39. RICK AMOR Figure in a Landscape
Rick Amor is among the best-known and most successful artists of his generation, gaining popular and critical acclaim not just for his painting, but also as a printmaker, illustrator and sculptor. His exploration of each art form is part of a deliberate and single-minded approach to his art, believing that any artist worth the name has to be more than competent in every discipline. His mentor, John Brack (1920-1999), was a fine painter, draughtsman and occasional printmaker, but never ventured into three dimensions. His Melbourne contemporaries George Baldessin (1939-1978) and Les Kossatz (1943-2011) painted the odd picture, but built their reputations as printmakers and sculptors. Having, by necessity, begun his professional career as a cartoonist and illustrator to make ends meet, Amor quite deliberately set out to develop his painting and, once he felt that was advancing properly, to turn his hand to sculpture. He had quite early developed a view that art was a profession requiring hard work, dedication and application – very much perspiration ahead of inspiration.
After a number of troubled years coping with the hard graft of earning a living, while avoiding the obvious path of teaching, Amor’s life settled down with a move to the artists’ commune Dunmoochin, at Cottles Bridge on the north-eastern outskirts of Melbourne. Set up by Clifton Pugh (1924-1990) in the 1950s, Dunmoochin offered a supportive environment among dedicated artists working across all disciplines. The early nineties saw a rise in Amor’s fortunes, both personal and professional and he took the opportunity to start experimenting with sculpture. His first works were small in scale, relying on the touch and feel of clay and wax to create a series of works in bronze where tactility was the prime concern. The seated dog, a character from many of his paintings and drawings, was a favourite. This simple form gradually grew in scale to the ultimate expression, the larger than life-sized piece acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, as a tribute to its retiring Director Brian Kennedy. The seated dog gave way to some of Amor’s most iconic figures, the running man and the artist’s alter-ego: the walking man, who trudges alone, briefcase in hand, as he carries the worries of the world on his shoulders.
The tactility and chunkiness of the dogs was contrasted to a number of quirky pieces where simplified figures were placed in relation to spindly trees, window frames or landscape forms. Small in scale, they are maquettes calling out to be reworked full scale. He was effectively drawing in space, at times reducing the works to barely more than two dimensions. These ‘drawn’ works are everything that the walking men are not – light, humorous and quirky, a clear contrast to the solidity and mass of the
These small works owed more to the spareness of Giacometti (1901-1966, Swiss) than the massivity of Rodin (1840-1917, French), whose influence is strong in Amor’s early figurative sculpture. Amor however, quotes a very different source for these elemental works: the paintings of the British artist, William Scott (1913-1989). In particular he notes the importance of Scott’s Figure into Landscape of 1952, a composition so spare and pared back that trees are mere sticks against a landscape more reduced than that of Mondrian (1872-1944, Dutch). ‘William Scott painted a series of pictures in the 1950s – one called Harbour, another called – Figure into Landscape – just simple linear compositions of lines on a white ground. I used this bold idea as a way of making sculpture that wasn’t too literal – a few lines for a tree, a framework for the ground and a park – a simple figure – it would say everything I wanted to about the visual setup – what I wanted to say about parks and gardens in the past. It did worry me a bit that they were like the sculptures of a painter’.1
One early sculpture, commenced at Dunmoochin, was an idea the artist carried with him for more than a decade. It started around 1990 as one simple figure, placed in juxtaposition to a bare tree. Over the next three years Amor tried half a dozen different variations, leading eventually to the Variable Landscape of 1994, a work which defined the concept; three bare trees and a lone man, standing uneasily with his hands in his pockets. While presented on a simple base, each element is a separate casting and can be rearranged like pieces on a chessboard. Almost every painting Amor has made over the past thirty years has a figure of some sort, usually exiting out of the picture to a place and purpose unknown. A fan of crime fiction, he believes such figures add a sense of mystery and questioning to the work, something to keep the viewer interested over the months and years they might live with it. The trees too, simple, bleak and leafless, are also regular participants in Amor’s world. They might be the pollarded London Plane trees of the inner city, the bleak denizens of Celestial Lane, or the battered beachside Macrocarpas of Frankston, at once individual and yet elemental, the tree reduced to the barest fundamentals.
Other sculptural forms have come and gone, perhaps most notably the starkly powerful dog-headed figure of the Relic, winner of the McClelland Sculpture Prize in 2007, but the idea of the moving landscape remained. In 2006 Amor produced a final maquette for the four-part work and, with the incentive of the McClelland win behind him, he set out to produce the piece full scale. The figure is slightly smaller than life sized, while the trees rise above the standing man to give scale and definition to the arrangement. Amor suggests that the figure had to be either smaller, or considerably larger, than life sized, rather than exactly so, which would mean giving the figure some sort of life and personality. To make it significantly larger would be adding a level of pretentiousness and grandiosity that the idea did not warrant. The final work retains the flexibility of composition inherent in the piece from its first iteration more than a decade earlier. Each component stands on a rugged base, firmly rooted yet capable of movement and rearrangement depending on the whim of the owner and the space available. The work was initially shown at the art fair in the Melbourne Exhibition Building, but could just as easily be placed in the outdoors. Certainly the Relic showed that Amor’s work could happily live indoors or out – that piece was first seen in a haunting, darkened room at Niagara Galleries, but at the McClelland Prize exhibition it stood in a roughly cleared patch of bush, lurking and ready to scare the unwary stroller. Figure in a Landscape also stands ready to obey the imagination of the one fortunate enough to have the right and responsibility for its final placement; not just a figure sculpture, but one bringing his own environment with him. The artist states clearly that this is his final take on the idea, the definitive outcome of a concept revisited perhaps seven or eight times, which he has nurtured and developed over many years of struggle, illness and recovery, perhaps personifying the artist himself in his travels through life.
1. Rick Amor, in conversation with the writer, 2006
Gavin Fry BA[Hons] MA MPhil