Art Review: James McGrath’s Luscus

Olsen Gallery, Woollahra

James McGrath’s Cloud Flora with Bird, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 150 x 190

With his exhibition of works, Luscus, mixed media artist James McGrath intends to challenge the viewer’s innately isolated lens. He has other stated aims as well referencing the current demise of our natural world, climate change denial and a reconciliation of western artists and their portrayal of the Australian landscape. To pack all of this in a homogenous exhibition is quite a challenge. What we are presented with at the Olsen Gallery are groupings of works – mixed media and film with a tenuous bond to each other – that of referencing carefully curated periods in art history.

What do they all have in common – even in a limited sense? The Baroque period’s preoccupation with classical subject matter, its floral still life, the drama of its landscapes. However subtle or obvious McGrath, takes an element from art history and tweaks it before quoting it.

In the first series of oils on canvas with acrylic gel overlays each image seems to portray a marble statue from the Classical Period – or severe style- of Greek sculpture. This period is recognisable for its idealised human figures with severe or expressionless faces in white marble. It is the attitude of the figure that conveys their story – their faces are masklike. These statues have come down to us imperfect – a missing hand, foot, nose – something. They are iconic of their period and here McGrath has taken them and overlaid a rose coloured gel with an ocular hole pierced through. You can be forgiven for thinking that he is relating them to the art world and referencing them in the same way Warhol referenced pop culture with Marilyn Monroe.

Got it? Maybe not. The name of the exhibition is Luscus, so beware of declaring yourself too soon. If the statues are somewhat familiar their facial expressions may force you to think again. Look closer. Think back to those Renaissance masters and their subject matters…will you recognise a figure or two lifted from a famous canvas or wood panel and re-rendered in black and white to be perceived as Ancient Greek statues? These quirky pictures and their abstruse references would surely have amused Dali.

James McGrath’s Luscus Diptych, 2021, Oil on Canvas mounted to board, 170x150cm

In Luscus and Luscus II we are presented with what appears at a distance to be blown up silvertone photographs of dense eucalypt forests completed with that pierced acrylic gel overlay. However something isn’t quite right – and it’s not the rendering. It’s the subject matter. The trunks of the trees are centred too symmetrically in the frame, and the branches of the trees have been staged carefully to circulate the eyes around the image. Can it really be a photograph? Up close, you see McGrath’s technical mastery of a photo-real painting style with the added treat of painterly texture.  

Again, what you first see is not the only way of seeing.

As an extension of these two paintings, and referencing the first seven works depicting “classical statues” are the five minute video Luscus, and the Luscus Diptych, an oil on canvas mounted onto board. These related works were physically distanced in the Gallery which is unfortunate as although the exhibition space is not huge, the two works enjoy a symbiosis that adds to their reception. In both we see the depiction of Aphrodite as a statue in an Australian flora environment. She is ‘photographed’ and overlaid on a photo-real canvas in the painting. On video she is in a nebulous space admiring the circulating banksia as she is being admired through the curated vision of a moving, colour-changing pierced gel which in turn is watched on a screen. The video has a flirtation between western art represented by Aphrodite and Australian flora that isn’t achieved by the canvas alone.

The ten minute video, Ocular Fleur, is similarly distanced from its painted counterpart, Cloud Flora with Bird. These impressive interiors including Cloud Flora and Stairs, have more success in appealing to a historical art aesthetic than making a strong statement about climate denial. They are a delight to look at. Cloud Flora with Bird gives away, with it’s title, an extra treat with these images that reference the work of the great European masters – an unobstrusive piece of Australiana. Find the parrot? It’s easier when standing before the canvas. S/he is rendered with the intense hue of colour the Australian light gives to our landscapes as opposed to the subtler homogeneity of colour range/hue in the rest of the painting – much more about European light and indoors.

Natura Venor I, II and III could be part of a separate exhibition by McGrath. The subject matter lends from the Baroque, from Rubens and Dutch still life, but they play more with expectations than a way of seeing the world. Natura Venor I, II and III are a series of oils on canvas that have a big issue to deal with – what we have done to the environment. They take on Rubens style in their subject matter, their drama, their colour and their execution. In Natura Venor III, the brushstrokes run quickly over the canvas -with the motion of the hunt, the falling of the arrangement of flowers and even the structure of tree. Standing in front of them I couldn’t help but wish they were bigger – there is such scope to be overwhelmed by them.

James McGrath’s Natura Venor I, Oil on Canvas, 90 x 145cm

Instead of hunting a boar, McGrath has the collared dogs – humankind’s best friend and accomplice- besetting flowers from a bouquet desired for its role in adorning a home that have been made famous by Dutch still life painters. The dogs are ravaging that part of nature that is useful to humankind.

The works exhibited in Luscus are beautiful and quirky and can be a little disturbing when considering the snarling dogs, or mind bending when considering his references but his stated messages aren’t always clear. Overall McGrath’s work is engaging and impressive.

Luscus is showing at Olsen Gallery, 63 Jersey Rd, Woollahra, until May 29.

This review was first published in the Sydney Arts Guide.

Art Interview with Fine Artist Kris

Approaching artist Kris’ studio apartment from the street I had no idea the treat that was in store for me. The mundane exterior of her red-brick block along the apartment lined street of a not-so-trendy neck-of-the-woods in Sydney’s south, belied nothing of the wonder that greeted me when I walked through her threshold. I could have been Aladdin walking into the cave of treasures for the very first time. Painted images surrounded me, bombarding me with a haze of almost memories – Van Gogh, Klimt, Monet, De Kooning, Kokoschka, Margaret Preston, Matisse, and late Picasso… Creating in a broad spectrum of styles, Kris drew on a broader one of influences.

