Friday, November 13, 2015


The Everywhere Abyss Gouache and Watercolour on paper 29 x 37 cm 2015
This week, I went to Sydney to attend the Sydney Peace Prize lecture and dinner. This year's very deserving winner is Australian artist George Gittoes. An inspired choice by those who selected him. It's the first time an artist has been given the award and he is among illustrious company. You can read about previous winners HERE .
Gittoes, since 1986, has worked in many war and conflict zones around the world, either with Australian Peacekeeping forces or on his own volition. He draws, paints, photographs and makes documentary films. His photographs are photo-journalism, capturing human extremes for records and witness. His drawings are intimate connections with those who are experiencing or have experienced the extreme depravity of human behaviour. I have seen a couple of photos of him drawing in the field [so to speak] and you can see the connection between him and his subjects...and those who mill around to see what's going on. Drawing takes time and in this time Gittoes' attention on his subject gifts them a restored humanity, sometimes at the edge of death or in death. The technologically un-mediated aspect of these encounters injects life, fully cognisant of its extremes. Gittoes's drawings, more often than not, have handwritten text around the borders or on one side of the paper. Here, he tells his stories about the encounter he has taken time to draw.
Gittoes' paintings, painted in his studio, use the drawings and photographs as referential points, to create images that are majestic...because they are intensely about life and humanity, in extremes. The images can be very confronting for Gittoes does not sensor. After drawing someone and looking intently into their eyes, there's a silent pact to tell their story. In Gittoes' case these stories are more often than not unimaginably shocking. The paintings are not simply copies of photographs or even the drawings, because Gittoes uses paint like it breaths new life. There is nothing pristine, cleansed or simply copied. His paintings resurrect life, at the same time as intensely critiquing warfare and conflict. They are not simply didactic, but instead declare 'I Witness' and now you do too!
Gittoes gave an amazing speech at Sydney's Town Hall. It was more like a conversation, where different stories lead to insights that are also confronting. The thing is...these insights are from someone who has spent decades not only witnessing war and conflict and their aftermaths, but also spending time with people, talking, drawing...and helping. Remarkably he and his partner Helen Rose live much of the time, in Jalalabad in Afghanistan, where they have set up an artists' community called the Yellow House.
One of Gittoes paintings that I think is really interesting is called The Artist, oil on canvas 210 x 173cm, 1996You can see it on Gittoes' website on this page 5th down on the right side or at his Brisbane dealer's Mitchell Fine Art site HERE.
Gittoes has painted a figure who holds a paint brush, an artist. This figure seems to hover above an abyss, but you soon realise that safe passage is afforded by small yellow stepping-stone-like clouds that the artist paints. In the background, what seems like a cityscape is actually an array of gun shells littering the horizon.  So, I ask, how bad could the abyss be, if on the surface warfare has scarred the landscape, left it denuded and life is still? Maybe the abyss symbolises change? Maybe it symbolises confronting the self on the surface, in order to discover depths of humanity?
The artist wears night vision glasses, those vision-aides that soldiers use to see at night. I have thought about these night vision glasses a lot...why does an artist need them? Gittoes seems to be saying, if you want safe passage, if you want peace, let the artist guide you...the artist is a warrior too, but one who bravely creates the possibility of new worlds, communication and connection. Given, that the artist can paint stepping stone clouds, it's obvious the artist can traverse the abyss from its depths to its surface. The artist can move about the abyss like a guide!
So...the abyss in Gittoes' painting The Artist really got me thinking about 'the abyss' as a concept.
The abyss is not such a bad thing! It actually reminds us of human endeavour. It is the space we straddle where concepts of the sublime swamp us with majestic and poetic thoughts. It propels us! It can offer renewal.
My new painting seems to speak of a cosmic abyss...yes another of my cosmic landscapes! Without the abyss and its opposite, the horizon....where would life exist? Maybe nowhere...a nowhere place that seduces with simulation....................................................................the computer, ipad, smart phone????? That's why I have painted an 'everywhere abyss' to remind us to look up from our screens.
The horizon is something I have previously written about. Indeed, growing up on the flat treeless black soil Pirrinuan Plain in S W Queensland, the horizon was ever present. It lay in the west as a flat line, which often disappeared behind a mirage, or was swamped by grey rain, or incredibly delineated by stunning sunsets. Yet, in the East the majestic Bunya Mountains cut a silhouette against the sky. I lived on a flat plain at the bottom of a mountain range...maybe even abysses have horizons?
Horizon Posts

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