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Euan Macleod’s Figure in a Dissolving Landscape: a studio interview

Euan Macleod: Figure in a Dissolving Landscape

I was walking my dogs to the dog park a couple of months ago when I saw Euan Macleod and Susan Jarvis coming towards me along the path. I love the way Euan walks along with his shoulders a little stooped and his head in the clouds, a bit like a man from one of his paintings, lost in thought.

We stopped to chat and catch up and of course the talk turned to the coronavirus and how it had radically changed everyone’s lives. Euan volunteered that lots of people had been asking him if the pandemic had found its way into his work. Had it inspired him? Had it driven him into his studio? It absolutely hasn’t, he told me. He confessed that, like many of his artist friends, he’d found the pandemic paralysing rather than galvanising.

It would be wrong to say, however, that Euan hasn’t been working hard during these difficult months. With painting excursions cancelled because of travel restrictions, and boozy gallery openings not happening, he has turned to his studio in a sustained effort of painting. His inspiration was a trip earlier this year to the wilds of a New Zealand glacial landscape where he spent three nights in a tiny hut perched above a vast expanse of white. A helicopter dropped Euan into the remote wilderness with a few light painting materials, the New Zealand photographer Craig Potton and a guide who brought all the food. They were equipped to stay for longer, but were forced to leave early by oncoming bad weather.

Euan Macleod: Jumping glacial stream, 2020

After the trip, Euan locked himself inside his studio at home, and painted and painted. The resulting artworks are now on view at King Street Gallery on William, in East Sydney, where Euan is having his first exhibition after 40 years in the artist-family of the recently-closed Watters Gallery. The new exhibition, Figure in a Dissolving Landscape, is on until September 26.

When I ran into Euan and Susan that day on the path to the dog park, they asked me to come over and have coffee. With Euan’s exhibition a good excuse for a conversation, I went over on August 3 with my dogs Tibbie and Jade (who quickly made themselves at home in Euan’s studio), and recorded the following interview.

You and New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones have produced a new book called High Wire. How did the theme of bridges come about?

It was Lloyd’s suggestion and it was kind of nice because I had been doing bridge paintings. That’s one of those symbols, I love the idea or analogy of going to one place or another, or bridging gaps, and that kind of idea. And he drew the analogy between New Zealand and Australia and that link between them.

The hut on Mount Cook where Euan Macleod stayed for three nights earlier this year

You recently went to Mount Cook in New Zealand on a painting trip? Had you been there before?

Yeah, I used to go climbing when I was young. It’s that volcanic thing, that idea of what’s going on under the surface that I really, really love. And so when I got back I did these little works on paper. I did hundreds of these. And these potentially [and did] become paintings.

We were looking down at all these glaciers around us. It was bloody scary. As long as you didn’t do anything stupid there was nothing wrong but the main problem was you’re just in this environment which is falling apart. You’re in an environment that’s so fragile and so extremely vulnerable. You’re in an environment that’s incredibly beautiful but you feel vulnerable. You feel almost invisible. You shouldn’t really be there. That’s an aspect I was trying to get across, our vulnerability – and the world, really.

Tell me about Lloyd Jones. 

His writing has a lovely visual sense to it. He set out this idea of doing an art book for adults, like a picture book for adults. But the big thing was he changed it from bridges to high wires. To a certain extent it was based on Philippe Petit [the skywalker who stunned New York in 1974 when he nonchalantly walked between the Twin Towers on a high wire]. I didn’t read a lot of what [Jones] wrote until afterwards [not wanting to be influenced before he produced his own work in response to the theme]. But he would make suggestions and it was a collaboration. He loved the idea of people looking up.

Had you tackled the subject of bridges and high wires before?

Tibbie in the studio with Figure in a Dissolving Landscape behind

Not high wires so much but definitely bridges. I’ve done this thing with the rope, and the rope’s a connection. And it’s a bit like a highwire too, it’s a similar kind of thing, trusting in the rope. So it felt right.

[Euan said he wanted the big figure in the middle of his big triptych, Figure in a Dissolving Landscape, to be “dwarfed” by the landscape.] And how do you do that? How do you suggest this massive, massive landscape that’s enveloping the person, without having them tiny? And one way you can do that is you have the figure in the air or in the middle, so I did a lot with people standing in clouds and on clouds, and I thought, well, the highwire is the perfect way because it’s a person suspended in the middle of nothing.

The man in middle panel of the triptych appears to be standing on a precipice.

