Tag Archives: figurative

Peter Churcher in Barcelona

Australian figurative painter, Peter Churcher has been living in Barcelona for the nearly three years after a three-month Australia Council studio residency there. I met Peter Churcher recently at an opening at the Counihan Gallery; he was back in Australia for his exhibition at Philip Bacon Galleries. I had met him before when I did some of his CAE portrait painting classes. So I arranged to ask him, via email, about what had attracted him to live and paint in Barcelona.

Peter Churcher replied: “The main lure of Barcelona for me, artistically, is the continuous throng of ‘human traffic’ that exists on the streets, day and night. I find this unceasing flow of human activity and ritual that plays out before my eyes inspiring and central to my work.”

To get an idea of the scale of this ‘human traffic’; Barcelona has a much higher population density than Melbourne, with 15,936 habitants/km² than Melbourne’s 1566 habitants/km². And Barcelona also has a lively street culture with Las Ramblas, a pedestrian mall running up the center of the old city close to where Peter Churcher’s has his living space and attached studio.

“I was equally interested in exploring the human condition in my painting in Melbourne before I left for Barcelona, but there is one important difference in the way this theme manifests itself in the studio in Barcelona compared to my earlier studio in Melbourne. In Melbourne the studio was a “bubble” I would disappear into each day. Once I was inside I felt quite isolated and cut-off from my source inspiration out on the “streets”. When I got a street-kid into my studio, for modelling, I felt a bit like he or she had become a specimen in a glass jar which I was inspecting. In Barcelona, however, there exists a much more fluid flow between the studio and what I see on the streets.”

The last exhibition of Peter Churcher’s that I saw was at Lauraine Diggins Fine Art in 2001. His paintings were of realist figures, ordinary people, like Craig, the Butcher or Monique, a goth woman with a studied choker and pierced eyebrow. So I asked Peter if he was working with local models in Barcelona?

“In terms of working with the life model, I am doing that more than ever in Barcelona. At first when I arrived I was the “outsider” with no contacts or access to classes/models etc. This quickly changed when I was introduced by a local to the wonderful old Artist’s club Sant Lluc of which I am now a member. This particular club is not just an Artist’s watering-hole where artists sit around and drink and talk about making art but rather is a “working” club. Life-models are employed morning and evening 6 days a week in life-drawing sessions, life-painting fixed poses for a whole week, etc. The member is free to come and go and work in whatever studio he or she chooses. I go regularly to this club to draw from the model and have made contact with many wonderful professional models who now work for me privately in the studio.”

It would be easy to draw comparisons between Peter Churcher’s painting painters of the Spanish Baroque because of Churcher’s “simple and direct” painting and the sense of drama in his groups of figures. Churcher sees these comparisons too but his thoughts remains on the streets of Barcelona.

“I feel the subject matter of my recent Barcelona work is really starting to tap into the contemporary street culture that surrounds me. The groupings, for me, are now skate-board dudes, rap dancers and old, withered ladies with their dogs. I am enjoying this easy and natural flow between my own, everyday world and those scenes from the masters of past.”

Peter Churcher has had three exhibitions of his paintings from Barcelona in 2007 and 2009 at Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane and in 2008 at Australian Galleries, Melbourne.

John Brack Retrospective

The John Brack retrospective exhibition at the NGV is an opportunity to re-examine the issue of was John Brack (1920 – 1999) a modern Australian artist or a reactionary and what relevance his work has to contemporary art. If he just created popular iconic, albeit slight satirical, images of Melbourne then is he conservative? Or did Brack have a critical view of Australian suburban life and other elements of modern content and design? Progress in modern art, along with the partisan struggle between the progressive modernists versus the ‘passéist’ (the Futurist term for passé art movements), was largely assumed. Although the questions of what direction the progress should take was under debate. Was the future of art primitivist, abstract, machine aesthetics, surreal, realist or what?

