This is Jim Paterson’s fifth exhibition at Trevor & Michele Fuller’s Place Gallery, and the first devoted to his drawings. As such it provides a concentrated distillation of his art, and a welcome insight into the work of this admired, down-to-earth and self-effacing painter, draughtsman and sculptor.
Instantly apparent is that certain subjects prevail – boats in particular, for which he has had a life-long fascination. They are clearly central to his imagination. Often toylike, occasionally menacing, floating above ground, teetering on the cusp of a tidal wave, marooned on a rock, disintegrating or sinking, his boats are presented as having many and various manifestations, offering multiple possibilities for imaginative experience.
His handling of charcoal or conté, ink and wash, varies according to mood or inclination, adding to the wonder of the experience of looking and suggesting the pleasure in making. A love of sky and water is evident, of the sensation of light, of height and distance, changing weather, wind and air. The drawings of the boats themselves are patiently and thoughtfully rendered, revealed as constructed from seed pods, reeds, wooden planks or steel plates riveted together. Some have immense chimneys (or are short and squat), or have implausible structures built on top of them; others are highly mechanical, or organic and beast-like. Especially intriguing are those that traverse the sky or seem suspended in air, defying gravity.
One boat, whale-like, hovers over a mining town and its port, combining the features of Port Melbourne and Broken Hill, the two places he knows best. It is a curiously blissful image, in spite of the whale-ship’s partly open mouth and show of spiky teeth. Entrancing is an image of pigeons on water, galleon-like, their wings fluttering as if to propel them forward, a sparkle of feather-dust and thistle about them.
Mechanical, urban and industrial images are predominant, including the clutter and detritus of modern life. In one drawing in brush and black ink, Mobile tower 2010, a man’s head in profile topped with mobile phones and skyscrapers, radio waves visibly emanating from them, is rooted sphinx-like to the earth. There are several arresting drawings of grotesque monumental heads, another of a bizarre bewigged skull, as well as a seductive drawing of two exotic-looking trees, like botanical studies made on some alien planet.
His art offers a distinctly surreal experience - images are playful and somewhat science-fiction-like (with a nod to modern street art and graffiti) as if they are studies to illustrate some epic tale, but each is uncompromisingly an end in itself. Each work may lead to another, but there is no sequence or story. Paterson is intent on exploring his means and his process, the proper scale of each image and where that might lead him, as he tenaciously pursues their resolution pictorially. There is no narrative, beyond the suppleness of his mind.
I first met Jim Paterson in March 2007, in his adopted home-town of Broken Hill. I was taken to meet him at his house and studio, a former general store, by the then Director/Manager of the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, Rebekah Butler. It was around midday, straight after judging the Outback Art Prize at the Gallery, which, that year, was devoted to drawing. I had chosen a striking big new drawing in brown ink by Paterson as the winning work. It had been obvious at first glance that it was the outstanding drawing, but it grew ever more compelling as I continued to look at all the others entered in the prize. It still hangs in my memory, hauntingly so - a ferocious apparition of impending doom. It isn’t surprising that there is an elaborate major painting of the subject.
Paterson said that his drawing was based on a nightmare in which his son fell from his arms during a flood, and was later found alive in a tangled tree stump. The prize-winning drawing certainly made me want to see more of his art. That it happened so quickly on the same day, together with meeting him, was a bonus.
Broken Hill’s newspaper the Barrier Daily Truth crowed about it being the first time a local artist had been awarded the prize, but Jim Paterson belongs to Melbourne as much as to Broken Hill. His work cannot fairly be claimed as regional. He has many admirers elsewhere and had established himself as a serious artist long before he settled in Broken Hill; and Melbourne remains the principal place for him to exhibit and sell his work.
However, until that day in March, I had only ever actually seen one other drawing by Jim Paterson, an acutely engaging portrait of Pam Hallandal, at her house on my visits to Melbourne. It is an image of a remarkable artist and teacher of drawing. Paterson has captured Hallandal’s single-mindedness, and also her playful pixie-like watchfulness - a quality that is in no other portrait of her, including her own. Paterson’s portraits invariably capture individuality with uncanny verity and expressive force, so it is no surprise that Pam Hallandal values his work highly. She has certainly expressed her admiration for her former student and friend on more than one occasion.
Paterson’s portrait drawings are an important aspect of his work and there were a number in his house. Like the drawing awarded the Outback Art Prize, the portraits I saw there have remained sharply in my memory. They have an undeniable intensity which stirs one emotionally. His portraits, expressively stated in charcoal and/or coloured pastel seem larger than life, especially several of young women with faces burning with extreme emotion.
