These notes were written for the gallery guides at the NSW Art Gallery about my entry for 2001 Archibald.
Paul Hopmeier and Ron Robertson-Swann
Last year my portrait of Stephen Mori consisted of seven panels. I liked the wide scan of it. Various glimpses, distances and attitudes made up the whole portrait. With Stephen though, there were too many heads of the same person. I did not want to do a big head. I decided, therefore, to do a group portrait. With this picture of Paul and Ron, I wanted the same scan as Stephen's offered. Two full arm reaches still could not encompass the picture. You almost have to physically enter the picture to see it. I wanted to build the figures into a space rather than have them occupy the given space of the painting. I wanted to use the space as an element that was at least as generative as the marks and colours that made up the faces and bodies of the subjects. This might reflect a sculptor’s thinking as much as anything. Here, I am a sculptor. My tools are not clay or steel but paint and lots of lateral space.
The space that the figures occupy, while universally grey, is clearly divided into various depths and differences. The remains of other figures in the picture remodel the space. Paul and Ron are not necessarily looking across the space at each other, or if they are, the space has time folded through it.
Painting portraits, however is not as dry a process as those descriptions imply. I have known Paul and Ron so long now, I do not need to look at them to conjure them, or at least my version of them. As professional and social acquaintances there has been much experience to draw from. I have attempted to borrow from these experiences to add to my more formal aims. If I have captured something of the subject, then those formal aims have been well applied. Initially I had wanted to include into the picture, more members of the sculptor's supper club (who dine together once a month). Paul and Ron however were the only survivors in the battle that took place on the canvas. Some poor members were mercilessly wiped from the board in response to the demands of the picture. In the game of the painting, I was aiming for a point where no more moves could be productively made. If I have succeeded then it’s checkmate. If I fail, it's stale.
Why the subject? I have known Paul and Ron since I was a student at The National Art School in 1971. We have subsequently been sculptors – colleagues in Sydney since then, collectively seeking to get to the bottom of sculpture.
Paul and Ron were the remains of a group portrait which at its busiest contained another four sculptors. These sculptors were subsequently painted out either because they were too difficult (to paint), or needed to be sacrificed for the well being of the painting.
Technique The painting is painted on eight plywood panels with oil paint. The initial cartoon was drawn in charcoal. As the subjects were painted the panels were also juggled. This process was repeated until the picture was satisfactorily resolved. Whoever survived this process survived in the painting. If it was not a game of chess, there was a battle none the less. Those that were left standing remained in the picture.
If a story emerges out of this process, then there was some purpose in painting it. I am not sure what the story is. It is shrouded in the mist of the background. The panels visually fold over one another. This is a time space, not a physical one.
Anecdotes The sculptors have met for a monthly dinner for nearly fifteen years. We have guests come to talk on a particular subject, or we show slides of works that interest us and we discuss each others' work and (non-professional) aspirations. The dinners are sometimes dull.They are more often stimulating. Sometimes they are wild and inspiring. The history that we share is unique and special. I have drawn from this experience to paint the portrait.
What do they think of the portrait? I have not dared to show it.
Why do I do portraits? We do stuff and believe in stuff out of our hunches, our hopes, our feelings. I believe there is work to be done that hasn't been done. Portraiture is important because we need to believe in the worth of individuals to be pictorially represented. While the act of painting portraits is undervalued, then so are individuals undervalued. We must believe that we can say something profound or of value or significance about each other. If we can't then it is all arbitrary. We remain circumstantial, blood, bones and genes. Portraiture is also available to all viewers regardless of their cultural status. It is the subject or it is not. It is as measurable as sport.
Was the work commissioned? No.