Guest Curator: Domenico de Clario in collaboration with Ren Walters.
Born in Mildura in 1928, Wes Walters was an artist who practised many disciplines. Throughout a long career he was at once a graphic designer, Archibald prize-winning portrait painter, sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker, abstract expressionist and landscapist. In the post‑war era in Australia Walters defied the linearity of the specialist stance that most Australian artists took up, revelling instead in manifesting visual and artistic ideas in whatever discipline he decided would best articulate them. In so doing, Walters’ diverse modes of creative expression may be seen as a precursor to the multi‑disciplinary practice currently defining the approach of countless contemporary artists.
Viewers of Wes Walters: the art of the pre‑cursor will gain an appreciation of Walters’ unique approach to creative processes and a sense of his unorthodox yet logical practice.
Opening 5.30pm, Friday 7 December at Mildura Arts Centre
Exhibition Friday 7 December – Sunday 3 March
In Conversation… with Domenico de Clario, David Thomas and Ren Walters
11am, Saturday 8 December
See the parallel exhibition Wes Walters: the art of the pre-cursor (the studio)
Opening 7.30pm, Saturday 8 December at Museum of Innocence Mildura
Exhibition: Saturday 8 December – Sunday 3 March
museum of innocence mildura, 33 Deakin Avenue, Mildura
What is a precursor? Simply a forerunner, the one that dares to run ahead of convention, the one that might also be the mapmaker for others, reading the ground, seeing things many miss, having the courage to delve into the unknown. Is there an art to being a precursor? Probably not, as running ahead of the times requires improvisation simply because the journey takes one into the unknown. No chance to construct an art, nor a technique nor to prepare oneself in any way. One simply relies on what one carries within and dares to measure oneself against whatever unfolds. When contemplating Wes Walters and his legacy, one cannot help concluding that his art indeed constituted the lifework of a precursor, whose beat was attuned to a sound that came from ahead of the game. Not from behind nor concurrently to it, but consistently ahead of it.
How and when did this project begin? When did its animating proposition, that of examining one of the most intriguing practices of the last fifty years in order to restore it to its rightful position in the history of recent Australian art, arise? Perhaps it began as far back as the early 1970’s, but in order to give the reader an opportunity to gain an insight into that world and why Wes Walters’ presence as an artist so challenged and intrigued both myself and many other art-world observers and practitioners, I need to describe the context in which Wes and I played out our lives.
In 1969 I dropped out of Melbourne University architecture studies (interestingly fifteen years earlier Wes had dropped out of the Gordon Institute of Technology’s architecture degree course), oppressed by the narrow ambitions of a faculty that styled itself on British models. In desperation (although I had promised myself I would never go to art school) I enrolled in the National Gallery Art School, then housed in dusty studios above the State Library of Victoria in Swanston Street, hoping to have my skepticism about the value of an art education overturned. I survived for two weeks, initially buoyed by John Brack’s supportive welcome. But not even his support was enough to tether me there, so I embraced the uncertain life of an anonymous, young artist, strangely comforted by the truthfulness of how spaciously liberating such uncertainty could be.
When on the back of some early success I was paradoxically offered a teaching position in 1973 as a tutor-demonstrator, it could only have come from the Preston Institute of Technology, the art school that was then widely regarded as the most unorthodox in Australia, and certainly in Melbourne’s art circles was considered to be the most provocative of all its art schools, which then numbered six.
This ‘ahead-of-its-time’ thinking about art was generated by the energy of those who at that time randomly gathered together in only a handful of locations in Australia, and many of these were either PIT students or staff. These locations included the cavernous spaces of Bruce Pollard’s enormously influential Pinacotheca Gallery in Richmond; at PIT itself, then a single building, lost among the cow paddocks of Bundoora; at the Mildura Sculpturescapes organised by Tom McCulloch, Director of the Mildura Art Gallery, unfolding over a week on the site of a former landfill on the banks of the Murray River; during the myriad events that Noel Sheridan initiated and facilitated inside the shell of an old building in Adelaide, known as the Experimental Art Foundation, and inside the Sydney artists-run space known as Inhibodress, set up by Peter Kennedy, Mike Parr and Tim Johnson, whose brief life (1971-72) belied its significance for many young Sydney artists and its lasting influence on the Australian contemporary art world.
Among the lecturers at PIT in 1973 was Dale Hickey, then a luminary painter and installation artist; David Tolley, who taught ceramics and sculpture and doubled at night as an experimental musician and double-bass player for the Brian Brown Quartet, then the leading improvisatory jazz performers in the country; Peter Booth, a painter who fearlessly journeyed into unknown spaces; Mike Brown, very much the quintessential multidisciplinary artist and revolutionary; Ken Conner, LA-based US West Coast painter of cool; Lou Kuppers, Dutch traditionalist sculptor of immense skill; Don James, a ceramicist of great talent; Normana Wight, a highly skilled print-maker and legendary photographer Henry Talbot.
