Sonia Hartford – Sydney Morning Herald (2013)

Sydney Morning Herald, June 29 2013

Artistic odyssey stirs a sense of wonder

Sonia Hartford

While Asher Bilu looks towards the sky for constellations, his earth-bound hands are busy with manual labour.

Peeling circles of dried paint with a small knife, hour after hour, he builds up monumental works of mesmerising colour and depth. Peeling circles of dried paint with a small knife, hour after hour, he builds up monumental works of mesmerising colour and depth.

Artist and close friend Ivan Durrant sees him as the great Australian abstract artist: ”He doesn’t give us any answers but makes us marvel at the world”.

A survey show of Bilu’s work at Benalla Art Gallery, ”Cosmotifs”, will reveal Bilu’s lifelong quest to evoke the immensity of the universe. Awesome may be the most debased word of our times, thanks to Gen Y and its progeny; but in Bilu’s cosmic worlds, a sense of wonder is undimmed and undiminished.

The universe, science and music all feature in Asher Bilu’s works, which will be featured in a show at the Benalla Art Gallery.

But it’s not just to the heavens that he looks. Here on earth his works evoke natural wonders. His Brighton studio is dominated by a suspended circular work, like drifts of coral. Somewhere between a tropical reef and stained glass, the greens, blues and purples bejewel the work. Thickly painted drops on plywood are ”like frozen time”, the artist says.

Now nearly 80, Bilu has been one of Melbourne’s most vigorous and creative artists. Outside the studio, he acted as production designer for Paul Cox’s films, beginning with Man of Flowers.

The Whiteleys were friends, and Brett’s drawing of Bilu playing his favourite instrument, a sarod, common in Hindustani music, hangs in his living room.

Cosmotifs can only display a small portion of his life’s work; but Durrant, who helped organise the show, believes it will shine a light on an artist who has remained ”unrecognised” compared to many of his peers.

Born in Israel in 1936, Bilu arrived in 1956 and developed a reputation for blending ideas about science and music with art. Cosmotifs, he says, is a play on cosmos and motifs.

”In music we have motifs and variations on a theme, and in my work I have similar variations,” he explains. ”Composing a painting is like a piece of music. There are bass notes, high notes, little subtleties – all are there in the paintings”.

Bilu’s cosmic worlds are made up of thousands of circles, paint that dries and feels like plastic. Tiny glowing red or blue or yellow dots are laid over larger spheres and linked ”like a system”, he says.

The viewer feels she’s tumbling into the layered, three-dimensional works framed behind curved glass that bulges with mystery.

Bilu’s 10 grandchildren sometimes help peel the myriad dots off their plastic backing. His two studio spaces are not like art galleries, places where it’s forbidden to touch. Here the children touch ”with respect”, he says. ”The material is so tactile”.

Immensity, awe, beauty. The ideas may not always be fashionable in contemporary art. But there is something uplifting in the energy and questioning of an artist working with such intensity.

The exhibition’s huge centrepiece ”M-Theory” is a floor sculpture. As layer upon layer of painted circles rise from the floor resembling a planet’s surface or eerie stalagmites, their true nature is never quite revealed.

Durrant’s description in the catalogue of a Bilu installation reveals its intoxicating power for him: ”a galaxy of ice, light, stars, Einstein timelines, amoebas, chromosomes and anything else I could ever see or dream of”.

Cosmotifs is at Benalla Art Gallery from July 6 to September 8.