Geoff Dyer

When I arrive at Geoff Dyer’s Hobart studio to discuss his upcoming exhibition of portraits at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), there’s not a single portrait in sight. Instead, amongst the mountains of bent paint tubes, there are dozens of landscape paintings: a series of darkened depictions of Tasmania’s Cockle Creek sit to my right, while a yellow-undercoated canvas in front of me suggests a brighter subject is underway.

Dyer is predominantly known for his landscape paintings, and yet he’s been a repeat finalist and one-time winner of Australia’s most famous portrait prize: the Archibald. The TMAG exhibition will bring together, for the first time, a number of Dyer’s portraits of prominent Tasmanians, including the Archibald-winning painting of Richard Flanagan, as well as portraits of individuals like David Walsh, Bob Brown, Christopher Koch, Graeme Murphy, Robert Dessaix, Paul Lennon and the artist himself.

The exhibition comes at a significant time in Dyer’s life. Diagnosed with cancer in 2017, he was forced to take a break from painting as he undertook aggressive treatment that left him so fatigued he was unable to pick up a brush. He is now in remission and has returned to painting with a renewed focus, stating, ‘What’s important is being here and getting on with your work … the exterior things fall away. I have no need to be up in lights winning prizes any more. It was nice to win an Archibald. It was a good feeling. You don’t expect these things.’ Dyer notes that winning the prize no doubt helped his career, but has concluded portraiture is ‘just not me’. The TMAG exhibition is in some ways a goodbye to that aspect of his practice.

Dyer had been a finalist in the Wynne Prize six times before he considered entering the Archibald Prize. In 1993, Dyer’s painting of environmental activist and former politician, Bob Brown, was an Archibald finalist. It’s a fitting first subject for a landscape painter. Brown looks entirely at ease against the wilderness background, dressed in his usual white button shirt, with his sleeves rolled up and arms crossed. The highlights on Brown’s shirt are echoed in the trees behind him, and his skin appears to blend into the background – almost as if he’s sprouting from the landscape.

Dyer’s 2011 Archibald entry was a portrait of David Walsh – the Tasmanian gambler, polymath, collector, and owner of the then months-old Museum of Old and New Art (Mona). On the eve of Mona’s opening, Dyer encountered and was immediately attracted to Jannis Kounellis’s installation featuring beef carcasses hung by giant meat hooks. The artist had no idea Walsh was vegetarian when he decided to paint him against the background of meat. Blood drips from the two carcasses, closely framing a squinting Walsh.

His tee-shirt remains perfectly white, untouched by the surrounding visual noise. The Collector, David Walsh is now held in Mona’s collection, but Dyer’s TMAG show will be the first time the portrait has been exhibited since its Archibald debut.

For the portrait of Richard Flanagan, Dyer bypassed the delicacy of the brush, applying the paint with a palette knife in a frenzied single night. The result is a powerfully raw and not necessarily flattering image of the celebrated author.

But portraits are far more than just flat representational pictures. Oil paint can be sculptural and even flesh-like in its viscosity. A talented painter will exploit the visceral qualities of oil paint, using it to convey a sitter’s personality, their passions, fears, memories and vulnerabilities (and often the painter’s own psychological state as well). There’s a level of risk, and for that reason Dyer has always selected subjects who understand the creative process, turning down the potentially lucrative requests from businesspeople. He explains, ‘If you’re painting someone outside of art, portraiture is a very odd thing because they look at it outside of art, “Does it really look like me? Does it? Does it?” ’

One notable exception to this rule is Dyer’s parliamentary commissions. The artist describes his painting of former Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon as a ‘bull of a portrait’. Dyer manages to capture Lennon’s heft and stance, but his expression is softened. Behind the bristly moustache, there’s a hint of amusement on Lennon’s face that defies the traditional formality of official parliamentary portraits.

Back at Dyer’s studio, we finish discussing the portraits. While he hunts for his cigarette lighter I take a last sip of my wine from a suitably paint-flecked glass. We try to find the lone portrait stored in his studio, but it’s buried behind multiple canvases.

Instead, I’m shown some of his new work: painterly landscapes that seem to roar with energy. These ‘more difficult’ (in Dyer’s words) paintings are destined for his exhibition at Despard Gallery, timed to coincide with and complement his TMAG show. Dyer is thrilled that his portraits will finally be seen together in his home town; however, his enthusiasm for the next stage of his career is clear. ‘If I hadn’t got sick, I probably would have kept going and flattened off a bit. I’m yet to hit my straps. This is a wonderful way to live your life.’

EXHIBITIONS
Geoff Dyer: Portraits
26 July – 6 October, 2019
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart

Geoff Dyer: Landscapes
31 July – 25 August, 2019
Despard Gallery, Hobart

 

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