Jack Featherstone (and his world of parallel universes)

The magic realist Jack Featherstone is the same age as Richard Larter. Both were born in 1929. By coincidence, both are currently exhibiting in adjoining galleries at the ANU School of Art. Jack is holding his second solo exhibition in thirty-five years. Dick is exhibiting in the group exhibition This Way Up, one of a series of shows in Canberra which explore the nature of contemporary abstraction. Of course, Dick Larter has exhibited in innumerable exhibitions over his illustrious career. Jack has kept his art to himself.

Clearly Jack is no abstractionist, but without the abstract sensations of sublimity his paintings would not exist. In music, for instance, it is the passing notes, or the dominant sevenths of the symphonies he listens to while he paints, which confirm his motivation to paint. Whether in the bush, or on the main street of Braidwood, it is those fleeting moments of existential clarity that suggest to him the subjects for his paintings. When Jack speaks about his stimulus to paint a particular image, it is sometimes as if the scene has taken him by surprise. He relates how seeing the intense blue of the mountains in his view of Mt Dampier: “it was just like that”, he said, as he recalled calling out to his son: “stop! stop! I must record this in my head!”

It seems to me the most relevant way of accounting for work like this is to look back to the Magical Realism of 1920s Germany. Franz Roh was the first art historian to apply the term to the New Objectivity of the post-expressionists. For Roh, it was a way of pointing towards the heightened objectivity of a generation of painters led by George Grosz and Otto Dix who were establishing a path away from the “shocking exoticism” of expressionism, and skirting around the avant-gardist revolutions of Dada and Surrealism. This was a moment when Roh noticed a movement towards a kind of intensified genre painting, “a style that celebrates the mundane”. These artists, according to Roh, embodied a “calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces”. This led to a particular kind of hyper-objectivity where the depiction of the everyday “once again becomes the most intense pleasure of painting”. Subsequently the concept was appropriated by literature to describe the qualities of post-war European and (particularly) South American novelists. Unlike Australian art history, a whole string of Australian writers have also been associated with these ideas, most recently the novelist Glenda Guest, here interviewed by Jack’s son Nigel. Parallel universes, indeed.

And so it seemed to me that almost a century later, our Jack Featherstone has invented a painting mode which had much in common with the motives of his predecessors. He shares a similar capacity to see the extraordinary in the everyday, and depicts his experiences in minute detail. He has produced a way of observing the world as if from some out-of-body perspective, and his painting has evolved into a similar style, worthy of the attribution as a latter-day “Magic Realist”. When you see a number of his works you will notice how he paints his scenes from a floating perspective, a few meters above the ground, above the trig points on the tops of the mountains from which he depicts a scene, or just above the surface of the street in his townscapes.

His experiences in the bush provide him with a choice of materials as the substrate of his pictures, whether pieces of rock, stones or the pieces of bark or wood. Each “must have a sense of place”, on which he can imagine, project a painting, even if they are the very large pieces harvested from dead eucalypts near Tilba Tilba, or the seemingly impossibly heavy slabs of stone he collects on expedition. These then become the direct reference for his paintings to their place of origin. While sometimes the shape and contour of the material directly determines its pictorial form, or in other cases the picture is made to fit its eccentric frame, creating a kind of dynamic synthesis between these two elements.

As we were hanging the show, Matt Smith and I both took pleasure in the way the irregularity of the materials on which Jack paints produces their engagingly distinctive pictorial effects.  Unlike the window-effect or the architectonic conventions by which we view rectilinear pictures, Jack’s paintings appear like chunks of reality: “as if fallen from the sky”, said Matt. Their irregularity against the white gallery wall sometimes suggest a kind of rupture in the space-time of experience. Again, this “magical” sense of parallel realities is reinforced by sensations such as these.

Want more? You can listen to Jack interviewed on ABC Radio here. There’s also a nice piece by Jacqueline Williams on p7 of the CT (Oct 7th). And the artist will be present in the gallery from midday on Saturday. Or you can follow the thread of previous posts by typing Jack in the search box. And here’s his son Nigel, writing a beautifully familial piece on his own blog. And today (12th) a longer piece by Jacqueline Williams in the CT’s Times2 section…


#1 Hamish Dalley on 10.08.10 at 11:24 am

Is ‘magic realist’ the best term to describe Jack’s style? When I think ‘magic realism’ I think of work that combines radically incommensurable worldviews: that confronts the everyday, concrete world of actuality with occurrences that can’t be assimilated to its ways of thinking. Jack’s work doesn’t actually undo or challenge our sense of reality, but captures a moment of heightened response to the world. It seems more related to the aesthetics of romanticism than magic realism, in that sense at least.

Rather than seeing his work as confronting the real with a shock of the magic, it seems to me that the contrast is between the two different ways of looking: first you look through the painted surface and see a ‘chunk of the sky.’ But then you’re brought back by the materiality of the wood. From illusion to object. Your gaze oscillates between seeing the work as an image and seeing it as paint on a piece of wood. And that movement, from image to object, seems to be how he’s describing the moment of heightened aesthetic response — as a flash of insight that, unless it is captured and sustained through art, quickly reverts back to the mundane.

In that way it seems close to the romanticism you find in Coleridge, say: the celebration of the transcendent moment.

#2 Nigel on 10.08.10 at 2:49 pm

Thanks Hamish, I particularly like your elaboration of the way it’s possible to respond to the materiality of the actual works. I guess I’m trying to associate our “home-grown” magic realist to the moment when the term began to make sense (Roh) rather than to all its subsequent manifestations which, sometimes exaggerate the sense of unreality. But I certainly don’t want to imply an overlap with surrealism as, for instance, in the work of Frida Kahlo et al.

#3 Hamish Dalley on 10.08.10 at 3:31 pm

Sure, I guess my understanding of magic realism comes from the literary context where it has a pretty fixed meaning, associated with writers like Marquez, which seems quite alien to what Jack is doing. Like I said, I agree with your point about the works producing a sense of ‘the extraordinary in the everyday.’

I suppose the other question is that given the overlap with features of certain kinds of Aboriginal art (aerial perspective, bark medium), how do you orient this work with that tradition?

#4 Nigel on 10.08.10 at 3:36 pm

Simple answer: he doesn’t relate his materials to his experiences in Aboriginal Australia. Closer, I’d say, to the folk art tradition of painting on implements, or whatever is at hand. Go to anonymous works in the side bar for that kind of thing…

#5 The making is the point « Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot on 10.11.10 at 11:00 am

[…] – but Nigel Lendon, who curated and launched the show, has written an expansive piece over at Iconophilia – it’s well worth a read.  For me, it’s all about someone who has just painted, not to have […]

#6 The making is the point « Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot on 10.11.10 at 11:53 am

[…] – but Nigel Lendon, who curated and launched the show, has written an expansive piece over at Iconophilia.  It’s well worth a read.  For me, it’s all about someone who has just painted, not to have […]

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