From the early 1980’s, this group would be joined by Greg Moncrieff, Joseph de Lutiis, Danny Moynihan, Betty Churcher, Anne Stephen, Charles Merewether, Terry Smith, Irene Barberis, Peter D. Cole, Micki Allan, Peter Kennedy, Lynn Quintal, Rosemary Stone, Rod Bishop, Bert Deling, John Dunkley-Smith, Mimmo Cozzolino, Bill Gregory, Jeff Makin, Nick Mourtzakis, Mirka Mora, Rosslynd Piggott, Zen artist and teacher Andre Sollier and many others. This unique mix of varied views and talents functioned as a powerful crucible for students and teachers alike and would end in 1992. (1.)
Students who went on to gain an international reputation included Robert Hunter, Maudie Palmer, Paul Boston, Robert Rooney, John Nixon and an endless treasure trove of creative beings. Despite PIT’s reputation as an under-funded, bravely courageous, yet poor working-class cousin to the city art schools many of its former students have since then made a productive place for themselves, within both the national and international art community.
My interest in Wesley Walters as the ‘enigma artist’, the artist whose practice no one quite knew how to assess because of the impossibly wide range of mediums he unhesitatingly explored, was kindled in early 1973 when his son Ren Walters enrolled as an art student at PIT. Over the next few years (and indeed since then) Ren and I engaged in a number of productive conversations in which, beyond discussing his progress in the course, he described to me a little of his father’s practice and how its extreme manifestations through various modes and mediums challenged his understanding of how an art practice might evolve.
Paradoxically, though Ren had enrolled at PIT, Wes was critical of its pedagogy and of art school education in general. (Much later Wes was invited to teach at Prahran College, but lasted only a year because he would not comply with its pedagogical directives.
Among the many students who vehemently protested at his dismissal was the soon-to-be anointed doyen of Australian landscape painting, Philip Hunter; art critic and author Christopher Heathcote; painter Terry Taylor and multidisciplinary artist Susan Stamp). Wes’ rejection of PIT’s approach puzzled me because it actively embraced the creative studio processes Wes himself engaged in.
Upon reflection it seems clear now that Wes was rejecting all creative instruction/tutelage in favour of practice being simply given over to instinct. Trusting the moment and riding the wave of insightful energy that would at times overtake him; gliding on its back into whatever shore it might deposit him, dumping him even unceremoniously. But this is where his courage assisted him and he was prepared to pay the cost that resulted from the occasional bout of inevitable disorientation.
This innate explorative urge was of course tempered by the consummate technique that Wes had refined over time, which distinguished all of his artistic output. The knowledge that he could safely turn to technique as each challenging question arose not only meant that the outcome would take on the facile and glossy look he was seeking to avoid, but also implied a kind of surrender in the struggle with his own facility.
Wes needed the outcome to be forged in the crucible of conflict between the two polarities he so uniquely embraced as the possessor of both an enormous technical facility and a fearlessly explorative urge. In brief, nothing less than a primal conflict, generated by an empirical knowing needing to affirm its supremacy over an instinctive feeling.
This narrative, of opposites within the creative self engaging in a struggle for supremacy began, through my discussions with Ren about his father’s practice, to subtly insinuate itself into my own sense of what an artistic practice could contain, and I understood that the contradictions arising from the pursuit of seemingly disconnected approaches to the creative act were simply challenges that had to be faced up to and explored, not summarily discarded as being irrelevant or too difficult to manage.
I remember that at this point I would often conjure up in support of my evolving convictions one of the aphorisms I had found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s volume titled ‘Self Reliance’, in which the transcendentalist philosopher and essayist had proclaimed, as he sat on the edges of Walden Pond, that ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’.
I found that line most comforting in times of doubt, and of course so affirming of Wes’ approach.
These views increasingly found themselves in sympathetic company at PIT and underpinned our approach to teaching. Wes Walters’ influence in this regard is difficult to quantify, but his undeniable presence in the art community as an active example of this approach to art, certainly substantiated what we at PIT were attempting to achieve.
The Australian art world was then infinitely smaller and basically consisted of a dominant mainstream made up of those artists who were favoured by a handful of critics, public gallery directors and even fewer collectors, all supporting each others’ views. A tiny number of individuals made up a fragmented and ultimately inconsequential group of those who countered the values, processes and outcomes of the artists who made up the mainstream.
Of course there were always the exceptions; Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Fred Williams and a number of others uniquely challenged well-established parameters and were rewarded with both critical and financial success. This success depended though on the continuity of their genuine inquiry, based as it was on a particular visual ’brand’ that had evolved over time, such as the consistency of the range of their palettes, the mythologies they chose to explore and on a quantifiable progress through their chosen journey, perceived as productively successful by those who enjoyed the artists’ output both as collectors and as ultimate definers of its cultural significance.
Wes did not belong to either this group or to the small group of highly adventurous, if socially and financially disadvantaged, artists.
