Urban Synergy

Scott Whitaker's gasometer
Doggett Street, Brisbane & Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney

Scott Whitaker has previously described his paintings and sculptures, created from rusted metal, wax and fibreglass, as a whimsical look at the social structures of society. In his exhibition Gasometer, which concentrates exclusively on two dimensional images, he continues to focus on similar thematic concerns and to use the immediate environment as an inspiration for his paintings and drawings. The now familiar iconography from The Butterfactory days is still apparent1. However, discarded domestic objects including colanders, saucepans and teapots, or sentimental objects from his childhood, are now juxtaposed with window ledges, city skylines and the gasometers located near his front door. The artist's chalice-like sculptural forms, and the more recent multiple-object assemblages, with their provocative sense of humour, may not be present in this body of work-but is it a quirky coincidence that these monumental rusted containers seem to take on the appearance of Whitaker's own sculptures?

Whitaker states that "the main theme of this exhibition is thinking about living with the gasometers and the idea that they are such amazing and interesting pieces of architecture".2 Absolutely still, and slightly menacing, the gasometers are an obvious starting point for an artist wanting to evoke a seductive sense of place. From every vantage point these monoliths dominate the surrounding cityscape. The artist depicts the gasometers at different times of the day and night-with their industrial domes either glaring white in the harsh Queensland sun, washed by gentle moonlight, drenched in the soft rays of a sunset or wrapped in the deep ultramarines of night.

A small oil painting, titled Bottled Snake Still Life, introduces new subject matter and alerts the viewer to the notion that these images are not just about form. Implied danger lies within the gasometer-coiled like a reptile, contained, but potentially fatal if released. Balancing Act II portrays the rust-coloured storage tanks dominating the bright blue sky, juxtaposed with a steaming kettle precariously balanced atop a triangular composition of bright yellow teacups. The cups are an obvious metaphor, which illustrates the artist's concern for, yet fascination with living within the proximity of possible environmental danger. In Newstead Gasometer Landscape/Still Life, Whitaker uses the picture frame as a compositional device, with veiled objects floating on an illusory window ledge. Repetition of shapes, contrasting slabs of colour, and strong technical skills imbue the oil paintings with a commanding presence. Echoes of Australian icons are inherent in many of the paintings, and one can almost feel the ghost of Nolan's Ned lurking in the gallery space.

However, for me the works on paper are the more evocative images, full of atmospheric nuances – delightful both for their freshness and immediacy. Sensitive lines indicating the decorative metal cross bracing on the gasometers are incised through brown ink washes. After the initial mark making, the artist has gone back and refined the image. As a textural contrast, acrylic varnish and ink applied on the wash at times result in shiny surface areas. The delicacy of line and colour of the ink, pastel and gouache drawings with their emotive brushmarks, are a perfect foil for the cooler slickness of the oil paintings.

The elasticity of Whitaker's art making skills carries the exhibition with the confidence and ease of a seasoned veteran – he has been riding the crest of a wave of success for some time. Whitaker has won several prestigious awards including scholarships at the Queensland Art Gallery, and at a leading regional gallery (Ipswich), and is also considered one of the rising stars in the Ray Hughes stable. Like the contents of gasometers, the energy level of this artist is currently contained and controlled-perhaps now is the time for Whitaker to explore the metaphor of this exhibition on another level and take stock of future directions.

notes: 

1 . In the early nineties Scott Whitaker directed an artist-run space in an old butter factory on Brisbane's outskirts in rural Oayboro. The move to an inner-city warehouse in 1993 has provided studios and an exhibition space from which he can strut his entrepreneurial stuff, and offer an alternative to the big boys of the commercial art scene.

2. Scott Whitaker in discussion with the author 7 July, 1994