Exhibition review: BLUE/Brett Whiteley/Brett Whiteley Studio

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Art review
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Artist Brett Whiteley’s studio/gallery is tucked away in a lane off a lane in Sydney’s maze-like Surry Hills. I had the feeling I was entering a ‘riddle, wrapped in an enigma’, much like Whiteley himself, as I traced my way to its door. But then I was in and, Tardis-like, the gallery opened up before me, filled with light and music.

Much like Whiteley himself.

The first thing I noticed, as my eyes slowly adjusted to the colours and shapes around me, was a recording of Van Morrison’s ‘Rave On, John Donne’, wafting from the upstairs studio. This is Whiteley’s preserved studio – filled with his bits and pieces, notes and aphorisms scratched on the walls among the magazine pictures and old postcards – as well as his books and LPs (the very LPs he played while working). ‘Rave On, John Donne’ could not have been a more apt soundtrack to the art on every wall – Van Morrison sings it in the same way as Whiteley painted: stream-of-consciousness, pulling imagery from many disparate sources at once, swooning in a mystic state as he goes.

The current exhibition – BLUE – is a collection that appears to be bound together by Whiteley’s worship and wrestle with human sensuality. Flesh and bodies are everywhere, curves and mounds, crooks and pits. Even his landscapes become the breasts and swollen bellies of mountain and beach dune. There is a musical rhythm in the way he paints and draws (Australian art critic Robert Hughes once said that Whiteley “draws like an angel”) – Whiteley seems allergic to the straight line, the hard angle. Bodies loll on beaches, in baths, bent into tortuous shapes but not in pain, in pleasure.

The gallery program quotes that other great sensualist, French painter Henri Matisse: “An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythm…” The deep ultramarine blue of The Balcony 2 (1975) shows a view of Sydney Harbour which is not much more than a blue rectangle covered in sparsely and rhythmically drawn details of ship, wave, shore, railing, bridge. Curves are everywhere, as they are in nature, as they are in music.


(A note on Ultramarine Blue: This is the famous ‘Yves Klein blue’, a deep, inky royal blue that is impossible to reproduce accurately in four-colour printing. R-G-B computer rendering comes closer but it is best seen in life, as the artist intended. Don’t trust reproductions – go see for yourself.)

The other big ultramarine blue work here is his Self Portrait in the Studio (1976), again a large blue surface covered in smaller details. His reflected image seems to be looking to the left, towards the naked woman’s body that is reclining out of the frame. And yet, the blue infinity of the background is the star of this painting, the spiritual and eternal, not the earthy and brief.

As with everything Whiteley does, there is the duality – he swims in flesh but yearns for the light; he ogles beach bodies but aches for purity and a spiritual release. As with all great art, it is the tension between the two that makes it great. The Yin-Yang symbol, or allusions to it, pops up everywhere.

This is no more evident than in the enormous (in every way) work that dominates BLUE – 1973’s Alchemy: 18 panels, across two walls, of phantasy, eroticism and a celebration of his exploding mind. Whiteley’s own inscription reads “The fine art of painting, which is the bastard of alchemy, has been always / will be, a game”. The painting is populated with historical figures (even Gough Whitlam is there) and allusions to art and spirituality and yet, from a distance, it roils with meaty, sexual shapes – flesh, as ever, is everywhere. But right at the centre, in the purest black and white lettering, unadorned and astringent, stands the enormous word “IT”, the thing that he was always after, right up until his O.D. death alone in a Thirroul hotel.

BLUE infinity, blue water, blue sky, ‘blue’ eroticism, blue thoughts, blue heaven – this exhibition brings together many of Brett Whiteley’s driving obsessions, a large part of it a love letter to Sydney in particular and Australia in general. Try not to miss it.

Oh, and when you go, ask them to put on ‘Rave On, John Donne’. Brett would dig it.

Published August 2011 on liveguide.com.au


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