Peter Neilson - History Painting. Looking back to now.

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History Painting. Looking back to now. 8 – 27 November 2022 A USTRALIAN G ALLERIES SYDNEY


History Painting. Looking back to now.

Opening Tuesday 8 November 20 22 6pm – 8pm

15 Roylston Street Paddington NSW 2021

Current until Sunday 27 November 2022

Open 7 days 10am 6pm T 02 9360 5177

Front cover: Becoming lighter than air (detail) 2022 oil on linen 100 x 185 cm Opposite: Suddenly, again (detail) 2014 oil on linen 150 x 300 cm

Photography: Viki Petherbridge

Artist Statement

“They say that I have no hits; that I’m difficult to work with, and they say that as if it’s a bad thing …”

– Tom Waits speaking at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2020

This exhibition is a twentieth anniversary exhibition. I first showed with Australian Galleries, Melbourne in 2002. A year later I had my first Sydney exhibition also with Australian Galleries. In those twenty years I have shown every year (except 2021 – Covid, of course) either in Melbourne or Sydney and a couple of times overseas.

I came to Australian Galleries with Nerissa Lea from Pinacoteca Gallery, Richmond via a conversation between Stuart Purves and Bruce Pollard on the occasion of Bruce deciding to close his famous gallery where Nerissa and I had shown our work. I am so pleased Stuart took up the challenge. The partnership, from my point of view, has been one of friendship and respect, and of my admiration for the seriousness Australian Galleries gives to all aspects of the presentation of the visual arts. This includes Australian Galleries maintaining of a vast historical archive of the art linked to the gallery over its now sixty-six years of existence.

The exhibition spaces Stuart Purves has created in both cities are beautiful and generous. The setting of the Sydney gallery, at the end of Glenmore Road and close to Trumper Oval’s open spaces is particularly lovely. They are significantly important to the living culture of both cities.

The title of my first exhibition in 2002, Through the Arcades Looking for Trouble, was a reference to my great and ongoing interest in the constellation of ideas of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (which I first encountered in the art and writings of R. B. Kitaj). From this came an intense, ongoing enjoyment of wrestling with the writings of, to name a few, Adorno, Valéry, Brecht, Lazzarato, Marazzi, Budick, Andrew Benjamin.

The reason for these wandering, unprogrammed readings of philosophers was not to become anything other than a maker of an art which was disinterested in philosophy; an art driven by “the unthought”, that is, “the muse”, that is, “the frisson” (Aragon), “the percept” (Bergson), “the event” (Lazzarato), which materializes in the “interval between received and performed movements”

(Bergson). As the great American poet Wallace Stevens wrote “Reality is the motif, and the poet must not adapt his experience to that of the philosopher”.

The title of this exhibition is The paintings look so much better in the gallery than online. No. The title is History painting. Looking back to now. It reminds me of Walter Benjamin suggesting that his work derives in part, from imagining one hundred and fifty years into the future and looking back to record the times he is living in. Taking note of history from Nowhere Known.

In the catalogue printed for the 2002 exhibition, my artist’s statement spoke of the ongoing struggle to make and do art. In relation to Tom Waite’s happily jaundiced view, noted above, I think it’s worth re-reading:

‘Peter Neilson: The tough, hard reality of making art, on and on, exhibiting or not, published or unpublished, is shown to us in this touching, and, for me, sustaining quote from Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters (Viking Penguin, New York 1995):

“At the end of 1956 Kerouac arrived at his sister’s new home in Orlando, to find that his family had set up a room for him to work in, with all his papers neatly arranged in piles on his desk. As he described his reaction in Desolation Angels, he was unexpectedly moved by the sight:

‘On the porch of the house was my old rolltop desk with all the unpublished manuscripts in it, and the couch where I slept. To sit at my desk was sad. All the work I’d done at it, four novels and innumerable dreams and poems and notes. It made me realize suddenly I was working as hard as any man in the world so what did I have to reproach my self for, privately or otherwise?’”

