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Coming close on the heels of Ian Friend’s survey exhibition ‘On Paper’ at Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Art Museum, this show incorporated very recent work that demonstrated fresh developments within the metaphysical pictorial language for which the artist is known.1 While the survey covered some thirty years of activity, here at Andrew Baker’s gallery, a totally separate selection of Friend’s drawings/paintings on paper covered the period 2007-08 and also three large works dated 2002-07. The latter are titled A Thousand Leaves (Mille-Feuilles) #1, #2, #3. The time-lag inferred in these majestic works is characteristic of Friend’s refusal to be rushed or pressured into ‘finishing’ an image and his adherence to a palimpsest-like approach. As the artist says, ‘I’ve revisited these works over a period of five years; it’s the finishing touches that take a bit of time and contemplation. This is what happens when you spend a lot of time with the work and have it around you and it develops a history and a kind of facture’.2
The Mille-Feuilles (hung like a triptych) incorporate the white ovoid forms floating on washes of grey and washed out blacks that have characterised Friend’s numinous abstract statements for some years now. With their precise geometric presences painted in gouache, one over another, the ovoid forms slide past and over the top of each other within a shifting nuanced field. They accord with the actual process of making Friend’s distinctive art. This is because he first lays thick Arches sheets of paper on his studio floor and overcomes the challenge of their unmarked presence by covering areas of them with diluted monochromatic ink. Then, only after the rulers, stencils, and other architectural draftsman’s tools have built up the oval forms and lines in colour pencil, do the sheets leave their horizontal position to be approached vertically, pinned to the wall. This is when the artist brings his vision into alignment with his potential audience and allows his eyes to traverse the drama within the soft irregular margins of each of the sheets’ deckled edges. Here, encrusted layers of white pigment with almost imperceptible tints of ochre and blue on washes of ink, give rise to meanings that are infinite in scope.
Some of these recent works combine the architectonic linear structures of his etching series titled ‘Terragni’ of 1995 (made with John Loane and featured in the QUT survey), with the biomorphic shapes common to his drawings. Formerly, the lines would be rhythmic and traverse like the drifting of a two-part melody through the nebulous expanse of pigment. Now, with works from 2007-08, such as the series ‘Song in Sight of the World’ and ‘Star Damage at Home’, the lines are not arabesque and sinuous, they are jagged and shard-like. As the catalogue writer for this exhibition at Andrew Baker’s aptly explains, ‘interspersed with the ellipses that appear in many of his pieces are lines that zigzag seismographically across the page. The resultant structures reveal no clear logic or geometry. The marks shatter linearity itself, alternating between a line carving a trace across a landscape and a bounded outline keeping a shape in check.’3 This intentional ambiguity in Friend’s work is a constant. It is what keeps the viewer engaged and like the poetry of J.H. Prynne (whom this artist so admires) resists full disclosure.
Many of these works of 2007-08 measure only 23 x 30 cm and are diptychs in the sense that they comprise two sheets of paper butted together. To me they suggest the open page of a book or two stone tablets where traces of some ancient runes or hieroglyphics await deciphering. The series ‘Song in Sight of the World’ and ‘Star Damage at Home’ also unfold like that. Along with the other works in this exhibition, namely First Notes on Daylight, The White Stones and A Voice of Floating Silence, there is a nod back to Friend’s English roots as much as evidence of the aesthetic freedom that the artist believes Australia has given him since his immigration here in 1985.
A few biographical facts to establish the English legacy are required at this point. Ian Friend was born in Eastbourne on the Sussex coast and attended art colleges at Exeter and Birmingham. In the early 1970s, he undertook postgraduate studies at the Slade in London and for a time earned an income as Assistant Curator of prints at the Tate Gallery. He is, therefore, as much a fan of Eric Ravilious’s representational watercolours as he is of the 1930s St Ives group (Ben Nicholson’s almost monochromatic paintings and Barbara Hepworth’s and Naum Gabo’s geometric structures). It was also in the context of the Tate and his friendship with fellow staff member Richard Humphreys that his abiding interest in the writing of Cambridge-based Prynne was kindled. When questioned by Humphreys on the poet’s influence on his imagery, Friend replied how in one letter to him Prynne had stated that the relationship between his discipline (poetry) and Friend’s (painting) was a ‘tacit conversation rather than overt illustration…’. Friend continued, ‘The main sequence with which I have had a “tacit conversation” is The Oval Window, and I did revisit the poems frequently, not to find specific phrases but more like touchstones of that fragile barrier of interiority/exteriority that are referenced’.4
In this most recent exhibition of Ian Friend, there is similarly abundant evidence of how, as an art practitioner, he avoids producing work that invites an easy path to comprehension. Prynne is prized in England for both his observance of a tradition that stretches back through Wordsworth but also for his embrace of contemporary Chinese poetry. This is a parallel that can be applied to Friend. Furthermore, consider this line of verse, ‘In darkness by day we must press on, giddy at the tilt of a negative crystal’ and compare it to the innovative, logic defying visual language of Friend.5 Consider as well, how at Andrew Baker’s, the works of 2007-08 embody the architectural emphasis of Friend’s 1995 etchings. This observation implies a continual process on his part of revisiting past work in order to move forward. This exhibition also importantly demonstrates that the scale of a work does not dictate scope of meaning. As the artist observes, ‘I like to have pieces around me for a while and that includes the smaller ones, in size, but not small in ambition’.
1. See: Angela Gardner, Ian Friend: Thirty Years of Works on paper 1977-2007, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 24 April-29 June 2008, in Artlink vol.28, no.3, 2008, p.88.
2. Ian Friend in conversation with Anne Kirker, 25 October 2008. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are from this source.
3. Anthony White, ‘Ian Friend: Cryptic Architecture’, Ian Friend: A Voice of Floating Silence, Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane, 2008, unpag.
4. ‘Richard Humphreys & Ian Friend: In Conversation’, Ian Friend: Thirty Years of Works on paper 1977-2007, op. cit. p.13.
5. J.H. Prynne quoted in Richard Humphreys ‘Drawing on Prynne: Ian Friend & The Oval Window’, ibid. p.4.