Canvas As Sanctum

Anyone who has ventured to express their inner life through painting will likely understand how a buoyant vision can rapidly sink once the brush meets the canvas. Difficulties abound in painting and the canvas itself is one of them. Far from being neutral, it obliges the painter to realise their vision, whatever amorphous perceptions it consists of, upon a starkly exposing, four-sided patch of blankness.

Of course, no painter is forced to work on a traditional, stretched canvas and in recent years the informality of a sheer piece of material, hanging freely on or away from the wall, has been preferred by many. But the canvas’ firmly bordered plane can still, if handled well, be the perfect ground for painting, especially as a conduit to contemplation. While viewing three solo exhibitions in Sydney during February, I found myself thinking about a long persisting tendency, demonstrated by painters of a contemplative bent, to treat the canvas’ border as a portal onto an interior world. From Giovanni di Paolo, whose St John the Baptist Retiring to the Desert, 1454, used elegant, framed flowers to flank a landscape governed by the dictates of the heart, to Howard Hodgkin’s evocatively cradled abstractions of human episodes, a long line of painters have shown that if the canvas is a cell, it can be made a sanctum rather than a prison. 

At Utopia Art Sydney, Lorna Napanangka’s small acrylic paintings on linen employed the simple but effective device of a dark border to contain motifs that evoked, in equal measure, the expansiveness of her heartland around Kiwirrkurra in remote Western Australia and apparitions of nameless, living forms. Unassuming at first but exercising a quietly insistent appeal to the imagination, these are paintings that quiver with touch and manage to be utterly intelligible without quite settling into familiarity.

Coming at the end of a very good summer for observing artists powering into their later careers, most prominently demonstrated by Louise Bourgeois’ autobiographically oriented work at the Art Gallery of NSW, Napanangka’s exhibition Something New marked a return to prolificity after several difficult years. Known from the early 2000s for her sparse, pulsing fields of dots, a recent illness  left her unable to handle the witaya with which those works were executed. Now in her early 60s she has taken up a brush for the first time and emerged as a thoroughly different artist. Her new pictorial world is earthen-toned in its foundations with flourishes of rich colour at its climactic points. At times her melding of paint (the deft drag-and-push of the brush) brings Emily Kam Kngwarray to mind but the opaque light and curiously levitating forms are indeed something new, and hers alone.

At Piermarq*, Maximilian Daniels presented twelve new oil paintings on transparent-primed linen in Slow the Leaf Falls. In his early thirties Daniels resembles a modernist of three or more decades ago. Like Michael Johnson he enjoys deploying ravishing colour through unembellished shapes; in his scraping back of the paint film to a pulverised ground there is a hint of Allan Mitelman. In each of Daniels’ paintings the simple relationship of one rectangle centralised within another yields quiet reverberations upon the vertically oriented picture plane, a textbook case of canvas as sanctum.

At first glance it might seem that there is nothing in Daniels’ work that hasn’t been seen before but his paintings are not so straightforward. The under-layers of scuffed and scratched paint bear a curious relationship with the final skin, the two usually lying out of direct correlation in a way that enriches the overall effect and differentiates the savour of each work. In Untitled (magenta), 2023, a careful veiling of magenta over grey produces tones that are so deep, subtly varying and beautiful, they render any critical pronouncements redundant. The fact that transcendent moments like these arise through consciously understood practice is perhaps what impresses me most about Daniels’ developing approach. Every painter needs to be prepared to make leaps into the unknown and accept accident when it favours them, but the benefits of unforeseen incidents are amplified when sound structures and a purposeful process are in place.

It is not difficult to cast Stephanie Eather’s work as the polar opposite of Maximilian Daniels’. Originating in rural experience, its feverish execution shows her capacity for total abandon in the process of making, a liberty arising after years spent observing and drawing her subjects. Only two or three years ago Eather was best known for layered charcoal drawings, often very large, representing shearers in the sweat-soaked woolsheds of New South Wales and Victoria. Since then she has remade herself as a painter, adopting colour and pausing the practice of observation to commence a close meditation on the contents of her visual memory. At Nanda / Hobbs a new group of oil paintings on linen entitled From Vernon Terrace took as their subject the artist’s impressions of a recent trip made in Queensland.

Eather’s work might not be an obvious choice to illustrate the idea of canvas as sanctum, for its energies are wild. Brushstrokes and planes push at the border as though it is a thing that asks to be broken. But at heart Eather is an introspective artist grappling with emotions as referents for the construction of painted space. At two metres wide the exhibition’s largest painting (Solid gold grains and pulling the three-metre timber pew in front of the campfire), 2023-24, affords her a field wide enough to link several memory-episodes into a fully articulated circuit. A sanctum is a place to pause and reflect; in this very satisfying, nocturnal painting Eather finds a spaciousness that invites just that.


Lorna Napanangka: Something New
3 February – 2 March 2024 
Utopia Art Sydney 

Maximilian Daniels: Slow the Leaf Falls
15 February – 9 March 2024 
Piermarq*, Sydney 

Stephanie Eather: From Vernon Terrace
7 – 24 February 2024 
Nanda / Hobbs, Sydney

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