The issue of figurative painting versus abstract art loomed large in the early career of Brack. In the modern world artists and critics were reactionary by definition if they opposed progressive art. Does this mean that the John Brack and the Antipodeans were reactionary, figurative painters? The Antipodeans Group staged a single exhibition in August 1959 at the Victorian Artists’ Society. The Victorian Artists’ Society is still in existence and still teaches and promotes conservative painting. The Antipodeans were challenging Clement Greenberg claim of the centrality of abstraction to modern art. Had they recognized it as American propaganda or were they expressing conservative anti-American Australian attitudes? Brack’s apparent conservative and popular position encouraged the NGV to acquire several of his paintings early in his career.

Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art – Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (The University of Chicago Press, 1983) provides a very detailed account of American art and Cold War geopolitics. The unique individual (American) abstract artist painting pure art was removed from class struggles or other political discourses. It is worth noting in this history, that that the first pure abstract paintings were not done by an early 20th century avant-garde modern artists but by an English mystic, Georgina Houghton in 1861. Following in this trend was Annie Besent, a theosophist. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian would have seen Annie Besent’s abstract paintings, as both were members of the Theosophical Society. Abstract art might have remained the interest of eccentric artists and mystics were it not for geopolitics.

There are other elements of modernism in Brack’s paintings: his many cityscapes and his interest in the machine aesthetic in his paintings of slicing machines, sewing machines, surgical equipment, modern flat surfaces and shop fittings. However, there is no political nor references to any current events in Brack’s paintings.

The John Brack retrospective exhibition is certainly popular but it is not just for the history or the iconic images. There is much in the art of John Brack that is relevant to contemporary art in Melbourne. Brack’s illustrative narrative style is still popular and is now common in contemporary art. And a visually literate population increasingly understands his references to art history. Brack’s later still life paintings with pencils and pens show elements of post-minimalist sculpture, like Melbourne’s Carl Scrase or Tim Sterling. And his anti-abstract and pro-figurative painting position is similar to Stuckism that has supporters in Melbourne’s street art scene.


“Figuration Now” is a group exhibition of four notable contemporary figurative artists at the Karen Woodbury Gallery.

There seems to be some confusion in the title of this exhibition between the words ‘figuration’ and ‘figurative’. Figuration is the giving an allegorical form by representing it using human or animal forms. Figurative is the depiction of human or animal figures in art, with or without an allegoric or emblematic meaning. Figurative art is common now and this exhibition is able to presents a broad range of styles and techniques from traditional to idiosyncratic. However, to describe all of the work on exhibition as figuration is to erroneously conflate all figurative art with figuration.

Del Kathryn Barton, the winner of the 2008 Archibald Prize, is influenced by the elongated figures of Egon Schiele and the work of famous, American, outsider artist, Henry Darger. Although her multi-media paintings and drawings are figurative her one sculpture in the exhibition is clearly figuration. The tower of baby doll arms growing out of the pumpkin is a surreal allegory of fecundity.

McLean Edwards makes fun allusions to the history of European portraiture and in turn Australian painter, William Dobell’s controversial 1944 Archibald prize-winning portrait of Joshua Smith. The figures in Edwards’s paintings represent the idea of European portraits; the dark background giving form to his figure is an attribute of portraiture not just a ground for the figure. Edwards’s figures are dressed in what are clearly costumes and costumes are tools of figuration, a means of creating an allegorical or emblematic figure.

Nusra Latif Qureshi uses the Pakistani tradition of musaviri (miniature painting) to paint ideas about the post-colonial world. In this exhibition Nusra Latif Qureshi uses figures of iconic Australian beach culture as ironic symbols for boat people. Her delicate paintings of outlines are like diagrams that have become so full of lacunas that it is hard to see what they depict, a further allegory on the post-colonial world. Diagrams are another kind of figure, where ideas are represented. In her paintings the diagrams of dhows or the line of dashes to indicate distance travelled or borders crossed amplifies the figuration.

The paintings of Jonathan Nichols are clearly figurative. An argument that his paintings of women are emblematic of limited knowledge and therefore figuration could be made but it would be torturous.

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