Artist Interview: Tony Clark - Art Collector

9 February 2011

With subjects ranging from Neanderthals to reclining Romans, the lines between art and history blur in Tony Clark’s vivid landscape paintings. He talks to Australian Art Collector ahead of the opening of his latest exhibition, Shakespeare, about how he views history itself as resource and a "subject like still life is a subject".

Tony Clark, two sections from Clark’s Myriorama with Painter and Poet, 2011. Acrylic and permanent marker on canvas, 2 parts, each panel 41 x 31cm. Courtesy: the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

It seems, over the years, that you have maintained a stringent mission to reinvent the notion of landscape painting. Would you agree?

To many artists of my generation, Australian landscape painting in the late 1970s represented everything we disliked. We thought art should be urban, conceptual and self-critical. All I could see were a bunch of middle aged bores, out in the bush sloshing away ... then it dawned on me that there were more interesting things one could do with landscape painting as a genre.

And because pop and conceptual art were the strongest influences on me at that time I started thinking about landscape painting in that way, especially about its history as a paradigm of the picturesque.

Add to that a bit of punk rock. And I've stayed with it, although now I think that being middle aged and boring out in the bush is absolutely marvelous.

There have, of course, been some major shifts in what I see as an overarching project, from the early Sacro Idyllic Landscape series, to the Chinoiserie Landscape works and the ongoing Clark’s Myriorama - how would you define the differences in each series and what are the crossovers?

Looking back now, they all seem more like part of the same thing. You start with the premise that the landscape is more an idea than an optical phenomenon, that it is cultural more than natural.

Because the cultural aspect of landscape seemed to have been ignored, as a young artist I was inclined to stress its cultural and artificial aspects to the point that I wasn’t very interested in the natural ones.

When I started doing the
Chinoiseries, in 1987, it was a way of moving away from the ambiguous romanticism of Clark’s Myriorama, the endless landscape I’d begun in 1985 and am still working on now.

Right: Tony Clark, Half-Section from Clark’s Myriorama with Macbeth and the Three Witches, 2011. Acrylic and permanent marker on canvas, 183.5 x 69cm. Courtesy: the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Your 2006 show, Pseudotapeten, at the Ruhrland Museum in Essen, Germany entailed a large degree of installation. What did that entail and what inspired it?

When Rafael von Uslar and Ulrike Stottrop asked me to do something at the Natural History Museum in Essen it was understood, if never explicitly stated, that my work would interact with the collection in some way.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the director Frau Stottrop had already organised the collection into a very interesting exhibition of her own,
Terra Cognita, emphasising the conceptual and narrative aspects of natural history.

So my work there built on that show in a way and introduced a bit of grit in the form of a
Creationist Landscape, and a religious Landscape with St. Hilda and Ammonites (which were thought to be snakes that the Saint had turned to stone).

It also gave me the opportunity to do a portrait of Darwin with a Neanderthal, and the extremely tall
Neanderthaler Landscape which was shown in the Wilderness exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last year.

Tony Clark, Section from Clark’s Myriorama with Timon of Athens, 2011. Acrylic and permanent marker on canvas, 61 x 46cm. Courtesy: the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

You once commented on the “shock of the old” and that fascination seems to continue. It’s largely unusual for an Australian artist of your generation. Is that what inspired your move to Europe?

Yes, I agree that it’s unusual, my first painting show in 1982 took European cultural history as its ostensible subject and nothing much has changed. I was born in Canberra but much of my childhood and adolescence were spent in Rome, and it’s fair to say that I was overwhelmed by the history when I arrived.

But I became an artist back in Australia, and the history all looked different from here, and I think of myself as an Australian artist working from an Australian perspective whether I like it or not.

What may be unusual is that I see that history as neither friend nor foe, but as a resource, a subject like still life is a subject.

Tony Clark, Two Half-Sections from Clark’s Myriorama with Timon of Athens and Three Characters, 2011. Acrylic and permanent marker on canvas, 2 parts, each panel 183.5 x 69cm. Courtesy: the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Indeed, the new show – which opens at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery this month – is titled Shakespeare. How literally does the title relate to the work?

The new work takes its themes from Shakespeare, characters, scenes from the plays. I’ve always been very wary about the human figure in my work or narrative. I had been painting for 20 years before I put any figures in at all; it was always very important to me that there not be a human presence in my landscapes, for example.

But slowly I began to think it was okay to have figures in if they had, so to speak, the right credentials. Which in my case means that they are decorative or historical or generic or better still all three. I suppose at the back of my mind there is the idea that Shakespeare is to literature what the Greek temple is to architecture and it’s been quite good to go where angels fear to tread sometimes.

I have to ask - what inspired a move from Anna Schwartz Gallery to Murray White Room?

I’ll answer in my favourite way: with a cliché that happens to be true. ‘It was time to move on.’

Ashley Crawford

Shakespeare opens at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery on Thursday 10 February 2011 and continues to 5 March 2011.

Share this page: