Fred Williams

Fred Williams
In Queensland

Philip Bacon Gallery
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

This review was first published in "The Courier-Mail" July 18, 1998

FRED Williams is best known for his 1960s near-abstract landscape paintings, in which he discovered, in the words of one critic, "a way of making the monotony of the Australian bush seem visually stimulating". Those who have experienced a long journey by car or train through rural Australia will immediately recognise Williams’s typical landscapes: he painted the boring bits, the kind of undramatic countryside where endless stretches of dun-coloured plain and repetitive scraggy bush stir little more than restless enquiries of "how much farther until we get to ...?"

Williams’s achievement, though, was to convey the awesome scale and distance of such seemingly uninteresting country. He typically painted a muted background over the whole canvas, in a colour like tan, ochre, silver or grey, then covered it with dense, calligraphic flecks, dots or lines of paint to suggest the forms of trees, fire-blackened logs, or ferns -- with everything viewed as if from the air. Filled with light, air and a sense of openness, these often sparse paintings were absolutely truthful in capturing the silent emptiness of the Australian landscape, yet also had an elegant, reductive beauty that caused ardent admirers like Patrick White to compare them to Chinese screens.

If Williams (who died in April 1982 at the age of 55) had never painted anything else, these works would be enough to secure his fame. But an exhibition at Brisbane’s Philip Bacon Galleries, `Fred Williams: `in Queensland’ 1971-1978’, is now reminding devotees that there were many other facets to his art; and that, like all great artists, Williams was an individual who even in his late career constantly strived to extend the boundaries of his work.

The current exhibition includes more than 30 gouache and acrylic paintings on paper of Springbrook in the Gold Coast hinterland and the Glasshouse Mountains, which Williams first visited in 1971, and works made during and after a 1973 trip to Bedarra and Timana Islands, and a visit in 1977 to Weipa. There are also a couple of oils of the Bedarra rainforest, and (rounding out the show which has only a few big canvases) three large and beautiful canvases of Victorian landscape and pond subjects.

An appealing aspect of this work is that these Queensland subjects are not well-known, though a large number of the works here were first publicly exhibited in Queensland in a 1996 touring exhibition organised by the Gold Coast City Art Gallery.

These works (and some additional pieces not previously shown before) were all drawn from the Williams’ estate in Melbourne, which is managed by the artist’s widow, Lyn Williams.

Mrs Williams says that her husband was a very hard-working and organised artist who had kept all his preliminary studies, sketches and drawings, prints and many unexhibited and unsold paintings produced since the late 1950s -- which added up to a large archive of work.

None of this material was seen until about eight years after the artist’s death, when Mrs Williams was able to establish a new studio with the space needed to catalogue and properly store the art works. She has since devoted much of her time to organising exhibitions, like the current Queensland show, which she hopes will reveal new aspects of her late husband’s work, and give viewers unexpected insights into his working methods.

"Fred didn’t destroy things," she says. "He thought it was important to keep the whole of your oeuvre, not just the works which would sell. I’ve included (in the Philip Bacon show) images like paintings of butterflies, flowers and lizards at Weipa, which he made as part of (his method of) observing and understanding a particular landscape.

"I think these are important images, even though they are not necessarily appealing to collectors -- but they give a sense of what the whole experience (for him of painting the landscape) was about."

That an artist who concentrated on abstracted landscapes also painted such careful naturalistic studies of flora and fauna will come as a shock to some viewers. Another great surprise of this Queensland work -- especially coming as it does immediately after the muted, austere works of the late 1960s -- is the way Williams has employed vivid, tropical colour and thick paint, very vigorously and expressively applied, to describe recognisable subjects like the dark, tangled rainforest on Bedarra Island, the weird forms of the Glasshouse Mountains and the deep chasms and waterfalls at Springbrook.

Mrs Williams says the impetus for these dramatic departures was that Williams thought he could go no farther with the subdued colour and minimal, abstracted compositions of the late ‘60s. Going to Queensland offered the ideal opportunity to make an abrupt change; Williams was particularly excited by the challenges of switching his palette to new, rich colours, of working in acrylic (a new medium for him, which he began to experiment with at Springbrook), and of leaving his studio to work outdoors on new themes such as the Barrier Reef islands and the red bauxite cliffs of Weipa.

"Fred felt that (by the late ‘60s) he had reduced the landscape to such a degree that he needed to get back to a more direct contact with it," Mrs Williams comments. "He wanted to work outside, and that really was why he wanted to do the Queensland trip."

What is compelling about this very diverse, and often experimental, Queensland work is the sense of the artist’s curiosity: about nature and about what painting could be -- and above all, about how to go about defining the character of the Australian landscape.

That Williams was obsessed with the Australian landscape is obvious, yet, more often than not, he has been discussed as an international artist; his work routinely compared formally to artists as diverse as Cezanne and American abstract painters of the 1960s. But a new way of looking at Williams’s work, which is perhaps just beginning to dawn in the ‘90s, is that he was not just an internationalist, formalist painter but also a deeply Australian and regionalist artist.

His work conveys a strong sense of specific landscapes filtered through the enduring cultural memories of the peoples of our region, from the first Australians, the Aborigines, to the occasional Asian visitors to our shores, and to the more recent European emigrants. You feel this especially in pictures like `Aerial landscape, Weipa’, with its delicate textures and markings distantly evoking Aboriginal rock art, and `Pitcher plant, Weipa, III’, with its looping brushmarked lines like the twisting loops and curls of Chinese calligraphy.

The final effect of the exhibition is one of exhilaration at an artist still finding new insights into painting and into his country after decades of painting the landscape; and one whose work, even after 30 years, still has the capacity to surprise and enlighten new generations of viewers. 

Copyright © 1998 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author

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