Geoffrey de Groen: coloured light
Posted: 18 Feb 2012 | By: Joseph Brennan
In his 1999 paper ‘Art and the Brain’, Semir Zeki — Professor of Neuroesthetics (a relatively new field of scientific study that examines the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of works of art) at University College London — argued that the general functions of art and our visual brain are the same. That is, they both “search for the constant, lasting, essential and enduring features of objects, surfaces, faces, situations and so on”.
Key to both is the acquisition of knowledge about a particular object or condition represented (whether in the world at large or on a canvas) by an external and familiar object. Therefore, he argued, to achieve this end an artist must “be selective and invest his work with attributes that are essential, discarding much that is superfluous”. In other words, an artist must choose his imagery carefully so as to not confuse.
What is remarkable about the abstract works of painter Geoffrey de Groen is that they are rich in expression and meaning, despite their celebration of ambiguity and lack of an obvious referent (his cushion series and recent black and white works being notable exceptions). In the words of National Museum of Australia Director Andrew Sayers, in his opening address for de Groen’s July exhibition at Australian National University’s Drill Hall Gallery, “There are ambiguities of shape, of tone, of surface, of recession and of form. As we apply reason to our investigation of these pictures … they become elusive and playful. Everything shifts, collapses, needs to be rebuilt.”
In the case of de Groen, a master of subtlety, meaning is not made by reference to familiar imagery, but rather by the interplay of colour and shifts in tone and scale. Even without an obvious subject matter, a wealth of meaning exists in his works’ shifting states of ambiguity. In Untitled (2001/03), for example, colours are both solid and translucent; and forms both dependable and transient. To achieve such a smooth, unblemished result, de Groen applies paint wet-on-wet as thinly as possible, feathering his works into shape with hardly any paint on his brush.
Born 1938 in Brisbane, de Groen grew up in Sydney. He studied at the Julian Ashton Art School and North and East Sydney Technical Colleges (the latter now the National Art School). In the late sixties he travelled abroad, teaching and exhibiting in England, France and Canada. He returned in the early seventies, lecturing in fine art and writing for publications that included The Canberra Times. During this time, he recorded a series of interviews with twenty-six prominent Australian artists that is now held in the National Library of Australia’s oral history collection and which was published in his 1975 Conversations with Australian Artists. In 1984, he published Some Other Dream: The Artist, the Artworld and the Expatriate (which included conversations with Janet Alderson, Robert Hughes and Clement Meadmore among others). He continued to teach until 1985, thereafter devoting himself to painting full time.
He moved to Taralga, in regional NSW, in 1992, where he set up a studio and remains today. The move ushered in a formidable period in his career. Of note are two exhibitions (in 1999 and 2009) at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery that featured works of this period, the latter titled Made in Taralga. In 2000, he received a Hesketh & New England Regional Art Museum overseas fellowship. In 2003, New England Art Museum mounted an exhibition with de Groen works from its permanent collection. His July exhibition at ANU’s Drill Hall Gallery, Images from the Cage of Time, was curated by Wally Caruana. When describing the exhibition, Caruana wrote of the importance of setting to recent de Groen works, which, although rarely referencing landscape, “encompass a perspective born of the experience of living atop the Great Dividing Range”.
Much like the works themselves, de Groen’s process is a playful, back and forth rhythm. He’ll work on several paintings in the one day, moving them about his studio to watch them develop in different light. It’s in this way that his works breathe, their colours layered on the canvas wet-on-wet and in such a way so as to avoid any visible brush marks that might obscure the connection between viewer and the meaning beneath. Art critic Sebastian Smee, who described de Groen’s paintings as “among the very best things in recent Australian art”, also saw life in his works. “In de Groen’s best works,” he wrote, “you can sense a pulse or heartbeat … [that] changes over time and according to different lights, different moods, different times of day … [It] has its own mysterious, challenging life.”
The National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of NSW, National Gallery of Victoria and Queensland Art Gallery all have de Groen works in their collections. He is represented in Sydney by Annandale Galleries, in Melbourne by Charles Nodrum Gallery and in Brisbane by Heiser Gallery.
Images from top:
Geoffrey de Groen, Untitled, 2001/03, oil on canvas on board, 112 x 112cm. Courtesy the artist and Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne.
Geoffrey de Groen, Since, 2001/02, oil on canvas, 92 x 122cm. Courtesy the artist and Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne.
Geoffrey de Groen, November 17, 2007, oil on canvas, 75.2 x 88.2cm. Courtesy the artist and Heiser Gallery, Brisbane.\
Geoffrey de Groen, July 16, 2009, acrylic and gouache on canvas, 65.2 x 91.7cm. Courtesy the artist and Heiser Gallery, Brisbane.
Geoffrey de Groen, May 7, 2008, acrylic and gouache on canvas, 46.1 x 53cm. Courtesy the artist and Heiser Gallery, Brisbane.
Click here for further information on Heiser Gallery .