Geoffrey de Groen

Geoffrey de Groen says he’s endlessly interested in 'silence, stillness, darkness', and from his studio in Taralga in the NSW Southern Tablelands he is happy to spend a whole day admiring the beautiful light there from before dawn till after dusk. 'It has a completeness to it. I hope my work has a completeness to it, too. A unity and a totality.'

Michelangelo said ‘It is necessary to keep one’s compass in one’s eyes and not in the hand, for the hands execute, but the eye judges.’ Presumably, Geoffrey de Groen would agree with Michelangelo because he is very fond of referring to Collingwood’s famous distinction between art and craft. In craft – a pre-considered, artisanal activity – it is necessary to know at the beginning how something will turn out. But art is an exploration where we don’t know the end at the beginning. Hence, another quote that he is fond of, this time Leonardo da Vinci: ‘A painting is never finished, only abandoned.’

De Groen is a painter of conviction. Born in 1938, he is of a generation which saw painting as a vocation. They scorned the term ‘artist’ because painting is a very specific discipline – and because the term ‘artist’ to them suggests no discipline at all. Conviction implies a set of core values. Like many painters, de Groen’s career has been a journey, but the values were established early on and have barely changed.

Born in Brisbane, he grew up in Sydney in an environment where art was entirely absent. He first began to look at art on weekend visits to the Art Gallery of NSW. Between 1957 and 1965 he studied at Julian Ashton Art School, North Sydney Tech and the National Art School, where Wallace Thornton was a big influence, promoting the work of Ian Fairweather and the notion of ‘all-over painting’ in general.

Helped by the sale of a clutch of paintings to John Pawson (later a prominent minimalist English architect), de Groen left Australia in 1968 to live and work in England, France and Canada before returning in 1973. For the next decade he taught at the National Art School in Sydney and the Canberra School of Art, was a well-known art critic and published two books of interviews with artists.

The sense that he was spreading himself too thin made him devote himself to painting full-time in 1985. In fact, the seeds of this went back to a visit to Japan in 1977 and a meeting with Father Joseph Love at Sophia University in Tokyo, who told him that talking about other people’s ideas means you have none of your own. ‘That’s why I quit teaching’, he says. ‘And I talked to an artist, Nakanishi, and he said: ‘never plan the end in the beginning’.’

Leaving teaching was the beginning of a process of withdrawal which culminated in de Groen leaving Sydney altogether in 1992 and moving to Taralga, a small town 40 kilometres inland from Goulburn in NSW. Although he is by nature gregarious and loves nothing more than robust discussion of art, music and literature, his move was about leaving the noise of the art world and the city in order to be able to focus exclusively on his work.

‘The light in Taralga,’ he says, ‘is so different to the light in the city, both in the day and the night, and that’s had a great and liberating effect on me. Starting in the dark (he goes to the studio before 5am every day) and going right through the day, I see the sun rise and the sun set. It has a completeness to it. I hope the work has a completeness to it, too. A unity and a totality.’ More than once he has said: ‘Silence, stillness, darkness is what I have always been interested in.’

Leaving teaching was part of a bigger crisis. De Groen gave up painting altogether and decided to rebuild from the ground up. He started with drawing in conté pencil, then drawing with coloured pencils before moving on to ‘drawing’ in black paint (he continues to do this and has recently produced a virtuoso set of small black-on-white drawings).

Finally, he returned to painting in colour. This involved a lot of technical experiments, especially in understanding underpainting and a deeper appreciation of materiality. His painting remains materially rich, but this richness always remains subordinate to what the painting seeks to be. ‘I think that the work of art is the idea itself,’ he says. ‘It has to have integrity, a truth, balance – but not be balanced. If it’s too perfectly balanced it becomes a design. If it is too perfectly finished it becomes a work of craft.’

There is a strongly recursive element to de Groen’s painting which, arguably, goes back right to the earliest work. He tends to work in series, although paintings can often cross-reference to parallel series. Paintings can be retrieved from the past and reworked. His free-associative imagery – sometimes quite figurative for someone who is fundamentally an abstract painter – recurs, while there is a thematic constancy which has intensified over time as he has further explored the potential of his materials and of painting itself.

For example, he has for more than 15 years worked closely with Jim Cobb at Chromacryl Paints who has at times been able to customise the synthetic pigment de Groen prefers to work with. His forms are not only in a constant ‘push-pull’ relationship with the ground, but the forms themselves are tenuous – brought about by subtle tonal transitions. Once he would have used a spray gun, later layers of oil paint. But the Chromacryl acrylic is manipulable and retains the brushstrokes (it doesn’t dry straight away, but is much faster than oil paint), giving the picture texture and luminosity so that the paintings seem suffused with an immanent light, the forms emerging from a deep, undefinable space.

Ambiguity and paradox are the generators of his painting, driving a sense of uncertainty and making the paintings analogues for how we experience the world. There is a constant ambiguity of depth, of form, space and light. An important painting which marks the link between the oils and the synthetic polymer paintings is Silence (2001-2002), the result of repeated layering of thin glazed oil paint applied with a thick synthetic scrubber. The proportion of the square which sits at the bottom of the painting is crucial, suggesting a portal which leads us into the picture, but denying any single point of focus. It is, he says, ‘a dialogue with time’ and we need to give ourselves fully up to the painting.

The glowing white edge to two sides of the square (the ground showing through) is an aura which anticipates the penumbral edges of his most recent work in synthetic polymer where the forms are in a constant dialogue, driving the viewer to resolve the ambiguities.

Here the penumbral edges are like tears in the canvas, with the whole canvas illuminated by a cosmic light without source. July 24, 2012 is a herald of things to come with its crusty left-hand form floating in a spectral light, hinting at a visual memory we can’t quite recall. Sometimes these forms are ectoplasmic – hinting at early paintings – as in January 13, 2013 whose crusty green lower form suggests a crepuscular landscape, above which is an incandescent Turneresque sky, wheat-coloured, but suffused with reddish volcanic ash and ignited in the top-left corner by two red ‘stars’. Then, swelling up from behind the green horizon, is a ‘plume of smoke’ gradually darkening the sky, suggesting some calamity which has occurred beyond our perceptual world. These are preternatural landscapes of the mind with a dream-like imagery which defies logic, suggesting a world which is constantly fugitive.

The forms change, but the concerns remain the same. A picture like No Title 2002-2003 is one of a series in oil employing ‘floating’ vertical (portals) or horizontal forms which seem at first to be representations of something. But we don’t know what. So, they become ‘abstract’, existing in some deep space – an assertion of the autonomy of painting where meaning is embedded in the aesthetic experience.

Materially, de Groen’s paintings are luscious – but not seductive, because that would be too easy. Instead, they present a paradox: only by addressing the materiality of the painting can the viewer go beyond the materiality; only by accepting the inherent illusion of painting can the viewer go beyond illusion.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 40, 2017

Geoffrey de Groen | New paintings and drawings
16 August – 15 September 2018
Annandale Galleries, Sydney


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