Mm, I’m glad you can see that. See I know it is, but … that to me, that was like that. The hut was absolutely on a precipice and they’re put there on purpose because the main danger of these huts is rock fall, rocks falling on top of them, so they have to be on rock.

Euan Macleod: Pull Up, 2020

How was the hut? 

It’s pretty spartan but not bad, and we were the only ones there, thank God.

Freezing cold?

No, it wasn’t too bad.

Did you walk out to see the stars? 

Oh yeah, it was all pretty beautiful. The guys got up really early one morning to see the sun come up and I’ve got to say I just went no, fuck you, I want my sleep. Isn’t that terrible!

[Euan said he wanted to paint the “thrill” of being in that landscape.]

The sublime.

Yeah, the Caspar David Friedrich thing. An absolute total influence. All those guys used to do their pilgrimage to the Alps and things, so it’s not that dissimilar, really.

You get the sense in these paintings that you’re a long way from civilisation and human comforts.

Yeah. I don’t do the climbing stuff any more so it’s not dangerous, but you are in an environment if anything goes wrong you’re a long way from any kind of help or support or anything.

When were you a climber? In your 20s and 30s? 

No, younger. And I wasn’t a very good one. I was pretty crappy at it, because it’s one of those things you have to be pretty committed and you also have to be pretty fearless, and I’m not. I wasn’t fearless and I wasn’t committed really. I loved it, and what I loved about it was being in that environment. The thing about climbing mountains, there was a thrill in that, but just being in that environment was just so amazing. You want to be in more and more extreme environments, and you need those skills to help you. But having the guide there was a real bonus and they supplied all the equipment which was just brilliant too.

Euan Macleod in his studio, with Jade keeping him company

When you were there on the mountain, you could work?

Yes, I worked on the acrylics and a few drawings. So the middle panel [of the triptych], that has developed from one of those drawings that I did up there. Just the sense of seeing this ice fall, how the ice fell off the mountain and down into the glacier, it was just spectacular. I’m so pleased I can show you that [the triptych] because I only finished it on Friday.

It’s that sense of being helpless, you’re so tiny in nature. But you’re also not. We’re destroying that landscape, you know, that humanity, well global warming has been terribly, you know, Mount Cook has had a great big huge chunk fall off it and it’s receding all the time. The Tasman Glacier, when I was about 19 when I went up, I walked all the way up. There’s no way you could do that now. It’s so broken up and receded so far. There wasn’t a lake at the end of it when I went up then. Now there’s this massive lake that jet boats go around on and take tourists on. And that’s in, what, 40 years? You look at it and you think, we’re buggering it up.

At least COVID is keeping lots of planes out of the sky for the moment. 

I do probably need to sit in one place and digest where I’ve gone rather than just go flying around. We were going to be going to Greece and Crete in September which would have been great, but I’m enjoying doing this [his current work based on the Mount Cook trip]. That’s the thing, you go on one of those trips and your focus gets shifted and you sometimes, I mean I don’t know where this will lead to. You never know where they’ll go.

 

Elizabeth Fortescue, September 19, 2020

Guy Warren: a visit to the great Australian artist’s studio

Guy Warren in his studio. Picture: Elizabeth Fortescue

On March 7, 2016, I was fortunate to visit Guy Warren at his longtime studio in Sydney’s inner suburban Leichhardt.

The purpose for my visit was the story I was writing for the Daily Telegraph about Guy’s upcoming exhibition at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, titled Genesis of a Painter: Guy Warren at 95.

 

Here’s an edited transcript of our wonderful interview. It seems we started off talking about the Depression era.

Guy Warren: My memory of Sydney in those days was a muso on every street corner busking for a living. And the Manly ferries had musos on them.  Each Manly ferry had a piano on board, so there was a pianist, there was usually a violinist, or a banjo player. Or a cornet or something like that. And someone used to take the hat around before they got to Manly. It was a tough life.

I asked Guy how the S.H. Ervin Gallery exhibition had come about.

You know Barry Pearce [emeritus curator of the Art Gallery of NSW]? It’s all Barry’s fault. At a dinner one night I was sitting next to Barry and I said ‘well the major problem I’ve got now is deciding what to keep and what to chuck out. I can’t leave a lot of rubbish behind me. I can’t leave it to the kids, they won’t know. So I’d better decide what to keep and what to chuck out’, and he said ‘oh I’ll come and help you’. So he came and he started pulling things out from that corner over there and he kept saying things like, ‘oh, these are great, oh, these can’t be chucked out, oh, I’ve never seen these before. Have these ever been shown?’ He said, ‘for the first time I can see where you’ve come from. I could see the connection between then and now’. So he thought having a show called Then and Now, so it will be old works and new works. So it’s not a retrospective because there’s nothing in the middle. It’s just then and now. I think it’s a great idea. Because he hopes, and I do too, that people can see the visual connections and the conceptual connections. Ideas that link through and images that link through.

