Tom Alberts’s facility with oil paint allows him to manipulate the medium’s conventions. On the one hand a highly realist painter, and on the other capable of rendering rich, expressionist surfaces, Alberts frequently combines these techniques in a single work or creates other visual twists that highlight the artifice of his craft. Rather than disconcerting his viewers, he seeks to make them aware of the act of painting.
Alberts’s practice is informed by his extensive knowledge of art history, gained through formal study and his travels. In 2015, he joined the time-honoured ranks of artists who have been permitted to copy masterpieces in the Louvre where he replicated La Brioche 1763 by Jean-Simeon Chardin (1699–1779), an artist Alberts admires.
Not one to be daunted by creative genius, Alberts regularly references the work of other painters, often with a degree of humour. His Art Lover 2002, for example, pays homage to Diego Velázquez’s (1599–1660) Rokeby Venus c.1647–51, which itself alludes to earlier artworks. Alberts’s play on the tradition of artistic quotation is realised by his decidedly contemporary model who, while mimicking the pose of Velázquez’s goddess, gazes not at her own reflection but at a catalogue that reproduces the Spanish master’s painting.
Speaking of his eclectic process, Alberts has said ‘I go from my immediate surroundings to screens to depictions in books to imagined fictional worlds to movies… to a phone conversation with someone in another part of the world to something on the table in front of me.’
Stephen Bird is one of a number of contemporary artists who are reviving ceramics practice in Australia, where Bird settled in 1999. Raised and educated in Scotland, he studied painting at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Dundee. His birthplace of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England, has been equally important to the development of his work. In 2007, he undertook a residency at the city’s Potteries Museum, and Staffordshire’s renowned ceramics tradition continues to inspire his distinctive, irreverent style.
A sense of whimsy and unease coexists in Bird’s fantastical paintings and clay assemblages. Frequently macabre, they feature severed heads and disembodied eyeballs that would unnerve if it weren’t for the humour and intellect that Bird brings to his subjects. Speaking of the symbolism behind his use of ocular motifs, Bird has said ‘There are many recurring myths involving eyes, from Oedipus to King Lear. These are characters who have no insight until they lose their sight.’
Bird is as likely to turn to Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedy for his fanciful narratives as he is to borrow from fairy tales and Biblical chronicles. He treats each with gentle mockery, mindful of the license that the informality of the ceramic medium permits. Seducing viewers with his lustrous glazes and curious forms, the artist finds freedom to tackle issues around sex and violence that might otherwise remain taboo. Bird won the Gold Coast International Ceramic Award in 2016, reflecting the regard with which his work is held.
Lyndell Brown and Charles Green
For thirty years, Lyndell Brown and Charles Green have worked as one artist, traversing techniques and cultural contexts in their quest to engender a detached and revelatory ‘third hand’. Their collaborative practice speaks of an inclusivity that extends to the subject matter of their work, which is concerned with memory, archives, documentation and representation.
Drawn to explore the interstice between painting, photography and digital reproduction, Brown Green use each to inform the other, sampling imagery from their own travel photographs and past work, art history and the media. The combined fragments prompt the viewer to engage with the idea of contemporaneity and reflect on the interconnected nature of existence. As they have explained:
For … decades, our paintings, installations and photographs have been carefully interrupting and diverting flows between events, images, memories and histories. These works also ask how the past figures in the present, and how it might be accessed and remembered.
In 2007, Brown Green served as Official War Artists with the Australian War Memorial in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting artworks provide an important record of Australia’s involvement in these zones of conflict, and a significant contemporary perspective on the genres of war art and history painting. Their experiences led them to collaborate with fellow war artist Jon Cattapan on a series of paintings that were the subject of their co-authored monograph Framing Conflict: Contemporary War + Aftermath (2014) and shown in Lesson Plan: A Collaboration at Bruce Heiser Gallery, Brisbane, in 2015.
Joe Furlonger’s skills as a draughtsman form the basis of his artistic practice, which encompasses a range of media, including painting, sculpture and printmaking. As he has described, ‘I think about myself primarily as a painter but the drawings… can stimulate me, or they can problem solve.’ Whether reduced in content and palette, or animated by vibrant, impasto brushstrokes, his artworks are characterised by a calligraphic mark making that acts to anchor the compositions. The effect exhibits the influence of the artist’s travels through Asia, and his experimentation with Chinese brush painting.
