Lines in the Dirt 2008
13 May to 1 June
Tim Olsen Gallery
A LINE OF LIGHT
The Melbourne master painter Phil Hunter has produced an extensive body of work, but his moody vehement pencil drawings and oil 'nightscapes' always make me stop and ponder. The subject matter of these works has unexpected associations which can arouse in the spectator feeling of both wonder and doubt. Silence vibrates through these works and around these images the air is charged. Deep intention and the possibility of mystery conjure up a form of spatial magic.
It is the unexpected sense of isolation, the deep iridescent effects of light and the sense of presences lurking in the shadows that incline toward a metaphysical quality in this art, in contrast to the contemporary decorative Romantic impulse. On the one hand these pictures might bring to mind familiar cliches of the nineteenth Century ghost narrative which play on the yearning for ecstasy, the romance of medieval mysteries and the exciting extremes of wild nature. On the other hand, the work enables us to reflect on a shadow world that eludes our everyday reality.
The twentieth Century was an age of technical reproduction which opened up visual stimulation and possibilities that have somewhat enveloped us. The idea of an involvement with immaterial reality is now usually met with scepticism, but Bill Henson, Rick Amor and Peter Booth are each of them artists whose work can suggest this nether world, as did Roger Kemp, John Brack and Godfrey Miller before them. Hunter's engagement with the metaphysical may offer us a glimpse of something more true or more original than we usually encounter.
When the painter is sketching the vivid outlines of an imaginary terrain his work will always be close to the universe of dreams. In Hunter's case the skilful rendering of detail helps to construct a new sombre reality, which is at the same time secret and unpredictable. Perspective is used as a shortcut straight to the inexplicable. Moons and horizons, which we are tempted to walk beyond, may be understood within this universe of dreaming. They are in the midst of shining white light, which has the force of the spiritual.
The wonderful accompanying drawings are a case in point. The carbon-black shadows raise questions in relation to the present day debate around the nature of representational art. But the depth of life behind the drawings raise doubts about the contemporary emphasis on the scanned object. Here, the line which traditionally has been associated with rationality and clarity (male) is immersed in the colour, black, which has always been identified with the sensual and emotional (female). The artist embraces a beleaguered complexity.
To enagage with these paintings is like the experiences of listening to early travellers' tales reaching as far back as Marco Polo. The metaphysical may be seen as an act of storytelling, it is not a search for Utopia, on the contrary it provokes a distrust of utopianism. To reveal a netherworld involves private and experimental work, it is hard-won and some considerable mental distance is travelled. There should be no confusion here, however, this is a true concern to examine a relationship between dreaming and mourning. The painter and the viewer recognises the strangely familiar, but there is a hesitation in the recognition. The viewer is borne forward to the edge of the surreal, where much that is good occurs, but then at this threshold there is a sudden moment of discovery which takes the form of a reassuring recognition of the traditional Australian qualities; of the laconic, the fatalistic, of a scepticism that knows the harsh.
We play it close to the chest when the spiritual is in prospect. We have lost our understanding of the 'shaman' and we find it difficult to accept the possibility of a metaphysical image. We lack faith. These paintings both support the enduring Renaissance belief in the value of paint on canvas and cast a little light into the darkness that lies on both sides of our lives. They both illuminate our incomprehensible existence in this backslapping country and sound a warning. Hunter the painter is revealed as both a believer and a doubter, he possesses the tragic sense required for the farsighted. This work in a room can draw sparks. It is, as the Americans say, fizzing with moxie. Whoever has helped us to such a larger understanding is entitled to our gratitude.
Philip Hunter Lines in the Dirt 2008