Review: The Shock of the Old

The Shock of the Old 

Tony Clark was always something of an oddity. He emerged in the early 1980s via the independent artists’ space Art Projects, Melbourne home to such practitioners as John Nixon, Jenny Watson, Mike Parr and Imants Tillers. But there was no doubt that Clark stood out. At a time when landscape painting was anathema he began showing beautifully rendered landscapes in a European romantic style – and he got away with it.
He seemed to prowl the streets of St. Kilda, where he lived, with a perpetual scowl, a demeanor that suggested a decidedly anti-social attitude. And while it is true that he was (and remains) a highly private individual, his inner circle of friends revealed an intriguing pot pouri of talent; musicians such as Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard, the now world-renowned photographer Polly Borland and the maverick Howard Arkley, with whom he taught painting at Prahran College.
Clark was also unusual in the source material he looked to for inspiration. At a time when the art world was abuzz with postmodernism and French theory, Clark was indulging in his love of history, of what he called then “the Shock of the Old.”
It is a fascination that has never left him, thus it comes as little surprise that his latest exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery is titled ‘Shakespeare.’ 
“The new work takes its themes from Shakespeare, characters, scenes from the plays,” Clark says from his current home in rural Sicily. “I’ve always been very wary about the human figure in my work or narrative. I had been painting for 20 years before I put any figures in at all; it was always very important to me that there not be a human presence in my landscapes, for example. But slowly I began to think it was okay to have figures in if they had, so to speak, the right credentials. Which in my case means that they are decorative or historical or generic or better still all three. I suppose at the back of my mind there is the idea that Shakespeare is to literature what the Greek temple is to architecture and it’s been quite good to go where angels fear to tread sometimes.”
Indeed, like bizarre set pieces, Clark even names the paintings after specific characters in Shakespeare’s works such as Titania and Timon of Athens. They are strange, tempestuous paintings delivered in Clark’s bold, faux naive style with his figures positioned beneath swirling, Goya-esque skies. They are neither realist or abstract, falling into a realm rarely travelled in this day and age.
“I agree that it’s unusual,” he admits. “My  first painting show in 1982 took European cultural history as its ostensible subject and nothing much has changed. I was born in Canberra but much of my childhood and adolescence were spent in Rome. and it’s fair to say that I was overwhelmed by the history when I arrived. But I became an artist back in Australia, and the history all looked different from here, and I think of myself as an Australian artist working from an Australian perspective whether I like it or not. 
“What may be unusual is that I see that history as neither friend nor foe, but as a resource, a subject like still-life is a subject.”
In many respects Clark’s pantings can be seen as an overarching and ongoing project, from his early Sacro Idyllic Landscape series, to the Chinoiserie Landscape works and the ongoing Clark’s Myriorama - of which the Shakespeare paintings are a part. 
“Looking back now, they all seem more like part of the same thing,” he says. “You start with the premise that the landscape is more an idea than an optical phenomenon, that it is cultural more than natural. Because the cultural aspect of landscape seemed to have been ignored, as a young artist I was inclined to stress its cultural and artificial aspects to the point that I wasn’t very interested in the natural ones. When I started doing the Chinoiseries, in 1987, it was  a way of moving away from the ambiguous romanticism of Clark’s Myriorama, the endless landscape I’d begun in 1985 and am still working on now.
“To many artists of my generation, Australian landscape painting in the late 1970s represented everything we disliked,” Clark recalls. “We thought art should be urban, conceptual and self-critical. All I could see were a bunch of middle aged bores, out in the bush sloshing away... then it dawned on me that there were more interesting things one could do with landscape painting as a genre. And because Pop and Conceptual art were the strongest influences on me at that time I started thinking about landscape painting in that way, especially about its history as a paradigm of the Picturesque. Add to that a bit of punk rock. And I've stayed with it although now I think that being middle-aged and boring out in the bush is absolutely marvelous.”
Despite his generational influences, Clark’s work has always seemed more Wagnerian than Sex Pistolian - and like his Shakesperian subject matter, his works have a timeless feel to them and sure to his own words, his recurring return to the bed-rock of history does indeed lead to the Shock of the Old.
Tony Clark – Shakespeare, February 10 - March 5, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Paddington (02) 9331 1919

By Ashley Crawford

Ashley Crawford

Ashley Crawford is a freelance cultural critic based in Melbourne.