Brett Whiteley – Foreword to Recent Paintings (1988)

Recent Paintings (1988)

Published by The Art Gallery Pty. Ltd.1988


Brett Whiteley August 1988

Infinity seems as ludicrous a proposition to try to paint as any, for by its own nature it is impossible, glimpsed only in ecstatic moments of terror, or awe. The iota, measured against the Gargantuan can get quickly out of proportion, or spill out over and beyond the frame, or get you vortexed into a minute socket of skerrick, forcing concentration to literally disappear. Or simply migraine you out with a tautology of repetition – that isn’t quite; like that lovely line of Wols, “the little waves of the harbour that repeat themselves without repeating themselves”.

Asher Bilu is the one artist I know who has consistently, and with an incredible talent for variance, hammered away at this ‘terrifying impossibility’.

Each picture is a rectangular arena in which description is given, through a perfect balance of acute geometry and Kabbalistic expressionism, of one proposition of the look of the inner galaxy of his mind.

The surface behaviour and picture plane density of Bilu’s work has altered considerably over the years, and there are years of marvellous mono-chromatic fine-textured ‘still-lives’, but this is not the time to discuss these. It is the work of the last three or four years that has produced a great leap forward with the technical discovery, on a day to day basis, of the possibilities of what acetate resin and a slower drying polyvinyl alcohol resin, can do. From these he has pioneered a technique which gives his work the speed of calligraphic ink and the monumentality of (ivory) relief sculpture, so that he can produce a large work, tiered on four or five or more levels, that contains the iconographic complexity of an Isfahan carpet, with the loose impudent graffiti of late abstract expressionist painting.

The picture plane of these recent works has moved out often as much as four inches, allowing for a much more profound argument between rigidity and chaos. For anyone who is unsure what the picture plane is to a painter, imagine it as an invisible skin, like a drum, that sits horizontally across the stretch of the canvas, ‘the middle’, from which everything recedes or projects in accordance with the balance of the picture. It is simply the optical chassis from which the illusion pumps, or pushes, or breathes. It can be one-hundredth of an inch as in a hard-edge painting, or it can be fourteen inches, say, in a Rauschenberg combine; mostly it is about two inches for impressionist, post- impressionist, and even cubist paintings. Even a section of a Bolivian jungle viewed horizontally only has a three inch picture plane if you box off a rectangle of it, whereas a recent Bilu, and I am thinking of a picture like The Eyes Have It, 1987 has an uncanny complexity to it, for it forces the eye to swim around certain vortexes of form – almost sucking you or pushing you before drowning, in the prickling surrealism that such forms instantly induce on the memory, so that one loses and regains the feeling of where the matter starts or finishes, like the transience of OP. It is a wonderful feeling looking at this (Boschian) Judgement Day, for only occasionally are you reminded of how far you have gone in from where you got lost, as it were.

Then the subjective imagination starts to trigger and sights start to spill. Totemic badges, jewels, lollies for the Sultan of South Babylon, little creatures as yet uncatalogued from some region deep in the ink, that only glow at night in the sea of the subconscious mind. Every eye of every animal one has ever looked at in one’s life, gnats and leopards, field mice and friends, all peering for a split-second back at a tiny moment of infinitesimal significance, only to blink, out of focus and into insignificance again.

These are pictures that perfectly describe that line of Dylan’s “the mind that multiplies the smallest matter”. Although these works are not induced by marijuana they do produce the same peculiar sense of ‘expandingness’ that hallucinogens do. Similar to Reggae and Indian ragas, all Bilu’s work has an underlying discipline of geometry and measure, while allowing in the intervals the freeplay of subjective improvisation. If one has had the pleasure of hearing Asher Bilu playing his sarod, one becomes spellbound by the similarity of his music to his visual cosmos.

I don’t know really who Bilu’s influences and heroes are. Looking at his pictures one sees snippets of Pollock, Arman, Tobey, Klee, Stella, Johns, Tanguy, Dorazio, Van Gogh, and so on, but equally one glimpses bits of Cairo newspapers, meccano sets, aerial photographs, jig-saw puzzles, parts of the Honda factory, faulty television, and caves in the Sinai desert. I think his stance and modus operandi is fairly similar to mine; almost everything he looks at, and from every corner he goes round, he extracts the ‘critical mass’ straight out, and puts it in his spiritual pile, to become part of his optical repertoire, later to be dealt out, like a humming bird deals honey.

Most modern art is light, ironic or decorative. Bilu’s work is more intense and demanding than this, and it will be interesting to see, as the world expands with further and further technology and social invention, just how in the future these ‘inscapes’ are assessed. My own view is that we will get more and more used to the insistent side of them and that they will eventually just glow and be read with pleasure, in the same way that we now read Cubism, as something completely compatible with tradition; in fact it becomes part and parcel of what Chardin in his time carried on from the Egyptians.

Infinity never goes out of business.

* limited edition books signed by Asher Bilu & Brett Whiteley are available.
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