Blurry portraits animate the walls of the Ikon Gallery. The canvases by Sidney Nolan denote a touch of melancholia blended into a surreal background. At first sight, the individuals depicted appear as if they are staring out of a dreamlike image. This is down to the spray painting technique which the artist uses to draw circular halos of clouds. These works originate from the 1980s when Nolan returned to the commercial art he used to make when he first started out as an artist. The faces on the canvases are all from Nolan’s close circle – his brother, a close friend Benjamin Britten, Francis Bacon, and Australian artist Brett Whiteley.
Each painting shares the same minimal palette of one or two opaque shades. The contour of the face, the eyes, the mouth and some details from the bust are clearly delimited by a line of spray-paint, the remainder being blurred out. The stronger the colours, the less details appear. This is apparent in the succession of red, green and blue which surrounds the bright pink face of what is perhaps a lady, or in the vivid pink, blue and green highlights of one of the man’s face. The colours and the sparse lines which delineate the faces are one of the few indications given by the artist of his subject’s gender, his mood, and their relationship.
Nolan’s numerous travels in Europe, Asia and Africa materialize, I would say, in his paintings mainly through the use of colours but also through the rough brushstrokes which are reminiscent of cave-like paintings. The last artworks of the exhibition strongly demonstrate the artist’s fondness for tracing bold strokes across a monochromatic background. Nolan always felt deeply connected to the history of his home country, Australia, and vigorously supported the outcasts, notably Ned Kelly (not depicted here), Australia’s renowned bushranger. This was probably part of the process of his self-acknowledgement as persona non grata. A sense of urgency prevails in all of the paintings shown here, which I perceive in the way the spray is swiftly and concisely applied onto the surface of the canvas.
The exhibition at Ikon focuses on a very small part of Nolan’s body of work and anyone inclined to visit the gallery should, I believe, first muster facts and stories about the artist to better grasp the influences and correlations between himself and his birth country. The use of spray-paint is certainly unusual and Nolan didn’t just experiment with it, he used it to create and express his values and beliefs. It changes the way I approached the paintings and the subject matter in an unclear yet powerful way.
Sidney Nolan at Ikon Gallery (10 June – 3 September 2017)