Were you going to throw away some of the ones Barry liked?

They could very well have been. Some I haven’t seen for 60 years. There are things here that are done in the mid 50s.

We discussed Guy’s routine, and he told me he gets into the studio about 10am and works until 6pm or 7pm. 

That’s the best days. There are days when it’s not so good and I leave earlier.

A corner of Guy Warren’s studio. Picture: Elizabeth Fortescue

I explained that the story angle I had in mind was how art keeps you young.

Well I’m not sure it’s art that keeps you young, it’s curiosity I’ve decided. And I think that probably applies  to just about everybody. You’re curious to see what’s around the corner. That must be the thing that keeps a scientist going. Wonder what would happen if I do this. I wonder if I can solve that problem by doing this.

Artists are enormously curious, I said to Guy.

Well you never know what the painting’s going to look like until you do it. You might think you’re going to know, you might think you’ve got an idea, but you don’t know until you’ve done it. I remember one eminent American painter, Philip Guston I think, who talks about much the same sort of thing because he never knew what was going to happen until he did it and he said oh that’s what it looks like. And that’s exactly it.

Not everybody works the same way, but if I have an idea it may or may not end up looking like that idea because it’s a conversation you have been you and the painting. Sometimes the painting speaks to you and says, do this. Musicians do the same.

I reminded Guy of his travels to Ecuador in 2013, and suggested it was curiosity that took him there. 

I did it because I had a friend [artist Charles Reddington] over there and he invited me over there. My son [Paul] and I went over there. I’d never been to South America before. The Andes, it was fantastic.

What did you do in Ecuador?

 I like rainforest country so I went to a place called Cloud Forest which is like rainforest but very high which was extraordinary. Much the same plants that we have here in our rainforest, but twice the size, three times the size. And we ended up in the Galapagos. That was fun. Lots of huge tortoises. The oldest one had recently died. I think they called him Old George. Notices were pinned in all sorts of places, sometimes on trees, which said, you know, goodbye Old George. So he was obviously very popular with tourists, I guess.

Did you do any drawing?

Yes I always carry sketchbooks with me, and I’ve done some paintings since then. (Probably not going in the show.) Not quite relevant to what Barry sees as the main theme of the show.

I’ve been to London and Berlin but that was when my wife was alive. The trouble with getting old is that those things that happened a few years ago, you always think was about two years ago, as a matter of fact when you look it up you find it’s 10 or 20. Time just collapses.

In your wife Joy you had a great mate to be curious with.

Yes, she was. She was a very good ceramicist. That girl got her PhD in her 70s. That’s pretty good, isn’t it. I think it’s bloody amazing. I guess she was curious, she had to be. She had a very good teaching career. She was a damn good ceramicist, too. Made beautiful pots.

Where was her studio?

At home, under the house. The house we bought many years ago had a bit of an area underneath and I borrowed a jackhammer and jackhammered the rock out and she carried it out on a wheelbarrow. It was a joint activity and we made a nice little pottery for her.

I do have another studio at home, not as big as this, but I do a lot of work there. A lot of drawing, sketching, a lot of watercolours.

We discussed how long Guy had been in his Leichhardt studio. He had been in it for 30 years. Before that his studio was an old boat repair shop in the last street on your left as you head towards the end of Darling St, Balmain. Guy was there for almost 10 years while he was also teaching at Sydney College of the Arts. He’d be teaching at the SCA campus then go to the waterfront studio at lunchtime to do a bit of work on a watercolour or something, then return to  the SCA for the afternoon sessions.

You had a long teaching career. Did it help keep you going? 

I think so, because you’re dealing with ideas. I taught for a long time in the architecture faculty and Sydney University and at the Tin Sheds, and you’re dealing with people who had fantastic information and knowledge about all sorts of things. Teaching is great when you’re learning at the same time. If you can learn as much as you teach, I think it’s marvellous.

It’s stimulating to be among other artists?

