Local Artist and 2010 Archibald Prize entrant, Don Gentle, speaks with Focus about the inspirations behind his works.
Where and when was it that you first picked up a brush and started to paint?
Nineteen 93, at the New England TAFE College, when I was 35 years old. I had been life modelling for some time, and had become convinced I could do as well as the kids who were doing the course.
So I gave it a go and found out what I wanted to do when I grew up. Very much like swimming forever against the tide and then turning around and swimming with the current instead, it was a great relief.
What would you say is your signature style, and why?
I am a representative realist, very much like the ancient Greeks, in the sense that I live in a very concrete world of real objects and I am happy to look at the external world.
I am not interested in delving into the psychological, with my diagnosis (I am bipolar), my mind has not necessarily been a great place to be at times. I am even less inclined to spend time examining the formal aspects of painting like many did in the 20th century – because they did do it then, and now it is time to move on. So representative realism it is.
Your favorite subject matter?
People. I love doing portraits, and aspire to be like Rembrandt, able to present a face and tell an entire life story through it. I revel in the body, particularly the male body. Partly this is my sexuality, and, in more than just a small part, it is about being an athlete. This ties in with the Greek influence and it is interesting that the two high points of interest in the male body in Western Art, Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy coincide with the highest points of high resolution realism.
My work with the body covers both the traditional nude in decorous poses and more up-front erotic work. It would be great to work with live models again – but it is beyond my finances at the present moment to pay anyone, and it is hard to get volunteers even for what the Victorians called ‘draped’ ie. ‘clothed’ work – so I am working through my back catalogue of photographic resources.
You are one of the handpicked few entering their works into the Archibald this year. This must be a huge achievement for you. Tell us about the entry piece?
The Archibald is the glittering prize at the end of the rainbow and about as substantial for regional artists. Having said that, it is also the premier art competition in Australia and it’s a challenge that anyone who is serious about being an artist must take.
My portrait this year was of Ian Ross. I was very pleased with the technical quality of the work, but feel I took the safe options. This was silly, as I am not emotionally equipped to take a conservative approach, and so it lacked that ‘wow’ factor. Roscoe has implied that he feels much the same.
We may take it up again at some future time. I learned a lot from doing it, and every entry I have had in the Archibald has resulted in a quantum jump in the quality of my work overall … so it is always worth the effort regardless of the external result.
How do you feel about Taree’s art scene?
Taree has a great art scene, and I mean ‘art’ in it is most Catholic sense. It is particularly rich in the performing arts, especially theatre (so why not a School of Theatre Studies, for which we have some almost unique local resources?).
If you want to see the quality of what is out there, Donna Rankin, Wendie Patch and I are exhibiting our portraiture at the Other Side Gallery during April. Come and judge for yourself. So saying, the problem for Taree artists is finding a pathway for our art to be seen outside of Taree.
Being ‘out of the loop’ of the major Metropolitan art scenes provides immense hurdles to regional painters. James Johnson in music, and Nat Alexopolous and Shannon Dooley in theatre, show what we can do when there is a way, but that route is not quite as clear for the visual artists. Something we must put our minds to!
Major inspiration is the Baroque period (music as well as visual arts). The high points being those two Italian psychopaths, Caravaggio and Bernini, balanced by the Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer. Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of St Paul’ is the first picture I remember seeing, some time before I went to school.
I would like to be able to bring some of their drama and emotion (as tamed by their reflection and skill) to modern times. Not easy because they lived in times of very tight ‘shared values’. We do not. I would like to being able to go and see some of their works ‘live’.
When you are not painting, where can we find you?
Sometimes in the garden, I have a collection of Bonsai in training. But more often on the road running or cycling. I am a passionate triathlete and by the time this is printed I hope to have completed my fifth Ironman Australian triathlon.
I dream of doing the Hawaiian Ironman one day but if the Archibald is the pot at the end of the rainbow, Hawaii is a mission to Mars … but we all need dreams to live by!