Oscillating between representation and abstraction, Furlonger’s expressive landscapes, portraits and figure studies are drawn from his deep engagement with lived experience, and his ability to improvise on visual motifs. Born in Cairns, raised on farmland on the outskirts of Brisbane, and having lived and worked in Queensland for most of his life, Furlonger’s affinity with his home state is evinced in his work. His sojourns to the country around his home in the Samford Valley, and further afield to locales such as Carnarvon Gorge and the Capricorn Coast have inspired paintings such as Hills, Carnarvon, Central Queensland, which was awarded the 2002 Fleurieu Art Prize, and Wet Summer, Darling Downs, which won the Tattersalls’s Club Landscape Art Prize in 2011. Speaking of his tendency to immortalise the expansive qualities of the Australian landscape, Furlonger has said ‘I find parallels with the sea. I feel comfortable in big, flat areas.’
Lewis Miller builds his portraits, still lifes and figure studies through a virtuosic application of paint, creating surfaces rich with texture and colour. The focus of his discerning eye might be the ruby-red arils of a pomegranate, the plump flesh of a freshly shucked oyster, or the creases and hollows of his own face. In each case, the viscous quality of his material facilitates the artist’s exploration of form. In speaking about his paintings of sea creatures, he has said that ‘… they lend themselves to the medium of oil paint because they’re slippery, and oily, and pearlescent.’
Miller is best known for his portraits and has earned national recognition for his work in the genre. He came to prominence after winning the 1998 Archibald Prize for his painting of fellow artist Allan Mittelman and was awarded the 2000 Sporting Portrait Prize with a painting of Australian Rules legend Ron Barassi AM. In 2003, Deakin University honoured Miller’s contribution to the field with the survey Lewis Miller: Selected Portraits 1983–2003 and, in 2017, he won the Rick Amor Self-Portrait Prize for a painting that captures him at work in his Vale Street studio. The intensity of Miller’s gaze, his paint-splattered apron and his rolled-up shirt sleeve convey the pragmatic attitude with which he approaches his craft.
In 2003, Miller’s facility as a figurative artist was recognised by the Australian War Memorial who appointed him as an Official War Artist. He served in Iraq, chronicling the activities of the Australian Defence Force during the Second Gulf War.
Noel McKenna has enjoyed a successful forty-year career, and is renowned for his quirky, insightful views of everyday life. His early training in architecture is revealed in his affection for the built environment. The artist’s renditions of suburban houses and cityscapes are, however, decidedly irregular. The naïve quality of his paintings, prints and ceramic tiles distinguish the artworks, which are at once personal and universal.
McKenna draws on a range of sources, including childhood memories, his own photographs and images from the media, to devise scenes that are in equal parts familiar and strangely disquieting. He creates these enigmatic vistas through the unexpected placement of objects and distortions in scale and colour, explaining ‘the… thing [is] to make something ordinary appear to be something else.’ His unconventional landscapes are reminiscent of the watercolours of the English modernist Eric Ravilious (1903–1942), whose designs for Wedgwood inspired McKenna to work with ceramics.
The desolate, urban byways that are frequently the object of McKenna’s observant, bemused eye suggest a variety of influences, from the atmospheric paintings of Italian proto-Surrealist Georgio de Chirico (1888–1978) to the quintessentially Australian streetscapes of John Brack (1920–1999). Other subjects McKenna favours include his pets, and the animals that he encounters around his hometown, Sydney, and on his travels. The artist’s celebrated ‘Map’ paintings were featured in his solo show at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Noel McKenna: Landscape – Mapped (18 Nov 2017 – 2 Apr 2018).
Bill Yaxley has developed his idiosyncratic, beguiling style over more than 50 years. Self-taught and prolific, he is widely recognised for the unusual outlook that he brings to otherwise ordinary subjects. Many of his artworks are painted from an aerial perspective, and provide an expanded, whimsical view of the world.
Yaxley’s path to becoming an artist was circuitous. Having been drawn to paint as a young man, he started work with BHP aged 18, and made art in his spare time. For much of his life, Yaxley followed this pattern, maintaining a second career alongside his creative practice. Having moved to Queensland with BHP in the mid 1960s, he and his wife ran a pineapple farm at Yeppoon, grew citrus fruit and avocados at Byfield, and subsequently relocated to Copping in south-east Tasmania where they established a vineyard. Yaxley’s agronomy has provided the stimulus for his art. His paintings and sculptures capture vignettes from daily life, holidays to the Capricorn Coast, and the impact of natural disasters, including the bushfires that have decimated his properties. As the artist has explained:
The landscape… gave me lots of material to create my… little paradises, idyllic pictures… swimming in the creek and the paperbark trees, the wild life… all those featured in the work, as well as, of course, the agricultural stuff.
In 2016, the artist’s achievements were recognised by the Rockhampton Art Gallery through the career survey The Adventures of Bill Yaxley (9 April – 29 May 2016), which toured to Ipswich Art Gallery.