In art, as in life, there's realism and there's realism. When narrative artwork is clumsily painted, everyone can agree on its failings (It is, in fact, the same with abstract painting, except when it's badly done, only those with the equivalent of music's ''perfect pitch'' can see it).
An Australian expatriate, Neil Moore, has a tiny work in the Salon des Refuses exhibition at the S.H. Ervin Gallery on Observatory Hill that clearly should have been hung in the Archibald Prize exhibition. Out of an inky void, the face of a wise - even weary - middle-aged man, filmed with perspiration, looks straight at the viewers as if he could read their minds. It is a self-portrait.
Moore lives in Umbria, Italy, and thus he is intimately acquainted with that crowd of realists from another time: Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Caravaggio, to name a few. His portrait is displayed here rather reluctantly because you need to see it in the flesh.
In 1999, his painting of his infant son, Leandro, naked except for a mediaeval helmet with a crimson plume, was the highlight of the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize exhibition. It was unmistakeably modern and simultaneously Renaissance-mannerist - with the pertness of a Donatello bronze, the bravura of a Bronzino portrait and a reference to the curious proportions of Michelangelo's David.
Living in Italy in a converted mediaeval tower with his wife, Carol (who conducts tours of Umbria for small groups), has influenced Moore's work. His paintings, drawings and etchings, while modern and with a debt to surrealism, are steeped in classical and religious mythology. Subjects such as Icarus, St Sebastian, St George, the Judgment of Paris, Minerva and Achilles fill his canvases. A detail of the muscular all-too-human Icarus and his chariot, lying broken on a rocky outcrop, is shown. Icarus is clearly of interest to Moore, as he has produced several versions of him.
One painting in the most perfect detail is a 29-centimetre square; another is more than a metre.
Before Moore departed for Italy in 1988, etching on copper plate using hard ground had been his preferred medium. He was also immersed in the world of newspapers. Some of his illustrations (David Bowie, Martin Amis and Ray Charles) graced the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and the covers of The Bulletin, and in 1980 he won a Walkley Award for Australian journalism.
The Salon des Refuses exhibition, at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill, ends on June 19.
Patricia Anderson is the editor of Australian Art Review.