His house and studio is not unlike a storehouse for theatre sets (not surprising considering he has worked as a set painter in Melbourne) - walls, shelves and bench-tops in every room crowded with drawings, paintings, sculptural pieces, stacked or propped up for viewing: all reflecting the singular mind of its occupant. Big boards here and there are entirely covered with small drawings pinned to them wallpaper-style, each the kernel to a new image or variation he is exploring. In fact his house is all studio, and brimful with drawings. It is immediately clear that Paterson is a passionate and compulsive draughtsman.
In a small room at the back of the house flooded with daylight, there is a big adjustable wooden drawing table, and around it on the walls and on boards, many more drawings are pinned-up, mostly pocket notebook size. This room is a veritable laboratory for drawing. To my delight, I found there a tiny initial study for the drawing I had chosen as winner half an hour or so earlier. Clearly for Paterson, drawing is thinking aloud, generating other larger drawings, paintings and sculptures, usually of greater complexity.
Paterson also draws on beer-coasters - those small, shaped, absorbent pieces of cardboard printed with some image, advertisement, adage or joke, common in pubs & beer gardens - handy for writing down phone numbers as well as sopping up dripping liquid from glasses, but of little interest to anyone except eccentric collectors of ephemera, and Jim Paterson!
Essentially, Jim Paterson is a maker of images, quite extraordinary images. And he is as inventive in giving them shape as in conceiving them. His world is like some ever-expanding universe in which the city, industry and shipping features. It is inhabited by human beings as well as fantastic creatures, where gravity is suspended and everything has been rearranged to suit the circumstances of his vivid and fertile imagination.
As a painter he is often like a surprisingly colourful latter-day cubist, equally as masterly with vibrant colour, monochrome, or impenetrable black (like some Antipodean Leger); interchanging oil paint, house-paint and acrylic. His work can be unforgiving, but also exceptionally restrained - viewing it is as if you are in a tight embrace one moment, being gently stroked the next. That became obvious when comparing the two drawings he had entered in the Outback Art Prize - so dramatically opposite. The second, a landscape (or bushscape) Euriowie Poolamacca Station 2007, has great delicacy in handling black conté. A fine tracery of lace-like lines, it challenged my choice of Flood 2007, though both were by the same artist. The landscape was made on a hot windy day, on the spot, the dry prickly closeness of his experience within the very fabric of the drawing.
Indeed, landscape in Paterson’s hands is often gossamer-like in its delineation, suggesting the sensation of infinite space that can be found in the drawings and paintings of Pieter Bruegel the elder, for example. It is the art of early Dutch, Flemish & German masters that comes to mind most when looking at Paterson’s drawings – Bosch, Patinier, De Momper, Grunewald, Baldung Grien, Burgkmair - religious and pagan images which articulate a troubling world that seems long past, until, after looking intently at Paterson’s work, I began to realize that our modern world is not very different inwardly or outwardly from theirs. That was how I felt after leaving his studio.
Looking about me in Broken Hill that hot afternoon it would not have been difficult to imagine giant ships in the sky, or monstrous fowls at roost dwarfing the town and its mining structures (Chooks 2009) – the earthy raw colour of the place, stifling heat, brooding atmosphere, streets veering steeply upwards and downwards, and contributing to this, knowing that I was very far from anywhere and inland. It was my first and to date only visit to Broken Hill and it remains for me, very much Paterson’s place, inextricably linked somehow to the proud independence of the town, its history and, a certain raffishness. Yet his images are not of a particular place, no matter how powerfully it is evoked. Port Melbourne is ever-present too.
Paterson, born and trained in Melbourne, is one of a band of brilliantly original contemporary image-makers from there - the best known of whom are Jan Senbergs and Gareth Sansom, as well as their Antipodean antecedents: Nolan, Boyd, Perceval and Tucker - who have given us a distinctly edgy and non-verbal vocabulary for the stories, myths, fantasies and lies that so intensely characterize the shared history and cultural identity of Australians. Just as his work is connected to place and the art of well-known Australian artists (among them Melbourne’s masters of the idiosyncratic and curious, John Brack and Eric Thake), it may bring to mind industrial images from the past and other twentieth-century artists of international distinction like Philip Guston. As tempting as such comparisons might seem, a quest for precedents in art reveals too little of Paterson’s real interests that are clearly bundled up in his experiences of place, his inner life and daily activities.
When Paterson left Melbourne for Broken Hill in 1990, he took with him everything that was already deeply embedded in his mind, including the experience of growing up in the outer suburb of Sunshine with its post-war migrant population and of working as a labourer in various remote parts of Australia. It is no surprise therefore that he has mixed this together in his work, delivering a potent array of images connected to the sea, landscape and industry, and thereby reshaping Australia’s best-known inland mining town into some place, anywhere.
Senior Curator of Australian Prints, Drawings and Watercolours