Alun Leach-Jones

In Issue 43 of Artist Profile, Ian Grant wrote about the inspiring life and career of the late Alun Leach-Jones. The artist's vibrant, inquisitive painting practice is celebrated in an exhibition at Nicholas Thompson Gallery, remembering the great artist, teacher, and friend.

I had known of Alun’s work in my student days through his 1968 exhibition at Strines Gallery and through works shown in books by Kim Bonython and James Gleeson. These books, also a source of reference for many friends, documented what we saw as contemporary painting in Australia and showed works that we may not have seen in Sydney galleries.

I saw Alun’s paintings at Watters Gallery in 1970. The works were a formidable part of his ‘Noumenon’ series and were large, square paintings with central circular areas where small, sharp, organic shapes formed complex and dynamic relationships with themselves and the crisp borders of these circular enclosures. I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the exhibition and I quietly moved upstairs with a friend as people entered the gallery. We came down the stairs and passed a tall, smiling man who was in conversation with Frank Watters. My friend whispered ‘that was Alun Leach-Jones’ as we left the exhibition.

In 1976 Alun showed at Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney, this time with even larger works where vertical divisions counterpointed areas of flat, intensely coloured space with cleanly delineated enclosures of complex elements. The paintings were immaculately executed in the manner of all of Alun’s works and they were titled with subtle and poetic referencing.

Jacob’s Ladder, the work and the title, stayed with me for many years after this exhibition. I came to know and admire Alun’s work as it explored the compositional interplay of open space, areas of complex intensity and their relationship with the materiality of both the canvas and the smooth, refined paint surface.

Alun’s work in the late seventies moved away from vertical and horizontal divisions and the pictorial components became increasingly organic, yet precise, in their shape. I continued to follow his work in solo exhibitions, surveys and events such as the 1979 Biennale of Sydney and I became more and more aware of his extended practice in printmaking, even in tapestry design. I was always in admiration of the intellect, the obsessive discipline and the intensity inherent in his work, but I had still not met Alun.

We met when we were both teaching at Alexander Mackie College (now UNSW Art & Design) in the late 1970s. We worked on different campuses and in different teaching areas. Alun taught in Painting and Drawing and I taught in Art Education but we met frequently in staff meetings, college exhibitions and related activities.

Alun was always friendly and welcoming and I became aware of his extraordinary knowledge base in poetry, music and painting. We developed a camaraderie which became a friendship as I moved from Art Education to Painting. By 1989 we occupied adjacent office spaces where we were able to share discussions, to examine books and magazines, and even to experience music together as our academic roles evolved.

Always a thoughtful, highly intelligent colleague, Alun was able to work in open friendship with people around him and to bring his deep knowledge to his students. This knowing came from his broad global experience and from his constantly continuing personal research.

He had friends throughout Australia, Europe and New York. He and Nola (Leach-Jones) travelled frequently to New York, often staying downtown in the Gramercy Park Hotel, and each time they experienced a breadth and diversity of exhibitions, performances and museum offerings. There was usually a focus for the stay but Alun also habitually visited bookshops throughout his travels and would invariably return with new material for his large library. He greatly valued both the book content itself and the broadening of the referencing base that it offered him. His books were for reading, not for library shelves and storage. These books, and also exhibition catalogues, were also often gifts for friends, given always with understanding and a sharing of their interests. Conversations followed and relationships were strengthened and deepened.

Alun and Nola formed many friendships in America, particularly in New York where Alun had been a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of New York College at Purchase. He and Nola formed a lasting friendship with Robert Berlind, an artist, writer and professor at Purchase. When Robert came to Sydney he stayed with them, exploring Australian painting and ultimately writing a lengthy article for Art in America. The friendship continued, deepened and was cemented with visits to New York and other centres where exhibitions were mounted.

Many of these lasting friendships formed by Alun resulted in great exchanges and depth of conversation, even challenging scrutiny, in areas of related interest. Telephone conversations were often conducted over long periods with rapport, deep inquiry and frequent laughter. A conversation with Alun involved a lengthy diversity of informed seriousness, open questioning, humour and close friendship.

From the late 1990s Alun increasingly worked with and exhibited sculpture. His works were precisely constructed and, of course, involved a highly refined assemblage of elements clearly related to his prints and paintings.

His exhibiting record and his inclusion in many of the world’s major collections demonstrates Alun’s importance and the unique identity of his practice. He remains, and will always remain, a remarkable artist who followed his own pathway with deep focus, but with understanding of the many pathways others followed. He formed lasting friendships which came from this focus and understanding and, yes, these friendships often emanated from his teaching and his artistic profile – but they developed much, much beyond this.

Born in 1937, Alun sadly passed away on 24 December 2017. He will be deeply missed, this goes without saying. But, much more importantly, he will be deeply, deeply remembered.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 43, 2018

Alun Leach-Jones: Paintings 1998 – 2008
27 March – 7 April, 2019
Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne


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