James Makin Gallery, Melbourne
Dr. Jonathan McBurnie, 2016
Director, Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts
There is an art school fallacy that takes place in every first year life drawing class, called the blind contour drawing. The process involves the artist looking only at the model, avoiding looking at the paper, instead letting the form of the model guide the drawing. The fallacy is not in the process, which is a valuable training method that builds discipline and keen observational skills. The fallacy is in calling it the ‘blind’ contour. It is, in fact, the only drawing process that does not require some kind of blindness. One cannot look at the subject and one’s own work at the same time. One can only look between the two, working from memory in a very fast and basic sense. Nic Plowman’s New Work demonstrates this basic tenet of drawing clearly; memory is just as important as sight.
Those familiar with the Brisbane and Melbourne art crowds will know of Nic Plowman and his work and its rugged, warts-and-all beauty. A hard-working artist with a gift for composition, and an attraction to old-school media, Plowman has been exhibiting─ frequently─ for the last decade. Blending a personal narrative with a dedication to working from life, Plowman’s work bypasses any art school cool for a blistering sincerity that moves the heart and punches the guts. Life drawing is considered by many contemporary artists as obsolete, even arcane, preferring photographic reference. But they can’t draw like Plowman, if at all. ‘Life drawing is the hardest thing in the world. It can be meditation, but it is continually challenging and demanding of your complete attention. The skills and language developed in its pursuit, provides artists with the ability to communicate visually,’ says Plowman. ‘It is, I believe, the most difficult and most useful apprenticeship for those attempting to understand the world visually… Plus, there is nowhere to hide with drawing, and in particular Life Drawing. The gloves are off, your magic tricks are useless and it is you against the elements’.
No wonder Plowman is drawn to the human form. ‘The human condition is all we have to talk about really and the human body is smack bang in the guts of all those stories - whether you’re discussing death, life, fear, triumph, sex or magic… it all comes back to us in one way or another. In essence, my work discusses the very real experience of being human’. Often using recurring imagery that draws upon symbols of masculinity, religious iconography and the odd pop culture reference, Plowman’s work presents us with images of internal conflict, especially in contrast to his more serene life drawings. ‘I do have a fascination with iconography and great religious works of art,’ Plowman responds. ‘The gravitas that is associated with religious works is mesmerising - my musings have always been about how do you attempt this, when my inherit beliefs have been challenged and my very real experiences with death hold no great ‘other’ knowledge’.
Plowman’s most recent series, now being exhibited at James Makin Gallery, scales back the iconography in favour of a much more observational, and nuanced, perspective. It is as if in spending time with each model, the artist slowly teases out traces of their character and temperament. Figure 17 (Robert) is a series of wiry line work, coalescing to form the figure, seemingly over time, mapping the figure’s movement, a little bit of its time spent in the studio, moments that are gone now, committed to canvas.
‘I think most of my work contains a duality, from the materials used, the construction, the underdrawings and multiple views to the intentional meaning in the work … Nothing is black and white, life is complicated and so are people and relationships and therefore so is art’. Underdrawings remain, leaving traces of the thought process in action, mapping out and constructing each figure with care. Even after Plowman has so sumptuously rendered the flesh in watercolour, work continues, as we see in the devastatingly beautiful Figure Drawing no.7, in which a rough white overdrawing is made across the seemingly finished work, spontaneous and gestural afterthoughts to calm visual passages of poetry and clarity. Perhaps the traces of underdrawings present this duality between sight and memory, but somehow that seems too contrived, verbal Viagra, a contemporary over-explanation for something that needs no explanation. Good drawing doesn’t need the aid of my words to justify its existence, and Plowman’s work is indeed good drawing.
Just look at it.
Nic Plowman - No Other Knowledge
Gallerysmith Project Space
Laura Skerlj, 2015
More than once Nic Plowman wandered toward life’s edge. On these occasions, he moved more briskly than his usual saunter, propelled by forces he could not control. Thankfully, as death came into view, he turned around and danced back—unready, rib tickling, bold, in love with the world. Suffering a congenital heart condition that incited two bouts of open-heart surgery, as well as a near fatal accident five years ago, Plowman’s understanding of the tightrope between life and death is intimate. He can recall moments—from hospital beds, his mother’s house in the country, and the comfort of his closest friends— when everything, quite suddenly, became fragile.
However, when fragility muscles up it turns to tenderness. Moving past the place where things fall apart, what was once weak finds a sympathetic and elastic strength to cope, and move forward, despite ill wind. In this way, death was never an earthen endpoint. It was not a religious nirvana either. Instead it was a state that could define, through opposition, the exquisite quality of life and human tenacity in the face of deep loss, pain and struggle. In Plowman’s exhibition No Other Knowledge a series of people from the artist’s life—some well known, others he met quite recently—are elevated for heroically wandering out to the end, before dancing back. As he might call them, lion-hearts.
This tenacity connects the sitters in Plowman’s newest portraits. These women and men have experienced addiction, abuse, malady, the loss of loved ones. Each has faced great existential tests. And each, through various faiths (in gods, in people, in pure momentum), has resurrected themselves. As Plowman’s sensitively wrought visions describe, the everyday person rises to sainthood not through perfection or piousness but through a commitment to keep evolving: we are reminded of their battles by the small halo-bubbles that contain mementos from the past; by the way their wrinkles, tattoos and blemishes seem to smile-out their secrets.
