Classic de Novo II @ Ross Watson Gallery

Ross Watson - Untitled 19/09 (after Caravaggio)Thursday, 28 January 2010

Dear Diary,

Ross Watson’s exhibitions, held in his eponymous gallery, have become almost an annual feature of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival. From the middle of the 1980s, Watson was considered to be at the forefront of Australian figurative painting in general and the Appropriation art movement in particular. His works, which combined the elements of the Old Masters, Salvador Dali’s Surrealism, and James Rosenquist’s Poppism, were shown at the Robin Gibson Gallery, acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, and featured in Nevil Drury’s influential Images 3: Contemporary Australian Painting.

From the late 1990s, however, Watson has concentrated in his paintings on the exploration of the male nude. While he has largely abandoned Australia’s mainstream art world, his works have found a ready response from the gay market, which appreciates a well-painted Baroque nude frequently unencumbered by complex symbolism or heavy ideological contextualisation.

Ross Watson - Untitled 14/09 (after Pynacker)His present exhibition, Classic de Novo II, is a continuation of this trend. It is dominated by the male nude posed against the backdrop of an Old Master painting. However, while I might be critical of the ideological content of his works (or the lack thereof), there is one thing that cannot be denied by me or anyone else for that matter. Ross Watson can paint, REALLY PAINT! As the result, I actually enjoyed Classic de Novo II more than I expected. His exhibition has to be seen in the flesh, as the photographs do his works no justice.

The paintings show that Watson painstakingly studies the nude, the texture of the skin, the highlights on the body, the musculature and kinetics of the movement, and enjoys capturing it on canvas. Witness such works as Untitled 17/09 (after Vermeer), Untitled 19/09 (after Caravaggio), or Untitled 14/09 (after Pynacker): nude or barely clad, confronting the viewer or averting their gaze, his models are living, breathing individuals. While the figures from the Old Master backgrounds in such paintings as Untitled 19/09 (after Caravaggio) can appear almost flat and garishly coloured by comparison, this may have been done on purpose to draw a clear distinction between his treatment of the living model and the copied Old Master painting.

Ross Watson - Untitled 21/09 (after Ricci)The artist knows how to introduce a contemporary nude into an existing Old Master composition. Sometimes this works best with the landscape settings, such as Untitled 22/09 (after Backhuysen), Untlted 13/09 (after van Ruisdael), or Untitled 1/05 (after Vernet), which is my favourite work in the exhibition, where a pensive neo-Classical nude (which I believe is partly modelled on Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson’s The Burial of Atala) is beautifully introduced into a similarly tranquil neo-Classical landscape after Vernet. Watson creates equally successful pairings in Untitled 19/09 (after Caravaggio) or Untitled 21/09 (after Ricci), where the triangular configuration of the model’s silhouette is carefully balanced against inverted pyramid of the Old Masters’ composition. The only exception is perhaps Untitled 24/10 (after Caravaggio), where Caravaggio’s boy and Matthew Mitcham appear a bit awkward within an otherwise immaculately executed work.

Ross Watson - Untitled 1/05 (after Vernet)One of the most surprising elements of this exhibition – and of Ross Watson’s oeuvre in general – is the relatively modest scale of his works. Given the amount of detail and the fine execution of his paintings, one would imagine them being carried out on quite a large scale. However, perhaps partially inspired by the modestly-sized Old Master prototypes (especially the Vermeers), none of the works (bar the 1995 Ian Roberts painting) is larger than a metre, most well under 50 cm in height and width. As the result, Watson’s works acquire a greater sense of intimacy between the model and the viewer.

The exhibition also contains Watson’s photographs of Matthew Mitcham and Marco da Silva. Their athletic bodies lend themselves easily to the aesthetic rhythm and geometric musculature of the classically inspired compositions, and Watson advantageously exploits their appeal, celebrity status, and physical allure.

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2010


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