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Beyond the screen of sight

Throughout his long life, James Gleeson has been intrigued by the processes of change. From the inconstancy of surfaces to life’s oscillation between ripeness and decay, his work is filled with examples of the tension existing between established shapes and new realities struggling to be born. For more than 60 years, Gleeson’s palette, composition and scale have evolved. But his quest is the same: to see reality undiminished by logic and the restrictions of our senses. Gleeson’s creations invite us to look at the world in a different way, and likewise be transported ‘beyond the screen of sight’.

The exhibition Beyond the Screen of Sight, at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra until 13 June, features paintings, sketchbooks, collages and drawings. Quotes from Gleeson about the nature of his work and examples of his poetry are interspersed throughout. The retrospective is arranged in chronological order, allowing us to trace a sequence of ideas and techniques that are continually tested, discarded and discovered anew. The abiding impressions are of the wealth of material ploughed into Gleeson’s endeavours and the miraculous metamorphosis into his own style.

An early painting displays a city in miniature on a mighty tongue. The influence of Dali is obvious—the tongue rises from a plain of muted earthy colour, offers up the city and then trails off into the blue yonder. The focal point is the city, drawn in thin black lines, nestling on the bubblegum-pink tongue.  A billboard in profile looks down upon the city, masking a face that is framed by long strands of hair. It is a wasteland.

The Agony in the Garden (1948) is another early gem. It addresses ‘the agony of accepting how little we know of ourselves and the conflict brought about by the restrictions of a cruel world’. A conglomeration of machinery is operating in an overgrown Eden. Paired faces, proximate and estranged, are embedded into the overall structure. It is a complex vision seething with the malevolent energy of the furnace and the jungle.

In 1957 Gleeson took a lengthy sabbatical, working as an art critic, curator and lecturer, and also travelling. In his spare time he experimented with collage and pen-and-ink, producing only an occasional painting. By the time he returned to full-time painting in 1983, Gleeson was almost 70. Following the trail of his work, we have come to appreciate his love of literature, the word games in his titles, his promiscuous attention to all forms of life. What awaits is still a shock

The new canvases are physically imposing. Over three metres wide, with a height nudging two metres, they envelop the viewer. Like the forms they present emerging from chaos, the paintings have also ventured from the obscure well of birth and rebirth into the bright world of our gaze. Watery blues grapple with bleached whites, an ambivalent red haze accompanies bald patches of black, arrays of yellow recur. Until this point, Gleeson’s work has concerned itself with structure. Now he leaps into an elemental realm.

Gleeson’s mature paintings descend like a flock. One striking example is The Arrival of Implacable Gifts (1985). Its seashore and the sky are a tangle of muddy white, virtually interchangeable. The enmeshed objects are part of what surrounds and yet distinct. Are they treasure or debris? Gleeson himself makes an appearance, a bemused onlooker with an avuncular demeanour.

Beyond the Screen of Sight manages to capture all the horror and beauty, mystery and history that lives in James Gleeson’s work. It is a provoker of subsequent reflection and a fitting tribute to Gleeson’s persistent curiosity and the longevity of his creative vision. 

Steve Gome is a freelance writer and actor.



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