(c) Tim Maguire courtesy of Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney
35. TIM MAGUIRE
Maguire came from a family of teachers and always assumed that he too would join that profession. This was shattered when Maguire was very badly injured in a serious train crash that left him unable to study or work for a full three years. After this period, he enrolled at The University of Sydney to study art history but became disenchanted with the Marxist theory that underpinned some subjects. He became suspicious of academic institutions, yet despite this he turned to the art world and in 1980 enrolled at the National Art School, also occasionally called the East Sydney Technical College. He took to his studies and artistic practise with alacrity and energy as well as setting up a studio in Sussex Street to do more work in the evenings. Maguire’s paintings and drawings of the time were already based upon selected photographs and newspapers not unlike the early works of the English artists Sir Peter Blake (1932-) and the Scottish artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005). The thing to note that already, even in his student days, Maguire had turned to second order imagery as could be found in magazines, photographs, newspapers and advertisements – the problem of what to draw or paint disappeared, as the selected subject was already there, and all that remained was to transpose that imagery with an artistic medium, which at that time, was often charcoal or soft crayon, and to create a third order reality; that is, a new reality as mediated by an artist. Essentially, this is what Maguire is still doing in his paintings of flowers, berries and fruit – the ones that have made him so famous.
Maguire finished his Certificate and Higher Certificate course at the National Art School in 1982 and the following year he enrolled in the one year Graduate Diploma in Painting course at Sydney’s City Art Institute and in 1984 he undertook Postgraduate Studies at the Sydney College of the Arts. In 1985, after winning an Australia Council Scholarship, Maguire made an important decision to travel to Germany to study at the Kunstakamie Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf Art Academy), an old and very respected art school institution that was founded in 1762. One of the staff members at the Düsseldorf Art Academy was Gerhard Richter (born 1932) who served as the Professor of Painting from 1971 to 1993. Maguire also came under the direct and regular tutelage of the Dutch photographer and conceptual artist Jan Dibbets (born 1941). Dibbets’s photographs, often in series and multiples, present very carefully selected images of overlooked and simple subject matter – flowers, earth, windows, sea, sky – in ways that throw new light upon the perspective, form and attributes of commonplace subject matter. His compositions are often focussed upon the effects of light and are oddly illuminated and effulgent. There can be little doubt that Richter’s informal and non-subjective approaches and the light-filled works of Dibbets left their mark upon Maguire’s imagination, as did their distanced and non-expressive attitudes.
Maguire returned to Australia from Germany in 1985 and worked in Sydney in a studio in Abercrombie Street until 1988, when he moved to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains to consolidate and refine his ideas. A protracted period of travel followed until 1992: New York, London, Italy and the Isle of Wight. During this time Maguire reflected upon all that he had seen and done and has admitted to have been impressed by the luminist paintings of the American Hudson River School artist John Kensett (1816-1872) and the colour and space exercises of Blinky Palermo (1943-1977), an ex-student of the Düsseldorf Art Academy. There is some perceivable link to these artists in Maguire’s works such as his Untitled of 1986 in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, his Bridge Study 1 of 1988 in his possession and his Faith and Reason of 1989 in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Maguire started upon his flower series in about 1989 and the earlier versions of these like his Untitled 92U02 of 1992 and others reveal a loosely and thinly brushed treatment and a very sophisticated grasp of the qualities of paint and surface treatment. They show a decidedly French handling that is light, free and deft in treatment with a very subtle awareness of texture and light effects much in the manner of the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) who, like Maguire, is best known for his flower studies.
The technique for these early flower paintings from 1989 to about 1997 involved selecting a small section of a Dutch or Flemish Eighteenth Century still life painting of a vase of flowers and then enlarging the section so that its formal, painterly and abstract qualities dominate the picture plane and one is hardly aware of its original source. Any pictorial depth that may have been present in the original painting is eliminated through such cropping. These large and impressive paintings look pictorially flat and freely abstract when looked at up close and almost naturalistic when looked at from a distance. The colours in these early flower paintings are rich but toned down and they have the look of some wallpapers and antique brocade fabrics and the paint surface is often streaked and overworked with a dry brush to almost distress the surface. This gives the paintings a very effective ‘worn’ and tactile appearance that sits well with the works’ different foci in the picture plane – something that is not present in the original painting or the selected cropping. Keeping Richter’s dislike of expressiveness and subjectivity in mind, it is interesting to note that Dutch and Flemish still life paintings have no subjective qualities and no personal flourishes – they are simply superb instances of naturalistic realism trying to get the image rendered as precisely as possible and the personality of the artist does not figure in the rendition. Maguire has admitted that is why he chooses them. The whole series of these paintings started with the birth of Maguire’s son in 1989 and the sense that life was precious yet tenuous and the artist became emotionally, as well as intellectually, aware of the passing of time and the ever present Damoclean sword of mortality – this is why so many of these paintings have a serious and brooding intensity that recalls the vanitas paintings of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries in Europe, wherein symbols of the passing of time act as a counter to human vanity, over-confidence and pride. There is something about many of these early brooding works that matches the exquisite poignancy of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s (1571-1610) only still life painting The Basket of Fruit of 1599 in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Ambrosian Library) in Milan.
The distressed surfaces of Maguire’s paintings became more pronounced when he took up rubbing them back with mineral turpentine solvent when they were half dry. This was further refined when he starting flicking drops of solvent on the painting’s surface, waiting until it had eaten into the paint and then brushing it off with a dry brush so that an underneath colour was revealed. As a result, his paintings have many technical characteristics that go beyond conventional oil painting – they are brushed, scoured, smeared, thinned and pitted. The visual complexity of these techniques gives them a visual richness and variety that is not often matched. This in turn led to a further refinement in what are called Maguire’s colour separation paintings. The technique involves painting with only three colours: yellow, cyan (blue-green) and magenta (purple-red). These paintings are usually created on white polyester canvas to give them an even and fine surface that reflects light and is non-absorbent. Maguire paints the first layer of the flower imagery usually in yellow, lets it half dry and flicks solvent in it at various points and then paints it again over the yellow surface with cyan and it is again flicked with solvent. This is, once again, let half dry and the painting is repeated a third time with a magenta layer and flicked with solvent and allowed to half dry. The whole painting is then coaxed into form by rubbing layers of paint away with solvent, by scraping and streaking the paint and by modifying the surface to reveal the underlying forms and colours.
Maguire’s large diptych painting Untitled 20030101 of 2003 shows an enlarged vista of orange berries that is operatic in its colour transitions and majestic in its scale. It advances upon earlier work by using macro-lens and out-of-focus forms that are not present in some of his other works. It is bathed in bright light and beams out at the viewer like a gigantic image projected onto a dappled shower screen. It wears the materiality of its paint superbly and draws the viewer in to discover its painterly subtleties and then demands to be seen at a distance. There is no doubt that this very accomplished painting shows Maguire at his best and is one of the finest of his creations.
Godfrey, T; Watkins, J., Tim Maguire, Piper Press, Annandale, 2007
MacKenzie, J., Drawing in Australia: Contemporary Images and Ideas, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1987
McIntyre, A., Australian Contemporary Drawing: Resurgence and Redefinition, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1988
Murray, C.; Drury, L.; Drury, N., Australian Painting Now, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2000
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne