Jan Senbergs: Observation – imagination

Jan Senbergs has carved out a formidable career as one of Australia’s most inventive and respected artists. Senbergs’ work has been characterised by a fundamental humanist vision, a finely-honed sense of the absurd, and a rigorous studio practice spanning printmaking, drawing and painting. He has lived and worked in Melbourne since his arrival as a 10-year-old immigrant from his country of birth, Latvia, and now his home city has honoured the artist with a much-anticipated retrospective. The artist has worked closely with National Gallery of Victoria curator Elena Taylor to put together a representative and wholly satisfying arc of Senbergs’ oeuvre or, as the artist himself puts it, “the whole catastrophe”.

Senbergs’ art has never been self-conscious or parochial in view. His vision has been global and the work broadly deals with the concerns of what the prescient artist termed in the ’70s, our “anxious settlements” – ideas that deal with the challenges of progress and growth. Senbergs’ solid working methods and anti fashion have provided a great counter to a fickle art world – art that has been created with a broad social engagement and has stood the test of time. This exhibition is a marker of what artists can achieve through persistence and hope.

The current show provides a marvellous opportunity to appreciate the imagination and inventiveness sustained over a long period of time. Cleverly curated over four large rooms at the NGV Australia, Federation Square, the exhibition will include paintings, drawings and prints from his first exhibition in 1960 until the present day, borrowed from public and private collections.

Senbergs has spent the best part of a year going through his work with curator Elena Taylor, making selections for the final cull, so I asked him how tough was it to make the selections. “It’s been a strange experience, all sorts of surprises when fossicking through past work that you have forgotten about, and wondering if there should be some interest in it. The surprise comes when another person sees some paintings very differently to the way you see them. The whole process was a very democratic way of dealing with things and it took a long time to work out what would go in the show. What was difficult was culling things out that I really wanted people to see. We would have a debate between us and we worked very amicably throughout, but it was more a case of culling rather than selecting. I could’ve filled that space three times over! Of course being a painter you see the model of the exhibition space and you want to fill it with more paintings than a curator does. The curator and gallery are looking for a sparser look, more space between the images.” With that in mind not all of the artist’s series could fit into the hang. Works from interesting periods such as Barcelona, Bundanon and even his Mount Lyell explorations were causalities of the cull.

The exhibition discovers hidden gems that have not been seen in Australia before. The artist says, “There were surprises like some of the paintings from America when I was teaching there. I was very glad to discover a work from Boston that was rolled up, and one of the last things I did in the USA. It was a work that was between my stages of painting and leading onto more of a drawing area. Other paintings that surprised me that were good to see were the ‘Night Parade’ works from around 1965, which were down at Mornington Peninsula Gallery.

“Works like that haven’t been shown before, but as for my earlier paintings, Elena was very keen to put them in and I was quietly hoping she wouldn’t be so keen,” he says with a laugh. “I think she’s right though. It’s important to include these awkward and earnest attempts as dark and ugly. Some of them were my ‘dark blacks’ as I called them; then in the 60s I went through what I called my ‘axle grease’ period of larger works on Masonite sheets with some built-up surfaces.”

“Normally in a show like this one would start chronologically with these formative works but we decided to start with an ‘introductory’ room of various pieces showing some later aspects of my work instead of leading into the early phase straight away. Despite their untaught earnestness these early works for me had a ray of optimism, and the ugliness I hoped was what Picasso called the ugliness of all true beginnings.”

Maintaining his tough vision was never easy. Senbergs has always said his first priority in art is to make sure a painting “works” in visual terms of structure and concept. Narrative then comes in a distant second, depending on the subject. The early pictures in the exhibition show a resolution to create something new.

He regales me with a story about this stage of his career in 1964. “I was painting at a friend’s house at Shoreham on the Mornington Peninsula, and John Reed came over with Sweeney Reed. I’d never met the man. John looked rather stern, and after briefly looking at some of my paintings you could sense there were certainly no bells ringing for him there – and probably thinking what the hell he was doing here after travelling from the city. After staying for only five minutes he said as he was leaving, ‘Jan I really don’t know where these paintings could possibly take you – why persist?’ And as he was leaving I thought to myself, well – fuck you! You’ve had your run with your period, and I’m trying something different. It stung, coming from someone at that time who was supposedly so significant – and yourself full of self-doubt. It was an early lesson to absorb the blows but not be cowed by them. It’s a continual verity that young artists have to learn to this day. I was hoping to move on from that, because at that time as a young painter one is naïve and full of hope. I was influenced by Leonard French a lot and for me that period reminds me of an optimism … and I didn’t know what else to do quite frankly!” he laughingly adds.

Senbergs is looking forward to how a younger generation sees and responds to his work. “Hopefully they might see something that might suggest a way of doing things, not so much technically but philosophically.”

Technically the show reveals the artist as a master of line. There has always been a structural solidity in the way Senbergs works. A marked change in his image-making developed during his early Port Liardet paintings in the late ’70s. He focused on an area of Port Melbourne where his art has drawn a lot of inspiration from. These works became more about touch, surface and they liberated him. During those earlier years he did little drawing, occasionally sketching concepts and “idea” sketches but not so much drawing for its own sake. The nature of Senbergs’ paintings of that period did not require much drawing. So he began drawing more in the studio and often wandering around the area doing on-site drawings. It was around this time that his work became site-related and he began the Port Liardet series, paintings of Port Melbourne as a kind of homage to the 19th-century painter of early Melbourne and Port Melbourne, Wilbraham Liardet. Ever since that time, drawing was to become as important to the artist as the paintings.

Technically the big black outline is a big part of the solidity of Senbergs’ graphic images – its thickness, richness of depth and delineation. Senbergs deliberates on the importance of these qualities to his work, saying, “Drawing over the years has become more and more important to my work. Sometimes the distinction between drawing and painting for me is blurring. For the larger works, I’ve preferred to use a black pastel, as mark-maker – it makes you work directly, but you can achieve a subtlety of line by manipulating it from the full mark to the thin-edged or softer, lighter marking. It’s all about making the primitive mark and even with all the new methods in our digital age it’s as relevant as ever.”

The artist has always had a grand view of our place in the world, which is reflected in his predilection for large view mapping works and architectural forms and developments. Cities and their impact on the environment are recurrent themes that have been a constant in his art. Senbergs says, “What I noticed in the end when we curated everything together for the whole show, through all the different periods, even though I’ve tackled such wide and varied subject matter, in a funny way there is continuity throughout. When I saw the model of the gallery spaces with work in it, Elena Taylor said ‘it’s interesting that in the last painting the imaginary cities come out as large head forms, and that’s how you started – all those early works were head forms as well’. In a way I thought about it and she’s quite right.

“I have always been interested in architecture and early map pictures. My interest has been of a visual nature – not of their functionality. None are meant to show some dystopian view of the world, or environmental preaching, they are simply my observations.”

This fascinating retrospective is a testament of the importance of ‘vision’ in an artist’s career. Perhaps Senbergs sums it up when asked his thoughts about lasting the distance. “When I began, the modernist adage was that consistency in your work is a virtue, but over a period I dispute that, as I’ve found that responding to life’s experiences which change and shift around, whether it’s travel, your environment or your personal situation, is more important. I try to respond to those things in my work. For good or bad I’ve generally tried to follow my instincts, knowledge and life experiences – and my paintings are about that.”
EXHIBITION
Jan Senbergs: Observation – imagination
18 March – June 2016
The Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria,
Federation Square, Melbourne

Courtesy the artist

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