James Gleeson has the well-deserved mantle of Australia’s foremost exponent of Surrealism. His practice commenced in the 1930s with Salvador Dali-inspired paintings and quickly evolved into his own unique style. This painting from the estate of Eva Breuer is a potent example of Gleeson’s capacity as an artist to provoke, shock and surprise and is a high point in a majestic career that spanned over 60 years.
At the heart of Gleeson’s philosophy was the premise that art acted as a bridge between the rational and the irrational, an interface between the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind. As art historian and curator Lou Klepac succinctly encapsulated, Gleeson ‘trawled the subconscious, chronicling the boundaries of human consciousness’.1
Evening Ceremonies 1986 is a fine example of Gleeson’s large-scale painting. It features fantastic, primordial creatures that seem from another world. Giant crustaceans, strange molluscs and other biomorphic and anthropomorphic shapes are assembled on the border between land and sea. As a young boy in Terrigal, on the New South Wales central coast, Gleeson marvelled at geological formations, the surge of the ocean, and life-forms visible in the rocks and pools. These early memories provided a fertile visual cue for his work. They have also been linked to his interest in psychologist Carl Jung and the notion of a collective unconscious.
Gleeson spent a lot of time thinking about titles for his work. They came later, after intense reflection, to avoid works becoming overtly symbolic or prescriptive. Evening Ceremonies evokes rather than describes any specific event. The fluidity of the paint dissolves into liquid in the background, while foreground forms take on an equally mysterious air. A sense of threat is suggested in the way the creamy white organisms in the sky are separated, as if in a perpetual state of being torn apart. Gleeson commented that when he planned a picture he often thought in terms of colour contrasts – hot and cold, dark and light. Evening Ceremonies is a picture that Gleeson has made so luminous and that it exists somewhere between the two.
1. Klepac, L., ‘A Close Focus and an Extraordinary Vision’, James Gleeson: Agapitos Wilson Annual [exhibition catalogue], Maitland Regional Art Gallery, New South Wales, 2012, p.10
Rodney James is an independent art consultant who specialises in valuations, collection management, exhibitions, research and writing, and strategic planning for art galleries and museums.