The West

Guy Grey-Smith s art as life
Guy Grey-Smith: Skull Springs Country (1966). State Art Collection,

More than three decades after the death of Guy Grey-Smith, Art as Life has opened as the biggest retrospective of his work. This title is apt for an artist whose life became so deeply and seriously lived through the lens of art.

The exhibition features more than 130 works and demonstrates the focus and determination of the artist. A clear, chronological progression is charted from Grey-Smith's early studies of the landscape broken up into geometric forms, on through his later abstract paintings that reduce scenes to thick slabs of colour, and his final works that appear looser in composition.

Landscape painting is the dominant subject with a smattering of portraiture, interiors, cultural scenes and pottery.

As a contemporary of Robert Juniper and Howard Taylor, Grey-Smith was the lesser- recognised Modernist but arguably his style is as strong, cohesive and idiosyncratic. His brush stroke and vigorous palette work is bolder and the colours more audacious - veering towards the offensively lurid against the calmness of Taylor, for example.

His approach to art was both highly spiritual and could be said to be personally therapeutic. Art gave Grey-Smith a lease on life during his interment in the POW camps of World War II. His wife Helen sent him art materials over that time and his use of them no doubt functioned as an antidote to the brutality of his everyday existence. Against this context of war a passion for art became anchored in his psyche.

It is apparent that throughout his life Grey-Smith doggedly pursued aesthetic challenges of colour, space and form, towards an artistic geomorphology of sorts. He was at the forefront of Modernist debates, beyond the merely parochial. In his early paintings, the influence of Cezanne, Matisse and the Fauves is all too apparent in the way natural forms are reduced to geometry to convey particular spatial conditions.

Later works turn to aesthetic problems poised by the likes of the Russian Modernist Nicolas de Stael where the sensorial qualities of the land are communicated in further extremes of abstraction.

The success of these later works lies in their ability to ride a fine line between abstraction and figurative, initially appearing purely abstract, then emerging as recognisable on closer inspection. The paintings convey more than a mere sense of the reality to which they refer.

Rather than being derivative of his influences, Grey-Smith's own style is palpable as a synthesis of the styles of others. It is the sensorial qualities that come to the fore in such reduction of nature to abstraction. Spending time with these paintings one is able to sense their emotional register and, by association, the feel of the land, from the South West to the Pilbara and Kimberley. This is seen in works such as Abstract, a comparatively cooler-toned painting which conveys the lived intensity of a densely forested scene.

Cabinets are displayed alongside the paintings and contain ephemera such as sketchbooks and tins of pigment. This curatorial move is more familiar to the language of the museum and in the gallery context it functions to position the exhibition as an educational node for the public. The audience is not invited to merely gaze into the considered compositions of colour, but to also learn about the tools and thinking behind them.

According to his son Mark Grey-Smith, Guy was such a perfectionist that during one period he burnt a third of his work. For the most part, the works appear resolved, with a few exceptions and a hint of sloppiness in some of his later paintings. The same could be said for the exhibition itself, which is strong, but for quaint elements like the coloured feature walls.

Guy Grey-Smith: Art as Life runs until July 14.

The West Australian

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