The Painter’s Progress has been labelled as the most important travelling exhibition of the year. Dubbo artist Neil Cuthbert sat down to discuss the works on show and his life as an artist.
When did your interest in painting start?
I have always drawn and painted. My grandfather was pretty good with pen and ink, and my father continues to draw in pencil a lot. I suppose the longest break I had from the practice was during the longer overseas voyages when I was in the British Merchant Navy from 1975 to 1980. However, the interest was rekindled after I joined the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service in 1980.
The ship I sailed on was the MV Cape Moreton, and we used to service the navigational aids through the Barrier Reef, up to the Torres Strait and round into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
With many days at anchor at various locations, it seemed a good time to take up drawing and painting again … and so continuing after I left the sea in 1990, I took up full time study at university.
> How would you describe the exhibition on show at the Manning Regional Gallery?
The exhibition of works at the Manning Regional Gallery can be considered as a ‘Survey’ show; that is, they represent my arts practice over a period of years, from about 1990. Some of the earlier pieces were produced while I was at TAFE and university and as my output has been pretty constant over the years, they represent the evolution of a practice as a painter.
This exhibition thus demonstrates the manner in which my painting style has changed over the years – the changing and maturing use of colour, texture and pictorial space. Also, the way in which the subjected matter changes from an early autobiographical base to a wider examination and appreciation of who we are and the way we live … I suppose, the ’human condition’, although that term seems a little over used today.
These works have both simple and complex narrative structures that are derived from personal experience – particularly from those of travel and relocation. They have also been fuelled from great stories of the past, both the Old and New Testaments, a continuing interest in ornithology, and from the greatest traditions of western art, (including literature) from the early renaissance up to the twentieth century British Moderns.
> Do you have a favourite piece in the collection?
With regard to a favourite, that is difficult to answer. I’ve been asked, “Do you think the earlier paintings are not as good as the later or recent ones?”
All the paintings are equally important, as it is through the trials and struggles of the earlier pieces that I am able to arrive at where I am today. So each work has its role to play. I suppose if I had to pick one, then it would be ‘A Murder of Crows’. This large piece was a finalist in the 2006 Kilgour prize, organised by the Newcastle Regional Gallery and a favourite because it is a ‘springboard’ to the next evolutionary period in my work.
I often describe my progress as one of a series of ‘plateaus and cliffs’. In the early days you learn a lot in a very short time, so you spend a short while on the ‘plateau’ before you jump up the next ‘cliff’ to a new learning level.
These days I spend about 2-3 years on a plateau before gaining the next level, due to the much higher levels that I work at. So the Murder of Crows is there at the top of one of those ‘cliffs’ and thus setting me up for that next level.
> Your exhibition has been very well received. Did you expect this success?
Did I expect the success of the exhibition? I have been working hard for many years now, fitting my painting practice alongside my teaching work at Orange TAFE, so recognition from a wider public is always well received. I am indebted to a few ‘hard core’ collectors who have major collections of my work and who have followed me when I have exhibited through Artarmon Galleries in Sydney.
The success of the exhibition here in Orange at the Regional Gallery was extremely pleasing. The Director Alan Sisley and the gallery staff have been extremely supportive and were able to extend the exhibition period by a couple of weeks, due to the kind gesture of Salvatore Zofre, who postponed the opening date of his show at the gallery so that I was able to get that extension.
The success of the show was also made all the more possible by the excellent curatorship of Dr Andrew Flateau, author of the accompanying book to the show: ‘Cuthbert – A Painter’s Progress’.
A ‘successful’ exhibition is not to be taken for granted; however, I was aware of a ‘rising tide’ of interest in the show prior to its opening.
> The subjects of your works varies between each piece. Where does your inspiration come from?
Where do the ideas come from? I suppose fundamentally from human nature – who we are as individuals and our relationships with others. The early works were quite autobiographical, dealing with my migration from the United Kingdom to Australia. However, having worked through that process, I now look at ‘Everyman’ – so to speak.
This is where an interest in Old and New Testament stories developed and their reflections on human behaviour, actual or suggested.
For example, the painting titled ‘Captain Brillo sees the Light’ is based upon a ‘road to Damascus conversion’. This was a follow up painting from the previous work ‘The Shooting Party’.
The name Brillo is my reference for light, derived from ‘brilliance’. His rank, from the early comic book characters i.e. ‘Captain Africa.’ It’s all a play on words, just as many of the other titles are.
Other subjects are derived from word lists that I put together that represent geographical places, both here and in England.
For example, ‘In the land where birds nest in trees of coral and where the red emperor navigates through pools where depth is left to chance’, so we have in the land (Australia), … where birds (the Wattle bird) … trees of coral (the Coral Tree) … the Red Emperor (A Barrier Reef fish) … where depth is left to chance … (a reference to the tidal swimming pool at Gerringong on the NSW South Coast).
This is all explained more fully in Dr Flateau’s book. I suppose I am also a struggling ‘closet’ cryptic crossword solver!
> Which painters have influenced you throughout your career?
I am quite eclectic in regards to being influenced by or being interested in other artists. From Giotto and Cimabue through the early compositional style of Titian to the major players of the early British modernist painters such as Spencer, Bomberg, Wadsworth, Wyndham-Lewis, Nevinson and the South Australian painter Henry Lamb, another war artist and close friend of Spencer.
> Do you have a favourite medium to work with?
I mainly paint in oils, as I prefer their flexibility through slowness of drying and depth of colour.
I also work in gouache and soft pastels.
> What advice would you give to upcoming artists?
For upcoming artists I would suggest that they be prepared for a lot of work; developing a work ethic is the number one priority, putting the hours in to develop their technical facility as well as their conceptual base, and don’t be pressured into exhibiting too early if you are not prepared for it.
In the early days concentration should be made on learning your trade, not building up a facile exhibition resumé.
> Thank you Neil.