Clifford Frith: perpetuating the bloodlines

Pat Hoffie talked to Clifford Frith, about his life as an artist and a teacher, about where and how your essential focus is born and shaped and the possibility of passing some of this on to students and others. She has admired and watched his way of working and living for two decades and as Frith continues to outlive in energy and inventiveness so many younger than himself she probes into how this came to happen. He is a prolific artist, moving between painting, sculpture and drawing.

I guess it's probably difficult for everyone, towards the end of their life, to assess the extent to which they might have achieved what they thought they could achieve. And my guess is that it’s probably even more difficult for artists. For survival as a visual artist requires taking a Janus-headed approach to most things including yourself. It’s easy enough to convince yourself that you are a complete failure - a fraud, a dilettante, a flàneur without a cause, a pretender. And it’s equally as easy to fall into the trap of actually believing your own publicity. Fall for that one and it’s really tragic – the work becomes a monument to its own mediocrity.

But either way you’re doomed, and if art is a road trip to hell or elsewhere, it’s littered with road kill on either side. They say there’s a trick to keeping the wobble as you’re moving to a minimum – you have to let the demons on either shoulder keep chattering while you just keep on keeping on. Getting on with the business of the work.

Clifford Frith is an artist who has weathered a few decades of this particular road trip: approximately sixty years of 'banging away at it’, as he might say. Although he’d be the last to say too much about the legacy he’s left to date. Much too phlegmatic for that. And besides, there’s that next body of work to get through.

At the moment he’s working on six semi-figurative bronzes. He’s also working on some paintings of a series of hills down Sellick’s Beach way, and the studio is cramped with the dozens of framed paintings and drawings that have just arrived back after having toured the country for the past two years. Clifford would see nothing unusual in moving from medium to medium; from drawing and painting to sculpture, some of it carved, some of it kinetic, some of it modelled. His early education in painting and drawing made the move into kinetic work, the shift from two to three dimensional, a gradual incremental progression, one that moved forward in its attempt to better understand the nature of light. Sound simple? It seems simple enough when he explains it, in a studio a stone’s throw from the water of St Vincent Gulf, Henley Beach in South Australia, where the entire room changes with the day’s light bounced back from the ocean’s surface. Where a clearly stated direction can refract into a myriad possibilities, each of them crystal-clear and precise, and each of them motivated by the incandescent simplicity of an attempt to understand seeing.

But in terms of the contemporary world of art, it may not seem so simple. There’s the matter of time, for example. Time needed to observe. To put down what is seen. To adjust. To learn new skills and to change the point of approach. Time to start again with the same idea. And again.
Clifford has this. He takes this time. He paints and draws the edges of the water time and time and time again. Following the contour. Flooding the page with milky gouache that traces those places where the sea meets the land. Dividing the surface of the page with a zone of colour and tone that might as easily be a record of alchemy. He has continued this observation for a long time. As if each wave dies differently. As if each surface refracts ideas in a different way. He could be right.

But time, in today’s world, has slimmed down into a spiky limbed, impatient, shrill thing. It permits little time for such endeavours. The byte-time of technology offers many things, but probably not this kind of sustained looking. I ask him whether he thinks things have changed, whether things are different in art colleges now.

It’s a big ask. It might seem a simple enough question, but ask someone like Clifford and he’s faced with many ways of answering. Like, different from when? And from which particular decade? In his career there’s more than a few to shuffle amongst in order to get an answer, along with a few continents to compare as well. In London alone there was Goldsmiths, Camberwell and Croydon and in Nigeria there was the Ahmadu Bello University and in Adelaide there were the various incarnations of the South Australian School of Art, now within the University of South Australia. Over that period of time and that stretch of territory it would be possible to search for much more subtle answers, like the ways in which a British system of art education became re-translated in what were formerly ‘the colonies.’ Or questions about the extent to which the British figurative tradition was modified by local traditions in Africa. Or perhaps questions that might compare the various emphases that existed between institutions in London, and the degree to which those were influenced by the traditions that had preceded them, or by the individuals that accumulated there.

