Nick Howson

Recent Works

December 5 - December 17 2009

There has always been something essentially still and very quiet about Melbourne-based Nick Howson's works. Characterised by stylised, patchwork-like landscapes with swooping magpies and soaring cockatoos over hazy, sun-bleached fields, the paintings unlock those places within where distant memories of less complex times reside. Even his epic battlefields seem soundless and devoid of clamour, as if frozen in the vacuum of a bygone era. In recent works the sense of gentle nostalgia is made even more palpable.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Howson's local library has again become a place of pilgrimage. There, amidst the rows of books, he researches the themes that had kindled his imagination in childhood - stories about ‘great historical events and grand adventures.' Indeed, the narrative content of recent works increasingly references a diverse range of subjects. Howson elaborates: ‘The subject of each work is initially suggested by the forms I see emerging during the preliminary stages of laying down my colour areas. I may then develop the idea with investigations into specific historical details and anatomical features, or I may just allow my intuition full reign. The dirty pinks, olives and browns with their dark washes reflect the old aesthetic of historical works. The horse may be of Celtic origin, the bull from a Greek vase. The whalers draw inspiration from paintings of the Victorian era while mediaeval manuscripts form the structure of the long battle scene. My affinity with birds is simply, their beauty and freedom in flight.'

The benign calm radiating from the works has little to do with the images depicted. Nick Howson is first and foremost a colourist. He is well aware of the subtle action of colour on feeling with every patch-work shape and motif carefully composed to produce powerful aesthetic and emotional responses. ‘These paintings like most,' Howson explains, ‘have come about through investigating various colours and their relationship to each other. Usually my work is painted instinctively with its colour pre-determining the subject.'

The exhibition's centrepiece is the wonderful Saint George and the Dragon. Initially conceived during a journey through Europe's ancient cities last year, it stands as an embodiment of Howson's pictorial practice. A chanced-upon, tiny Byzantine icon sparked inspiration for this monumental painting. Although Saint George is revered by the Eastern Orthodox churches as a 4th century martyr, the more familiar tale involving the killing of a fiery dragon was brought back by the Crusaders in the 12th century, and then absorbed into mediaeval romance as a model for chivalry. Laden with metaphorical undertones, the tale of Saint George is an intriguing one, but Nick Howson's interest lies more in its use as a vehicle for further exploration into colour value and pictorial structure.

Shimmering with glorious hues, the Saint George and the Dragon painting evokes Howson's experience of the magnificent stained-glass windows he had seen during his travels. Its misty, otherworldly atmosphere has been created through the scumbling of multiple layers of oil pigment into coarsely-textured Belgium linen. By employing the flat, two-dimensional format of traditional icon imagery, any distracting, extraneous detail is pared away leaving the viewer free to respond to the subtle compositional relationships at play within the work. Howson's skillful placement of shape and colour keeps the eye continually moving around the painting and then back again to its focal point - the glowing halo of Saint George - where a rosy sky cascades down to seemingly sanction his cause.

Nick Howson was born 1963, in the United Kingdom and migrated to Australia in 1970. Graduating with a Diploma of Fine Arts from Prahran College, Melbourne 1986, he has steadily become one of Australia's most respected contemporary artists. The veteran of more than 16 solo shows, he is represented in the following collections: Art Bank, Sydney; Australian Tennis Centre, Melbourne; Crown Casino, Melbourne; Horsham Reginal Art Gallery, Horsham; St. Kilda City Art Collection, St. Kilda; Tullamarine Airport, Tullamarine and the City of Whitehorse Art Collection.

Jacqueline Houghton

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