‘Ghosts of the past: The art of Julian Meagher, Sophie Cape, Chris Langlois and Alan Jones’ by Andrew McIlroy
The Eveleigh Railway Workshops, once an imposing symbol of modernity, speaks to another time. The vast old wrought iron roof sheltered and brought together hundreds of workers – hardened men from Sydney’s gritty inner suburbs, newly arrived migrants and indigenous peoples from neighbouring Redfern. Despite the harsh, choking conditions working on heavy steam powered rail machinery presents, those that endured spoke of its heart and soul, of forged friendships that would last a lifetime.
She integrated them into a new way of life, and gave them life! She provided the fabric to be creative; to make a ‘man from a boy’; to give men strength to allow them to give, in turn, to others less fortunate. Her long alleyways, disappearing into a void or mist and the warmth from her forge fires warmed the heart. Whether in depression or war, in an age when ‘Steam was King’, that expendable energy, like white shivery ghost, could do work and turned the wheels of not only steam trains but industry itself … Long live Eveleigh Railway Workshops!
Richard K. Butcher (2004), worked at the Eveleigh site through the mid 20th century. (Source: Luke Bacon, ‘Carriageworks’, Ideas in History, UTS, Sydney 2009).
Initially constructed in 1882 on what was then farmland, the Railway Workshops functioned for over 114 years, employed over 3000 workers at its peak and was the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Railway Workshops were an important part of bringing modernity to Australia, facilitating the explosive urban growth of Sydney. Richard Butcher’s description of the Railway Workshops as the guiding, stirring heart of industry is an accurate analogy given their importance in shaping modern Sydney.
It was the development of the steam locomotive – emblematic of ‘progress’ in the 19th Century – that played a pivotal role in this process of modernization and industrialization.
Modernity, this spirit of fleeting change and constant renewal, came to dominate Western thinking from the beginning of the 19th Century, until the late 1970s. This tumultuous time of change was underpinned by the Enlightenment idea that humans could pull themselves out of a perceived “barbarism” (Kant, 1784) and push forth to establish “objective science” and “universal morality and law” through rational, empirical thought (Habermas, 1983). (Luke Bacon)
And while the now restored Railway Workshops stand as homage to industrialisation, the changing use of the Carriageworks site over time paradoxically reflects a wider shift in society. A shift between the prevalence of the ideas of modernity – an inflexible, immovable belief in progress and the advancement of ‘man’ though this continual rationalization and disconnection with the past on the one hand, and, a reaction to these ideas, post-modernity – where supposed ‘progress’ is seen as often destructive, a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish on the other.
And this changing use, mirroring society’s shift in thinking, has given a home to the crowning event of the Australian art calendar, Sydney Contemporary – drawing a focus on the visual arts as the embodiment of this long-established existential tension.
In ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) Charles Baudelaire captured this idea writing that “Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable”.
Today, Carriageworks is a ‘multi-functional contemporary arts centre’, sweeping down Wilson Street, where the Railway Workshops stood alongside Redfern Station. Here, the Sydney Contemporary art fair annually draws large crowds. Art viewers and young urban families stroll busied corridors and galleries where oil faced workers once passed through clouds of steam like morning fog on their way between great blackened locomotives.
Emerging from this year’s fair, the weary, art-going public could be excused for being a little art-drunk. This year, building on its burgeoning reputation as an avant-garde, blockbuster art event, Sydney Contemporary was noteworthy for the quality and huge number of works on display.
But an unintended consequence of this pinnacle event, occurring in September each year is that it has come to signal the beginning of the end of the Australian art-buying year, putting pressure thereafter on galleries always susceptible to any volatility in the local market.
But some commercial galleries pushing back against this perception, are programming post-fair some of their pre-eminent artists, the most relevant in this context, wrestling with the tensions of living in an increasingly humanist world.
Julian Meagher, ‘The space into Bicheno’ at Olsen Gallery
And in a busy world where value is placed on the transactional, temporary nature of things, Julian Meagher prefers to immerse himself in the reflective, enduring beauty of the natural landscape. Here, the true value of the joy we find in living is found.
The power of Meagher’s ‘pared back’, restrained painting is on full display in his latest series of paintings at Sydney’s Olsen Gallery.
In the accompanying catalogue essay, Naomi Riddle writes,
While each of these paintings depict the east coast of Tasmania, they also sit resolutely in the in-between: they are abstract and realistic; they are landscapes as well as portraits; they are urgent in their desire to catch a single instant, even if they are imbued with stillness and calm. But this series is also about repetition: it is the act of returning and repainting the same coastal scene (rock, water, horizon, cloud & sky). With each new painting Meagher is cutting into, or reshaping, the landscape at a different angle – he is reworking the surface just as his relationship with the coast is being reworked.
And while no doubt these works in the Romanic landscape tradition are deeply personal, imbued with the artists own mood and emotion, they elicit a sense of familiarity and stoicism, providing comfort in an otherwise tempestuous planet.
And referencing the eternal and immutable nature of the moon ‘anchoring’ Meagher’s paintings, Riddle says of these wonderfully nebulous landscapes,
… it is also the mark-making of someone who knows this being-in-the-present is always informed by the pressing of the past, or the incursion of a future need … The moon exists in Meagher’s paintings as a silent witness – a steady orb that does not change, even as the water shifts and moves beneath it. It is the moon, and all the references it carries with it (the changing of the tides, the cycles of time, melancholy, longing, and comfort) that unites this series. It’s the moon’s presence as mute observer that offers the feeling of stability in this painted space, a space which is not here, and not there, but in between.