Yes, some of my life I had to get other jobs in commerce but most artists do. Certainly in my generation because other jobs weren’t available in those days. Even Lloyd Rees worked in commerce for a long time. I taught with him at Sydney University. I remember him saying the first day that I started teaching with him. He looked at me seriously and he said, ‘Guy if you have ever worked in commerce as I know you have, and as indeed I have in the past, there will come a time as a teacher when you may think you’re not earning your money’. He said, ‘don’t let it worry you’. Then he went on to say that a lot of the teaching takes place in other activities, when you’re talking to students. You know, you don’t have to be teaching. Teaching is about talking to people and discussing ideas, and I think that is what he was talking about. Because Lloyd was that sort of bloke. He was a people person. He welcomed talking to people.

I wouldn’t have been teaching without Lloyd. I bumped into him going home on the bus one night and he asked me would I like to come and help him teach the architecture students. I think he was teaching them drawing. And I was working with an advertising agency at the time, and I thought, hell, it’s a lot better than that.

What were you doing at the ad agency?

A non creative job. I deliberately asked for a non creative job. I’d been away from Australia for eight years. And when I came home I did not want to get into commercial art because it makes you slick and makes you think in a particular way. Worrying about other people’s problems and trying to satisfy the client instead of trying to satisfy yourself. (He had an organising job, organising ads for Nestle and Victa mowers among other things.) I think I’ve probably tried to forget them, but I remember those two. (Guy said he commissioned photographers and artists to do work, and was responsible for everything being done properly. It was a visual job, but not a creative one.) I stayed there for a few years until I started teaching with Lloyd.

In your life, have you done a lot of travel?

I’ve been to Europe a few times and I lived in London for eight years and did a lot of travel while I was there. I hadn’t travelled much in Australia. I’d been to New Guinea of course. And I hitchhiked around Australia with a friend.

David Attenborough had once bought one of Guy’s paintings and I asked if he had ever been in touch with Attenborough again.

Oh yes, I have. The last time was because I saw an interview Andrew Denton. Denton did the interview in [Attenborough’s] lounge room and there was my painting on the wall.

That was probably the time I rang Attenborough over something and asked him how he was going on, and he said, ‘oh, not too bad, not too bad, it is getting a little more difficult to climb trees’. He must have been 80 then. It’s about having a passion and curiosity.

I asked a question about whether art can be a good thing for people when they retire (don’t forget that my story angle was about how art can keep you young). Guy snorted!

Retirement is a stupid bloody word. People think that means they sit on their backsides and don’t do anything. That’s probably the first time in their lives when they have the opportunity to do what they want to do. The word retirement ought to be banned. I refuse to retire.

They say that to me. They say that to every artist. Are you still painting? As though it’s something you can drop. Of course I am, I mean what would I do? It keeps me off the streets.

Can art have a role in people’s lives after work?

I guess it can, but they have to be interested enough to want to do it. And that’s the only problem. I remember talking to somebody once who was CEO of a major international company and he said, ‘oh gee, you’re lucky being a painter. Never mind, when I retire I’m going to learn the flute or the oboe or something’. And I thought, ‘well that would be a great idea, but you can’t leave it too long because you need to start that earlier’. But certainly you don’t have to make art if you don’t want to. But you can learn about art. You can go to plenty of lectures. But people do other things. I’m sure they go to lectures about theatre or science or music.

Your S.H. Ervin exhibition is called Guy Warren at 95: Genesis of a Painter. It includes works from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as contemporary works.

He (Barry Pearce) said I can see for the first time where you’ve come from, and he meant not only the images but the ideas as well. And that was a nice thing to say. The other thing that happens is  the concept frequently remains the same but you might try it in a different way, so the envelope might change but the contents are clearly related, and that’s something people might see in this show.

What are the most recent things in the show?

Things I showed with Olsen Irwin last year. An odd collection of paintings and I called them Dust of Memory because that’s what they were. But they’re all new paintings.

Barry Pearce sourced all the older works from Guy’s studio. Some of the pictures were still there, and I noticed that one of them had a post-it note stuck to it, saying ‘Guy to clean’. I asked Guy if the older works had required conservation or anything.

I’ve refurbished some of them but not all and I refuse to have them reframed. If they’re old works then maybe they should be seen in their old frames.

Guy said the journalist Scott Bevan was doing an interview with him to be screened in the gallery at the exhibition.

He did an interview with me years ago, well when I was 90, I think. Five years ago. My god!

 

Posted by Elizabeth Fortescue, April 9, 2020