From the moment he was awarded the Archibald Prize in 1979 for a portrait of Philip Adams, an enormously influential event for an artist’s career, Wes could have rightly expected to receive both the financial rewards and the critical acclaim that usually accompany such success.
But maintaining the consistency in his practice that would canonize that kind of success was beyond his capacity. Wes would not, could not, act out the role imposed on him through his success; he was too much the irreverent precursor, compelled to ignore the parameters that would have guided him into safer territory.
For the paradox is this; as a uniquely gifted artist Wes possessed a skill level and a knowledge of the technical aspects of both drawing and painting uncommon to most and could have constructed a productive and rewarding life journey from that unique talent. Paradoxically in a sense Wes did; he was a uniquely successful portrait painter, as this exhibition illustrates, and a popular graphic designer and sought-after advertising creative, normally described from the 1950’s as a ‘commercial artist’. But both his temperament and compulsive seeking for the substance that animates the core of each artist guided his practice steadily away from the safety of what he knew and directly, even fearlessly, into the unknown realm of feeling.
And so, way ahead of his time, from the late 1940’s through to the new millennium, Wes’s practice indeed evolved as possibly one of the very first multidisciplinary practices an Australian artist has constructed.
An understanding of the subtle yet highly significant nexus between doing and being is crucial in constructing the self-determination artists must arrive at sooner or later. I believe Wes sensed this difference very early in his career and chose the uncertainty that accompanies a simple being instead of the predictability that distinguishes the eminently quantifiable aspects of doing.
To live out such a conclusion with integrity through one’s life such a choice requires considerable integrity because this path may well lead to relative obscurity instead of the glittering success (ultimately shallow though it may be) that accompanies an extreme narrowing of one’s research.
Back to Emerson for a moment; the philosopher never clarified the difference between a foolish consistency and a wise one, and of course there are a number of examples of how one might live a creative life with insightful consistency. I immediately think of Giorgio Morandi and how for most of his life he lived with his three sisters inside the small apartment in Bologna he was born in, painting through his entire career the same selection of bottles, candlesticks and vases in his bedroom studio, walking the same streets day after day to and from the art school he taught in.
Though the range of his experiences was so narrow Morandi achieved an extraordinarily simply purity through the plasticity of his forms and tones, a timelessness of inquiry though his refusal to be seduced by the glittering forms of the outer world.
I think of Emily Dickinson and her solitary life serving her family, while musing on the strange uniqueness of the universe through her exquisite poems, exalting the gorgeous nothings* she would come across in her meandering walks through the fields; trifles, leaves, twigs, bird-life, the forms of passing clouds.
A foolish consistency as opposed to an insightful one surrenders the exploration of one’s inner substance to a mindless tethering to form. The wise consistency distinguishing the lives and the works of those I have described above, beyond countless others, does not surrender the exploration of substance but simply aligns its endless variations according to a particular beat.
The world was infinitely simpler from the late 18th through to the middle of the 20th century and our current quests are rendered more complex by having to navigate the cultural and moral confusion, even the chaos, that we currently inhabit.
This project attempts to find a space in which we might appreciate anew and consequently reassess, through the ample evidence that can be seen on the walls of MAC and MIM, the range and daring of Wes Walters’s practice, a quest probably impossible to propose and construct during his lifetime, primarily because the prism through which art-making was critiqued (revealing only form and appearance, not substance and intention) obscured the true value of his achievements.
This leads one to ask what role coherent branding plays in both the making and the appreciation of art, and the subsequent conferring of merit upon the work and the individuals that can best conjure up excellence in that regard.
Is the primary purpose of significant art to simply ask questions by avoiding the inclusion of ready-made answers within the work? In this way the wise artist leaves us wondering and prompts us as a consequence to search for the empowering response inside ourselves. Some art is capable of simultaneously asking a question and supplying what might appear, at best, to be a provisional answer.
But it is not the rule, and in a sense this double-function does a disservice to the onlooker, depriving him or her of the joy of arriving at an answer for oneself, reciprocating in that way the generosity of the artist as the first action of what in the end is a collaborative experience.
For no significant art can coherently exist without an inquisitive audience, left to find meaning and significance beyond what the artist provides within the work. Otherwise we are reduced to acolytes, having no choice but to be in simple agreement with the artist’s view.
Many artists do succumb to the temptation of providing a response to the question they ask, and at times they do so successfully. Wes did not succumb, believing that asking was enough, and as a result we are left to gratefully ponder the many questions he so articulately posed.
The one that best encompasses his inquiry rightfully illuminates the core of his life’s work and it might be articulated in this way: can we more deeply define and determine cultural value, perhaps better understanding the human journey as an empathetic and insightful communion of souls, if we dare to blur the line between doing and being, ultimately confusing the boundary between maker and onlooker?
Domenico de Clario
Footnote 1 The PIT, at the direction of then federal minister for education John Dawkins, after various dalliances with other institutions finally amalgamated with RMIT, and ultimately its School of Art relinquished its presence on the Bundoora campus and in 1996 moved to Swanston Street.