Frank Littler

When I started working at Watters Gallery I thought Frank Littler was the worst artist they represented. Paint application – sloppy; colours – jarring; subject matter – well... Naturally I kept this to myself.

One afternoon towards the end of his 1989 exhibition, everything changed. I remember where I was standing when it happened. I’d never experienced anything like it, and have never again since: I got it. Suddenly everything about his work made sense to me. My stomach went tight and funny. I think I fell in love. Somehow my awareness had altered, and as I walked home that afternoon I felt I was looking through ‘Littler glasses’. I had unwittingly released expectations from their moorings. It was a deeply strange kind of letting go.

Frank Littler paints ordinary life – his ordinary life: Marrickville; vegetable; his car; surveillance blind spots; unfinished handles; something stuck under car; looking into glare; unconvincing disguises; the back of a podium at night; camouflage not working; customised appliances; unpredictable beings shivering on sports badges; having the wrong symptoms; maybe the space under the house.

I’m interested in the everyday but sometimes there’s a reality behind a lot of these things that’s deeper, that’s harder to define.

There’s something in the nature of being an artist that makes people odd. It’s a strange thing to do.

I didn’t come straight to painting. I wanted to be a cartoonist but I didn’t meet anyone else who wanted to be an artist until I did a sculpture apprenticeship at St George TAFE (1963–65). Bert Flugelman was my teacher; he was amazing, very inspiring. I remember saying to him “I don’t know if I should do this full time”, and he said “Why not?”

Littler went to the National Art School 1967–70. Cartoonists like Robert Crumb and the political photomontage artist John Heartfield were influences, as can be discerned in his early work.

St Francis is prostrated in front of a cow. Priests, police, people in the army: they’re figures of authority, so they’re open to ridicule. And there’s John Laws. I’ve often had a thing about media people and how much power they have. A rocket, like a threat, shoots in from outside.

When I look at these early paintings I feel I was a different person. I think when you’re an older artist you feel more for the poetry of things. When you’re younger you’re trying to break things down, disrupt, create an alternative. I’m still interested in that, but my work was always more about irony, which can be a way of negating, but also bringing light into something. I think if you’re always criticising you can become cynical. Anyway, as I’ve got older I think I’ve realised that irony should have a more positive side to it.

When I was young I loved painting and drawing. I loved seeing this thing coming up in front of you, out of you, something you’re drawing that you’ve never seen before. The closest thing to it is watching a photograph developing in a tray. That’s a thrill, but when you’re painting it’s even better. It can be really frustrating and annoying, but when it’s working it’s the greatest feeling.

I used to go to a lot of punk gigs. It was the spirit of the times. Being in those concerts, the way people danced, the atmosphere … I tried to put that into the painting. A lot of it was physically uncomfortable, now that I think about it, because you’re being pushed around and it was really hot. But when it was good it was just extraordinary.

What I focus on more than anything else is the image. Colour, composition, form are important, but images have power. There’s always been a fear of idolatry, religious iconoclastic movements that have tried to rid the world of images. The English almost destroyed the art of their whole medieval period, heads knocked off statues, stained glass windows knocked out of churches. They went to so much trouble to get rid of images. It shows you the power of images, what they can do, or what people think they can do.

“Frank Littler’s images are often hilarious, surreal – sometimes incomprehensible. His subject matter attracts painters to him. He’s a painter’s painter, but deserves to be appreciated by the public.”
Chris O’Doherty (a.k.a. Reg Mombassa)

When I was young I really liked de Chirico, his images haunted me; same with Louise Hearman, Max Beckmann, Philip Guston.

The language of forms, shapes and colours corresponds to emotional, intellectual, psychological and spiritual states of mind which are deeper. I think a lot of artists work like that. On one level there are signs and depictions of everyday things, but on another level there’s the symbol, which is sometimes accidental; you’ve got that on the edge of your consciousness when you’re working. While you might set out to depict something like a building, there’s another dimension to it that’s more poetic. You’re trying to get into that.

