Head over head. By Tony Ameneiro: Megalo Print Gallery, 21 Wentworth Avenue, Kingston. Tuesday to Saturday. 9.30am to 5pm. Until March 10.
Recently, when visiting the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, I was stopped in my tracks by a display of life-size character heads by the 18th century sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. In all there are over 40 expressive busts of people in heightened emotional states, including expressions of extreme anger, defiance, pain, surprise and bewilderment.
As Messerschmidt, by all accounts, was quite a strange character and left no written account of his art; historians have speculated that he was mad or suffered from a stomach illness (possibly Crohn's disease) and, as he told a journalist, he administered pinches to his lower rib and observed the facial grimaces in a mirror. In the same interview, he mentioned that he was tormented by evil spirits, but when he confronted them with a grimace, they would flee. Messerschmidt also had a great interest in necromancy (a magical link with the dead) and some of the heads may have been inspired by the deceased. Psychoanalysts have found in these heads a validation of their theories, while contemporary artists, including Bruce Nauman, Tony Oursler, Arnulf Rainer and Cindy Sherman, have built on this heritage of physiognomic distortion.
Tony Ameneiro is a printmaker of national standing who has worked for many years in the Southern Highlands. He too is fascinated with heads and facial expressions. Etchings, on a large scale, of human heads, animal skulls and of Gymea lilies have become characteristic of his art. Several years ago, Ameneiro undertook a research project at the JT Wilson Museum of Human Anatomy and the JL Shellshear Museum of Physical Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy at Sydney University, examining their extensive collection of human anatomical specimens.
Here Ameneiro executed a large number of detailed head studies in colour pencil, mainly in profile, based on anatomical specimens held in these museums. The heads are objectified, yet given a sense of great dignity, as, for example, in the moving drawing Wilson Head # 13 (2016). They are roughly life-size, so they tend to communicate directly and on a personal level. Possibly the artist's experience of having just lost a parent may have added a note of empathy, where the dead are not simply a specimen, but relate to a person, who is both loved and missed.
Ameneiro, at about the same time, was involved in a life drawing group and into his work crept this duality combining the living with the dead. Late in 2016, combining work from the previous two years, he staged the major exhibition Head over Head at the Wollongong Art Gallery, (accompanied by an excellent catalogue written by Thomas Middlemost). A smaller version of this travelling exhibition is being shown in Canberra, which is likely to be the final venue on its tour.
In the Canberra show, there is a combination of the anatomical drawings and large scale colour drypoints of the heads as well as a wall of smaller multi-plate drypoints of heads plus a startling pigment print.
The most memorable exhibits are the large colour drypoints titled Head over Head, including numbers 2 and 3, which are two of the most successful in this series, where the heads of the living are juxtaposed with those of the deceased, one floating over the other and joined together with rhythmic, dynamic flowing lines.
They are powerful, deeply moving and imply a philosophy of a continuum of being, where life and death can be interpreted as two states within a singular process. What appears as clumsy in words, Ameneiro gracefully weaves together as part of an organic whole – like a development that gradually shifts from light into shadow.
It is rewarding to encounter an exhibition such as Tony Ameneiro's Head over head, where the magic and alchemy of printmaking can convey a whole philosophy of being that cannot be achieved in any other art form.
Ameneiro is one of a number of printmakers, both established and emerging, who are embracing printmaking as one of the most significant, subtle and sophisticated contemporary art forms.