Guy Grey-Smith: Art as Life

Oil and beeswax emulsion on gauze on composition board, signed and dated lower right: G Grey Smith / (illeg.), 121 x 180.5 cm

A retrospective of a major artist is no small event and in this town, the Art Gallery of WA’s 2014 retrospective on Guy Grey-Smith, ‘Art as Life’, is a much bigger deal than usual. We couldn’t help it; all of the editors at Regime Books were excited, and on many fronts. Peter Jeffery OAM has a personal connection with Grey-Smith. He was a relative by marriage, and he’s had the privilege of watching Guy paint (and put his boot through the odd canvas, as well). Peter saw firsthand Guy’s successes and frustrations, all the euphoric thrills and sudden changes in fortune that go hand-in-hand with art practice here or anywhere. Importantly as practitioners of other arts, Guy Grey-Smith and his wife Helen Grey-Smith stand out as peerless role models in the constant struggle to make worthy art in this part of the world. They were independent, but always open to the best influences, whether from the forefront of European art or from the colours and textures of our Asian neighbours. Not only did Guy and Helen look to the world outside for inspiration, and indeed they became ‘world class’ in their practice, but they never lost their point of origin. Always, they were interpreting life as we know it here in Western Australia.

More than all this, though, Guy Grey-Smith’s work is beautiful, and full of the colour and light that is unique to our corner of the continent.

Regime Books sat down with the retrospective’s curator, the Art Gallery of WA’s Historical Curator, Melissa Harpley, to discuss the exhibition.

When and how is a retrospective decided and of course, why this one, of Guy Grey-Smith?

The gallery in putting together its programmes is mindful of trying to give local, but also visiting audiences, a range of experiences when they come to the gallery, so we develop a programme that looks across what we might present in terms of focus shows from our own collection, exhibitions that we might bring in externally, and shows we might develop ourselves, and certainly the focus on retrospectives of Western Australian artists has been a key part of that planning for many years now. The gallery has a strong history of presenting retrospectives of West Australian artists from Howard Taylor and Bob Juniper through to Kate O’Connor and A.B Webb, but also indigenous artists like Rover Thomas and Paddy Bedford. And so we regularly look at the history of WA art practice and who might be appropriate for a retrospective and certainly Guy Grey-Smith had been on my agenda as somebody who was long overdue for a very serious look, in a very thorough way. We agreed that Guy was the appropriate next subject for the gallery’s programme of retrospectives and anything like a retrospective requires quite a lot of lead time. So the decision to focus on an individual can be taken and then it will be a number of years to fruition once all the research has been put in place, loans negotiated.

We are very interested in Guy Grey-Smith’s role in WA art history. He was famously one of the founders of the Perth Group, and credited with being one of the first modernists here. Can you tell us about his place in WA, and his importance?

In terms of West Australian artists’ connection with modernism, I think really the case needs to be made for Elise Blumann as the first artist who comes to WA with direct experience of modernism, certainly through her training in Germany and that’s an approach that she carried with her throughout her career as an artist working in WA. She was received variously by local audiences, some responded and some didn’t know what the heck they were looking at in her case. But she certainly stayed with that as a model of working. There were some other artists actually in WA who had I think an awareness of modernism, but it was a very filtered exposure. They were trained in Sydney or other Australian cities, so really it was a bit of a third hand awareness and reception. Guy, probably along with Howard and Bob Juniper, was one of the first West Australians who had some training out of Australia and had a direct connection to modernism. Guy in particular, because he didn’t come from a long childhood interest in art commitment, but actually came to art as an adult, after his career as a pilot. He came to it in an unmediated way and so he had a very direct connection to British modernism, and that was exposure as an Australian unfiltered by an Australian art education. In some ways he’s tabula rasa, a kind of fresh page and he encounters modernism a little through his reading as a POW of books that Helen’s sending him, also from books available from the Red Cross. And then when he goes to the sanatorium, to Midhurst, he’s lucky enough to encounter Adrian Hill who’s there as an art therapist, who has an understanding of European post-Impressionism which he communicates to Guy and the other patients. But from that, Guy goes to the Chelsea School of Art and again has that direct experience from training under people like Henry Moore, and he’s looking directly at works by Paul and John Nash, Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, and Piper and Moore and Hepworth and so I think he takes that on board in a very direct manner and that then continues his practice and his career from that point. His concerns were quite different from a lot of other Australian artists who approached modernism through a different kind of lens or a different filter. I think that’s what makes his work different and quite engaging. Also, back in WA he maintained these links, to European art and artists, and the house was always full of current European and British publications.

