From his first solo exhibition at Sydney’s Mori Gallery in 1984, the year of his postgraduate art studies in Sydney, Tim Maguire had looked beyond Australia to foreign fields as the ground for his maturation as an artist. His early international experience began that same year with a travel scholarship to study at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie, a default destination rather than his first preference, America’s Rhode Island School of Design. But he benefited from the advice of his teacher, the Dutch conceptual artist Jan Dibbets, to spend some time travelling around Europe looking at art museum collections. After briefly returning to Sydney in 1985, he left again to embark on extended trips to the United States and Europe. This early stage of Maguire’s developing career was marked by ‘a certain restlessness’, driven by an idea of ‘not being stuck in one place’, and a wish to keep his painting practice moving on, not in a position where it became routine or predictable.1 During the 1980s, both at home and abroad, as Maguire’s practice hovered purposefully between alternating series of abstract, landscape and figurative representations, he was learning how and what to paint, to make his imagery less culturally specific, and to be more engaged with the fluid relativities of painting, like colour, scale, light and surface. After having exhibited in the United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom, he returned in 1989, with his artist wife Adrienne Gaha, to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, where his son was born, and his signature still-life flower paintings began.
The still-life motif had been anticipated in 1987 by Maguire’s small paintings of a single vegetable or flower, luminously coloured and floating in dark space, shown under the title Et in Arcadia Ego in New York that year. A year earlier his approach to painting flowers had been forecast by a singular performance-based work of 1986, comprising a grid of sixteen large works on paper sourced from his photograph of a detail from a reproduction of a seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting, and drawn loosely in black pigment with his feet, an expression of his sense of alienation then after returning to Sydney from Europe. Entitled Antipodes: The Horns of the Dilemma, it could be regarded as a throwback to his earlier experimental performances as an art student in Sydney and Düsseldorf.2 The creative process here, at once improvised and structured, revealed to Maguire how to achieve a delicate equipoise between the trompe l’oeil effects of abstraction and figuration, melding the art of the past with the present. In 1993 he won the prestigious Moët & Chandon Australian Art Fellowship, which took him with his family to a year’s studio residency in Hautvillers in the Champagne region of France, where this painting, Untitled 94, was made and then exhibited in Amsterdam.3
This large painting on sized paper, Untitled 94, with its lush white, yellow and blue floral forms bursting out from a dark void, is disrupted by the presence of a tiny insect (the fly in the ointment), which implicates its origins in historical Dutch still-life painting, a genre characterised by its precise ordering of symbols to convey the transience of beauty and of life itself. Not that Maguire specifically favoured this genre; rather, he used it as ‘a site of possibilities’, just as he referred to post-war modernist models for other more abstract painting series.4 His creative process, as often noted, transforms rather than transcribes the small figurative detail excised from its source in a found photographic reproduction.5 Maguire’s use of sized paper on canvas in the early 1990s flower paintings enhanced their smooth pictorial flow, achieving an alluring surface activation through layers of transparent washes of colour that enacted the artist’s intended performative process —an expansive, intuitive way of painting Maguire further developed in later series.6
1. Watkins, J., ‘What is it “as it really is?”,’ in Maguire, T., Godfrey, T. & Watkins, J., Tim Maguire, Piper Press, Sydney, 2007, p.28
2. The full title: Antipodes: The Horns of the Dilemma, Part 1, (detail from Still Life with Nautilus Cup by Willem Kalf, Drawn by Foot) 1986, first shown in an exhibition, Lapsis Linguae, Works on Paper 1984-1989, Chameleon Contemporary Art Space, Hobart, 1989. Detail reproduced in Maguire, T., Godfrey, T. & Watkins, J., op. cit., p.38; and in Searle, A. & Lindsay, E., Tim Maguire, Moët & Chandon, Epernay, 1994, p.11
3. The painting was made at the same time as the large diptych painting Untitled 94U39 1994, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, Sydney, Contemporary Collection Benefactors, 1994.
4. Searle, A., op. cit., p.6: ‘(Maguire) treats the art of the past (whether it is the recent past of post-war Modernism or the activities of Dutch genre painters of the 1700s) as something to be recaptured, not from the linear flow of history but from a field of possibilities.’ See also Miller, S., Tim Maguire, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, 2002.
5. Searle, A., op. cit., p.3: ‘But these are not so much transcriptions of three hundred year old paintings as transformations. While Maguire’s paintings may appear to be scrupulous reworkings they are as much improvised as copied from their sources.’
6. Maguire, T., op. cit., p.118: ‘I have always tried to cover my tracks, rather than reveal myself, through my use of paint – and I’ve always tried to introduce elements of chance.’
Jenepher Duncan is an independent art consultant. She was previously Curator of Contemporary Australian Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth and Director of the Monash University Museum of Art and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.