Artist Geoff Dyer, a charismatic and much-loved figure in the Tasmanian cultural scene, passed away on 8 October 2020, aged 73.
Born in Hobart in 1947 and growing up in the southern Tasmanian suburb of Moonah, Dyer came to art early in life, attending drawing classes and completing his first oil painting at the age of eight. From childhood onwards, art remained Dyer’s passion and he continued to paint prolifically, becoming one of Tasmania’s best-known landscape painters.
In the late 1960s, Dyer studied at the Tasmanian School of Art in Hobart, eventually qualifying as a teacher, a job that allowed him to travel and work around the state – from his first teaching post on King Island to his years as a lecturer at the University of Tasmania’s Launceston School of Art and as Head of Art at Burnie Technical College. In the early 1980s, Dyer gave up his day job to work solely on painting. Throughout the ensuing decade, Dyer worked as a full-time artist, traveling overseas and honing his craft by painting the landscapes of England, Europe and the USA. In 1995, he was awarded an Art Gallery of New South Wales residency at the Cité Internationale des arts in Paris.
To offset the solitude of his studio practice, Dyer regularly joined friends for coffee and wine at local pubs, cafes and art gatherings, where he quickly became known for his warmth and good humour. Described by artist Ben Quilty as “a gentle, humble and sweet man,” despite his love of company, travel and art galleries, Tasmania’s halcyon landscapes remained Dyer’s most frequented scene.
The West Coast was a favourite location and its rugged peaks and untamed rivers appear consistently across Dyer’s oeuvre, which leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Cassy O’Connor MP, has referred to as “love letters to wild lutruwita.” In his eulogy about the artist, close friend and writer Richard Flanagan recalled times he spent hiking with Dyer through the Tasmanian highlands, enjoying the quiet comradery being alone in nature afforded. “Beneath his carnival front, I discovered something different,” Flanagan said. “I came to see art mattered to him profoundly. That he understood art as only a few do. Geoff had a sense of Tasmania that was at once both deep and intimate.”
Considered one of Tasmania’s preeminent landscape painters, Dyer was distinctive for his expressionistic way of working – applying thick swathes of oil paint across a canvas to depict the colours and abstracted forms of nature. Imbued with a crackling energy and vigorous sense of movement, Dyer’s paintings are visceral, the physical presence of the maker revealed in the way paint has been dragged across the surface by fingers or flattened with a palette knife and brush.
Director of Hobart’s Despard Gallery, and longstanding friend, Steven Joyce reveals how the carnage of this creative vigour manifested in Dyer’s studio. “Anyone who visited his studio, be it in London, Paris, Sydney or Hobart, entered a world of chaos. Tubes of paint, bottles of turps and palette knives were all over the place. If he needed to get a texture, Geoff would often use whatever implement came to hand. I recall a time when Geoff was painting the rock formations of kunanyi/Mt Wellington and he tore the top off a cigarette packet to scrape the oil back from the canvas.”
A productive and ambitious creator, Dyer’s paintings were a regular fixture on the national art prize calendar. In addition to being a repeat finalist in the Wynne Prize and the Sulman Prize, from 1993 Dyer began to submit portraits to the Archibald Prize. His chosen subjects were often prominent Tasmanian residents and included former Greens leader and environmental activist Bob Brown, author Margaret Scott, and Museum of Old and New Art founder David Walsh. It was Dyer’s portrait of his friend Richard Flanagan that eventually won him the Archibald Prize in 2003. A textured portrait full of fiery tones of orange, brown and black, Flanagan believed the painting was less about him and more about Dyer’s personal experiences at the time. “Looking at the painting, I realised it was about Geoff’s son Quentin who had so tragically died,” Flanagan said. “It was Geoff’s grief and rage at that tremendous loss.”
Never far from Dyer’s mind and canvas, the Tasmanian landscape continued to be the subject of his most recent exhibitions and carried him through the long illness he endured in his final years. In mid 2019 Despard Gallery staged Overview, a major exhibition of Dyer’s landscapes, to coincide with Geoff Dyer: Portraits at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart. Actively painting until a few days before his death, the importance of art making for Dyer was summed up by Flanagan, “What was hidden to most about Geoff, but apparent in the best of his work, was how he painted with the greatest of humility. A humility towards the traditions to which he belonged, a humility to his own talent, his own shortcomings, and his weaknesses, coupled with a consciousness of his own particular strengths. His body was only one thing – painting was everything.”
Dyer is survived by his partner Krysia, daughter Kelly, his brother David and sister Lou.