Review

Not everyone gets to celebrate turning 95 by having a major retrospective at a public art gallery. In fact, not everyone gets to mark this milestone occasion at all, but Sydney-based artist Guy Warren has done both.

As titles go, Genesis of a Painter: Guy Warren at 95 is pretty literal. The exhibition, which was curated by Barry Pearce, former curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, spanned Warren’s entire career, right up to 2015. Here the focus was on the artist’s early years: the drawings he made during World War II while stationed in Bougainville, and his paintings from the 1950s and 1960s.

During the war Warren made numerous sketches, all of which demonstrate his skill as a draughtsman.

These drawings also begin to point to his interest in the human figure in the landscape, a preoccupation that would continue to hold his attention for the next seven decades.

Looking at Warren’s brightly coloured paintings from the 1950s, you could be forgiven for thinking that he had never left the jungle.

Using a palette predominantly composed of greens, blues and purples, Warren’s paintings from this period seem to depict tribal figures in lush tropical foliage. In actual fact, Warren was living in London. He painted from memory, and from photographs, some of which he borrowed from David Attenborough.

But the incongruity between actual and virtual locations is not what makes these paintings remarkable. What is really interesting is the massive transformation in style that has taken place. In the intervening years since leaving the army, presumably while he was studying art back in Sydney, Warren metamorphosed from a skilled draughtsman to a confident painter of bold, semi-abstract canvases. His almost completely abstract Rainforest, Torokina, 1959, a rhythmic composition of heavy brush-strokes in cool colours punctuated by bursts of yellow, bears little or no resemblance to the precise sketches he made when he was actually on location.

In 1959 Warren returned to Australia, and his paintings from the 1960s reflect this location change.

A bright, cheerful palette of primary and secondary colours is replaced by a much murkier selection of olive greens, russet browns and yellow ochres: a range much more suited to the Aussie landscape.

The artist also returned to watercolours (which he had used during the war) and he uses this medium to his advantage in works such as his Mungo Brush series from 1965. In Coming Storm, Mungo Brush especially, the watery, translucent paint perfectly captures the tension and potential of a rainstorm looming in the distance.

From his huge, almost monochromatic drawings made in the 1980s; his densely layered and heavily patterned paintings from the 1990s such as Tribal, 1997, in which figure and ground carry equal weight; and the most recent works like Dust of Memory, 2015, which seem to have taken a narrative turn, Warren has continued to change and evolve as an artist. It was the chance to see these moments of transition or transformation over the course of a very long and dedicated career that made Genesis of a Painter: Guy Warren at 95 such a rare treat.

Genesis of a Painter: Guy Warren at 95 was on display at 
S.H Ervin Gallery
from 15 April – 29 May

Tracey Clement