Serious thanks to Sasha Grishin (who also wrote the essay for the 2002 exhibition), John Hughes and Andrew Benjamin for their essays written to accompany this exhibition; to Stephanie Hall, the designer of this stunning, beautiful catalogue, and to David Stein & Co., Conservation of Fine Art, for its care and attention to detail to allow the paintings to present beyond what I thought possible.

Finally, a quiet, heartfelt thank you to Rose, friend and partner above and beyond all this. ‘Let’s meet for tea, day three.’

Peter Neilson, 2022

The night they crossed the border. (Having to go. Having to return.) 2021 oil on linen 150 x 300 cm
From Being There, through Nowhere Known, to Elsewhere 2020 oil on linen 150 x 300 cm
Agitation in swingtime 2020 oil on linen 150 x 300 cm
The whistleblower 2017-18 oil on linen 150 x 300 cm
The unfinished fact 2017-18 oil on linen 150 x 300 cm
Suddenly, again 2014 oil on linen 150 x 300 cm

“It’s characteristic of this judicial system that a man is condemned not only when he’s innocent but also in ignorance.” – Franz Kafka, The Trial

Peter Neilson is an artist with a vision, one that is unique, haunting and memorable. Once you have encountered one of his works – particularly the large immersive paintings where many realities collide then mesh together – you never forget that experience.

Neilson is an artist who adopts an ethical stance in his art, but it is not one that can be easily verbalised or described ideologically beyond calling it ‘humanist’. His paintings deal with refugees, migration, arrivals, departures, surveillance, the arrival of news and the constant redactions of information. Each figure seems to possess a double, there is a disjunction in the structure of time and space laced with an endless ambiguity. Some of the figures are emphatically cancelled out with red crosses, the same crosses that are employed to redact news, information and to question existence itself. Nothing is certain, all is fragmented and caught within a fluid process of change.

There is strangeness in his compositions, as if everything is arranged on stage sets that are constantly cast in dynamic motion. Someone is always watching someone else, while they themselves are marked men who are under constant surveillance. A Kafkaesque, sometimes claustrophobic, atmosphere prevails where each person stands condemned of a crime of which they may not be aware. The play with scale is disorientating as at times we appear to be witnessing a grand spectacle but played out in miniature as figures seem to emerge out of the drawers of bureaucrats’ desks or leap from sheets of paper or slide into vast crevasses. The settings are ambiguous – a huge panorama may open before us that on closer examination appears to rest on a table top reminiscent of John Brack’s magnificent pageants of pens, pencils and playing cards arranged on an unstable card table. Neilson’s work breathes of this sense of instability and transience where we appear to be introduced into some sort of grand narrative that is simultaneously personal and intimate, while at the same time is appears as universal and serves as a broader comment on the human condition.

One is reminded that the artist worked for many years painting stage sets, scenery and theatre backgrounds as his day job and, although this was separate from his serious art practice, it is difficult to believe that, perhaps indirectly, this did not to some extent influence his thinking as an artist.

Peter Neilson’s visionary paintings of a reality that is out of joint

Also, Neilson’s method of work, when painting, needs to be kept in mind. He does not work from preconceived sketches or a worked out schema, but makes his art intuitively, where a composition evolves and one could say organically grows in the process of painting. Major transformations occur on the canvas, within the surface film of the paint, with sometimes several different compositions concealed beneath the final resolution.

Aged in his seventies and having exhibited professionally for fifty-five years, it is pointless to speak of influences on Neilson’s art as he has developed a personal and idiosyncratic style and imagery that has no close parallels – only related fellow travellers. The English painter Michael Andrews (19281995) was an early formative influence, especially his huge sprawling canvas All night long (1963-64) that was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria the year in which it was painted. Looking at it today, next to a contemporary work by Neilson, the Andrews work looks rather tame, simple and expressionistically overstated.