I went to a Catholic school. Religion is something I’m interested in. It’s not all negative, if you look at just what you’re seeing – the extraordinary imagery. There’s a kind of wisdom in the more mystical parts of some traditions. The world would be a duller place without all of that.
On the one hand valves are odd anachronisms, on the other they are beautiful. The irony is that there’s something ridiculous about them too. There are groups of people obsessed by valves, I was fascinated by that. It’s unusual for me not to have any source material. I don’t really paint things just out of my head.

Inside the valves I painted little images, which have carnivalesque, cartoon-like qualities. I’ve always liked the ideas of the Theatre of the Absurd.

A grid or a matrix up against the picture plane to look through creates space: I like the stage-like quality of that, also oblique references where the image or meaning is not immediate. I heard a story about an abandoned campsite, the tent was rotting and it seemed as if someone had been cooking and just left. I had an image in my head of what it looked like, but when I saw a picture of the actual tent, it was disappointing.

“Frank is one of the few artists who have been, on the basis of what I have seen, consistently out of step. And as far as painting goes – ie: putting pop art and some areas of conceptual art aside – out of step is the only thing worth being. This also as far as his orientation goes, his very particular relation to comic strips for instance, and his very original sense of or use of humour. I’m decidedly in favour of Frank as an artist.”
Ken Whisson

What materials do you like to use?
I was always told to use as large brushes as you can. I like really small ones, though I use them like large brushes. I do things I tell my students not to! I use glazes like watercolours. So, to make an orange, I’ll often put down a yellow and then glaze red over the top of it.I’m interested in layering.

I sketch with acrylics, trying to establish shapes and image through tones; then oil. And a lot of mediums: Spreader medium, or to slow down the acrylic drying Retarder medium. With oil, Liquin (speeds up the drying), linseed oil, turps. I like the lustre of Liquin for glazing. Oil paint is so lush, creamy. You can get caught up in the materiality and forget about the image or composition. Sometimes there’s just that sheer joy of making marks. I prefer to paint on board, unless the canvas is really smooth.

I don’t always have complete mastery over what I’m trying to depict, and in some ways that’s good. I know some artists who can make precise observational drawings or paintings but they don’t feel challenged, they get bored. I struggle, but it’s in the struggling that it’s made more interesting to me.

I can struggle getting the right colour relationships too. In your head you can see what you want … Sometimes I have to take oranges, reds and yellows right back to white to get the right luminosity.

Very rarely do you think something’s absolutely right. John Peart used Indian philosophy as a way of working and being in the moment, being with the action. If you do a gesture that you’re too self-conscious about it will look laboured, whereas if you’re in the right frame of mind, with your body, you’ve got more chance of getting it right.

Do you have routines to get ready?
Yes, mixing the paint, or having a cup of tea – something that’s between the everyday world and the world of the art. It’s probably the same for musicians and poets; you’ve got to go into another frame of mind. It’s almost like you float slightly above yourself. I like to paint in the late afternoon. It just doesn’t feel right if I’m not doing it every day.

Do you listen to music while you’re painting?
Often Mozart’s Requiem, it’s transcendent, it takes me to this other place. I like music that’s devotional: Bruckner, Gounod; also folk music, cowboy music, jazz. Or just Radio National. It keeps you company – painting is quite lonely sometimes.

“He paints in a way that initially looks clumsy, but is actually incredibly sophisticated. It takes a while for you to see how good they are, that there’s a ‘rightness’. When you talk to him about his work he makes it seem like a very normal thing. He’s not trying to be weird, he’s not pretentious or try-hard. He has an eye for the unusual. I remember driving with him and seeing these weird things, and thinking ‘Fuck! I wouldn’t have seen that with anyone else. A lot of artists love his work, I think they get it.’’
Euan Macleod.

Frank Littler is represented by Watters Gallery, Sydney

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