My first solo exhibition was at the Robin Gibson Gallery in Paddington, an inner eastern suburb of Sydney, in 1981. I was 29 years old and barely out of Art School. At Art school I had been making paintings that drew from ideas of formal abstraction. They were carefully organised shapes that often had ‘hard edges’ so I used a lot of masking tape. Colour and composition were my main concern with these flat acrylic canvases.
When I left Art school I decided to make a fresh start and try to incorporate the ideas I had learned from ‘Formalism’ into new, more individualised works. I also decided that it was time to return to a form of Realism in my subject matter. The question was ‘How can Abstraction and Realism be combined to make a satisfying picture?’ As a young and fairly inexperienced painter I knew it would be a matter of trial and error but I wanted to have an exhibition in a good gallery so I knew I would need something to hold the show together, so that would have to be the subject. I chose cars, or more specifically abandoned or wrecked cars and trucks that I could photograph and translate into painted images. These images, like my abstract shapes would formalised, not naturalistic. I wanted to compose freely and not be held to unnecessary clutter or the distractions of reality.
The reasons why I chose cars as a theme were mostly historical from my own formative years. As a small boy I played on the wreck of an old 1940’s truck that had been dumped in the paddock behind our house on the western outskirts of Sydney. It was an object that fired my young boyhood imagination. It was a stagecoach, a spaceship, a cop car etc., and the neighbourhood kids would clamour all over it with me as we re-enacted our favourite television shows from the late 50’s and became the characters. Later, as a teenager I used to go to the speedways and watch the ‘Demolition Darby’ where old cars would crash into each other and try to be the last car running. I also went through a Hot Rod fad about that time. I was a very young car nerd who knew most makes and models but it was the old cars, the ones that were made before I was born that captured my imagination and attention.
The cars and trucks of the 30’s to 1950’s also had a Romanticism about them in the shapes and designs of the bodywork. Sometimes they looked like aircraft, sometimes they looked like fast sleek animals. They always seemed to have interesting and often organic lines. They often had faces and expression in the configuration of the headlights and grille. These things offered me the possibility of depicting machines but suggesting an invented narrative, especially when they were the actual ruins of the dream machine, not the showroom glamorous fantasy object. They had a charisma and a poignancy about them as well as an anthropomorphic presence. I stacked them into Modernist grids. I made 17th Century altarpieces and crucifixion scenes in the manner of the Baroque painters I admired. I made them actors in my homages to painters like American painter Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. I would haunt wrecking yards and farms for old abandoned vehicles and make 35mm slides of them for my resource library. Colour and composition were very important to me so the paintings retained a lot of the Formalist abstract ideas of my recent student works.
I was lucky enough to get a photograph and a very favourable mention of one of my works, Busends, in the Sydney morning Herald when I entered the City Heritage competition in 1980 which was the year after I finished art school. I then received several letters from some very well-known galleries in Sydney asking if I might be interested in bringing a selection of work in to show them. By that time I had already secured a show at the Robin Gibson Gallery in Paddington and was preparing a number of car, truck and bus paintings for it. This show was held in April 1981 and was favourably reviewed with photographs in both Sydney broadsheets when it opened. This was then followed by another show in Melbourne that year. I thought I had made it. This was what I was going to do for the rest of my life and I could take it where I wanted to. I was wrong.
Early success was good for me but it had its drawbacks. I felt that I hadn’t explored painting enough. There was so much more I had to learn, so many more things to figure out how to paint. I switched from acrylic to oil. I started to paint buildings, streets and rural landscape. I tried portraits, water images, use of text in paintings. I even made instillations and sculpture. I also taught myself watercolour. Robin Gibson just wanted more cars and I didn’t want to be Sydney’s Car Painter so I switched galleries and went to the Hogarth Gallery shortly before it switched its whole operation to Aboriginal Art. I went from one gallery to the next. Most of them closed after my shows. It was a difficult time in the 90’s. All of these things weakened my position as a Sydney commercial gallery artist, but the thing that really hampered me most was that I was offered teaching at what was then Nepean CAE Art School, shortly to become The University of Western Sydney. I was suddenly and unexpectedly an academic. I was able to support my family and I continued to paint and exhibit my work but at a much slower pace and without the momentum that only a full time artist can have.
These days I concentrate on landscape. I occasionally make a body of work that has cars in it. There was a show called The Landscape Show that I was invited into at the Penrith Regional Gallery in 2004 where I showed a series of House and Car paintings. I curated and exhibited in a show called M4 at the UWS in 2006 which was based on the idea of the daily commute along the freeway from home to university. I was also invited into an exhibition called Suburban Noir at the museum Of Sydney in 2013 where I made around 8 narrative paintings based on NSW Police crime scene photographs. I still love their forms and what they say about our times, people’s aspirations and desires. They are an important part of our environment and our landscape. I will probably make more car paintings in some form in the future, when the time seems right.