McLean Edwards’ fluid brushwork is capable of transforming even the most ordinary subject into an object of contorted beauty. The raw yet soft transition of light juxtaposed with a carnivalesque colour palette are idiosyncratic of the artist’s painterly manner, reinforced by bold lines and the farouche demeanor of his sitters.
The artist’s oeuvre is often defined with references to art history; from the rich colour and masterful chiaroscuro style of his childhood ‘hero’, Rembrandt, and the sombre, frill-necked subjects distinctive of other Dutch and Flemish 17th century Old Master painters to the ‘Olympia style’ nudes of Neoclassical French artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Edwards borrows from the convention of these historical portraits, manipulating and refining the representation of social realism into his own offbeat, individualised style. Stylistically, his works reveal the influence of domestic artists that retain what he calls an ‘“Australian quality”, whatever that vernacular is’ – William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Noel McKenna, Sidney Nolan, Tony Tuckson and Brett Whiteley; ‘the list gets longer all the time,’ says Edwards. Further comparisons can be made with international artists Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, as well as contemporary painter George Condo who echoes his hybridisation of traditional European painting with a sensibility informed by popular culture.
Edwards’ paintings are chaotic yet composed – self-described as ‘clumsy’. In his advocacy of automatism, the artist applies paint directly onto the canvas, free of preconceived or controlled thought with the absence of studies or photographs. ‘This entails risk, because I have absolutely no idea what roadblocks will come up,’ says the artist. ‘I find this spontaneity gives me a heightened sensation when navigating through the plate tectonics of the conscious and unconscious. The physical decisions even if unresolved provide an emotional sensitivity, which would be absent if I planned it all,’ he continues.
Early in his career, Edwards depicted those he knew, occasionally strangers but always real people. He evolved to a more fictional representation, ‘inventing characters which was very liberating. I found I could manufacture a whole character in my head which served as a conduit to completing a picture,’ says Edwards.
His subjects are often depicted in a nondescript landscape, darkened surround or colour-block backdrop. They appear vulnerable and awkward, held in derision. Their features exaggerated; ears and noses are distended, paired with comic, sullen expressions and elongated faces. Edwards’ dramatised compositions are theatrical with the use of symbolic imagery, kooky commentary and the subtle fabrication of the human form, condition and psyche. Lyrical and playful subjects are entwined with dark tones and thin impasto with an added catharsis of strong colour, either surrounding the figures or accentuating facial features.
Above all, Edwards is a figurative painter; ‘I perceive the painting as… a map of a personage. What I mean to say is I feel like a novelist taking detours, unexpected turns or grisly endings depending on my mood. Many of the guys I conjure up strike me as almost a duplicate of myself, a doppelgänger with my anxieties, my secrets and my own unknowability.’
In Untitled (2017) a brooding, red-nosed male figure appears inattentive and self-absorbed. His upturned, retro hairstyle is suggestive of a self-portrait (yet this is unconfirmed). The artificial colouring of the face is suspended at the jaw; the fleshy tone of the neck is visible indicative of a mask. This obscure front is coupled with an averted gaze – gaping into the distance or, as in other works, timidly at the viewer – an adaptation of 17th century Dutch art. The displacement of the look produces a mistrust, or disconnection with the subject. And yet, the image appears honest and sincere; the ambivalent emptiness of the stare is tinged with nervous laughter in the viewer, and the subject is offered an alternate narrative or ‘passport’ to migrate to new environments with new identities.
Scott Livesey Galleries
15 November to 9 December, 2017