Another area of interest is the divide between the Eastern States. Gradually both Guy and Helen Grey-Smith must have been making an impact on the East. And of course, I grew up in an era when we in WA often felt neglected by the East.

I think there are other strengths in that as well. It’s the case with the visual arts, but certainly in writing. The writers that WA produced through that isolated period have been quite extraordinary standout individuals as well. But both Guy and Helen had that sense of being masters of their own destiny. Also, they had this generosity of spirit because of the isolation, so their knowledge was always shared and passed on to younger students and artists. There was always a kind of sharing of information and approaches as well, through that period.

Just once, I was in the room with George Haynes, Juniper and Guy and they were all well away!

I can imagine! I think, too, probably the figure of Laurie Thomas was important, although he wasn’t here for that long in those early 50s. And then going east again and becoming an advocate for West Australia having had that direct experience. I think there’s probably a few key individuals like that who are quite important in getting the word out.

So can you tell us how did you become a curator, what went into it?

That’s putting me on the spot, isn’t it? I guess I have a background in art history, so I taught at what was then the Centre for Fine Arts at UWA. As an art historian, I studied at Sydney Uni and then came to WA and to the history of WA art practice if you like. I worked initially through the Centre for Fine Arts; I curated an exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery looking at women modernist artists of the interwar period, people like Portia Bennett and Iris Francis. Now I’m going back a bit. I started curating in that way and then my next show was a retrospective of Audrey Greenhalgh, another Western Australian inter-war but also post-war artist and practitioner. And then when I worked at Fremantle Arts Centre, although I was involved in looking after the review and publishing side I did also do some curatorial work at the Arts Centre there. One thing led to another and I’ve been here at the Art Gallery of WA for just under twelve years. It’s gone very fast.

One of my dearest friends is Lou Klepac, so you can see this is totally inscribed in my head from way back. How many Grey-Smith’s are right now on permanent display, how many are in store, and how does the public get access to them? Is it only when you yourself nominate, then they will appear? Could they be neglected and forgotten? Accidentally, of course!

I think one of the challenges for any art museum like us is how you work with your collection. I think if you’re a big museum like the national gallery of London you’ve got a fabulous collection and you can tell a seamless history of Western art, European art. For us, our collection has many fantastic strengths, but there are also some gaps, so we spend a lot of time talking about how we’re actually going to display the collection really for the best outcome for audiences. So, for a number of years at the Gallery, we’ve showed the collection thematically; we had themes like Story and Home and Body and so on. With the new director we shifted that model to a chronological hang, so we start in the Centenary Galleries with very late 18th century right through to the present day, and interestingly, in making the shift to that chronology and also the integration of Western Australian, Australian and international art together enabled us to rethink the collection. That has meant there are a lot more Western Australian works on show as part of that mix and that story, to make sure that West Australians are there as part of that bigger narrative. So there are more works by Guy on display since we’ve made that shift a few years ago than before. We start with the 1920s to 1960s section with Midhurst (1945) which is one of the very early paintings. Then the fabulous Torbay (1957) is on display. We’ve had Horseshoe Range (1958-61), that’s upstairs at the moment, then 60s works as well. Actual numbers, I don’t have at my fingertips, but the numbers vary depending on the hang, but there’s certainly a good number.

I was telling Nathan the sheer delight of when I went over into the old part of the building probably at the Centenary and saw a beautiful Grey-Smith which was a like jazz poster. It was delicious. I never thought that he had that sort of playfulness and that love of music in that way.

Oh, The Quartet. Yes.

So how far did you have to go to get the retrospective together? It’s probably still coming together now. How widely are his works scattered?

Well, they’re in most of the State galleries across the country. Certainly, in the national Gallery in Canberra. For me, thankfully, he’s been much loved locally for decades, so there are fantastic local holdings of the work. Guy was very smart in the 60s, the late 60s and 70s. He entered his works in a number of art prizes across the country, so he was quite a good advocate for his work, and for making it seen and that is how it was acquired by some of those interstate collections. There were also some happy accidents. When Nugget Combs commissioned Helen for the Reserve Bank curtains, he also acquired some of Guy’s paintings at that point because he was seeing them. I was very interested that all the State collections and some of the bigger regional collections are involved, and he was certainly very much a national figure in the 60s and 70s. As an aside, I’m quite interested in looking a little bit more at how that has fallen away in the history. But that’s a separate project.

He was certainly independent in his art practice, as well. He stridently exhibited his own work and shied away from representation by the big commercial galleries.

He did, and some of that comes back again to that British take on modernism and the kind of independence that’s there in the writing and even in some of the late British post-Impressionist artists like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. They talk about the importance of independence, and Eric Newton, who Guy read when he was a POW, talks quite a lot about the independence of the artist. I think that that obviously struck a chord with him. He was receptive to hearing it, but that really struck a chord in that this independence then stayed with him.