Forever Love, Mixed Media, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas, by Kris 60 x 75 cm; $1350AUD
Forever Love, Mixed Media, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas, by Kris 60 x 75 cm; $1350AUD contact me message on my facebook page or instagram or email – stella.samaras@gmail.com

Her artwork was displayed over all available walls – lounge room, dining, laundry, bedroom, hallway and bathroom. The private side of doors were painted as well as a strategically chosen kitchen cabinet – not to mention the works leaning up against the wall in her studio space.

A participant in several exhibitions, and artist groups over the years, she has taken on the Archibald prize with a portrait of Lady Florence Packer and enjoyed seeing her works in other galleries and exhibition spaces around Sydney as broad as Hazlehurst and the Addison Road Community complex.

Kris describes her works as both personal and decorative. Colour and passion project from each canvas, board, tile or paper she’s worked on. The world her figures inhabit are built with mixed media and experimental line work. They portray a world just beneath the reality of the physical plane in a style that moves between early to mid-twentieth century influences but carries its own unique voice.

Most of her works are figurative but all vary in their levels of abstraction. Many are portraits and life-paintings but she does still life, landscapes and more illustrative pieces. Where her approach is naturalistic the influence of the Impressionist is in her marks, and the Expressionist in her hues.

Surprise by Kris 60 x 75 cm acrylic on canvas with medium; $800 AUD
Surprise by Kris 60 x 75 cm acrylic on canvas with medium; $800 AUD, contact me (Stella) via message on my facebook page or instagram or email – stella.samaras@gmail.com

Kris can shake up her delivery with drama that is apparent as in the fish splashing out of the water – where the excitement of the viewer in catching that glimpse is conveyed by the explosive splash as much as the leap of the fish is. Or it can be obscured by the focus on a shimmering tree, leaving the intimacy of the lovers to meld into the landscape, leaving no doubt of the source of the euphoria the tree depicts.

By Kris
By Kris

No matter her style of delivery – abstract, semi-abstract, expressionist or realistic, her message is clear. She may use symbolic motifs but guides the viewer’s interpretation of her meaning. Of course, as with all abstract or semi-abstract works, there is so much there to wonder at that reception of her work remains very personal.

Has art always been a passion for you? When did you start painting?

I knew art was very important to me from a very young age. I remember pulling out the old encyclopaedia and trying to copy some of the Old Masters’ portraits. I loved gluing things on my art works, anything really, I would recycle on my art. Nothing much has changed these days.

How would you describe your work?

I would definitely say I’m a mixed media artist, my work varies in style, modern, semi abstract. I could paint abstract today, a contemporary piece tomorrow a realistic landscape or a modern sexy couple, it depends on my mood and what medium I want to work and mix with. Someone once described me as eclectic, I reckon that’s me.

I find beauty in anything and then I create.

Benedicta
Benedicta, by Kris, 27.3 x 23.3 inches, mixed media on paper, framed $1400 contact me (Stella) via message on my facebook page or instagram or email – stella.samaras@gmail.com

Detail of Benedicta, by Kris, 27.3 x 23.3 inches, mixed media on paper, framed $1400

Do you have a favourite style? When you approach a canvas what governs the style you choose to express yourself with? Can you say which artists or movements you particularly like who may have influenced your style? What do you like about them?

Well, I absolutely love Gustav Klimt. I love his intricate detail and the gold leaf he used has defiantly inspired me.

Modigliani: I love how he elongated his portraits and figures he took risks and confident. When I’m painting: life drawing with a model, I think, is where I’m most confident.

Chagall is another favourite – very dream like. I do bring some of my dreams on canvas. I’m inspired by many more but I have to say my art students inspire me and have been the greatest teachers :))

By Kris
By Kris

Do you have a favourite subject matter or theme you like to paint?

 I do tend to always go back and paint a lot of love and romance. I guess it’s what I miss and feel on a subconscious level, but also enjoy painting still life animals and landscapes.

You’ve been involved in several exhibitions around Sydney over the years. Do you see any changes in the art world – how work is exhibited and perceived?

I think now with COVID there is a transformation in art, online platforms are moving fast. I think this period will redesign the way the art world works.

I’ve been looking at the Black Lives Matter art movement, amazing art, very deep wounds are coming out of artists. People in general are digging deep. I remember once walking into an exhibition and it was by an artist from the lost generation. It was a powerful experience: I felt the weight and pain of this artist the minute I walked in.

Mixed media tiles: Forever Peace depicting a dove- acrylic on stone tile with wire $300 AUD; Olive Tree– acrylic on stone tile with Aluminum metal $300AUD ; Couple with wreaths My Love – SOLD

How much should art be swayed by the market or what galleries want?

There is a market for the very rich that’s for sure Sotheby’s marathon Virtual auction sold one of Francis Bacon triptychs $84. 5 million.

What do you think about art competitions? And open calls for submissions to planned exhibitions by galleries e.g., Hazelhurst?

Art competitions are a nice experience for artists, if that’s your thing but they aren’t for everybody. Let’s face it; have you seen the amount of artists out there!

Submissions can be tough and again it’s a personal preference – doesn’t mean the art will sell, but it can if you have a good art dealer.

Mixed Media on paper
Mixed Media on Paper

Do you have a favourite piece and why?

I don’t just have one favourite piece of work, there are many I’m attached to and I can’t part with. I see it as being loyal. 😉😄

Where can people see and buy your work?

I’m in the process of restructuring a new website. At the moment people find me on contact me via the craftytheatre facebook or instagram page or emailing stella.samaras@gmail.com or twitter O Ploutos Mou