Upon entering the dark hall leading into George Gittoes’s exhibition Yellow House Sydney ’71 – Yellow House Jalalabad ’17, the visitor is greeted by a line of his strangely distorted puppet heads. In the dim light there is a sense of anticipation, as if spirits residing in the puppets urge the visitor forward. This is heightened by the bright lights in the exhibition space ahead, beckoning the visitor. A large painting Love is the Quest (2009-2017) is visible, shimmering with colour and streaks of spirited light. However, at the entrance to the gallery space, a smallish painting Mystical Abstract (1968-69), attracts attention. It is a highly patterned rendition of Eastern forms. It acts as a historical signifier in Gittoes’s oeuvre, linking his interest in mysticism across the decades to the recent paintings on show.
In late 2015 George Gittoes returned to Australia from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, to receive the Sydney Peace Prize. While he was away from the Yellow House artists’ community in Jalalabad, which he and his partner Hellen Rose have set up, something happened that shifted his approach to his paintings. The event was the brutal death of an old Sufi Gittoes had welcomed into the Yellow House community. Sufis follow a mystical form of Islam, but in modern times they are largely in hiding, away from threats posed by Islamic extremists. While Gittoes was in Sydney the old Sufi ventured further afield and while playing his music and singing in a park, ISIS insurgents destroyed his harmonium, cut out his tongue and decapitated him.
At the opening of his exhibition Yellow House Sydney ’71 – Yellow House Jalalabad ’17, Gittoes explained that the Sufi’s brutal death triggered a desire to create paintings devoted to the mystical powers of love. Mystical inspirations and Sufi poetry have interested Gittoes since his teenage years. In his early twenties these inspirations fuelled paintings and puppet performances at the Yellow House artists’ community Gittoes, and fellow-artist Martin Sharp, had set up at Potts Point, Sydney. Since the Sufi’s death Gittoes has worked on new paintings in his Yellow House, Jalalabad studio. There is a cyclical resonance in his return to Sydney to exhibit his mystically informed Yellow House Jalalabad paintings at the—still yellow—Yellow House exhibition space, Potts Point; hence the title of the exhibition.
The difference between Gittoes’s 1968-69 Mystical Abstract painting and his recent paintings is that the latter have expunged naivety. Instead, they exude a sense of knowing and reflection that reaches across the artist’s decades-long experiences working in war and conflict zones. These include places such as Nicaragua, Rwanda, Somalia, Gaza, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others. In these places of death and destruction Gittoes has previously commented that he senses the spirits of the dead, at times feeling the grip of liminal places, as if he too has passed over. These experiences have previously manifested in paintings depicting maimed and tortured figures inhabiting hellish places. However, the old Sufi’s songs, poetry, life and death, have somehow guided Gittoes’s hands to create more restorative images where spirits are embraced within safer places. In his hands this is not a romantic or nostalgic gesture. Rather, his new paintings address atrocity by consciously eliding it. In this way it is acknowledged, but the images are not consumed by it. In many of the paintings, the Sufi’s image, or the manifestation of his watching spirit, emerges from the patterns and colours.
Gittoes’s recent paintings are images of layered paint, as well as meaning. Some paintings have geometric abstract qualities and others exhibit abstract expressive features. Gittoes’s acknowledgment of an aesthetic nod to the rich patterning of William Morris ties the exhibition together visually. The layering of paint and patterning is considered and thoughtful, achieved through a combination of gestural brushstrokes and the use of old Afghan woodblock stencils. Each layer seems to cradle souls and spirits. This reflects a desire to keep these supernatural forces safe, to embrace them with love as they pass from one realm to another.
This assisted pass-over becomes even clearer as close scrutiny of some of Gittoes’s new paintings reveals parts of words hidden under the layers of paint. Gittoes commented that some words are from the Book of the Dead, ancient funerary texts written to assist the passage of spirits from the mortal world to the afterworld. Other words, however, come from Gittoes’s Descendence Stories, hallucinatory tales of a troop of soldiers who inhabit a place of purgatory, where they oscillate between repeated experiences of brutal death and signs of life. In the painting Love is Home (2009-2017) a background of Prussian and cobalt blue covers words, parts of which only appear if you look long enough. The blue is interrupted by a large red serrated-edged diamond shape hovering beside a grey heraldic-like symbol. The effect is one of homage to fallen souls, as if freeing the tortured from Purgatory. This kind of gravitas is evident in a number of other paintings that include one or more of the artist’s serrated-edged diamond shapes, accompanied by painted or stencilled patterns.
Other more heavily patterned paintings in the exhibition are so richly layered that viewing from a distance and then up close, reveals different things. For example, when viewed from a distance, colours in Love is Happiness: Sunflowers for Vincent (2014-2017) and Sparkling Kadir (2015-2017) form shapes. When viewed up close these disintegrate into jewel-like details that reverberate across the canvases. In Sparkling Kadir a distant view reveals a monumental green visage of the old Sufi surrounded by a halo of red flame-like shapes. Up close the Sufi’s green head dissolves into an array of stencilled patterns glistening with highlights of sparkling yellow-gold, and the red flames reveal overlays of darkly coloured stencilling that cause the red to visually recede.
Gittoes’s paintings entice, not only into the painted layers, but into time as well. Here, it is not just a nostalgic return to 1970s free love and flower power. Rather, it is a recursive gesture to ancient mystical understandings of love, and a suggestion from a weary witness to war, that the future of humanity lies in the fate of love.
George Gittoes, Love is Home, 2009-2017. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist. Photographs Greg Weight.
George Gittoes, Sparkling Kadir (SUFI), 2015-2017. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist. Photographs Greg Weight.
George Gittoes, Love is happiness (Sun Flowers for Vincent), 2009-2017. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist. Photographs Greg Weight.