A selection of work from 1978-1998 Pinacotheca, Melbourne 2 - 26 June 1999
James Gleeson is one of the last survivors of a generation that witnessed the birth of surrealism up close. They could incorporate and react to the developments of the surrealist movement almost as soon as they happened abroad. At the time Gleeson discovered surrealism he was in his early twenties; the pioneers of the movement, meanwhile, were only just turning middle-aged. With such proximity to the action - in time if not geographically - younger artists of the period such as Gleeson felt that they were participants in the drama as it unfolded.
This sense of their place in history shows as much in their diaries as in their graphic works. Along with a number of artists of the period, Gleeson kept extensive diaries, the tenor of which is set by a certain self-consciousness. Pains are taken to record the autocritical musings of the artist, the latest works produced or seen, the theoretical papers and journals consumed. Art of the time made in this outpost of the intelligentsia tends to illustrate the results of this posturing rather too well, with a somewhat literal symbolism including skulls, keys and masks, mashed together like tatooists flash in crammed shopfronts.
There are a few things that have distinguished Gleeson from the bulk of the artists of that era. First, he is still with us, and remains productive. Second, he has kept much closer than most to the original surrealist goals. Most important of all, he has managed the uncommon feat of strengthening as an artist as he has grown older. At an age when most artists have spent their energies, Gleeson's work over the last two decades has realised the promise of his early art. The drawings and collages on show at Pinacotheca date from the mid seventies to 1990, while all of the twenty eight oils displayed were made in the last decade and a half and they represent the best work the artist has done.
Gleeson's career gives hope to artists who mature slowly. The visual vocabulary, syntax and intent of his work remain essentially the same as they were over half a century ago, but the direct quotes from the human figure and the surrealist masters have all but gone. This leaves us with pure Gleeson, multiple renderings of a polymorphic universe, at the same time hideous and exquisite and profoundly eroticised. In these paintings the great invention of the early twentieth century, surrealism, fuses with that of the early nineteenth: sublime nature. Storm-laden skies close in on scapes where the meeting of land and sea is indeterminate, and all is made flesh.
Much of the surrealist project was predicated on investigating the mechanisms of desire; in these works it is made palpable, vivisected: the twin elements of attraction and repulsion locked, fused together.
Through his diligence, Gleeson has managed to cut through the pretension of those early years, to give us something much more valuable: a clear view of an opaque psyche. In these works the artist has resolved the challenge that confronted him at the outset of his career: to integrate the unconscious via psychic automatism with the conscious mechanisms of image resolution and the physical act of mark-making.
Gone is the dry and often laboured effect of his earlier paintings; fluid brushmarks slither across the canvas, insensibly guiding us into multiple readings. All Gleeson's powers of illusionist technique are here applied to rendering the essentially abstract, elliptic quality of desire. He does it with the assurance of one who loves his medium above all else, and has mastered it. There are few artists about who so clearly delight in pushing paint around and to such dazzling effect. If you missed this show, spare no effort to see his next: it is marvellous stuff.