Neilson builds up compositions of labyrinthine complexity as we visually peel one level of meaning from another. In Neilson’s paintings, all is caught in a state of flux, the viewer’s eye is not allowed to rest as one uncovers endless details leading to further details that may have been initially overlooked. Mirrors, windows and screens frequently are strategically placed throughout the compositions bringing into question levels of seen and reflected reality. The paintings question these realities and invite the viewer to explore their possible layers of existence. Marks appear and are erased on the canvas and serve as metaphors for human existence that at times seems fugitive and ephemeral. Kafka summed up well in The Trial, this constantly moving fugitive existence when he wrote, “People under suspicion are better moving than at rest, since at rest they may be sitting in the balance without knowing it, being weighed together with their sins.” In Neilson’s paintings, all of his participants appear to be under suspicion.

The mood in these recent paintings, at times, appears apocalyptic where nothing can be taken for granted and nothing is quite as it seems. There are endless arbitrary boundaries drawn with no go zones, code reds, with access denied and the truth redacted. Somewhere within this nightmare an individual has to weave his path where reality is something arbitrary and difficult to grasp. As Kafka warned, “How are we to avoid those in office becoming deeply corrupt when everything is devoid of meaning?”

Neilson creates a world of nervous agitation within an ambiguous figurative arena that is busy, confusing and endlessly seductively fascinating. Sinister men in dinner suits, the occasional femme fatale, spies, photographers, bureaucrats and sometimes angels populate these spaces that are frequently swamped with papers, fluttering meaninglessly and sliding off desks and benches.

The artist claims no authoritative reading for the work, he is as much a participant and witness to these narratives as is the viewer. Neilson noted in an interview in 2002, “I see narrative now, not like a story with a beginning and end, but as a series of fragments of stories as told in the city – urban myths, legends – not known stories, they are created as the painting is created. I don’t start with something resolved in my mind, you arrive there without knowing how you got there, it seemed logical while in the process of work. It is like being inside and outside the work simultaneously.”

Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA, 2022

Sasha Grishin AM FAHA, Emeritus Professor Australian National University and Guest Curator, National Gallery of Victoria

Painting the two-timing, two-way mirror (as news arrives from Pandemonium) 2021 oil on linen 100 x 185 cm Chiasmus. Red Zone (access denied) Green Light (deleted) 2022 oil on linen 100 x 185 cm Double double-cross 2021 oil on linen 100 x 185 cm Becoming
air 2022 oil
linen 100 x 185 cm

Peter Neilson: My large paintings have sometimes been described as an entire film on one canvas, and, the pleasure for the viewer is working back from “everything, everywhere, all at once”, to imagine an interpretation of the images, just like we do when we watch movies.

In May this year, I reached out to the filmmaker, John Hughes (look up his CV, it’s impressive), asking him to write a “storyline proposal” for a film based on one of my works. He agreed and I am indebted to him and the seriousness with which he ran with the idea.

What impressed me was his insistence to use a filmic interpretation (split screen, collage, montage, etc.), to investigate new cameos and dislocations beyond what was presented in the painting.

So, read his “proposal,” based on a painting . . . and imagine a film.

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing

About the dark times.

‘Motto’ Bertolt Brecht (1938)

It was ‘tactics of attrition’ [ermattungstaktik] that Brecht is said to have attributed to Walter Benjamin’s game in chess. Brecht wanted new rules – a new game – in which pieces that had not been active for a certain time, could change their attributes and functions. “At present there is no development” he said, “things stay as they are for too long.” This little dialogic scene between Brecht and Benjamin in exile arises for me in response to Peter Neilson’s painting ‘The unfinished fact’ (2017-18) and other of his works that depict, as they do, a drama of simultaneously unfolding worlds juxtaposed within a single diegetic space. Arrested dreamlike frozen frames, entreating the spectator to ‘wake up’.

