Roger Crawford

Roger Crawford continues to challenge and question art through his varied practice. Not limited to one medium or focus he sat down with Joe Frost to discuss his outlook and mantra that drove his energetic work. This April his latest show 'Up Close' opens at Watters Gallery, where he engages with paintings and works on paper, drawing the viewer into his compulsive patterns.

The collision of contrary elements is something Roger Crawford holds to be essential in the renewal of art – an historical fact and a truth he knows from personal experience. “If you’re a serious artist,” he says, “you have to keep blowing yourself up. Otherwise you become self-convinced that this” (he gestures in the air as if pointing at an artwork, the art world, or his own ego) “is something.”

Yet this explosive word-imagery he plants in conversation reflects just one side of an artist whose work has always manifested sure measure, sensitivity to materials and in some instances a delicate beauty.

Contrasts abound with Crawford. He is immovable in his conviction that each artist is responsible for finding and advancing their own line of thinking, and discovering the limitations of their talent.

One senses that he finds plenty of falsity in the art world. But he insists on the artist’s need to stay at a distance from the workings of the scene and occupy a place where sustained work can bestow the gifts of enchantment and doubt.

For over 25 years he has been based in a studio in the hall of a Presbyterian Church in Sydney’s Balmain, where he has approached his work like a protracted meditation. When talking about art he speaks primarily about painting, but he is at pains to point out that he is not only a painter and perhaps not the kind of artist Australia is accustomed to.

“In the history of Australian painting there’s a significance that I can draw upon,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “but I don’t want to be a landscape painter. Looking across to a tree or a hill … I’m not too sure about that notion of the view, the point of view. It reflects a mono-dimensional way of seeing ourselves and I’m not interested in that. There is another way of expressing a sense of being in a place. In the ’70s and ’80s there were writers like Ian Burn and Nigel Lendon trying to work out what Australian art was. I’m attempting in a small way to configure an interiority of that sense of place.”

In his early years the Australian artists who mattered most to Crawford were Ian Fairweather and Godfrey Miller, a Scot and a New Zealander respectively, both with a reclusive tendency. Fred Williams served as a potent example of how abstract visual structures could deepen seeing. Crawford acknowledges that the Indigenous art of this continent occupies a plane that modern Australians are yet to approach, and also finds special stimulus in the works of ordinary settlers from the Colonial and Depression eras who, without any thought of art, brought into existence the simple, practical items required for basic living: furniture, tools and household implements.

“All over Australia people were making things with impoverished materials and they’re beautifully made things. I’ve always been interested in that capacity for the individual in a particular kind of social, economic circumstance, to bring themselves to a level where they feel they can relate to this environment.”

Crawford finds in these artefacts traces of human presence and an aesthetic beauty far exceeding their functionality; a model of how the maker’s comprehension of the environment is encapsulated in the objects they craft. Now, as during much of his career, his materials are just as likely to have come from the rubbish pile or hardware store as the art shop, and his incorporation of these found and readymade elements into his constructions gives rise to a complex accretion of meanings.

The board and clamp works of the last half-decade, the Precinct and Peripheries series, are a case in point. Wall-mounted, they consist of angled bits of board – blank, painted or mirrored – held together with G-clamps that allude to construction as an endless process. Few works of art ask so bluntly to be undone and re-made, but they may well be some of Crawford’s most highly evolved and poetic statements of how the formal structures of art reverberate within real space.

They have their origin in his perception of urban places. Explaining the genesis of Precinct and Peripheries, Crawford describes the experience of walking through the centre of Sydney and being met by the shards of his own reflection within the jagged, urban dis-continuum. “Cities are shaped in a way that channels our perception every day,” he observes. “In the mirrored city perception is fragmented. You’re interrupted by the dissolution of space, and it’s not just the architecture. Technology has broken the centre. When you go into a city it’s dispersed by the mobile phone, by internet … there’s an interruption that wasn’t there before.”

Cubism is the primary point of reference for these works. With its fragmentation of the visual field into architectonic flux, it carried an early intimation that modern communications were altering perceived reality. Cubist painting, collage and assemblage have been of seminal importance to Crawford’s visual thinking, matched in significance only by Jackson Pollock’s placement of the canvas on the ground as a support for anti-pictorial form.

For many years Crawford’s paintings have built on what these precursors made possible, and around 10 years ago he commenced work on an extensive series of all-over painted fields, some on very large canvases and many in a smaller format, reaching for a synthesis.

They took their title, Scrim, from the patched fabric partitions used in the 19th century to divide a living space, saving the expense of a wall. Crawford’s Scrims test the eye. They may seem at first sight to flicker and shift according to a regular pattern but a closer look reveals that each shape and mark is uniquely placed, adjusted with flurries of paint, pencil or pastel to extend what the artist calls “the valency of looking”. A surface that may initially have seemed uniform reveals itself in time as an intricately inflected image; perpetually unfurling, like the flags that were the motif for another of his major series.

Crawford’s current paintings propel the underlying structures of the Scrims to a new material intensity, through painted surfaces that are dense to the point of impenetrability and so muted in tonality that the painting is carried more by its textural properties of coarseness and smoothness, than the contrast between light and dark.

The hand’s repeated trace across the seven-metre canvas is slow, quiet and yet amplified by the skin of paint, which can perhaps be described as somewhat like mortar or melting chocolate.

“I’ve been working on these for the last five years,” he explains. “The transition from beginning the painting to where it is now is a huge material shift. I am looking at a micro world and a macro world, moving between two actions into a third space of recognition – the viewer’s recognition. The paintings have shifted in a quantum way because my attempt to shift has been over a long duration.”

In the textures and tonality of these paintings an allusion might be found to our physical environment: could we be looking at dappled rock faces or a forest-floor mosaic of leaf and bark? Or do explanations like these merely circumvent our meditation on the painting’s presence? “Resemblant” is a word that Crawford favours, but unlike artists who name a subject to explain their intentions he leaves interpretation to the viewer, with the one proviso that they take their time.

“I hope my paintings demonstrate that time is still necessary,” he says. “Painting plays out in real time and real space and I like the contemplation that painting’s slow world gives us. The transmission from the painting to the viewer’s eye is the viewer’s problem. But what I’m doing is translatable. It goes through the conduit of sight into a mental state of recognition. I’m interested in the viewer’s capacity to partake on their terms.”

Roger Crawford | Upclose 
Opens 6-8pm, Wednesday 27th April – 14 May
Watters Gallery, East Sydney

Courtesy the artist and Watters Gallery, Sydney.

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