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Over the last two years John Anderson has consolidated his position as a major artist in the Melbourne scene. Anderson is a painter. He is almost an old-fashioned painter, a lover of landscape, of chiaroscuro, the shadowy twilight zone of dusk where mysteries hover just out of sight.
The well-known lawyer Julian Burnside launched Anderson’s show late last year and summed up the strange allure of these paintings in exactly the way I had hoped to describe them. Burnside saw, in these shadowy mis en scènes, the aftermath of crime, of mistakes and mayhem, hidden bodies and shady characters—even when the paintings are devoid of overt human presence. There were no dead bodies lying by the side of the road in these paintings, no clear evidence of mis-deeds, but the lawyer in Burnside could feel them oozing out of the sumptuous paintwork, the darkness created by overhanging boughs and thick undergrowth.
There is almost a school of shadows in Melbourne art. Anderson’s work would sit comfortably in a room next to paintings by Rick Amor and Louise Hearman and photographs by Bill Henson and Jane Burton. In all of these artists’ work a degree of mystery is concocted via a dark palette and a theatrical, almost baroque, sense of space.
Anderson is at his most powerful when he works in landscape. His source is the world immediately around him. He lives and works in the coastal environment of Cape Schank and the unpaved roads and bush of the region make for a rich palimpsest of nature and dilapidated human presence.
Anderson loves his cars. Almost every painting in his last show featured either a vehicle or the rough roads they travel upon. Works such as Twilight Road or the brilliantly evocative Through Green’s Bush portray rutted dirt roads meandering through the bush. As a subject they should be mundane, but under Anderson’s flamboyant hand they become threatening scenes resonant of mystery and darkness.
The painting Take Away depicted your typical milk-bar/general store ubiquitous in coastal regions. It is captured at dusk with the light of a street lamp contrasting against broiling grey skies that threaten rain. Behind the store a black car sits like some kind of malevolent presence. There is no apparent reason for the powerful sense of threat, of impending implosion, that this painting suggests. But it’s there nonetheless, a tragedy is about to occur, but Anderson is too wily to give away the narrative; it’s up to the viewer.
Anderson is somewhat less successful when he attempts his bizarre groupings of somewhat eccentrically dressed actors. In one painting, Show Room, he attempts an update on a classical tableaux of social life. Here his cars, rather than being ominous, become decorative. His figures, formally attired, look boorish, no doubt deliberately. But Show Room was the only painting in this show that did not sit right. Everywhere else the mood was powerful, strangely unsettling and borderline melancholy. John Anderson’s Recent Paintings revealed a painter at the height of his powers; sensual, almost gothic and probably very unfashionable, but that is to his credit.
This was Anderson’s second show at the William Mora Galleries in two years. The previous showing was somewhat more literal. The deep throb of a V8 engine cut through the glowering dusk; the black hull of the car shining in the shadows, its windscreen reflecting the toxic orange of sunset. Skimpily clad call girls, oblivious to the predatory beast behind them, conferred about the evening to come. The freeways above resembled medieval buttresses as the traffic zoomed and careered around the scene.
Auto Vista was an almost Shakespearian interpretation of modernity. The automobile as symbol of the future has a rich history, but for all the gleaming speed of John Anderson’s vehicles, they travelled through a world that was part futuristic science fiction and part distopian gothic. There was no denying the cinematic blast one got from these paintings—we were somewhere that resembled the cityscapes of Gotham City or Blade Runner. Auto Vista felt futuristic. Yet the cars were vintage 1960s. The mis en scène may have felt like a moment caught in a film, yet it was most decidedly painted. Indeed, in this day and age of computer-generated art, Anderson remains, first and foremost, a painter. The visceral nature of his surfaces, his post-apocalyptic palette of deep oranges and reds, blacks and yellows, recall the sheer physicality of the act of painting.
Anderson’s brushstrokes soar and plummet, they zoom around corners and suck the viewer into their vortex. In Boulevard, we could feel the heat of the exhaust, hear the crackling of asphalt as the tyres passed over its surface. To the left could be glimpsed the Dromana drive-in; but it was all slightly wrong. Anyone who had driven through Dromana will know that; for all the occasional literal reference points, this is a landscape from John Anderson’s imagination, a cornucopia of impressions filtered through a bizarre time warp of memory.
Anderson’s cars are the automobile via Rembrandt. In at least one of the 2004 canvases, despite the presence of a voluptuous model in a sheer red dress, the car’s shiny surfaces took pride of place. This was every schoolboy’s fantasy filtered through carefully rendered chiaroscuro, where there was little movement, except, perhaps, the jut of a woman’s hip and the clicking of a cooling motor.
Even when Anderson goes pastoral nothing is at peace. Despite the occasional gorgeous autumn palette, one can sense the hot wind and the dry dust in the air. Nor is the beach an escape from turbulence. Rocks At Fingal Beach is a Turneresque fury of the elements, of glowering grey skies and shifting reflections.
There is something theatrical about Anderson’s approach to painting. Even a boating trip exudes a strange, dramatic sense of threat, as though something were about to occur, something not particularly pleasant. It is, without doubt, the colours Anderson uses. While the participants frolic, the water about them seems to churn, patches of it an ominous purple while the sky is a miasma of boiling colour; the boat may well be becalmed, but the elements surrounding it are hell-bent on potential chaos.