Joe Furlonger: Horizons

For many years, Joe Furlonger’s paintings have inhabited our consciousness. They take us to the beach, the sea, the bush, and then magically leave us in peace to sift through our own memories and dreams. In the artist’s seventieth year, the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art's Horizons exhibition presents a wonderful opportunity to look back through a fascinating journey.

Joe Furlonger was born in Cairns in 1952. He grew up in the rural (now semi-rural) Samford Valley near Brisbane. As an adult he worked as a farmhand and on fishing boats, attended art schools in Brisbane and Sydney and, after a period of gestation and experimentation, launched an artistic career that has sustained over the decades and shows no signs of dissipating. He has travelled widely, and restlessly explored many different mediums. His public profile has prospered through representation by major galleries, particularly the Ray Hughes Gallery, and through winning significant prizes, including the 2002 Fleurieu Art Prize and the 2011 Tattersall’s Club Landscape Prize.

A prominent feature of Furlonger’s work is the influence of a pantheon of historical artists, including Picasso, Léger, Cezanne, Matisse, Roualt, Beckmann, and other German expressionists. This is no doubt the result of his teachers in Brisbane and Sydney, including Roy Churcher, David Paulson, Ian Smith, Ann Thomson, Kevin Connor, and Michael Johnson, but also because of his own searching, inquisitive nature. At a time when others followed fashion by turning away from modernist models, he looked deeply at the work of artists that interested, extracting elements that he could bend to his own purposes. He also investigated Australian artists, including Nolan, Fairweather, Tucker, and Olsen.

The drawing and painting that won both the Andrew and Lilian Pedersen Memorial Prize for Drawing and the Moet & Chandon Art Prize – both from 1987, entitled Bathers, and included in this exhibition, are Picasso-esque in that they depict large, stocky figures cavorting on beaches, but Furlonger delivers his actors with a much rougher hand. Life is rawer here, and the sea looming behind has a greater presence than we would expect to see in the work of Picasso or Matisse.

A local audience has no difficulty in understanding why Furlonger would use the beach in these early works as a grand, timeless stage for his imagination to populate. Truth be told, it is the kind of thing many of us do when we daydream. Ask Australians what “the beach” means to them, and you will likely have to listen to lengthy and possibly revealing answers.

All countries have their own distinctive attitudes about the geographies they inhabit, and these ideas manifest in artistic ways. Australia has a particularly complex and multi-faceted relationship with “place.” First Nations people have serious, long-standing relationships with their Country which we are still in the process of acknowledging. City and bush mythologies crop up regularly in literature and television shows, and ecological issues surface in almost every news broadcast. We are intensely concerned about the fires and floods that plague us and environmental happenings in our watery surrounds. Consequently, landscape has more artistic presence here than in most countries. We have innumerable landscape painters, and many landscape painting prizes. Plein-air painters range from those who venture out for brief visits to unfamiliar places, to those who explore outback panoramas, to others who regularly interact with favoured territories, and even intrepid individuals who settle quietly into remote locations for long sojourns. 

Furlonger exploited a powerful and distinctive vantage point when he began to focus on landscape, because he was able to operate both as a skilled artistic observer and a grounded inhabitant. Paintings like Cecil Plains, 2021, report the findings of an informed eye, considering topographic, atmospheric, and agricultural issues. Sketchy vertical and horizontal marks depict roads and rural fences scratched into brown agricultural land.

Over the last couple of decades, Furlonger has travelled widely in Vietnam and China. Based on traditional Chinese brush-and-ink techniques, he developed a way of using thin washes of acrylic-bound pigment on linen and paper which would allow him the speed and fluidity he craved.

A fascination with the environment also applies to water and, as with Furlonger’s landscapes, there’s a sense of accumulated knowledge in his visions outward from the coast. Like the paintings of Cornish Naïve artist Alfred Wallis, which look simple and reductive at first glance but in fact faithfully record a depth of information gleaned from a career on commercial vessels, works like Moreton Bay mud flats, 2000, and Coral Sea, 2016, provide astute observations camouflaged within expressive paint. In Furlonger’s Studies for Bribie Island Passage I and II, both 2010, we see both dreamlike visions and diagram of a potential journey to the home of Ian Fairweather. 

Horizons is marvellously informative. Through the academy hang, horizontal glass cabinets, and rows of ceramics and sculptures, it’s possible to cross-reference between series of works in very different media. We see reportage in his circus and Gold Coast Indy car race series, an enduring interest in printmaking, and successful experiments with portraiture, ceramic, and sculpture. 

The startling Spiky Man sculpture, 2006, is like a human signpost, simultaneously welcoming visitors to the exhibition and pointing out things that people need to see. Furlonger’s achievements as an artist who has persistently interrogated the world in which we live are thoroughly celebrated.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 61, 2022. 
Image courtesy the artist, Defiiance Gallery, Sydney, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, and The University of Queensland, Brisbane.

27 August 2022 – 29 January 2023
Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

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