Composed of cryptic narrative fragments drawn from theatres of fact, constantly splintering in transition, these worlds of multiple perspectives, enigma and arrested moments are viewed from coincident fields of vision. Vertiginous gaps and dislocations disclose other realities beneath a benign, turbulent painterly surface; a doctrine of sin is at work below. The ‘action’ of Neilson’s

CRUDE THINKING: After ‘ The unfinished fact’ (2017-18)

characters, often drawn from earlier works, their repeated gestures and movement stilled, unresolved, are given new mise-en-scène and new historical referents in emerging works. A thriller: a game staged between these orphic assemblies and the imaginations of spectators, drawn in, submerged. Imagistic repetition evoking through attrition a radical new moment when everything could be different; no one moment can predict the next.

Yet Neilson’s illusions to fragments of narrative are sufficiently concise to evoke what Benjamin (in writing on The Threepenny Opera ) called Brecht’s ‘crude thinking’* ‘The unfinished fact’ narrates an underground historical passage between Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and the 1953 execution by electric chair of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. As it was Abel Meeropol – who wrote Strange Fruit and offered it to Billie Holiday in 1939 – and Abe’s wife Anne who adopted the Rosenberg’s sons Michael and Robert, who were 10 and 6 years of age respectively at the time of their parents’ deaths (famously novelised by E.L. Doctorow in The Book of Daniel, 1971: “The Isaacson’s are arrested for conspiring to give the secret of television to the Soviet Union…” (116).

But there will also be singing. Bringing it all back home.

In homage to Peter Neilson’s ‘The unfinished fact’ we might imagine a moving image work citing other black lives that matter, their secret historical passages across time and place. A work of collage and montage fabricated from found materials sourced from my garage toolbox, reconfigured as split screen designs offering a multiplicity of layered images and sounds. Referencing the pictorial and narrative strategies of Neilson’s staging of the Rosenberg’s fate – with its redemptive opening to critique through Meeropol’s composition – and an opening to compassion and rescue in the family’s adoption of the Rosenberg’s children.

Intercutting and stitching split screen designs assembled from three movements, we might begin:

1. “All this was plain to you” 1953

From the film The Forever Living (1954) Keith Gow** and Norma Disher: an all-night vigil convened by the Rosenberg Defence Committee takes place outside the American Consul in Sydney on the night of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (Sing Sing Prison, New York, June 19, 1953). The figure of a woman under lamplight is distributing leaflets (evoking Neilson’s floating documents littering the scene). A travelling shot from the front of a train barrelling through Melbourne’s underground (1988).

2. “Everything your own way, Mr King” 1997

The Indigenous Working Group on Native Title have been invited to the Prime Minister’s lodge in Canberra for a meeting with government, miners and pastoralists (February 14, 1997). A stroll through the rose gardens has been orchestrated television cameras have been summoned. A variety of camera angles gathered together here recreate this ‘photo opportunity’ staged in order to perform a fiction of dialogue between Indigenous representatives determined to save what can be saved of what remains of the High Court’s overturning of ‘terra nullius’ (1992) against the determination of a Prime Minister seeking to unravel the modest gains of the previous government’s Native Title Act (1993). Here the ‘rose garden walk’ proceeds jerkily, like animated single images in a film strip – and is rudely interrupted with a series of short quotations, ‘grabs’, sourced from broadcast media and archival film (BITTER SPRINGS, Ealing Studios UK, 1951 – a drama of dispossession and assimilation) and John Howard (Reconciliation Convention 1997 – the turning of backs / 7.30 Report ‘back to the centre’).

Screen design collage: John Howard, gesturing with his right hand: ‘back to the centre’

“This is the best deal the farmers of Australia are going to get, it’s a good deal, it brings the pendulum back to the centre.”


“You got everything your own way, Mr. King. You wanted the blacks off your land and you forced the government to do the job for you. Well that’s my orders, out they go the whole lot of them. Where they go I don’t know, I guess no-one cares. (pause) Well Mr. King?”

