Trevor Vickers

I consider all my life I’m an abstract painter . . . a painterly painter.

Trevor Vickers has been working in abstraction for more than five decades, importing constructed visualisations onto canvas, offering ways of how the world can be perceived and understood. He has produced, and continues to produce, some of the finest abstract paintings in the country.

An overview of Vickers’ practice with works from the 1970s to the present will be exhibited at Melbourne’s Charles Nodrum Gallery this spring, securing the artist’s place in Australian abstraction.

In a recent interview, Vickers reflected upon what is a painting: “It’s where the eye and the brain meet, bringing one’s whole life experiences together. I set up triggers to initiate this viewer exchange – it’s all about exchange. I have done this now for over fifty years.”

Although often mistakenly referred to as a minimalist artist, Vickers’ practice is more in line with abstraction and what the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin refers to as “painterly” work, by one who has shifted from the linear to augmenting “how objects are perceived by the eye.”

In 1958, aged fifteen, Vickers left school. A year later he joined the PMG training scheme in telecommunications, where, fortuitously, he was sent from his hometown, Perth, to Melbourne to study at Prahran Tech for five years. In the evenings, to alleviate the feeling of being “an outsider” Vickers immersed himself in painting and reading. He met the charismatic artist Mel Ramsden, who was to be a founding member of the Art and Language Group. Vickers recalls that Ramsden’s vehement presence and intellectualisation of art “had a big effect on everyone” in the 1960s Melbourne art scene.

Vickers had his first solo exhibition in 1966 at Strines Gallery, which was owned and managed by Sweeney Reed. The exhibition received mixed reviews, and references to the heavy influence of American artist Ellsworth Kelly were unfounded. Vickers had been working in this style long before seeing any of the hard-edge geometric works of the American artists. The practitioners in Australia of this “new abstraction” were quite varied; each artist, particularly Vickers, could be identified by signature works. Patrick McCaughey could see Vickers’ work had a “visual impact that was direct and disarming.”

In 1968, Vickers’ paintings were selected for The Field, an exhibition that upturned the Australian art world and encouraged a defiant young group of artists working in the vein of the “new abstraction.” Vickers recalls: “People were outraged by my paintings . . . The second solo at Strines [Gallery in Carlton] I had a woman throw paint all over one of my paintings.” In hindsight, the apparent non-objectiveness of Vickers’ Untitled Painting and Untitled 1968 works in The Field was actually an artist’s statement. As the art historian Gary Catalano remarked, it was for Vickers “simply a style to work with, one that could release what he wanted to say about the world.” Fifty years on, in 2018, Vickers’ paintings shone brightly at The Field Revisited at the National Gallery of Victoria. The gallery arranged for the artist to remake Untitled Painting since the original painting had been lost. Slickly constructed, the multi-stretched canvases cascading downwards, and colour sequenced in red and cream, took centre stage.

The Field signalled both a triumph and a closure of the hard-edge abstraction idiom. Many artists retreated into figuration, painting landscapes or semi-abstract works. Vickers resolutely stuck with abstraction, experimenting with a visual dialogue producing multiple and multilateral variations using simple shapes of the rectangle or square in complex ways.

Vickers stated in 1969: “Basically, what we have done is to take a lot of things out of painting which weren’t all that important . . . Now there seems to be a frontal space which is relative to the viewer. The painting must be met halfway.” He carries through this idea in his current approaches that link with Mondrian’s frontal space structures.

Trevor Vickers became close friends with the artist Mike Brown. The two produced collaborative works throughout the 1970s, such as Untitled, c. 1971, which is being shown at Charles Nodrum – this work is painterly, and the geometric patterns of orbiting mandalas with sensory and tangible movements emulate the passage of time. Vickers and Brown’s Untitled, 1976, shows the convergence of Brown’s patterning work with Vickers’ elongated, rectangular door-like shapes creating a cinematic screen of movement and flux. The yellow light on the floor invites the viewer to look and imagine what is behind. In 1974, Vickers and Brown once again collaborated on The Second Last Art Show at the Watters Gallery in Sydney; a happening installation of slides, music, scrolls, murals, and banners. Vickers and Brown’s text accompanying the exhibition pointed out that “slide projections of domestic harmony in rural Gippsland” referenced the “social interaction between a loosely knit group of people . . . who live around the Victorian coastal town of Foster.” Vickers’ foray into conceptual and post object-based practices never saw him abandon painting; it rather added to the execution and processes that underpin compelling abstraction.

The conceptual basis of Vickers’ practice is about perception and how to make that visible with the medium of paint. The quality of his materials is of utmost importance. “In the 60s, you made your own paint with the chemist, getting the right pigment. You could take a colour and make it thick or thin. In the re-hang of The Field the quality of the paint stood out, and that’s where I consider myself as a painterly painter.”

In 1975, Vickers returned to Perth and shortly afterwards met artist Ruth Hart who was also teaching at Claremont Art School. Vickers was awarded the Australia Council Creative Fellowship in 1977. The couple flew to London and married the following year. They travelled around Europe, spending time at Hart’s family cottage in the French Pyrenees. They settled in Brighton, and remained in the UK for almost two decades.

Vickers speaks of regular visits to London’s National Gallery, where he could study an “alphabet of brushmarks” in masterpieces. The interior frescoes of Romanesque chapels he encountered in France led to the 1981-1997 Catalan Series: he embraced their religious iconography in its classical flatness and high-pitched pure colours, and recast its forms, combining Pop-injected painting and sculptural forms. Spinning-like discs, rectangles acting as platforms, forms embellished with colourful patterning and staccato markings, the Catalan Series is a tableau of experimental abstraction, comprising a multiplicity of interlocked surfaces, shapes, and bold colours.

By 1995 Vickers returned to Western Australia to be closer to family, while Ruth stayed to look after her ailing parents. The couple were reunited in 2001, and they settled in Fremantle.

Vickers says that painting is essential for its “visual abilities, its moods, the rainbow of everyday life . . . our sensitivity to visual experience exceeds our linguistic capacity to describe these experiences . . . this is the area that painting inhabits.” The conceptual microcosm of Vickers’ painting world is made up of basic elements translated into complex variations. He masterfully differentiates shapes, patterns, and colours that appear to be identical, allowing us to see everyday objects in new ways. The characteristic grey Vickers uses as a ground in Untitled, 2023, has “infinite blue greys, pink greys . . . ” which serve to open the spatial arrangement. The bilateral symmetry of the work is diffused by the yellow rectangular shapes that hover on either side, giving rhythm to the forms.

Referencing Philip Guston’s 1965 text on Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ summarises the unending loop of Vickers’s latest works. Guston writes: “The picture is sliced almost in half, yet both parts act upon each other: repel and attract, absorb and enlarge one another. At times, there seems to be no structure at all. No direction. We can move spatially everywhere, as in life.”

Looking at the mirror in Velázquez’s Las Meninas, I am reminded of the shapes in Vickers’s Untitled, 2023. The blackness of the bands and their push-and-pull tension are imbued with the reflections of time and memories. The interior and exterior spaces escape each other, and at the same time converge; the slicing of time passing either through the entry or exiting from the worlds we might know. The ecology of looking and seeing espoused by John Berger lies at the core of Trevor Vickers’ astonishing practice.

Images courtesy of the artist, Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne, and Art Collective WA, Perth

This profile was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 64

Sydney Contemporary (Art Collective WA Booth G08) 
7 – 10 September 2023 
Carriageworks, Sydney 

Trevor Vickers
19 August – 9 September 2023 
Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne (Booth G07)

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