Joe Frost

Joe Frost’s paintings are the product of an encounter between the artist and the outside world arrived at through experimentation with paint. They recall the look of clustered people in public spaces, the structures of cities and ports, and the topography of suburbs. Figures and landscapes emerge from an abstract matrix, and this suggests a subject that can later be invested with personal and social meaning.

In Joe Frost’s studio, we drink water from his favourite smoked glass cups while we look at his current paintings. Most of them are unfinished canvases full of clamouring shapes, unrecognisable in content but pulsating with energy. He works on them little by little, letting one breathe while attending to another. Although many of these works are becoming pictures of places, they are painted here in the studio, through abstraction and memory. When asked “How do you know when to stop?” he replies “When the eye and the mind don’t hit any obstacles, and when the painting shows me something. In the best instances, the painting is ahead of my intentions.”

Born in Sydney in 1974, Frost studied at the College of Fine Arts at the University of NSW from 1992 to 1995, then later returned to complete his Masters in 2002. He made his debut in a 1999 group show, Cityscapes, at Level Gallery in Newtown and continued to exhibit urban landscapes, still-lifes and occasional portraits in yearly shows at Legge Gallery, then Watters Gallery throughout the 2000s.

In these early pictures Frost’s happy mixture of observation and abstraction charms and deceives. Streets, cars, ovals, shops, rail lines and industrial parks, many of them observed over years of living and working around Eastwood, Denistone and Balmain, are rendered through blocky colour and wilful simplification. Perspective, says Frost, is a drag. The paintings depart from imitation to convey the movement and vitality of what he sees and feels.

More recently, Frost has moved from the elevated vantage point that reveals the city’s pattern and form to a more intimate view of its human inhabitants. ‘Great Escalator’ presents the pageantry of the shopping centre. Posing figures are carried past the viewer on a mobile diagonal stage. Two glammed-up girls with scraped-back hair stare into the middle distance; below them, a figure is caught in the thrall of a mobile phone; and further down, an impassive head seems to rest on the edge of the canvas. Despite the sense of steady mechanical movement, the painting feels static and full. There is nowhere to go but up or down; consumption is futile.

These are socially critical paintings that juxtapose shiny hard surfaces and fleshy limbs. “The human form in the city is comical and sometimes abject,” Frost says. “And when figures gather en masse it becomes like a stocktake of contemporary humanity, which is not beautiful.” The constructed environment of the CBD corresponds with the made-up faces and clothing of people on public display in the mall, and the harsh, restricted palette emphasises the willing conformity of shoppers to shopping centres.

Though initiated through observational drawing sessions at Sydney’s Westfield, the subject of ‘Great Escalator’ still had to be discovered through formal experiment. For Frost, a painting “has to satisfy two systems or expectations”. It should represent, in an allusive way, something of the world, but via a method that respects the autonomous process of painting. He describes this as “synthesis”, the merging of representation with improvisation and experiment.

Synthesis involves the transformation of a purely formal picture into a representational one that retains the tension of that duality. With ‘Miss Universe’, Frost took up an abstract composition that had stalled and been abandoned some years ago. One day he saw how it could “become a picture – and in a very quick session of painting created an image of a woman. The cube-head was left poking through and the eye was transposed as a humanising element.”

The work of improvisation is partly subsumed in the resolved painting but gives it a formal integrity necessary for an artist of Frost’s intellect. It also makes the painting slippery and ambiguous. The cube head on the sensuous body invokes a disquieting robotic intelligence; the superimposed eye, monocular surveillance. Her hand seems bloodied and macabre, yet the pink and blue ground is cosmic and harmonious. I’m inclined to think of her as a kind of mechanical Aphrodite, but she’s also a formal unity of shapes and spaces that tugs at the mind and senses.

Frost’s paintings of figures have a melancholic edge that call up the tensions and disappointments of human relations. These disappear, however, in his pictures of places, some of which have a joyful, almost reverent quality.

This is particularly the case in the recent paintings of Denistone, a recurring subject in Frost’s oeuvre. The neighbouring suburb to his childhood home in Eastwood, Denistone for him is a part of his personal history and artistic development. This is the place where, as a child, he was aware of seeing the vastness of things for the first time. From the steep driveway of his grandfather’s house, the sight of streets and houses, each with their own unseen inhabitants, threading in and out of a green carpet of trees gave him the feeling suddenly of being integrated into a reality of unimagined scope. It was the experience of this visual complexity, the sight of so many things he could recognise but did not know, that awakened a new kind of consciousness.

Denistone is returned to periodically in Frost’s oeuvre because it is the place of that first awareness of the process of perception, something that is critical to his paintings. By mingling description and abstraction he deftly shifts the mode of viewing back and forth between recognition and reverie.

In ‘Denistone’, form and colour, though anchored to landmarks and viewing angles, often float free of them. The railway is a wobbly river of cross-hatched strokes amid green banks. It disappears into the distance, drawing the eye into space. A steep hill creates a contrasting diagonal plane that establishes a mid ground. It is dotted with orange pyramids and white cubes that are the suburb’s tidy bungalows with their tiled roofs. In the foreground, greyish trees parallel to the picture plane frame the scene. With their rounded tops and anthropomorphic trunks they are like an audience for the jaunty spectacle of tectonic forms and limpid colours bathed in brilliant sunlight.

Frost’s paintings help us look at things differently. Places from the air are patterns of blocky colour. People in the city are groups of wiry lines. Suburban stations are lyrical and grand. They also make one notice the sensation of seeing and its relationship to cognition. Calling our attention to the moment at which shape and space might cohere into something known, the paintings ask us to relax into that ambiguity.
Joe Frost is represented by Watters Gallery, East Sydney

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