3. Everything is falling into place 1998

Scenes from ALL THAT IS SOLID (1988) modified Performance artist Mark Rogers, dark suit and tie, hair slicked back, against a black background addresses a camera that is circling him; on occasion upside down, in revolutions both clockwise and anticlockwise and cut with discontinuous ‘jump cuts’ (text by Christopher Barnett). This performance is also further interrupted with incursions from elsewhere: graphic animations with text; the woman who discovers the source of her pain – the bullet she brings up through the throat and extracts delicately from her mouth.

Yes, everything is falling into place.

Now we have taken care of the future

We’ve organised simpler ways of running your lives

You’ve accepted it in you stride and we’re so glad

There has been so little trouble […]

In the 80s we finally got our men into government

These were our type of people

They came up tough and were prepared for tough solutions

[…] The world has become a smaller place so they say

We help the United State defending our shores

It has been like spending the good and hard time

With an older brother

We have together entered the springtime of our nation

We warmly welcome solutions as they are thought out at the top

Where the sacrifice is immense but the rewards are many

Singing: we see and hear Jirrinja blues singer Betty Fisher (1939-1976) Lula Lula Lula Bye Bye. (Cinesound 1948)

*Despite Brecht’s rude underestimation of the intelligence of the donkey, I have always loved the image of Brecht’s toy donkey, burdened with a notice around its neck: ‘Even I must understand it’.

** During Agency reforms of 1973 ASIO considered filmmaker Keith Gow one of those who might reasonably “claim a hearing” as a result of adverse security vetting in the late 1960s. (NAA A6119 4036 2006, folio 156).

John Hughes, 2022

John Hughes is a Melbourne-based filmmaker

Australia (always was always will be) 2020 oil on linen 60 x 283 cm


solidarity against facial recognition technology . . .and tear gas 2019 oil on linen 55.5 x 286.5 cm
Crude thinking (its ancestors) 2022 oil on treated paper mounted on canvas 58 x 153 cm

The Times of Painting:

As the history of figurative painting developed, perspective emerged as that what organized and held the image in place. Not only was perspective taken to provide unity within the frame, it provided, equally, a way for the framed to be viewed. The supposition is that the singular event was then viewed as a singularity. Time and place coincide. At work here is a conception of time that is defined by the single moment. And yet, once detail is central – detail as opposed to the positing of a singular interplay of time and place – the work of details becomes that which may check the presentation of simple singularities.

A landscape, even a populated landscape, can be reduced to the moment. However within many works of art their engagement with time, and thus with place, refuses this reduction; and this despite the operative presence of perspective. In other words, that refusal can occur despite the fact that, at least from one position, it is demanded by perspective. In Bellini’s, The Transfiguration of Christ (1480) the rocks beneath Christ, Elijah, Moses, and the disciples exist in simple juxtaposition with the land on which the figures stand. All are held in place. And yet, that juxtaposition takes on a different quality to the extent that the rocks can also be identified with ruins. As the painting makes clear life after Christ is already taking place. Cattle are being driven, human interaction occurs. The rocks as ruins – or the interplay of ruin and rock – is the archaeological base. What has been created is the arché, understood as a posited point of origination, of that which is occurring in the ‘now’ of painting. It provides the painting in question with its ‘now’. Time has been split. The line that separates the grass and rocks is the line that divides time.

On Peter Neilson’s The unfinished fact ( 2017-18)

This form of separation – the new as premised on the ruination of the past – also has an operative presence in Poussin’s Landscape with Saint John on Patmos (1640). Though in that particular instance the presence of ruins is more emphatic. Nonetheless, the new as predicated on the ruination of the past – the past as the arché of the new – divides both works. The presence of ruins and that which occurs with it is the way in which historical time – and thus history – is configured within both of these works. The singularity of perspective is undone by that which it allows.

