but just brisk enough for the artist to keep a watchful eye on the pot-bellied stove warming the room in the timber house and to dissuade us from wandering out onto the inviting verandah.

Even from inside, though, the view draws the eye. The house -- an old army hut relocated for knockabout service by a farmer and later extended by Daws and his wife Edit -- clings to a steep hillside looking out across forest and small plantations to the nine ancient volcanic plugs that are the Glasshouse Mountains.

The strung-out line of mysterious peaks, rising like a dragon's spine from trees and flat plain to meet a limitless sky, creates a "heaven and earth" harmony that would have inspired ancient Chinese scroll painters.

It's a view that Daws himself has painted endlessly since he and Edit first moved there in 1973. "I get moments of great joy and tranquility up here," he says. The region's clear-skied stillness reminds him of the landscapes of one of his favourite artists, the 15th century Italian painter Piero della Francesca: "I'd love to be able to paint one hundredth of a Piero," says Daws. "At it's best, the (Glasshouse) landscape has that Piero quality of an ideal world -- a divinely inspired world."

Over the years, the view has also delighted many of the couple's artist friends, from Brett Whiteley -- who often came alone to Beerwah, to talk, sketch, and quietly recharge his energies -- to the painter, Donald Friend, who, though grumpy and ill on what would turn out to be a first and final visit, still managed to paint Owl Creek as a lush Shangri-la.

Many of these artists have now passed away, but their presence is still palpable in paintings, sketches -- and perhaps in spirit -- in Daws's studio. A large, windowless steel shed, but comfortable with heaters and a cranked-up stereo (Beethoven's late quartets have become a recent inspiration), it has a platform bed (where Whiteley once slept) and is full of artworks, books, desks and in one corner, an old Amiga computer. Though Daws still makes pencil notes in sketchbooks, the computer has for many years been his principle tool to work up the compositions of his paintings: images are scanned in and manipulated (sometimes through 20 or 30 alternative variations) as the pictorial idea evolves.

Today, the studio is relatively empty of recent pictures (most have been sent off to Daws's current show at Brisbane's Philip Bacon Galleries). But he has no plans to take off more than a day or so: there's a portrait to complete, and there are other shows coming up, including a small exhibition at the Adelaide festival next year.

At 72, Daws (who is represented in major public collections and shows regularly in most states) is as popular and busy as he has ever been, though he believes he has finally reached a calm plateau in his life. "A lot of the angst has disappeared, which, I hope is a good thing," he says of his latest paintings.

This may surprise Daws's fans, for he is best-known for creating eerily compelling pictures -- of doomed aviators, burning trains, fleeing humanity and alienated sleepwalkers. Daws has said his recurring images of anxiety and desire, isolation and disaster, arise as a way of dealing with his inner demons: things "niggle away" in the subconscious but seem to be worked out and resolved on canvas. "Instead of going to a psychiatrist, I hammer out the images to get myself right," he once explained.

The emotional core of much of Daws's work seems to lies in fundamental human experiences: the whys and wherefores of sexual attraction and repulsion; and the inability of vulnerable individuals to accept either social control or complete freedom. But, interspersed with these darker visions, he has always painted serene pictures, and it seems that currently the muse of peacefulness has the upper hand with him.

Thus, his new work includes calm canvases of the lush countryside around Bangalow in northern New South Wales; an aerial view of a crowd of tiny figures on a blue and gold beach; an interior with a model; and three large paintings of Brisbane's river, office towers and glittering lights, called, 'City I, II and III'.

In painting these works, Daws says he aimed to "capture certain moments" with "no menace, hidden agendas, or anything". Quoting the poet Philip Larkin (who once said he wrote poems "to preserve things I've seen, thought, felt ... which I'm trying to keep from oblivion ...") Daws adds he is lately finding the pinning down of elusive experience an interesting task.

Yet the melancholic or anxious element in his work is not entirely absent from the show, and is most striking in an erotically-charged new painting called 'Asylum in Eden II'. It shows a nude woman handling a snake like a Biblical Eve, while in the background of the picture, a shadowy male figure watches. The woman is on display and is both desirable and dangerous. Daws's painting become a journey into the male psyche, where, as C G Jung once observed, the "eternal woman" is lodged deeply as an archetype of mystery, fascination and sexual attraction.

In another work, 'Mt Beerwah', people are unnervingly absent. Painted with seemingly effortless virtuosity in scumbled and veiled layers of paint, this canvas is very beautiful indeed, yet its emptiness -- save for nature's primordial elements of light, air and geological matter -- is disturbing. The feeling of unease is underscored by Daws's placement of the viewer as a lonely witness before the primeval Mt Beerwah landscape.

As an image of landscape stillness it is not at all like Piero, but, still, it has its own dark beauty.

Lawrence Daws, Recent Paintings, Philip Bacon Galleries, 2 Arthur St, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, Australia (until September 15) 1999.

Copyright © 1999 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author