the oval window: ian friend

Ian Friend
Brisbane City Gallery
18th April - 26th June 2002

In the vestibule which leads into the downstairs display space of Brisbane City Gallery, lan Friend introduces his work by way of a quote from Gaston Bachelard's well-known text The Poetics of Space, ' ... we cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space'. lt is a highly appropriate quote for describing the character of his own art practice and of establishing the premises of this particular exhibition which attempts a partnership between poetry and visual imagery. 'The Oval Window' refers to sequences of drawings by lan Friend juxtaposed with text by British poet J.H. Prynne. An English-born and trained artist, Friend taught at Chelsea School of Art in the midseventies, and for some years he was assistant curator to Pat Gilmour in the Print Department at the Tale Gallery. He moved from London to Australia in 1985 and since then he has taught in schools of art in Melbourne, Launceston and now Brisbane. His northern hemisphere pedigree and experience has profoundly informed his approach to art making. The literary allusions, especially pertaining to poets and philosophers, and an affiliation with the 1930s English abstractionists, particularly Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, cannot be ignored in an analysis of his own practice.1 This trait makes Friend sit somewhat as an 'outsider' in the field of contemporary Australian art. From the late 1990s, which is the period covered by the exhibition, The Oval Window, the artist's work has been remarkably consistent. Inviting the viewer into complex metaphysical terrains, his drawings more often than not comprise fields of dark ink washes with light veiled surfaces traversed by dense white oval forms. Finely drawn pathways, in a range of ochre pigments, cross these nuanced fields. Whether in a vertical or horizontal format, line and field are juxtaposed in states of change and transformation. There is layering and erasure, pure spontaneous gesture and deliberate scaring. Friend never neglects the intrinsic qualities of pictorial means, those means which constitute the qualitative fabric of a picture, nor does he neglect the importance of the senses (hearing as much as sight) in building his abstractions on paper. When they are presented upright, the sheets encourage the viewer to enter a window or doorway, conversely, they suggest an endless panorama when hung lengthwise on the wall. Reminiscent of an ancient rock-face, the Arches paper support is thick and sturdy- a carrier for the shifting, amorphous shapes emerging from or fixed upon it. The opaque forms (white tabs at the edge of the sheet as much as the ovoid shapes within) remind the viewer of the essential 'flatness' of the picture plane, and operate to bring his or her imaginings back to the reality of the surface. Often the deckle-edged sheets are connected as diptychs or triptychs, linked by fine incisive lines flowing across the composition (as in Metaphysics Set 1 # 1, 1997). More recently, a loose web of dots in white gouache spreads across the panels (as in Fenestra Ovals # 2, 2000). The sequences of sheets imply a sense of infinite extension.

In the exhibition Graphic, held at Monash University Gallery, Melbourne in 1998, Friend's drawings were part of a set he called Metaphysics. A diptych from this event commences The Oval Window exhibition as it is installed in Brisbane. There are fourteen exhibits in all, dating 1997-2000. Whilst the show is based on Friend's response to the verse of Prynne, it is important not to limit the experience of this body of imagery to a textual source. Just as 'our desire for closure, often a very strong desire, defeats the purpose of just being with what we are observing',2 Friend's sequences of works are like musical sound waves or private narratives of an interior world. They therefore should not solely be 'read' as illustrations to poetry, however sublime those stanzas may be. Certainly, Prynne has served as a very important influence on Friend in the development of the past three years of his work and in principle an exhibition based on the links between verse and pictorial imagery is of considerable interest. The question is, how is this best achieved? Just as there is a form of writing which is like music, Friend's drawings {which can just as easily be termed paintings) affect us through the senses directly without first appealing to the intellect. We become immersed in them before a rational, critical response arises. Hence direct comparison with text of any kind is problematic and needs to be approached cautiously. If there is any criticism to be made of The Oval Window I would suggest that it lies in the installation itself. By over- emphasising the poet's words (black laser-text applied to the walls}, lan Friend's exquisite drawings risk becoming diminished in their potential to be independent reverie-inducing experiences. To this writer, his work is mysteriously evocative and deliberately 'open-ended'. Consider, for example, the way the densely painted ovoid forms are truncated at the edges of the paper, the way thin lines flow out of the picture frame and smoky black and ethereal whites inexplicably merge. To pin them down too closely to another form of creativity is to hinder the reverberation and power of such imagery to exist on its own terms. Poetry does have place in the space of this exhibition, yet it is best presented in a discreet and non-obtrusive fashion.

notes: 

1. This connection with Friend is bom out by the monochromatic bias and the force of material presence in their respective work.

2. Laurie Duggan, The Oval Window: lan Friend', from exhibition brochure, Brisbane City Gallery, 2002.