Sydney’s often riven art world has seen it all before. An artist’s exhibition opening night sullied by a rival’s unwelcome emissaries, casting for all to hear mischievous comment on the paintings lining the gallery walls. A confrontation inevitably follows, with the artist’s special night remembered for potentially all the wrong reasons.
In October 2017, just as Sydney’s art year began winding down, I was at first appalled to learn of such an unruly intrusion. And then I thought again, "Wait. This is actually great. Healthy even (within reason)."
The Australian art scene of recent years has been notable for the lacklustre, a loss of the verve and dare I say 'excitement' of the type associated with the avant-garde of the post-war Australian art scene – a time when Brett Whiteley and his affected friends zipped about Sydney at high speed in a full metal 1964 valiant to crash as many events as possible.
Brett Whiteley Photo: Brett Whiteley Studio, Sydney
And while the road travelled by these artists could not be more divergent, the competing artists may have more in common than the gatecrashers dared realised.
The first whose work stylistically and skillfully echoes the imagery of the great British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) has aplan of sorts. He will no doubt be assisted in this by possessing the confidence of a person much more advanced both in years and reputation.
With a romantic eye on moving to and immersing himself in Paris, this artistneeds all the courage and resources he can muster if he is to fully live out his dream; admirably, to better his art practice. Time will tell it seems whether he cedes to the vicissitude of the art world or successfully continues on a course of his own making. His journey is to an extent just beginning.
Francis Bacon, 'Three Studies for a Crucifixion' (1944) Photo: Guggenheim
I hope he makes it to France and that the experience is indeed rewarding. I am confident he will succeed given the sheer force of his creative talent. The enforced separation from his misguided friends may also be of benefit all round.
While the second of these artists holds ambition equal to his rival, his choice is to remain at home.
Melbourne based artist Brock Q. Piper (b1985) in contrast is intuitively cautious. Marking out his oeuvre, mindful of his obligations to balance his life’s priorities - having recently married – Piper is honing his practice to build upon an already substantive body of work and achievement.
Remarkably, his painting remains anything but over-thought.
Brock Q. Piper, 'Just where this freedom breaks' (2017) Photo: Piermarq, Sydney
Piper relies he says on his personal and immediate experience. He describes his painting as a personal reflection of his life experiences, aimed at discovering truth through an exploration of time, death, shamanism and nature.
Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with what they believe to be a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world. It is an interesting dissection, laying an added dimension to his painting.
It is the coupling of these influences with the complexity of his abstraction that to my mind lifts Piper's painting beyond the everyday recitals of other like-minded artists.
As an artist, I am compelled to explore personal experiences and translate them into paintings, drawings and poems to express that which cannot be understood without the abstraction of creation. It’s about one’s own past being observed outside of context, and how we self-assess by exploring the past through our present understandings.
For me, looking squarely at his paintings I feel Piper’s struggle as integral to the success of his works. They are not repetitive, patterned and formulaic – a trap of expressionists. They are imbued with the moment. I have a sense the artist is unaware of where the painting will ultimately take him. In this way, I feel that Piper is allowing me to stand alongside, to travel with him and engage in the practice of making his art. Such is the intimacy.
Brock Q. Piper, 'Born of flight and the passages of death' (2017) Photo: Piermarq, Sydney
Brock Q. Piper, 'The Evacuation of Common Places' (2017) Photo: Brock Q. Piper
Piper describes his practice,
I have always relished the battle that is painting, and endure to push my work to the brink of complete self-destruction in order to be as honest as possible within my work, while maintaining the ambiguity of abstraction. It is this distraction from reality that allows me to embed my entire consciousness into my work.
I am looking to create a visual poem through my work. Attempting to will the birds out of mid air, to grapple with them mid-flight. Working the image up in layers to allow the forms to evolve and dissolve on the canvas. As an exploration of self, I am dissecting my life as if it were a specimen pinned down to be examined, twisted and manipulated into its final resolution.
For me, the act of painting is one of dredging the past. A way of forging a visual story by conjuring history. It is a cathartic act of interpreting and understanding self and lived experiences. There is a little part of you that gets left behind in the work, like a shard of your soul embedded within the layers of paint.
One does not have to look far to see that no two paths to success are the same. Each is inevitably laden with individual choice. The choices an artist faces are no less difficult.
Faced with choice, when presented with two or more options, our decisions are a combination of our subconscious, our motivations, and what specific needs these decisions are meant to satisfy. In this way, psychologists says, choice remains the purest expression of free will. The freedom to choose allows us to shape our lives exactly how we wish - provided we have the resources to do so.
But choice for the artist is difficult because it also represents sacrifice. Choosing something here inherently means giving up something else.
To take the road more often travelled is almost always more stable, easier to traverse. But taking the road less travelled - being independent of mind, making one's own choices, and perhaps forging a new trail - can sometimes yield better and sounder results. For me, both artists here in the pursuit of the road less travelled command respect. While the roads for Piper and his rival are of course divergent, the result of their choices, sacrifice and motivations are no less each profound. The journey cannot be separated from their work.
It is Piper who for me successfully channels his journeying into his painting, subconsciously, permeating deeply. It is a shame the gatecrashers failed to grasp the full picture, the tough choices behind Piper's art.
Brock Q. Piper, 'The Gypsy, The Whisky, and The Way Back Home' (2018) Photo: Brock Q. Piper
Main Photo: Brock Q. Piper
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia