Autobiographical book by Noel Sheridan with contributions from Donald Brook, George Alexander and others Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2001, 212pp, colour Reviewed by Ian Hamilton
The cover image, of an artist in a landscape painting a picture of an artist in a landscape, says much about this book by and about Noel Sheridan. One of the signature images of his time at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide, it crops up in different forms throughout the book but is never explained. We are left scratching our heads. This may not surprise those who knew the man, although it may be frustrating to students or researchers who did not. What may surprise a reader familiar with Noel Sheridan's work in Australia are the paintings and the extent of his love of paint.
This is the first revelation of the book. Assumptions – inherent in the cover image and in the minds of many who knew Sheridan as a luminary of the then new forms of post-object and conceptual art – are immediately overturned by the first and substantial chapter of the book, dealing as it does with Sheridan's early painting experiments. This preoccupation with paint is recounted later in the book, leading to the conclusion that, despite his enormous contribution to conceptual and post-object art, Sheridan was happiest painting on canvas. Indeed the description of preparing a fresh canvas on page 185 is one of the book's many delights.
Another surprise is Sheridan's love of theatre and the role his father played in developing that love. There are wonderful stories of his father, including one dealing with a kind of initiation, or rite of passage, that takes place in his father's theatre dressing room. 'I'm telling you now. Look at me. If you upset your mother again, I'll fucking kill you.' Sheridan is amazed, not because his father is going to kill him, but because he has, for the first time, used bad language. It was, he realises, a kind of coded permission to join the world of men. Sheridan was and is an actor, albeit playing on a different stage than any his father graced. For a time the EAF in Adelaide was his stage and many an emerging artist would, if they dared, be drawn into a space that was fraught with uncertainty (tempered by Noel Sheridan's unbounded generosity and inclusiveness). Certain rituals and rites of passage were enacted there which left neophytes bewildered and bemused; much as his own father's language had left the young Sheridan bewildered.
Which is often where this book leaves the reader. It's more story than art history; a book by and about a person, told in a way that makes for enjoyable reading, if not accurate art history. It would be a nightmare for the unsuspecting student or researcher, with its lack of dates and other details accompanying the illustrations and the wandering progression of its narrative. This should not spoil what is generally a wonderful and very human story of one man's journey through a moment in art history.
While the best bits in this book are those by Sheridan some of the commentary that crops up between the personal reminiscences are worthy of note, not least because they provide historical context. Brian O'Doherty covers the New York years from 1963, beginning with an account of a failed Review staged by Sheridan and ending with comments on the famous Everybody Should Get Stones piece which was conceived in New York but carried out for the first time in Adelaide. Donald Brook covers the development of the EAF and the conceptual/post-object art movement in Australia, concluding with Sheridan's move to what Brook calls the most remote city in the world. This is Perth, where Sheridan served a fruitful, if not stress-free, term as Director of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art.
By this stage the reader will begin to get some sense of the peripatetic nature of Sheridan's life and art. Always on the move, geographically and philosophically. The reader will also have picked up the general thrust of the book, being personal reminiscences followed by independent comment followed by personal reminiscence. George Alexander talks of Noel's endlessly ramifying art. Whatever that means! He talks too of the Zeitgeist (as everyone did), and tells us that Seconds "is a self-reflective paradigm of all art-making. It turns the secondary project of reading into the primary one of production, of imagining, in short of constructing an aesthetic universe through the detritus of the past". By this time the more casual reader would have gone to bed, leaving the book unfinished. Which would be a mistake.
It's 1985 and we who are still travelling with Sheridan are in Dublin. Sheridan is describing the painting of sets for a production of The Playboy of the Western World. Suddenly – in terms of the images presented – we are back to the 1950s (compare Signal on page 13 with Playboy Backcloth on page 127). Is this, after nearly thirty years, a return to first love? This is interesting because it highlights the dilemma of many visual artists who, trained in painting and two dimensional imagery, felt compelled to take the conceptual pathway championed by Donald Brook and others. There may be a sense of relief for some readers when, after wading through the inexplicable terrain of conceptual art, they come to these vibrant, if not particularly original images.
But this is an interlude. By 1993 we are off again. This time into the Western Desert (Australia). I was reminded here of a time I drove Noel Sheridan from Brisbane to the Gold Coast via the mountains and sensing Noel's unease at all that forest and his delight when, at last, we arrived at the suburban outskirts of Surfers Paradise. Given that experience I wondered how he would take to the terrifying vastness of the desert. As it turns out this section is one of the highlights of the book. Sheridan captures the sense of not just place, but the way the very presence and the very movement of the human body affects place. As he so neatly puts it on page 140, 'The organism's relationship to the land seemed crucial to the form of the representation it generated. The feeling of the bodies and sensibilities (communal, plural) connected to the land was palpable in Warburton.'
This is an all-too-brief interlude. After a couple of muddled descriptions of performances and a flashback account (undated) of his father and his influence, we come back to paint. But not before the reader has to contend with some difficult text, including the following by Brian Hand: "The epistemological status of Not Waiting as a notion contradictorily implies both a non-climactical value and a knowing absence of expectation." This is not a criticism of such language, rather a reminder of the kind of language that surrounded Noel Sheridan and the conceptual art movement. It was not a language, as this book makes clear, that Sheridan used.
The penultimate chapter presents the case for 'a certain kind of painting.' Which turns out to be a rather rambling account of an attempt at a painting that leads to the final chapter Missing it. This is where Sheridan, clearly infatuated by the canvas, says, 'I measure out the rabbit skin crystals&and inhale. At first tentatively but then in deeper draughts& Pray for us and for all de Chirico prayed for& Just to be this high seems arcady. Oh Painting.' We are then taken on a painter's journey, one which, like the painting in question, remains unfinished. But then so is the story.
Ian Hamilton is an artist, administrator and writer recently returned to Adelaide from running the Mildura Art Centre. He worked with Noel Sheridan at the EAF in the seventies.