We’re certainly interested in some of his methods, such as the beeswax emulsion, which to me was symbolic of that independence.

You’ve nailed it absolutely and again that is one of the things that I’m hoping I can get across to audiences quite strongly; to me it’s very clear that – I’m not going to say that he’s not an intellectual painter because I think Guy was a very, very considered man – but it’s so physical. Particularly, when he finds that confidence in the very end of the 50s and the use of the palette knife starts. It’s a whole body movement. It’s not the kind of controlled brush mark with him, you can see that there’s a very physical activity that’s engaged. The scale of the work increases, so again it’s a much more physical engagement for Guy. I think the mixing of the pigments and the beeswax is all part of that. Making ceramics, also. Again, that’s the hands in the clay. It’s physical. Even structures around the house. He tried to be self-sufficient with even his own garden, and the goats.

He wasn’t racing off to the local art supply shop; he was making his own mediums from what he had lying about the place.

Absolutely. And I think that the other part that is so important with an understanding of the physicality is that there was a compulsion to travel across the landscape. I think the constant travelling to the Pilbara and the South West was partly a hangover from the kind of childhood travels into the south west, but it’s also the total body engagement. Being in the land; then he could bring that back and translate it into the painting.

Slightly offbeat, but you might be able to shed some light. At one stage Gray Smith the Melbournian was confused with Guy. How did that play out? And was there any stylistic resemblance?

I have heard of that controversy and it’s not something that I’ve looked into closely for this retrospective. My interest is much more actually the show itself. I’m not really sure what the bottom line was there, in terms of whether there was conscious deception or how that actually played out. People were confused certainly. Andrew Gaynor has probably covered it in the book a bit, I think, too.

Earlier exhibitions were probably thematic or chronological and in a way you’ve begun to expand on that and tell us that the chronological method is moving in but it’s also cross-referenced between international trends and local trends. Is there any affinity between the two with Guy’s work? Some people can do a show almost as a personality, or as a celebrity, or as an icon. On the other hand other people can be scrupulous about detail.

With Guy I’m probably in the latter camp. I have opted for chronological hang of the work and I think that’s important because people need to encounter the early work in the late 40s and 50s because that was a period of such experimentation for him. I want people to see him trying Cezanne, trying Matisse, trying Van Gogh, trying all those artists and trying to make sense of how you might paint the West Australian landscape and then because for Guy I think his practice was about pushing himself, that determines the chronological hang. People need to see how that unfolds in his practice. What I have done, because there is repetition of landscapes in particular places, as the travels come backwards and forwards, I’ve designed the exhibition so that you can stand in particular places and make a reference across time. So you can see 1960 Bunker Bay and 1965 Bunker Bay and actually see what’s changed, what he’s distilling and what he’s working with across that time. There is a little bit of thematic, I suppose. For the early seventies, I have actually grouped the South West landscapes together and the Pilbara together because visually that makes a lot more sense. It’s a little bit of both, but I do think you need the chronology at least at the beginning to understand how he got to that point in the early 60s.

What’s the earliest works you’ve managed to locate?

We do have a few early works; I think the earliest drawing is from 1944. There are early things from that war period. More from the convalescent time than from the POW time. To be honest, because Andrew Gaynor’s work has documented a lot of the POW work so well, I’ve tried to position the exhibition as complementary to that. Many of the POW images are in the book and it’s not such an issue they aren’t in the show. I suspect for Guy, for any artist, you want your mature work represented, the work where you’ve come to some resolution. There is always an issue with some of the early trial pieces. I mean, they’re quite private in a way, just Guy working on his drawing skills, and trying things, so how much do you want to publicly show these versus actually privileging the result of further works?

One thing I can guarantee is that you’ll never read any of the poems of mine that were written at the same age!

There you go! That is one thing you have to do as the curator, is be very mindful because you are in a sense interpreting somebody’s life for a public, so you do need to be aware of what you do show and what you don’t and how you actually translate that.

His reputation, and you even hinted at it a little earlier where you said it did have its highs and lows, and there was a point where you just used to say, ‘George Haynes, Robert Juniper and Guy Grey-Smith’. End of story, world class painters and so on. But of course I think there was a down period and there was a push forward again, and obviously the Andrew Gaynor book helped a fair bit. For you are there different Guy Grey-Smiths? In other words, take that notion of physicality on the one hand against that take say the notion of a certain sort of modernist intellectualism, so you’d be looking at the Fauves and de Staël. Can you construct different Grey-Smiths?

