Merry Karnowsky Gallery is proud to present a solo exhibition by Julian Meagher, The Sky Still Breaks. Meagher’s most recent collection of paintings emerged from a chance encounter with a scuba diver hunting for discarded longnecks that litter the seabeds of Sydney Harbour. Ghostly glass artifacts of past foreshore carousing, these salvaged vessels prompted the artist to explore the binary nature of modern masculinity through the tinted glass of inherited history. Pairing still lifes of reclaimed bottles with intergenerational male figure studies, Meagher examines the subtle shades of masculine strength and fragility that underlie the peculiar compulsion of Australian drinking culture. It is fitting then that the exhibition borrows its title, ‘The Sky Still Breaks’, from barfly Charles Bukowski, whose poetry interlaces flashes of featherlike sensitivity with machismo grit.
From the rum rebellion to the six o’clock swill, the grim guzzle before closing time immortalized in John Brack’s The Bar (1954), and the menacing beer-fuelled mateship of Ted Kotcheff’s cult film, Wake in Fright (1971), masculine culture has demonstrated an enduring taste for grog. “Drunkenness”, according to the colonial journalist Marcus Clarke, himself a regular tippler, “was a prevailing vice” from the earliest days of settlement. Meagher’s bottles, sourced from junk shops and building sites in addition to the Harbour, reference this legacy of libation, which also became liquid currency.
An extension of Meagher’s playful experimentation with contemporary brands of beer and whisky, these outdated bottles offers a distilled vision of the detritus of drinking. His compositions are staged into tenuous groupings of empty bottles tilted and tipped, obliquely alluding to the aggression, dreams and despair, inherent in such male ritual. Within these works, Meagher’s clinician’s approach derived from a career in medicine gives way to an intimate empathy in which the artistic process becomes a cathartic encounter.
In their pared-down instinctive simplicity his still lifes recall the emotive purity of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), whose work was described by fellow artist Giorgio di Chirico as the “metaphysics of everyday objects.” Meticulously built up through transparent layers of oil and then scrubbed back in order to achieve a muted luminosity, Meagher’s paintings are rendered flatly in a diffuse colour scheme of worn glass tones. Both tangible and ethereal, they subtly subvert still life conventions through the coalescence of the material and immaterial.
Flowering branches of banksias and gumnuts from the Sydney foreshore, a number of which were collected around the studio, further inform Meagher’s palette, while adding a palpable sense of locality. Their drooping leaves and dripping shadows, epitomised in the auratic We Will Taste The Islands And The Sea (2014), suggest Clarke’s captivation with “the subtle charm of this fantastic land of monstrosities” where “there is a poem in every form of tree or flower”. Conveyed through the dirty pastel shades of such idiosyncratic Australian flora, Clarke’s weird melancholy is transmuted through vibrant punctuations of pink, a colour whose problematic alignment with the masculine represents a recurrent strain in the artist’s work.
Associated with the feminine modernism of Margaret Preston’s native floral arrangements, the Australian still life genre through Meagher’s calculated brush is injected with a measured masculinity that probes such dichotomous readings of gender. This thematic of balance is reflected in his series of accompanying portraits, which juxtapose the masculine and feminine. Literally cloaked in the mantle of history, his subjects sport archaic dress shirts that enshroud their archetypal male virility in effeminate, almost vaginal, ruffles and frills.
Historically, such garments were not worn in public without a vest or jacket, situating Meagher’s sitters in a figurative state of undress, particularly evident in his own self-portrait, Too Close To The Sun, in which he flaunts a shirt haphazardly unbuttoned. Alternatively read as undone or at ease, these intimate figure studies imbue the artist’s introspective analysis of contemporary masculinity with a concrete humanity that superimposes individual and collective inherited histories. What then is to be made of the lingering presence of the past staunchly lodged, as Meagher would have it, in the contemporary male psyche? As Bukowski questioningly laments in The Sun Wields Mercy, “has this happened before? Is history a circle that catches itself by the tail, a dream, a nightmare….”
-Molly Duggins, 2014