Udo Sellbach

Night watch

Udo Sellbach's latest work, a suite of some thirty etchings entitled Night Watch, was recently purchased by the Queensland Art Gallery where it has been on display. Sellbach 's guiding principle in this suite was to create a visual equivalent of a song cycle and he produced a series which spirals around a central issue. The issue, a constant theme throughout Sellbach's career, is that of human beings struggling to live with each other in the world. It would not do to push the connection with the song cycle too far but one can see the fruitfulness of the idea: like Schubert or, better, Mahler, Sellbach is deeply moved by human struggles, and by using the format of a cycle is able to return a variety of feelings, intuitions and responses to this commitment. Unlike a piece of music, there is no necessary sequence to the etchings: the works themselves fall naturally into loose and variable groups, linked in this way by subject, in that way by atmosphere. They relate to each other in the way space is handled; they link in terms of density or texture or detail; but however the viewer perceives them, the works come together in a sustained symphony of feeling. But any display automatically imposes a particular arrangement, and in the Gallery the works were arranged in a long line on the wall of the narrow print corridor. There was no obvious thematic order, only a general and subtle lightening of tone as the sequence moved from left to right, but the viewer was nevertheless carried along, seeing themes and ideas develop and ramify.

What struck one first was the formal strength of the work. Sellbach 's etchings are simple and candid. They have no individual titles and they document the artist's response to circumstances around him – some quite close and immediate like the Fitzgerald Enquiry in Brisbane, others remote or vague like white Australia's penal origins or the great struggles in Europe.

As often in his work, Sellbach begins with the human body. Most obviously this is expressed in the subject matter which is usually constructed around human beings in a variety of situations. But a more pervasive human quality is there in the manipulation of the technique and the medium. The etched surfaces reveal a repertoire of gesture: here they are gouged and wounded, there velvety and yielding. The near scribble, the careful hatching, the crisp and decisive outlines or the vague wipes evince the movement and pressure of a human hand. These tactile values meet us on a physical level. Like our reactions to some music, we 'feel' these prints before we begin to appreciate them intellectually. The figures in the etchings are consequently not instantly discovered, but emerge, deliberately, partially, painfully. A human face coalesces out of little flicked hatchings; a prone figure is barely distinguished from the ground; a body is the same stuff and tex1ure as the night. These are figures ineluctably caught in the conditions of their own creation and these conditions are at once severely restricted and infinitely subtle: starkly black and white but endless in variety of tone and texture, line and shape.

It takes time to look at thirty images and a long time to get to know them and understand them. Inevitably one begins with the most accessible pieces which, in this case, might be the six or seven etchings with an explicit legal or judicial theme. Of this group, one shows a figure incarcerated in a dark cell; another, a figure bowed in shame; and yet another a figure whose head is held high in indignation or self-righteousness. There is a scene of torture with Justitia, not merely blindfolded, but bandaged from head to toe and with her sword and scales on the floor. Another scene shows a seated woman whose body has been made schematically to correspond to cuts of meat and at which grotesque men are pointing and mocking. These are evidently images of trials: but emphatically not the normal trials of a magistrates' court but those of the Inquisition, or, closer to home, the show trials of this century. As in the Inquisition or in its Twentieth Century versions, the process and outcome of the trial is known even before it begins: the accused is degraded and tortured; witnesses and officials are rehearsed, secure, 'virtuous' and 'honourable'; the verdict and the sentence are inevitable. The object of such trials is not to seek justice or to find the truth but to make manifest certain relations of power: the Church is all-powerful; the State is right. But where do we as viewers stand in relation to Sellbach 's 'trials'? We cannot tell. Sellbach withholds precisely that information which would allow us to place ourselves comfortably with respect to his images. He allows us no appropriation of power or sense of superiority. He forces us, by touching us with the human origins of all his figures and situations, to identify with all his characters. We are the accused, the mocker, the mocked, the guilty, the proud.

From the coherent group of judicial images one turns again to the other pieces in the suite. These mostly show people reacting to each other in an extraordinarily rich variety of situations and contexts. There are situations involving loss, seeking, recognition, discovery, support, death, exploitation, violation. Again, each etching confronts the viewer not so much with a series of discrete images but with a coherent, and, it must be said, pessimistic, reflection on the human character.

A large part of Sellbach's oeuvre, especially during the 1950s and '60s, was abstract in nature. This has given him the formal skill to produce images as simple and as uncluttered as these. But it allows something even more important. It gives him the ability to understate his theme. In being formally so assured, Sellbach 's works are free of needless 'expression' and 'artiness'. Too often, those who deal with difficult issues, like violence and pornography for example, subvert their own ends by making the works violent or pornographic, by overstating their case and removing it from the compass of ordinary experience. Sellbach, by contrast, with his ability to treat his theme with restraint and temperance, keeps it well within the range of human sympathy. Instead of being able to dismiss it as being too extreme, we are gently but insistently confronted with ourselves. The command of the formal aspects of his imagery extends to all points of his craft and it is this which allows Sellbach to deal so movingly with the human heart of his work.