While this configuration has its own exigency what is staged is a conception of the present as having to engage the past as a ruin. That conception of the past is integral to constitution of the present. Within both works what is opened up is a site of work; i.e. a space in which there can be an active engagement with the present thus construed. In regards to the paintings by Bellini and Poussin they do not contain that work. In other words, what is not evidenced as the work of art is a staged engagement with the presence of memory traces and ruins that are as much part of the present as they constitute its arché. They are simply given. As a result a demand emerges. There needs to be a development within art’s relation to the presentation of historical time. Once it can be argued that this enactment does not occur a clear limit emerges. As a result art’s continual engagement with the presence of historical time has to take another form, and as a result be formed differently. The engagement with historical time in a number of Peter Neilson’s most significant recent works has to be understood as an engagement that moves art’s relation to historical time – time as a topic within and as the work of art – beyond this limitation. An engagement with memory and traces of the past as inhabiting and effecting a determining hold on the present does not just have to occur, the activity that marks its occurrence in Neilson’s works, defines the work of art.

Since what matters is form, the undoing of the unity and singularity demanded by perspective which, as the case of both Bellini and Poussin indicates, was always an impossibility, has then also to register in the work’s form. Hence the disruptive form of Neilson’s The unfinished fact (2017-18). Within it both

scale and relationality have been configured differently. Spatial relations in this work have to allow for presence and yet resist synthesis. Spaces of encounter, ones not foreclosed in advance, have to be maintained. In moving beyond the limitation noted above, time and place as a set of abstract relations lose their hold. Human relations and the modes of territorialisation they entail are shown by abstraction’s withdrawal always to have been structured by differentials of power. The present becomes marked by retaining within it – a retention that does of course exert a constitutive hold –as much the demand for a conception of justice to come as it does the necessity to see that, thus far, what has taken place is the creation of victims. Memory traces are of struggles and lives ruined. In fact the demands for another beginning that is clear in both Bellini and Poussin – and it needs to be stated that the importance of their work for a politics of time resides in precisely this possibility – endures as a memory because of its lack of fulfilment.

The unfinished fact (2017-18) references and presents. From Sacco and Vanzetti to the Rosenbergs; from jazz being played to the singular presence of the black female singer; children are led away, perhaps after an execution. Names are not given. Portraiture is resisted. And yet, these figures are not abstractions. They invite identification. They elicit naming. However, even if faces were identified and names given, a unified and complete event would not have been created. This is a

formal necessity within the work. It is the way form is informed. Within the painting other figures – again at varying scales – are situated within spaces evincing the same sense of variation. Light from sources both natural and artificial illuminate darkened places. An apparently diminutive figure in the work’s centre – his back to the viewer – is searching. While repose is resisted, the search is not mere movement. The search is for that which is yet to occur. The painting therefore cannot be finished. It turns and returns; a continual locus of possibilities. However, these possibilities are not a simple matter of choice. Choice would demand a sense of equality that is yet to prevail. This is history painting in the precise sense that the impossibility of simple continuity or progress, thus the undoing of any possibility of equating the everyday with a gradual sense of amelioration, is a position held in relation the interplay of time and place that defines the historical now. That Peter Neilson’s work continues to explore history as a subject for art now identifies his overwhelming significance as an artist (of) today.

Andrew Benjamin, 2022

Andrew Benjamin is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Monash University

Golden summer haze (Sylvan waters and beyond) 2022 oil on linen 146 x 50 cm

The deep 2022 oil on linen


43 cm
Crude thinking. Crude art. Crude oil lobby. Bondi. 2022 oil on treated paper mounted on canvas 61 x 91 cm My future coming back to get me 2013 oil on linen mounted on board 41 x 65 cm


young comrade from the South 2013 oil on linen mounted on board 48.5 x 19.5 cm

Artist heroes: Grosz and Heartfield 2018 charcoal on paper 26.5 x 37.5 cm (mount size)

Artist hero: Picasso 2018 charcoal and chalk on paper 37 x 26.5 cm (mount size)
PETER NEILSON MELBOURNE: Derby Street 03 9417 4303 Stock Rooms 03 9417 2422 SYDNEY: Roylston Street 02 9360 5177 Design and Production by Publishing A USTRALIAN G ALLERIES Chiasmus. Red Zone (access denied) Green Light (deleted) (detail) 2022 oil on linen 100 x 185 cm

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