Robin Wallace-Crabbe: An intimate survey. Gallery Altenburg, 154 Wallace Street, Braidwood. Until October 25, 2020.
Over the past half century, Robin Wallace-Crabbe has become something of an institution in Canberra art circles.
He has taught art, but has never made this into a career; he is a virtuoso printmaker, but refuses to be defined by the technologies of printing; and he is a wonderful colourist and painter, but after more than 50 solo exhibitions and with his work represented in most public art collections in Australia, he has become disillusioned with the commercial art gallery establishment.
This is not to mention the dozen or so novels and books of non-fiction that he has published, volumes of art criticism and hundreds of book reviews, as well as his work as a curator, illustrator, designer and cartoonist.
Wallace-Crabbe has lived for much of his life in Canberra or Braidwood and now, aged in his early 80s, he seems to have finally settled in Braidwood on an acre block of land, devoting himself to his art. He is generally reluctant to exhibit and the cameo survey show at Gallery Altenburg is a rare opportunity to see his paintings and graphics. It is an absolute gem.
Wallace-Crabbe in his art is playful, witty and possesses a charged rapid-fire intellect.
The earliest work in the show is a clever domestic interior pastel drawing dated 1966. The 28-year-old artist has cleverly divided his picture space into blocks of colour over which he has woven an enigmatic narrative involving four figures.
It is an intimate work that plays with many levels of perception as with the eye we explore a delightful decorative pattern but, with the mind, we engage with something quite complex and not immediately graspable. Wallace-Crabbe has created an engaging aesthetic object, but one that keeps giving with prolonged examination.
One of the more recent works in the exhibition is a bold pastel, charcoal and acrylic canvas simply titled Please no, executed earlier this year. Although there have been huge developments in the intervening 54 years, it is immediately apparent that we are dealing with the work of the same artist. If the earlier pastel work indirectly referenced the French "Intimists" and artists like Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, here we experience the force of the Expressionists, and the directness and vulgarity of street art.
Again, the narrative or, in this case, the many competing narratives, in the painting are far from clear; there is violence and confrontation as well as texts in the painting reading "please no" and "not me". It is a complex and intriguing work that seduces the eye and ambushes the intellect.
One of my favourite works in the exhibition is the large oil painting titled White dress in the studio (1985). In some ways it is a very simple composition of a Picasso-esque female in the foreground apparently adjusting her hair in a hand-held mirror but, once you enter the picture, the labyrinth of visual complexities suddenly dawns on you. The female figure herself appears as a two-dimensional artifice growing out of the bench and the suspended pictures in the background adopt a life of their own.
Wallace-Crabbe in his art is playful, witty and possesses a charged rapid-fire intellect that challenges our assumptions about art and the nature of reality. He is probably the most significant underrated major artist in Australia.
Now that summer is in the air and the south coast beckons, I hope Canberrans will avail themselves of the opportunity of seeing a truly magnificent exhibition from one of our most respected old masters.