My houseguest G is still sleeping, so I thought I’d punch out a post early instead of hoping an opportunity presents itself later. G had work in Vanuatu and detoured into Sydney for a night before heading back to Kenya – how jet-setting is that?? She’s the sister of one of my best friends from Pearson, the Canadian college I attended as a teen, and we’ve known each other for 20 years now, though we’ve not caught up in nearly ten. Great seeing her, and I even managed to fall asleep last night, deeply, right up until 4:20 am when the neighbouring apartment block’s fire alarm kicked off and wouldn’t stop. Good thing there were no actual flames to contend with; the response time of the fire brigade did not instill confidence. And the alarm doesn’t stop until the fire fighters disable it. So, um, I’m tired again.
After IVF yesterday, and a quick coffee with Llewie to debrief on phase two of Operation Take Home Baby (this kid is going to have a lot of explaining to do…), I took myself to the Nicholas Harding retrospective, currently showing at the S. H. Ervin Gallery on Observatory Hill. I’d never been there before, and I walked my usual route to the Rocks and then instead of heading down to Argyle St, walked up the hill to the Observatory, figuring that was – just a hunch! – Observatory Hill. I’ve never been to the Observatory, either, and since according to their advertising it’s the Year of Astronomy, that’s definitely an excursion for another day. It looks like a cool building. And observe one may, from atop the hill; crossing the Harbour Bridge by car, you often see wedding parties having their photos taken around Observatory Hill, and now I understand why – it’s really very picturesque and peaceful. I had a lovely lump-in-the-throat moment looking down over the mouth of the Parramatta River, feeling I was standing where William Dawes had stood, Dawes being the man who inspired Kate Grenville’s Daniel Rooke in The Lieutenant, the follow-up novel to her wonderful The Secret River. The sweep of history was there in the breeze, and I stopped to try – and ever fail – to catch it.
Round the bend and down past bobbing rows of new Hibiscus plants, a cheery red against the slate grey morning, lay the gallery. Outside a gaggle of older women waited – the backbone of arts patronage in this country, bless ’em. At 11 am, the doors opened, and we fell in. I’ve consistently loved Harding’s work in the Archibald Prize, an annual portrait prize in which Harding is one of several true veterans. I understand the Archie becomes something of an albatross for many artists, but the fact is, it’s one of the most popular events at the Art Gallery of NSW, and it’s an excellent place for painters to show their work to a vast and diverse audience. Because the Wynne and Sulman prizes show concurrently, it’s a big trifecta for art lovers, and it’s how I’ve come to know the work of Harding and another of my favourite Australian landscape painters, Tasmanian Philip Wolfhagen. So I am very glad for Harding’s albatross, because its flight path delivered me to the rest of his oeuvre yesterday.
I think I’m going to base a character on Harding one day. I love art, and I love the idea of a character who is an artist. I’d relish the opportunity to sink deep into that world. Why Harding in particular… well, perhaps what I recognise in his work is a compatible sensibility; he’s interested in some of the same things that interest me. I don’t think this is unusual: painters and writers are observers. Harding is nothing if not a consummate observer, and he has a uniquely kinetic capacity with oil. It’s the movement that gets me – the way he captures the flawed, bruised, untidy, ungraceful movement of the quotidian. Dailiness. And he makes it beautiful and true, even when it’s a paunchy man sitting on the beach while a plastic bag floats by.
There’s quite a good video accompanying the exhibition, and it’s worth watching for Harding’s own thoughts on his work. I love this: “The paint wears the process like a body wears a life.” He’s referring to his signature layering and scraping – he likens paint to the body in the way it “bleeds, scabs, secretes, oozes.” His dealer Rex Irwin talks about Harding’s urban landscapes, the train stations and streets of the city and inner-west, where Harding lives with his wife and sometimes subject Lynne, emphasising the “slum” aspect a couple of times, but for me, it’s his Beach Life series – as well as the In the Swell and Wooli River paintings, actually, and the latter, his latest work, are really epic, dealing as they subtly do with contemplating the slow drip of one’s mortality – that lingers. Rex Irwin has the vague suspicion of beach scenes that’s so common to a certain cultural elite – they wouldn’t be caught dead in the sand – and he admits he was not convinced when Harding first discussed the idea. He said it seemed “almost too easy.” Happily, Harding proved his dealer wrong; the series is complex and unerring, and he has a way with water it would be criminal to ignore.
The exhibition is running until March; if you’re in Sydney, get along to the S. H. Ervin Gallery (open from 11-5 Tuesday to Sunday) and you’ll see what I mean. I took 12 pages of notes in the time I was there sliding into these alternate realities, so maybe that character is closer than I thought.