In this way, flesh circles the halo. Using a corporeal palette—blue of veins, ochre of skin, purple of bruises, crimson of tissue—the artist’s chosen aesthetic is blood-bound. In keeping, the religious quality of Plowman’s work is less concerned with the following of God (one he grew up with, yet abandoned) than with a profound belief in the humanity of his loved ones, be that someone he met in a life drawing class or a long-time kin. Here, humanity finds religion an empty vessel without seeing itself inside, a mere story for which to be anchored: true spirituality, however, emanates, just like the recurrent halo-shroud found in these works, from the imperfect narratives of everyday sainthood.
KINGS, POPES & OTHER FOOLS
Nic Plowman - Kings, Popes & Other Fools.
Anthea Polson Art, The Gold Coast .
Jacqueline Houghton, 2014
"A fool doth think he is wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool."
As You Like It, William Shakespeare
Enthroned popes and kings represent the embodiments of absolute authority and power. Only the court jesters of old had a ‘license' be at variance without fear of punishment, provided that the contrariness was couched in humorous satire. Traditionally, the fool as prankster is utterly spontaneous and natural, lacking any trace of affectation as he sets out on a journey towards wisdom. Nic Plowman describes his new body of work as being about "a dissection of images and ideologies, a fossicking for meaning and truth, a searching for a moment when the work while teetering, falls into success.”
"After working with watercolours on paper for my previous show, I wanted to change my method and mark making, to throw a spanner in the works, push the images and put them at risk. If my last body of work was a meditation, then this show has been an argument. Ultimately, I needed to make some heavier work, both in subject matter and in the mediums and techniques used. I had always been fascinated by icons and the great religious works of art, as well as royal portraiture. Their strong narratives and use of symbols intrigued me. I wanted to make a ‘religious' painting. But how do you make a religious work when one's inherited beliefs no longer measure up and your experiences with death hold no great ‘other' knowledge?”
Plowman's introspective musings were tempered by the rationalist philosophies of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Aided by a collection of images; "some appropriations of old paintings and religious works, Catholic prayer cards and wildlife photography", he began his weighty task. Although Plowman tells of his desire to get back into acrylics and oils again - "thick meaty paint for thick meaty subjects" - the new works also demonstrate the fine drawing skills that underpin his practice. Copious amounts of gold leaf have been applied to the canvas icon-like, gold being variously symbolic of purity, incorruptibility, divinity, royalty, wealth and human achievement.
In the painting Pope II: A Little Bird Told Me, an aged Pope Gregory I sits hunched, engrossed in his rendering of a bird study. Incongruously, it is an Australian lyrebird, ground-dwelling and notable for its ability to mimic the sounds from its environment. A white dove looks on circumspectly, its head cocked to one side and wings outstretched as if about to take flight. The silhouetted face that frames the pope's head denotes Plowman the artist and the "shadow of doubt, the darkness of free thought." Looming in a black arc over both, a gold-haloed chimpanzee appears interested in a mute kind of way, its overt tactility contrasting with the scenario's essential quietude. "I have used the chimpanzee in the past because for me it represents us in our primal state," says Plowman. "The chimpanzee is like the Shakespearian fool to me, appearing to have an all-seeing level of wisdom in his ignorance of our grand schemes. The genetic difference between humans and chimps is less than two percent and that two percent is the cause of music and art but also of war and destruction; of all the beauty in the world and all the ugliness too. In this two percent is our need for reason and our ability to believe in the unreasonable."
BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER
The Art Vault, Mildura
Joel Edmondson, 2011
- lifelong friend
Nic Plowman's latest foray into fraternal portraiture is at once starkly brutal and anaesthetising, its broken heads floating in open space like prison patients in the void. Blood Is Thicker Than Water (2011) documents injuries suffered by brothers Nic and Kurt during a drunken stoush with anonymous revellers, but their combatants are notably absent from the plates. In fact, all other contextual information has been erased from the visual field. For Plowman, there is nothing but brothers. The blank expression of these brothers betrays a defiant calm, and the transient physical consequences of allegiance are worn with contempt for any judgments that may befall them. If there are any invisible captors in this void, then we take their place, and quickly learn that the price of our judgment is a failed interrogation of their secret world.
Besides, one thousand years in this void would do little but further cement these blood bonds. Violence and the threat of death are merely accepted, much like the Zen master accepts the brutality of nothingness with smiling indifference. Mortality is a central theme of Nic’s work, derived partly from his lifelong waltz with a genetic heart defect and, more recently, months of hospitalisation and convalescence after falling out of a tree house. Although his previous studies are mobilised by a visceral sense of animation and potentiality, Blood Is Thicker Than Water is static, like the emanation of something primal. It is the eternal return to a promise born of larrikinism and excess.
Nic’s recent experimentation with watercolours is a clear attempt to problematise stereotypical conceptions of masculine aggression. To quote the most parochial of Australian songwriters, John Williamson, the consequences of “standing by your mate, when he’s in a fight” is not only broken bones, but also the soft-focus memories of brotherly resilience. Nic has been called to a medium capable of embracing this paradox, a new conceptual ground from which to demonstrate his significant technical prowess as a figurative painter of the highest order.