The perils of painting

By Rhonda Dredge

Art as a career has a mystique that is elusive but you can’t really equate work with the artist. A painter has his own special language that he might only share with another painter.

At the opening of Jon Cattapan’s recent exhibition, the talk was all about natural light, the price of industrial fans and travel plans.

When artists get together they like to compare notes about studios.

Philosophical details will be swamped by the conviviality of the occasion. In an age of political collectives, painters often still work alone and an opening is a time to catch up with old friends.

“I’m looking forward to Berlin,” said one artist. “Let’s go talk to everybody,” said another.

The mood at Cattapan’s workplace on Southbank is just as casual, friendly and experimental, often like one big opening, and the inevitable journeys overseas to keep up with the discipline are a big part of the equation.

Cattapan, who is the director of the Victorian College of the Arts, says there are lots of paths to becoming an artist but he can sit at Tom Roberts’ easel in his office and connect with the history of painting.

The director’s office on St Kilda Rd is modest. There’s a conglomerate of materials, which must annoy Cattapan’s particular eye, and a scattering of storage cabinets. The most soothing part is a small notice board on which he has pinned three photocopies of a painting above a small saying about subjectivity.

Paint is a subjective material. Cattapan favours luminescence and has applied the acrylic and oil paint to canvas with thinners to create glistening effects. His bold combinations of colour, perspectival lines and outlines of figures are enigmatic yet dramatic.

“There are complications in the under-painting,” he says, of the surface. “I see figures as contours of information. These figures are transparent. At the heart is a kind of adherence to distinct layers. That’s how I come to understand the world.”

Painters use techniques to create meaning. Cattapan resists blocking in figures in flat colour. His figures are always provisional, suggesting displacement or protest or the creation of social spaces. “I want there to be friction.”

Even though he is never jarring and is always impeccably polite when it comes to the corporate line, Cattapan admits there are always points of contention that are “not exactly comfortable”.

Perhaps it is this honesty that makes a visit to his office a blessing for a painter.

He now does one-on-one sessions with undergraduates and even though he talks about the VCA as being a big organisation with a reputation and reach to challenge students, a painter can’t hide his concerns.

The VCA has stuck religiously to its successful formula, which allows all students access to a range of practitioners on staff. The Atelier style training is expensive but “it’s the best way”.

Other universities tend to allocate supervisors and it can be hell tracking down someone who is actually interested in your work. An artist needs an interpersonal connection. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Many of the VCA staff were at Cattapan’s opening, including Ted Colless who edits the brilliant re-incarnation of Art + Australia, a relatively radical glossy art mag with intelligent articles and dark themes.

Students are allowed to be irreverent at the VCA. Audacity counts for something in performance art and its many permutations, as does impermanence, but there’s something about a painter and his paintings that last. They don’t have to comment on the politics of the day.

Stratum, on at Station in South Yarra, continues Cattapan’s ongoing experiment with the figure in the landscape. For a while he took pictures of rubbish left out on nature strips and used them as his figures, applying his aesthetic machine to their depiction. It’s only later that you realise he is commenting about culture and the way it is continually trashed.

“Painting can take a long time for the viewer to get,” he says. “The imagery stays with you.”

After 24 years at the VCA, Cattapan has seen a lot of changes at Southbank, including the ambitious building program by the former director Su Baker, also a painter with a love of the medium.

Some find the conversion of the police stables to studios for Honours students a bit too elitist but Cattapan is not buying into any realist notions that equate poverty with artistic talent.

“Have you seen the conservatorium?” he asks. “It’s very swish.” Would he like an office there? “Sure,” he says.

Stratum, Adam Lee and Jon Cattapan, Station, South Yarra, on until 23 March.

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