Joe Frost

‘This is a vulnerable thing,’ Joe Frost says. I’m not sure if he means the process of showing me his work — a few paintings at a time rested upon milk crates in one corner of his studio, carted from stacks leaning against walls, unwrapped from plastic and multi-coloured fabrics, some finished, others still in progress — or the act of making them. I don’t ask him to clarify, although over the course of our conversation I begin to gain a deeper understanding of what he means.

Frost gives his paintings a kind of autonomy; they want to be or become things that are partially obscure to him. For instance, he says of one of the first that he brings forward, ‘It’s a funny painting that one. It’s almost a bit darker than it wants to be, but that’s also the character of the painting I think.’

Frost talks about his paintings as though they are animated by a force beyond his control, despite also demanding the laborious deliberations of a committed studio practice. That’s not to say that they are the product of some supernatural muse or divine inspiration. No, it’s more his way of grappling with how the formal qualities of the work sometimes drive his process.

So, in a painting called In an Alcove (2019) ‘one form asked for the neighbouring form to adjust to it, and before you know it you’ve got something that could be a pair of figures.’ Beside them, what was once the semblance of railway tracks poke through swathes of grey and white, a trace of yellow. ‘But I couldn’t have really thought of that figure,’ Frost continues. ‘I couldn’t, wouldn’t have done that by intention. And that’s one reason I’ve been happy to let go of an intentional relationship to subject matter, because the best things seem to just happen almost without you, or in spite of you.’

The push and pull between an intentional or overt subject and the raw fact of paint on a canvas or board is something that Frost thinks about a lot. In some paintings he knows that, for example, ‘I am painting Central Station’. In others, the distance between paint and place, or person, grows greater. And perhaps it’s the intermediary process – the memory of a place, the transduction of memory into gestures and pigments – that becomes the subject.

Frost has alighted upon the word ‘phantasms’ to describe these kinds of paintings, and that will be the name of his forthcoming exhibition at Liverpool Street Gallery. ‘I don’t mean ghosts,’ he explains, ‘I mean illusory images. I like the sound of that word and the sense of elusiveness in locating what the work is. Because I don’t always know, you know.’ Later, Frost tells me he also likes the idea of a phantasm as a mental image, in perpetual formation and reformation. It is a mental image that materialises in paint.

Viewers familiar with Frost’s previous work will look for traces of things they have seen before, and probably find them if they look hard enough. Is that Denistone, the leafy northern suburb of Sydney that Frost has often returned to in his painting? Are those the contorted bodies of commuters, making their way through a grey afternoon cityscape? They are somewhere, surely. Sometimes, they are literally hidden behind layers of paint. For example, a view over Eddy Avenue in Sydney’s CBD became gradually more colourful, more geometrical, until the painting set itself free from any attachment to the view itself, or even the place. But, even at their most abstract, Frost is adamant that the paintings must communicate something. That something might best be explained as a sense of recognition.

Standing before Under the Lemon Tree (2018-19), I feel it. For me, it’s half-forgotten memories of dappled light through leaves; lying on the grass looking up but knowing that somewhere in my periphery is a trunk and a fence and a little bit further there’s a house filled with people I love. My response makes more sense when Frost explains that in this work he has drawn upon early childhood memories from his parents’ backyard.

Frost crouches before his painting as he describes looking into a dark corner of the garden where the fence joined the greenery. It is his first memory of really seeing space, of possessing a visual field with depth and contrast and the associated possibility of entering into it. The painting conjures that intangible quality of space opening out around you and then closing back in on itself. There’s a sense of wonder, but also perhaps of fear. What unknowns are there, lurking at the edge of vision?

Returning to where we began, I wonder again what Frost meant by vulnerable. To become vulnerable means, amongst other things, to be exposed. Yet Frost’s work often covers up, even as the residues of the real poke through from behind. There is certainly an element of risk. Will this stroke destroy all that has come before it? Or will it lead to a balance and a poise that will make the inevitable destruction worthwhile? There is also the risk of sharing work with an audience. Will they experience that sense of recognition he is striving for? Will they want him to be more definable, more definite? Frost is frank about the questions he asks himself, and the way those questions tend to get carried around with him even when he’s not in the studio. ‘Each painting is a figuring out, and so is the bigger picture of what they all signify and where that places me. It’s quite uncomfortable.’

As always, it’s the stuff I don’t audio record that seems to keep coming back to me in retrospect – as a mental image, a phantasm? Like when I say goodbye, as we linger briefly on the narrow lane beside his studio looking out over a line of identical trucks, the squat roofs and monochrome walls of industrial Alexandria. ‘What are you going to do this afternoon?’ I think I asked. ‘Probably look again at one of the big paintings. Maybe I’ll tear it apart with some grey,’ I think he said.

EXHIBITION
Joe Frost: Phantasms
14 June – 10 July 2019
Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney

 

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