Embedded within the thriving arts community called Advertising (the denizens look super cool), a refurbished old warehouse in Melbourne’s Richmond is the brand new space of a newish gallery, Block Projects. Their very basic old website is also in need of renovation (a little clue to how they’ve made ends meet over the last — their first — three years). It’s so basic it won’t show you the pictures at this exhibition.
Above: The painter’s studio, from the invitation.
That’s by the by. They are currently showing the mid-career artist David Ralph. “Mid-career!” What a deadly ring; sounds of stuck and stalled. Mid, middle, of the road, of nowhere. Not the shiny start, or the glorious final straight, laurels in sight. But middle is where you get things done — middle is prime.
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‘Threshold’ is an exhibition of seven medium-large paintings by a painter in the prime of his powers. Graduating from the VCA in 1985, Ralph has been painting for 25 years and it shows. It shows in his confident drag and smear. It shows in the finesse of tonal gradations and leaps in contrast. In the flaring of a picture’s kaleidoscopic colours, and the subtle monochromes of the facing picture. It shows in the masterly brushing of feet and car bodies, the deceptively effortless dotting and gridding of light sources on dark backgounds. It shows in the exacting blade-sharp edge of paint along some of the shapes. And something else that’s not a result of sheer practice: what comes right out at you is the sheer joy of paint. This is a painter who loves his material, and it shows.
The paint exhilirates; the images make the familiar strange. (death to cliches) I mean, the images make what is familiar, strangely familiar. Here is what the artist says:
Over the past few years I’ve been interested in painting environmental scenarios that focus on unusual or alternative dwellings such as mobile homes, caravans, tents, cabins and tree houses. These kinds of informal, mobile or temporary dwellings are for me potent metaphors for many of the existential issues facing humanity in our time. They raise questions about where we live, how we live and why we chose to live in the way we do. The recreational/escape vehicles in my work symbolize a vital connection with a longed for natural paradise beyond the confines of the cities most Australians live in.
Artist statements’ are always fraught (with the anxiety of words substituting for familiar matter); this one seems quite straightforward, which the images certainly aren’t. What do we see? (And if only we could see paint on a computer screen. And see real colour too. Alas, pixels ain’t paint.)
Susan Sontag’s famous essay on looking at art manages to get her whole thesis into its title: Against Intepretation. The famous line from it is, Instead of a hermeneutics of art, let us have an erotics of art. (From memory, I could be out a word or two.) Which is funny coming from her, that we should look at stuff, rather than talk about it. But then she still wants the last word, only that we give descriptions rather than interpretations. Okay, Susan, let’s go…
In The Synesthesiac: a blurred figure with a torchlight walks towards a building which seems to be dramatising its own emotional state. (The paint in this picture excites the eye tremendously — chaos and control.)
In The Tempest, a wind has dissolved a tree into a suburban house, a house perching somewhere high above a scantily inhabited valley? — note the little trails of light (like so many details, not quite visible at this reduction). Tree and house spotlit by a harsh glare. Is it a visitation? By a spacecraft, an angel, or demon? (Unsure at first, I am increasingly liking this picture.)
The superb title picture Threshold: A dream of collapsed scales — a steeple grafted onto a vast Kombi van, an escalator moving figures into its warm-lit interior. The whole structure disappearing into a … wormhole/stargate/the black of 2001‘s monolith liquifying into a doorway.
Talking Heads, ‘Once In a Lifetime’:
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself — Well … how did I get here?
The Observatory with its collage of panels — in fact they are virtuosic “panels” of thickly squeegeed paint, managing to control a sweetness of pink with viridian green (Maggie Smith: ‘Green is such a difficult colour.’) and shades of yellow and brown, shimmering them over a background of dark endless space, with its field of city lights. The figure might be a dwarf astronaut in a suit, though it seems to be walking through floodwater under a giant telephone pole down an inner city lane.
Spirited Away: Steeple, car, ambo? fireman? light and shade, space and time, colour and movement…
Talking Heads, ‘Life in Wartime’:
Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
a place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I’m getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto
I’ve lived all over this town
The View from Mars. A pad in LA, Mars, in lo-gravity, silence. Hard to see at this scale but the blackdrop has shades and tones. This image seemed too simple to me, at first. But it is not too simple at all. It is just perfectly simple. (The paint is not simple; it has been beautifully wrought into elegance.)
Well…how did I get here?
The juxtapostions of the picture elements seem irrational and arbitary, but the placements are punchily precise. This is fine hand-eye coordination working to a tuned instinct. A threshold is “the starting point for a new state or experience.” According to the artist, all these slippages of time and scale, of place and moods, are about “a longed for natural paradise.” Well, I have no idea how paradise looks, unless it’s like Byron Bay, but David Ralph’s dislocations are fascinatingly unsettling. Vertiginous, but the compositions all have a classical poise and his unfashionable painting craftsmanship is of a very high order.
The pictures don’t look like any place I’ve been — or rather, look like bits of many places, but all at once. And they don’t look like anything anyone else is doing. Do we have to ask what they are “about”? I can only say that they are suggestive, memorable, and, that contemporarily problematic B-word, beautiful. The more I look, the more I like even the ones I hadn’t. With such painterly paintings, it’s all in the looking — pace Sontag — rather than talking. This is art by an artist stretching and taking pleasure in his abilities, aimed at paradise, at infinity. Why not? It’s the furthest boundary, the grandest target.
Oh and yes, there is one more picture not shown here but you’ll have to go and see it for yourself.
Show ends October 28.
79 Stephenson St, Richmond.
Ph: 03 9429 0660