I think you can and I think certainly visitors to exhibitions also take different things from shows. Some particular works will speak more strongly to some visitors than to others. So, in some ways it is out of your hands. Certainly, putting together a show like this, I try to think of different ways of interpreting it for people. Those different threads with different strands can be drawn out a little bit, so there’ll be a catalogue that will talk about Guy’s connection to modernism and so on but then a lot of the works will have extended labels in which I’ll talk about his technique in some, subject matter in others, influences in yet others. You try to build in for audiences a range of levels of information. For those interested in the technique, they’ll get that information, those who say, ‘Yeah, I know Mt Augustus,’ or ‘I know Bunker Bay,’ they can get that connection and think about a sense of place in a painting of place. Others who are interested in modernism can get that connection. You try to build in many layers. Ultimately, it is the one individual who is containing all that, so that’s the receptacle if you like.

A hypothetical. You can own a single Grey-Smith. What’s it going to be and why?

(Holds head in hands, makes tortured sounds.) Oh, it would probably have to be mid-60s. (Long pause.) Oh that’s really tough. Just one? Just one?

Some are iconic, aren’t they. I mean the Rottnest is the Rottnest.

Yeah, absolutely. (More tortured silence.) Yeah, it would probably be from around ‘64, I think. I’m not going to say any particular painting.

In case it goes missing!

Yeah, they’ll know exactly where it’s gone! But yeah, I don’t want to devalue any work by singling out one, which is very strong, but on a very personal level my favourite period is the mid-60s. Say, ‘64.

Now, two artists, Guy and Helen. They had distinctive styles and gifts. Do you think their partnership generated a creative flux, or did in some ways Guy overshadow Helen and yet we know that Helen in late career did those beautiful collages and made those very distinctive contributions and also I was interested that you’d done the exhibition with mid-war modernist women. So, was it possible to consider Helen in that area, at that time?

Well, no because the first show was a period that really did stop at about the end of the Second World War, so a little too early for Helen. I think very much it was a creative partnership and I think certainly Helen undoubtedly influenced what Guy did, particularly some of his experimentation with printing and screen printing in the late 50s. The awareness of the technique, the ways of working was from Helen absolutely. There were probably very healthy discussions about art and art practice. I think there were problems with history, and culture and society was very different in the 50s and 60s so I think for Helen as a woman working initially in textiles, that was never in a general sense outside of the partnership valued as highly as a man making big paintings. Even though what she was doing was quite extraordinary for here, and right up there in Australia in producing that kind of material, I think the fact it was textiles worked against fame and status. I think that probably was compounded by the development of the RSI and a little bit of ill health meant that there were dips in Helen’s career also. Again, that worked against the kind of recognition she deserved. And maybe some of those choices, as a designer, and again being absolutely committed to the British model in hand making everything, again worked against her. If she’d thought about production a little differently she could’ve maybe have designed for industry and had a different kind of career. But the commitment was absolutely to the hand made. The career had to take a different path. I think the combination of being female and working in that media just worked against her.

Do you see any tie in with Fairweather? My understanding of Fairweather is that he’s over there, he’s a unique personality and in a way he influences a hell of a lot of Victorian and New South Wales painters. Would Guy have known Fairweather? Would there have been any interplay?

I don’t know if there would’ve been any direct interaction, but certainly there would have been an awareness, because through the 60s in particular there were a number of exhibitions of Australian artists that were taken to the UK but also to the States and Guy was in those the same way Fairweather was. There was certainly an awareness in art publishing, so he’d certainly be aware of Fairweather’s work through reproduction, even if he didn’t see it in the flesh and I think again maybe it’s coming from that broadly British heritage which they shared. They shared an interest in other cultures, as well, and there was a kind of openness that contributed to their art practice and their way of working. The early visits to Ceylon and then to Bali and then the disastrous Cambodian interlude. That’s all about opening up a practice and looking at different ways of image making and different ways of working. So I think that’s a shared interest between the two. And again, with Helen, there’s that interest from her upbringing in India, too. And that background, that openness to a different culture, is brought to the relationship. Her comments about being unable to live long term in England because it was very staid and stratified socially. There was an openness to coming to Australia.

I experienced that through Mary Blair who was Helen’s sister. I think Helen was here earlier than Mary and John Blair and then they went down South, but then there was the interplay and I met the Grandfather and he was Stanes of the Stanes Tea Company of India. So you’re quite right it was a very interesting set of backgrounds.

I think so, yes. That allowed all sorts of influences and interplay.

Guy Grey-Smith: ‘Art As Life’ opens on 21 March 2014 at the Art Gallery of WA.

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