Philip Bacon Galleries
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1998
Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH
This review was first published in The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Australia - July 1999.
THE smell of oil paint is in the air at the Philip Bacon Galleries. It wafts down the stairs from the upper-level gallery where almost 50 paint-encrusted pictures are hanging. Visitors stop for minutes at a time in front of the vividly coloured works, and peer wonderingly into the thick layers of paint: deeper than mud on the tackiest wellies, more sculptural than a plastered wall, initially the oil paint assaults the senses like a cream pie in the face.
These are the arresting paintings of Robert Barnes, a 52-year-old Brisbane-born artist who has lived in Scotland and Brisbane, and has been perfecting his sensuously tactile art since graduating from a Dundee art college in 1971.
"I've been painting the works for about four years, both in Australia and Scotland," says Barnes of his latest heavily impastoed pictures -- which, when viewed from some distance, resolve into highly organised seascapes, harbours glimpsed through open windows, vases of hibiscus and irises, aircraft (reflecting memories of his Australian father's experiences as an RAF pilot in England in World War II) and interiors with artist's palettes and people quietly mooching around.
"Some were made in St Monans in Fife, a small fishing village which still retains its traditional houses around the harbour -- it's very beautiful, indeed. I arrived at painting the aircraft through a true passion, it's a feeling from my heart. I don't turn my back on any subject matter at all: everything that I find in the world is for me to translate."
A quietly spoken man whose voice retains a strong Scottish burr, Barnes when pressed speaks with emotion about his painting. "I'm looking for everything I can extract from the paint: I'm hopefully making a connection with the subject, with myself and using paint -- what I talk with and live with is the paint itself."
Yet hand-in-hand with this passion goes intellectual restraint. The interesting tension in Barnes's work arises out of a combination of exuberant paint handling with the peacefulness of his themes (tellingly, the "action" in his work, the gentle interaction of people, usually occurs in the background) and his highly disciplined approach to planning and drawing the underlying composition.
"The climate and changing weather (in Scotland) give one the impetus to paint quickly: as a young man I'd go outside and paint landscapes and seascapes quite rapidly -- but certainly not without thought," he says.
"The fire and the desire to interpret the subject as quickly and truthfully as possible stayed with me. But it needs good drawing as well. I'm very aware of the geometry of the painting: I always measure the vertical and horizontal relationships between objects and carefully place proportions, shapes and colours in good relationship to each other."
Barnes's paintings have been exhibited in Brisbane, New South Wales, New Zealand, Scotland and London and are represented in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Queensland Art Gallery and in private and corporate collections in Australia and abroad.
He is happy to acknowledge his lineage as a painter in the British tradition of modern textural painting stretching from Sickert and Bomberg to Auerbach and Kossoff, while confidently knowing that he is indebted to no one: "I haven't stood in their shoes -- but I'm in the same queue," he says.
Like those venerable British artists, Barnes takes care in ensuring the physical longevity of his art. He frames his work front and back with perspex to protect the thick paint layers from accidental damage, and uses oil paint with no additives.
"An oil painting can take 20 years or longer to dry," he says in answer to a much asked question. "I have paintings which are as old as that, and painted with as much paint (as the new works) and they seem to mature very well. I have less trouble than other people with the preservation of work, because I don't add mediums (turpentine, oil or extenders) to the paint at all; it's just pure paint."
Barnes laughs as he recalls a worried viewer who asked when it would be necessary to hang the paintings upside down to prevent the heavily-weighted canvases from sagging? "You don't have to worry about that at all: the surface for me dries like cement and becomes quite strong."
Robert Barnes, Philip Bacon Galleries, 2 Arthur St, New Farm, Brisbane, Australia (until August 7) 1999
Copyright © 1999 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author