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the promised land
This exhibition comes some ten years after The University of Queensland Art Museum mounted its own survey of one of Australia’s most determinedly cerebral and enigmatic painters, Lawrence Daws.2 On several accounts the Caloundra enterprise is timely. Firstly, it celebrates ten years of the regional gallery’s existence while paying homage to a distinguished painter based in the area for many years. Secondly, this retrospective takes a different approach to an oeuvre covering six decades than that presented earlier in Brisbane. This time, there is a focus on the distinctive volcanic cones known as The Glasshouse Mountains that form a back-drop to the home Lawrence Daws and his wife Edit created in the Sunshine Coast’s hinterland at Owl Creek. It underlines that fact that without the nurturing and inspirational environment of this remote property, the artist may not have so successfully distilled the maelstrom of ideas and sensations emanating from his extensive travels abroad, nor achieved the quiet necessary for in-depth reading.
As a consequence, the exhibition quite rightly departs in numerous ways from the Queensland landscape per se and instead builds an overview of the inner workings of the mind as much as geography and human encounters. The assembly of images conveys the mystery and poetic charge (both brutal and redemptive) that has shaped Daws’s work from the 1950s to the present day. In this survey of fifty paintings, plus prints and drawings, sketchbooks and writings, we understand the absolute commitment of the artist to search for the meaning of human existence. Whatever the medium, his vision of man’s inhumanity towards his fellow travellers on earth and the wilful destruction of the natural world are themes present throughout the imagery. The first theme in particular culminates in the large double panel painting Cain and the Promised Land II (1983) which inspired the exhibition title.3 Elsewhere, there are moments of calm and wonder as black and white graphics of 1977 and 1978 testify, when domesticity and contemplation of the ineffable are accepted without angst.
For followers of the long career of Lawrence Daws, the most familiar touchstone in this survey will be the ‘mandala’ paintings of 1962. Two of them are placed side by side on a single wall at Caloundra, commanding early attention. Wisely, however, the curators have not ordered the works chronologically; honouring the fact that Daws has continually referred back to themes and motifs throughout his practice. Therefore, viewers have a chance to follow any number of deployments of the artist’s concerns and influences with obvious or tangential recourse to the iconic mountain cones he has observed so often. Of particular interest to this reviewer is the dialogue that Daws has had through his imagery with other artists. While Piero della Francesca is often quoted as being chief amongst them, for the underlining geometry and repose as well as the chalky surfaces of his religious frescoes, the Italian master is matched at intervals in the Australian’s career by other talents. For instance, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s fragmented forms directly contributed to Daws’s own paintings of the 1950s, such as the very fine Crucifixion (1955), while on the other hand, Balthus, that most perplexing of commentators on the erotic imagination, is present in both the painting Eerie Mountain (1987) as well as Mondrian’s Studio circa 1907, an editioned computer graphic of 1986. Throughout this exhibition, a debt to Chinese and Japanese landscape traditions is evident and one can imagine the discussions that Daws would have had with Brett Whiteley when he came to stay in the mid-1970s.
There is an intimate pencil drawing in the show of Whiteley, as there is of Ian Fairweather, a near-neighbour of Daws, from around the same time. These small works on paper (and others like them) assist in leavening the gravity and symbolic complexity of the more ambitious canvases in ‘The Promised Land’. At times I felt that the riddles imbedded in these paintings denied the viewer an opportunity to find a measure of release or solace in them. Even the simpler compositions based on a familiar vista, namely, Owl Creek Landscape, Glasshouse Mountains (1979) and Owl Creek III (1980) with their overall golden glow, create unease in the viewer. For how is one to interpret the striated red lacquer awning in the former and the hanging bird-cage in the latter other than through the analogy of encasement and possible entrapment? The answer is provided unequivocally by Asylum in Eden V (1982), where Daws has placed a cage form hovering in the landscape below a rainbow amidst the grandeur of mountain forms. This painting (in a private collection) is to my mind one of the most persuasive expressions in this survey of the artist’s concern with, to quote the catalogue essay, ‘symbolic visualisations involving … conflict and tenderness, threat, oppression, evil and belief … counterpointed by dream, fantasy, … and consolatory gestures’.4
The exhibition catalogue deserves special mention. With a foreword by Caloundra’s gallery director John Waldron and an essay by the curators of the survey, Desmond and Bettina MacAulay, this sixty-page publication adds significantly to the iterature on Lawrence Daws. The text (supported by illustrations in colour and black and white) provides a detailed analysis of the wealth of philosophical readings informing this artist’s work; Carl Jung, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Hermann Hesse, for example. It also explicates the meaning of symbolism in Daws’s paintings, from Tarot-derived components, to Jungian archetypal forms, and sacred geometry. Furthermore, it parallels the artist’s overseas travel throughout his career to territories of recent or imminent conflict with the nature of his subsequent studio work. A visit to this exhibition demands close attention and an alert mind; not only to appreciate the technical prowess of Lawrence Daws, but in order to respond to the psychological underpinnings of his dense compositions and their uncanny relevance to topical struggles between people embodying different belief systems, circumstances, and aspirations today.