David Horton, Dale Miles, Stephanie Monteith

In three solo exhibitions running concurrently at Australian Galleries, Sydney, David Horton, Dale Miles and Stephanie Monteith made a persuasive case for artists following their curiosity irrespective of fashion. The trio were art students in the final decade of the twentieth century, and while their works exhibit few obvious signs of the twenty-first, the wrestle each has had with their medium and its traditions is yielding works of such strong, individual character, they show some of the best prospects of any of Australia’s mid-career artists.

Sculptures by Horton and Miles sat remarkably well together in the main gallery, considering one artist’s origins in modernist abstraction and the other’s concentration on the human form. Both tend towards a state of contemplation but each is capable of rocking the boat, Miles with humour and wild invention, Horton through the quiet insistence of his sculptures’ presence.

Even before entering the gallery, Horton’s large, ultramarine Early one evening had invited viewers to commune in solitude, a welcome paradox in a public work, raising a question that applies to all of his sculptures. How is it that an enigmatic form can elicit similar recognition in many viewers?

Some point to the way the parts speak to the whole in his steel constructions, and praise an artist whose talent for composition has been evident ever since Yesternight was awarded Sculpture by the Sea’s main prize at Bondi in 2007. But this may sell Horton’s work short, for balanced though their components may be, his sculptures are deepened by an oblique relationship to prior objects and experiences.

Breakfast with Braque traces one of the clearer paths from motif to artwork, as the abstractions of painting are drawn back into the third dimension. The pictorial dynamics of still life are imagined at 1:1 scale with an actual tabletop, as a sequence of enclosures and openings. The poetry is in the proportions and weights, and we can almost name what we see.

But precisely what does a saxophone solo offer a sculptor in the way of a motif? A palpable sensation, if Charlie Parker jam session, after a Persian miniature is anything to go by. It is not very large but feels monumental. It is dynamic, tumbling down into itself, but waits for our quiet approach. I don’t know which Persian miniature was involved, or whether Horton saw a likeness before or after the fact, but this sculpture demonstrates how he is able to harness the allusions that arise through formal play, without expectations of meaning inhibiting the formation of a new object. Call it composition if you like, but there are several dimensions of consciousness involved, and they imbue his work with the slow-cadenced resonance that has become its hallmark.

In recent years Dale Miles has become known, one sculpture at a time, for his wit with architectural perspective, but this exhibition introduced another side of the sculptor, in one of the most exciting revelations of recent commercial exhibitions. The human body has become the clay of experimentation in Miles’s hands, to be pumped up on one side and deflated like a balloon on the other, or held proportionately along its length while narrowed to a slice in width.

Leading us from one vantage point to another in search of a unifying logic, Miles makes clefts and grafts of form that propose a softened form of Cubism. Who would have expected, on a sculpture of such softened elegance as Unbearable bareness an eleven-fingered hand? Or that the absence of a face could be carried out as tenderly as in Eternal Muse? It would come as no surprise for these distortions to appear freakish, but rather than exploiting the human subject, Miles’s experiments draw us into the visual intelligence of the maker. Like Horton, years spent looking at diverse sculptures and paintings, drawing them from life whenever possible, have equipped him with a foundation of powerful archetypes. They seem to emerge unselfconsciously as he models, casts and finishes his sculptures.

While there is no overt critique of the contemporary human condition in Miles’s art, his treatment of the human body stands in such a clear relationship to his precursors’ that it is hard not to draw telling comparisons. Recliner’s raucously funny, simian male absorbed by his small bible / flipbook mobile phone has manners that point back to the Aztecs and to the more boisterous products of medieval sculpture. Is there, in the reversed recession of this resting man, a thought for how far we now stand from the lessons of the Renaissance? We can only imagine what Miles might do with compositions of multiple figures.

In the upstairs gallery, oil paintings executed from life in her own backyard made up the core of Stephanie Monteith’s ‘Lime Magic’, an exhibition that showed her to be a colourist of the Australian suburbs. In previous years she has been seen in the Archibald Prize and exhibited strange tableaux of the daily life of a skeleton, several of which were shown, but in the outdoors she has found a looser play of the brush.

Light is an ongoing fascination, and she deploys every green, pink and grey under the sun to describe its fall onto textures of native flora. Where many observational painters find safety by looking straight ahead at a single, contained incident Monteith follows her inclination to let the eye roam towards, or even beyond, the limits of peripheral vision. She seems more intent on experiencing the day than finishing a picture, and the paintings are all the better for it.

Cubby House is pieced together from four panels, painted over different sessions to present an endearingly broken panorama. The long garden is not quite Giverny but it has passages for the eye to roam through, and the hanging, knitted blankets, flags of a sensibility, play a part in segmenting the space towards abstraction. Spring Acer projects exuberance that the canvas can barely contain. Raw and refined by turns, it is joyous in its embrace of the visual field, but don’t be too eased by the sunny atmosphere. It is an unpremeditated experiment in painting, drawing on everything she learnt during years of abstract painting.

In her tolerance of the contingencies of the roving eye, Monteith recalls Pierre Bonnard, even if there are no bowls of cherries or sleeping nymphs in these Covid-19 era home-scapes. Life does not obey pictorial rules, and the achievement in these paintings is how lightly they turn on the enduring questions of how a painter might represent what she sees.

David Horton: Table Pieces and Works on Paper
Dale Miles: New Sculpture
Stephanie Monteith: Lime Magic
8 October – 25 October
Australian Galleries, Sydney

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