But these are more subtle questions, questions that would require more time to compose, more time to listen to, and more space to record. We blunder forward with little time for recollection. Which is, in part, what this particular issue of Artlink is about.

And Clifford answers my too-hurried question with grace, turning a blind eye to the skittering-over-the-surface depthlessness of it. Especially for one who has spent so many years tracing the surfaces of things with such precise attention to detail.

‘Well,’ he says, ‘ People don’t seem to be given a fundamental basis for investigating art any more. What comes out of art schools is a liberal education where possibly one percent of the total amount of people you have taught may actually do anything that’s recognised as art. All those others go into an enormous variety of jobs... nowadays they all seem to be going into Arts Management or Public Relations… I’m not really interested in all that other kind of stuff. There’s a core to the experience of making art that doesn’t seem to have quite the same focus on a specific outcome.’

Once upon a time I listened to someone important at the Adelaide Festival who was a celebrated international film-maker. He’d been trained as a painter in London, and at the very beginning of his talk he named his teacher, and then his teacher’s teacher and so on and so on until, in a surprisingly short space of time, he’d gone right back to the Renaissance. In the middle of that Adelaide summer, it seemed extraordinary. He’d called up all those names as a way of calling out the names of those who had had input into his work – a kind of blood-line of creative and intellectual and emotional investment that gets carried from generation to generation. Clifford goes back to Raphael via Ingres, Degas, Sickert and his teacher Victor Pasmore.

It’s not something that’s looked on kindly in our proudly bastard nation. Here it seems more in character to assassinate any influences. To preserve the Antipodean myth of doing it on your own. Doing it tough. As if all artists emerged unsullied and pristine as the first.
Yet Clifford, like others of his generation, has also spent a considerable portion of his time encouraging and fostering the careers of others. Precious little gets said about the degree to which this education affects the thinking of the next generation, and the generations to follow. Almost nothing happens in terms of official recognition. It would be un-Australian. Leave the honouring of elders to Japan or Korea. Or maybe to Indigenous Australians.

Nevertheless, evidence of the depth and breadth of close encounters are scattered through anecdotal evidence in all kinds of ways. A friend of mine had a funny instance of this at Eastlink Gallery in Shanghai a few weeks ago, when she ran into a man from ANU doing research in China. In a casual conversation it turned out that the man was a brother of one of Clifford’s past students, and when he realised that my friend knew Clifford, he broke into a huge smile and recalled some of the stories his brother, Simon Penny, still fondly tells. Simon Penny currently works in robotics at UCLA/Irvine in California. But long ago – during the Punic Wars it seems – he trained under Clifford as an artist in Adelaide, joined the ranks of those who were prepared to engage with so-called ‘new media’, and was consequently offered a position in the US.

And so the ripples move outwards. There are plenty of names one could add to the litany who have benefited from Clifford’s role as a mentor. Bridget Riley comes to mind. She and Clifford first met when she was sixteen and they still keep in close contact. They first met when he’d been asked to look at her drawings when he’d been taking workshops away from London. From that first moment he’d been staggered at the precision and clarity of the drawings – sketches of her father when he had appeared before the court on a speeding charge. He encouraged her to go ahead with her art education in a more formal way, and she became his student at Goldsmiths until she graduated. She sent him a book a couple of months ago, and in it was a quote from Francis Bacon. In the post-war years in London, Bacon was among the artists, writers and poets who were part of the same crowd in which Clifford moved and worked. If it seems like the stuff of long ago and far away to us here in the limitless and history-blinding skies of Australia, then it seems all the more astonishing that more isn’t made of the experience of artists for whom such eras and artists have formed a core to their life.

