NAMES TO CONJURE WITH
Reviewing THE FELLOWSHIP OF COLIN MCCAHON, TOSS WOLLASTON AND JOHN & ANNA CASELBERG @ Brett McDowell Gallery
by David Graveney
One reviewer has already labeled this show ‘art royalty’ [sic] and they are certainly right. Anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of the trajectory of modernist painting in our country will be familiar with the work of at least three of the artists gathered in this modest exhibition. As the title of this show implies, the curation aims to celebrate the working relationship and an ensuing solidarity that developed between members of the group. There are some twelve works: a sketch, a suite of lithographically illustrated poems, paintings, and a further suite of handwritten poems. What interested me as a viewer is not so much the individual merits of each work (all are competent works by artists who are working at the higher end of the scale of their abilities) but the interplay of influence between each of the artists. There is no shortage of published literature available detailing this. Woollaston as the grand visionary of a tradition inherited from and informed by German Expressionism, with McCahon as his lieutenant in the realizing and continuation of this vision. John Caselberg’s poetry derives too from the same influence, and lines from which can be found in many of McCahon’s paintings.
(Interested readers should seek out Peter Simpson’s excellent Answering Hark for an illustrated and
detailed explication of their work together.) Caselberg’s wife, Anna, daughter of Woollaston and student of McCahon, contributes the majority of paintings to this exhibition, and it is perhaps in these works where the influence of the two aforementioned coalesces. These works (all dating from the early 90s) also show an abiding affinity (mimicry?) of Doris Lusk’s landscapes, herself a peripheral member of this group and painter influenced by modernism and later Cubism. There are the heavy impasto skies, the architectonic lands cape reliefs, the same palate of clay reds and light greens, flinty blues and grays associated with 1930s-40s landscape painting. I was quickly admonished by a senior curator and art historian when I referred to these works as examples of ‘very good Sunday painting.’ They were very quick to point out the inherent skill in the works. They seemed to miss my point. My gripe was not with the technique, but the fact these works don’t really do anything to develop on a tradition realized sixty years prior to their making. Perhaps it’s a little off complaining about such a trivial detail when the history of western art is built on such acts of homage, by making again.