Menzies Art Brands



In the 1980s the doyen of Australian Art curators, Daniel Thomas, succinctly defined the art of the Southern capital as Melbourne Cool. He was making the contrast between the warmth, lightness and colour of post-war Sydney painting and the expressive restraint and intellectual discipline of artists such as John Brack (1920-1999), Roger Kemp (1908-1987) and Fred Williams (1927-1982). The contemporary successor to those artists and the exemplar of Melbourne Cool is Rick Amor, an artist of discipline and rigour who uses traditional forms and techniques to create art of power and depth. Amor had learned much from his teacher and mentor John Brack, placing particular importance on the advice to follow his own artistic inclinations and not be swayed by fashion and the need to be seen at the forefront of innovation.

That Amors art should be restrained and introspective should not come as a surprise. He had an isolated and at times lonely childhood; his mother dying when he was just twelve and, with his elder sister estranged from the family, it was just Rick and his schoolteacher father at home throughout his teenage years. He showed promise as a young artist and was encouraged by his father to paint seriously. His initial training at Caulfield Technical College was unfulfilling and he left for the National Gallery School to study under John Brack. As a young husband and father he had financial responsibilities, but he was determined not to fall back on teaching, knowing that as a profession it was draining and distracting to the life of an aspiring artist. He took a day job as a public servant for a short period, but then struck out as a professional artist with the assistance and patronage of Joseph Brown, one of Melbournes leading art dealers. Brown drove a hard bargain, requiring four paintings a month in exchange for a modest stipend, but it was excellent discipline and taught the young artist about scheduling and a professional approach to his work. Relief came for a period with a live-in position as general assistant to Sir Daryl and Lady Lindsay at their property Mulberry Hill, a job that gave proper housing for his young family and a workload allowing plenty of time for his painting. Other jobs came and went, including a stint as resident artist at Trades Hall, as cartoonist for the Communist Party of Australia and as an illustrator for comics aimed at young readers. These artistic diversions were valuable training in the craft of the artist, but were also slowing his primary goal to live as a professional painter, working and exhibiting in the mainstream of Australian art.
It was his friendship with painter Andrew Southall (born 1947) that eventually gave Rick Amor the confidence to pursue that goal. Southall was steadfastly a plein-air painter and encouraged his friend to go on painting trips to the nearby countryside. Until this time Amor had confined himself to the studio and he found the freedom of working outdoors both a new challenge and a liberating experience. His landscape work lightened his approach to painting, but he still maintained a discipline and structure to each composition, no matter how brief. Making preliminary sketches and compositions based on the golden mean were fundamental to the process, as was a close study of the methods of artists from the near and distant past. He moved to Clifton Pughs (1924-1990) artistic community Dunmoochin at Cottles Bridge, painting many studies of the surrounding countryside. Amor took his knowledge of landscape and began to apply it to a very particular topography, that of the world of his childhood at Frankston on the eastern edge of Port Phillip. He chose not to physically return to the Bay, but to begin painting many works in which his memories of the scrubby shoreline, low horizon and fast moving clouds are infused with a sense of mystery and unease, the troubles of childhood seeping into images of the popular leisure haunts of so many Melburnians. He took to exploring the shoreline of the lower Yarra and the construction sites around the West Gate Bridge, finding a new vocabulary in the littoral zone of decaying industry. Just as Brack had found a strange isolation in the crowded city, Amor too began to realise the contradiction of isolation and desolation within a densely populated urban landscape.

In 1993 Rick Amor and his new partner, Meg Williams, made the move from Dunmoochin back to suburban Melbourne. That change in his domestic landscape brought with it a new focus on the city as a subject for painting. He brought to bear his exemplary drafting skills and eye for subtle colour and tone to produce works that combined the accuracy of an architectural rendering with a psychological sensitivity that never ceases to destabilise the viewer. He was able to play with perspective and proportion, building dystopian worlds from the interiors of desolate museums, abandoned construction sites and the foyers of vast commercial buildings. He plays with notions of scale and our spatial awareness, often heightened by small figures hastily retreating from our gaze like cockroaches scuttling from the light of an opened cupboard door.

The Attic Amphora (The Lamp) takes the elements of Amors urban world and expands them on a new scale and format. A special commission for a private client, the work is unusual in that it was created for the building that is the subject of the painting. Essentially site-specific, it is also universal in the anonymity and uncluttered coolness of the interior depicted. The composition combines a strict single point perspective and subtle rendering of muted tertiary colours. There is quietness in the work, echoing the hushed atmosphere of the building, just two figures populating the vast edifice. The space depicted is a stylised interpretation of the entrance lobby to 333 Collins Street, a landmark building which incorporates a nineteenth century banking chamber into a modern art deco tower; the land boom of the 1890s meets Gotham City. Focal point of the composition is a huge, dark, Attic amphora on a high pedestal, enclosed in a giant niche suggesting an even grander scheme not realised. The amphora dwarfs a lone viewer standing by the tall lobby doors, begging the question as to what purpose could be served by such an object. Amor says that he likes his viewers to be left guessing, with questions unanswered and little mysteries to solve. He also has a penchant for titles that add to the story, at times confusing rather than enlightening the viewer. The lamp in the title sits high on an angled buttress, an incongruous antique seemingly at odds with the cool lines of contemporary architecture. It is patterned on the dozens of lamps that adorn 333 Collins Street, themselves remnants of the buildings glory days as home to one of Melbournes richest financial institutions. Painted as a diptych, this work is one of the largest undertaken by the artist and is a fitting interpretation of the citys most opulent structure of recent times. The painting is an important precursor to a series of grand, yet spare interiors, the most notable of which, The Waiter of 1996, has become one of the artists most revered and recognisable images.

Gavin Fry

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