Anyway, in the book Francis’ apparently perpetual bleat ‘will someone please tell me what to paint?’ was featured as a quote. And if that question comes as a surprise coming from one of the world’s most celebrated icon-makers, then Clifford’s own response reinforces the sense of an artist needing to work through towards something almost in a state of blindness.
‘Art’s like that.’ he says, ‘You enter a kind of state of divine discontent… you can think of it as either a monkey on your back, or a kind of suspended carrot that you catch sight of, but which you have a hunch you will never reach… Now and then there are small moments when you think you know what it might be, where you are convinced of a particular direction, but lots of the time you’re wandering looking for what it might be… ‘

By this stage his response is starting to seem like an approach that might be difficult to reconcile with today’s current emphasis on the nature of research. Or with the push to push art into a model that might be capable of describing where it’s going before it gets there. The emphasis on the ‘research question’ that locks in the potential of the journey to meander. To make mistakes. Or perhaps to keep beggaring the question until the impossible somehow, in the end, is transformed. He goes on: ‘There are certain ideas that you carry with you throughout life – some of the ways of thinking you were given when you were studying… things that you can never throw off that you learned when you were a student. Somehow they never left me. I’ve never quite solved them.’

He seems curiously pleased at what this era might judge to be a statement of failure. The art-making part of his life seems as messy and productive as it has possibly always been. In a day he might move from sculpture to painting to drawing, go down for a swim, have a feed and move back into the studio with various little scraps of all those activities still clinging to bits of him. Almost as if it were natural to do this.

But it’s not as if his life hasn’t also been equally committed to setting up infrastructures and committees and courses and programs. He’s worked as Head of School in a number of countries. He’s put structures and frameworks together that have fostered students in a number of institutions. And he’s also worked with friends to put up some structures that have profoundly affected the way we think of contemporary art in this country.

Perhaps the most legendary example is, along with Donald Brook, Bert Flugelman and Ian North? The dreaming-up of the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. Apparently they dreamed it up over beers and lunch on the front deck overlooking the Gulf of St Vincent. They make it sound so easy. That’s just grace. But it’s stupidity if later generations fall for the mythology. Apparently they agreed that Australia had nowhere – absolutely nowhere – to exhibit experimental art. The kind of art that challenged all the institutional ideas about what art could be at the time was either in books or magazines or elsewhere. It just didn’t seem to fit into what Australia was at the time.

So they kept talking about it until others believed them. Then they went off and convinced others who could supply the funding. Then they organised the space. Then they went off in search of the right person to be the Director. Donald found one, in the almost magical Noel Sheridan. Then they kept getting involved in the support, in the direction, in the convincing, until it became established as the first model from which all other Contemporary Art Spaces in Australia were fashioned.

Probably most students these days think that contemporary art spaces were always there, provided by some invisible, be-suited bureaucracy to which they regularly apply, like mendicants, for grants. We teach them Professional Development. Lots of that – most of that, probably, is underpinned by a kind of infantilising precision that honours the existing system. But what we don’t teach them is history. We don’t teach them the big picture, and we don’t teach them the local histories that tell the tales about how so much in this country is owed to a generation of artists who won’t be here forever. Imagine if we did. Imagine if we encouraged PhDs to be on aspects of our own development in this country, rather than on some other high-flier somewhere else. Imagine if we realised that there are still opportunities to unpick some of the questions about how things really happened. How things got changed. How relationships developed and how, over the decades, new ideas emerged.

And questions about what might have been overlooked. And questions about what might have been lost, in this breathless run away from history towards the chattering of data. As Clifford says, ‘The thing is, there are so few people that are any good… It’s the same with art as with anything else… try finding a good plumber or a good doctor… not easy. There’s a difference between the idea – the idea on its own – and the way in which the fanciful conceit and the form, sort of gradually come together in art, so that you can get some kind of communication… I still find that difficult.’

They say you should never begin or end an essay with someone else’s quote. But I can’t think of a better way.

Dr Pat Hoffie is a practising artist and Professor in the Queensland College of Art at Griffith University.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.