Meagher works to me represent a painterly move away from the delineated portrayal of landscape, where many artists seek to layer their art – perhaps even over-paint – in order to lend gravitas or validate their message. By offering us ‘less’, Meagher lays before us the beauty, post-storm calm and resilience of the natural world, and in turn a much needed glimpse of our inner safe place. To my mind, Meagher succeeds where many so often fall short. In this way, the artist justifiably stands out as a valued rarity.
Sophie Cape, ‘Ghosts are but shadows’ at Olsen Annex
Sophie Cape assails her canvas with a scarring vigour. The fact they survive the process at all is miraculous. But the result is extraordinary. We are left in no doubt that the artist has invested everything she physically has into the work. To call the making of her art then a process is perhaps not quite right. Cape’s figurative and abstracted work is intuitive and explosive – providing an emotional and physical release for the artist. In this way, each work is refreshingly original and exciting.
Often living and working away from her studio in the desolate, far-off places, Cape is free to cut loose. One senses that the artist feels most at peace in the desert, unshackled. And while Cape’s work is inescapably a portrayal of her inner, individual psyche. But the desert too here plays an important role – providing a strong metaphor through which to view Cape’s works.
Wandering the desert conveys images of when we feel lost, abandoned, confronted with overwhelming vastness, or cast away. To reach the ‘promised land’ – itself a metaphor – and escape the bindings of our material world, we must negotiate an arid, inner landscape of obstacles and mirages. The desert purifies us.
Bringing these internal and external landscapes together in her works, Cape has produced compelling and visually beautiful self-portraits. At their heart, Cape’s work illustrates the post-modernist human desire to struggle against and break free of the past ‘to touch life’.
Chris Langlois, ‘Works on paper’ at Olsen Annex
Chris Langlois does not have to stray far from his home on Sydney’s northern beaches to find inspiration. The diffused light off Avalon Beach and the seemingly unreachable horizon have long inspired the artist’s subdued palette. Langlois often pulls exquisitely rendered clouds across his vast painted landscapes, bringing an emotional depth and complexity to the otherwise still scene.
In Langlois’ paintings however these elements sublimely combine to act as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of humankind, highlighting our vulnerability and anxieties in an uncertain, changing world. Clouds seem capable of dissolving, reforming and land masses hold stubbornly in the frame, immutable.
In this exhibition, Langlois portrays ancient landscapes, with exquisitely drawn ghost gums buttressing against the bare and decaying river plains. Tangled mallee roots impossibly holding the parched earth together. Dry river beds furtively carving their way across parched ground, waiting the drought-busting rains that will someday come. This is the cycle of things. But for the viewer, the landscape reaches out. Reaches out to open the viewer’s mind to the transient nature of many things, and the permanence of some.
Alan Jones, ‘Etchings and Lithographs’ at Olsen Annex (7-23 November 2019)
Artist Alan Jones seems everywhere. And for good reason. The artist and his works are in high demand. He is critically acclaimed and awarded, and a strong presence on the Australian and international art scene. Although I know he prefers to see himself foremost as a loving father and husband.
And it is this emotion that imbues his paintings. Jones’ paintings, gouache sketches and lithographs are autobiographical. But his experiences are shared. These bold landscapes are at once familiar. They portray those places visited by families on a joyful day out, creating memories to nurture them through life’s travails. Places where young lovers hope to learn of each other. Places where grieving individuals looking perhaps can find solace. They are the places we inevitably return to. They are the places that remain, while life passes by. They are places to examine the hopes and anxieties that grip tightly around us, and reclaim our dominant self.
Jones’ imagery is refined. Man-made structures anchor many of his paintings, providing a focal point. Drawing back, the landscape opens up. At first, a smile crosses the face of the viewer. But often something more sinister is going on. Not only in the work itself, but in the mind of the observer. The smile nervously slips away. We are swamped by our thoughts. We are left feeling that we are witnessing something that is lost or could be taken away in a heartbeat.
But Jones’ paintings are not melancholy. They hold a certain duality. We come to appreciate and love those things that matter most to us and outlast.
Duality in art
The old Eveleigh Railway Workshops are a monument to conflicting ideas, times and values. Its austere aged buildings peculiarly today stand as testament to the transient nature of progress, and humankind’s determination to rationalise and shape its future – to embrace continual renewal in the name of modernisation and industrialisation. But their changing purpose over time paradoxically embraces new ways of seeing the world.
Post-Modern thinking embraces contradiction. It references necessity, Modernism. Baudelaire was right. Good art is more often intrinsically contradictory. It is the successful and poignant blending of two parts. For whatever is ‘eternal and immutable’ points to that which is not.
In this, the art Julian Meagher, Sophie Cape, Chris Langlois and Alan Jones succeeds.
- Julian Meagher, The space into Bicheno at Olsen Gallery runs till 12 October
- Sophie Cape, Ghosts are but shadows at Olsen Annex runs till 5 October
- Chris Langlois , Works on Paper at Olsen Annex 10 – 26 October
- Alan Jones at Olsen Annex 1 – 16 November
Andrew McIlroy, ‘Ghosts of the past: The art of Julian Meagher, Sophie Cape, Chris Langlois and Alan Jones’, www.andrewmcilroy.com, 2 October 2019.
Andrew McIlroy is an artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia.