John Birmingham's first book, He Died With a Felafel in his Hand, was a bestseller and a film. Brisbane based, he has also written for newspapers and magazines.
the Verdict (in pale pink)
If Jeffrey Smart was a romantic artist, and his stark modernist landscapes not so profoundly antihuman, this is how they might look. It's like Stuart has gone out of his way to paint a smiley face on Jeffrey's oeuvre here.
I'm sure he didn't, but for me it's an inescapable effect of the composition, the subject matter and the technique used in Verdict. Smart's work, which I love, is all about the implied violence of man's modern built environment. The figures never smile. The sky is often dark and looming. Hard edges and impenetrable surface are all.
The same elements are found here, and yet softened and redeemed. The smog which so often billows through a Smart landscape, is here replaced by gentle wash of clouds coloured by the sunset.
The crushing of landscape under concrete and steel is not so much implied as atoned for by the softened and almost crumbling facade of the building, which only just peeks into view.
And the two people seem so relaxed in others presence that they must surely be smiling, even if we cannot see them. They stand as if at a journey's end, and certainly a day's end, and remain in view only because the fading sun is so warm and pleasant. Soon they'll retreat inside - an off stage space nicely implied by the way you can see through the corner windows of the apartment - dark blue night will fall, and this kindler, gentler realist scene will be swallowed up inside the wide vessel of the universe.
Like The Old Man Next Door I Never Saw, this work evokes a very strong sense of place for me, even if the image isn't sourced from that place. I look on this and I know they are perched over the bay at Bondi, at least in my mind's eye. But unlike Old Man, and unlike a Smart painting, this one is not coloured by a lonesome palate.
I think I recognise this place, or maybe just the sense of place it evokes. It's as though Stuart has peered into my bleary eyed memories of the years when I lived by the beach. In Bondi.hT
The seaside village is a special place, or at least it was for me, back in the day. It remains so in my memories. I go there still, to my happy place, when I need to get away from where ever I am in the world of real things.
Mostly I dwell there in the surf, the blue bowl of the Pacific which I am sure sits right in front of this old house. I feel the bite of a burning sun on my shoulders and neck, the same sun which is peeling the paint from the facade of this building, and throwing deep shadows over the upper floor. I can feel the cold kiss of the surf on my legs, cool and dark like the enclosed, secret places behind those garage doors.
And I recall myself wandering the streets of the village, past hundreds of places like this. Decaying, frayed at the edges, smelling a bit of mould and salt water in the Whitlam-era carpets. These places are shelter, and stronghold. You could live out your entire life in them, if your life was to be about nothing other than pure indulgence.
Not the indulgence of things, the love of stuff, of electronics, or gold, or designer restaurants or jet travel. But the indulgence and the danger of pure autonomy. Of living life stripped back to its essences. A pumping surf break. A lack of commitment. A free floating existence that means nothing beyond the moment of take off as the wave piles up behind you.
That there are no human figures in this piece makes it all the more powerful as a sort of memory fragment. It is as though it's been shaken loose from somewhere inside me and is waiting for me to fill it with life.
But I can't.
Because you can never go back.