Australian Collection Focus
'The Dry Salvages' 1963-64 and 'Gemini' 1964
'Colin Lanceley: poeticising the banal'
by Barry Pearce
Head Curator of Australian Art
Amongst Colin Lanceley's most ambitious works of the period between his involvement in Sydney with the Imitation Realists of 1961-62, and his departure from Australia with a Helena Rubinstein Scholarship in 1965, 'The Dry Salvages' and 'Gemini', are his least known. For many years they have remained dismantled. The centre panel of the former was sold separately during the late sixties and early seventies whilst the artist was abroad, and only reconstructed by him shortly before its acquisition by the Gallery in 1991. The latter was stored in pieces for most of its life at the Gallery since given by Sandra McGrath in 1968. Their story of dis-assemblage and re-assemblage is ironically reflective, on the one hand, of their conceptual intention; and on the other, of the vulnerability so markedly a part of the informal collective spirit out of which they evolved. Both were included in the five pieces the artist submitted for his Rubinstein Scholarship, and have been reunited here for the first time in over thirty years.
The title 'The Dry Salvages' reveals Lanceley's abiding inspiration. It came from one of T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets', composed between 1935 and 1942, and which was to encapsulate a powerfully influential aspect of the modernist evolution. In his imagery of river and sea embracing the passage of time and the relentless carriage of human culture within it, the poet turned to the flotsam and jetsam of the past, underlining for the artist a way of approaching a new era of visual pollution as potentially fertile territory.
There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed as the most reliable -
And therefore the fittest for renunciation.
Of course Lanceley and his contemporaries were not the first artists to be motivated profoundly by Eliot. Already during the war years, and in the following decade painters and sculptors in Australia had used his transfixion of the idea of alienation and the disintegrating echoes of modern civilisation as a means to shape their own vision. But perhaps the most interesting thing about Lanceley's perception of Eliot in the early 1960s is that he felt through such works as 'The Wasteland' and the 'Four Quartets' he might embody the survival of the poetic spirit even through the fickle, evanescent physicality of a consumer society. The very impermanence of the objects he was using imparted by default the life-affirmation of spontaneous impulse and the possibilities of chaos and free association.
In a review of the (Subterranean) Imitation Realists exhibition at the Rudy Komon Gallery in Sydney in 1962, Robert Hughes wrote, 'Where do they go from here? ... Dada clichés appear, and a few of the assemblages are little more than thin arabesques. Soon there will be that old problem when the taste-merchants make anti-taste into the new good taste. The flaccid body of fashion opens and envelops its enemy for later digestion'.
Indeed the cannibalisation by the art world of its own would all but destroy the larrikin impact of the Imitation Realists.
Of the three main protagonists Ross Crothall soon disappeared from the scene, with not much evidence left of the vitality he has been accredited for in the genesis of the movement. Michael Brown was the most tenacious champion of the collectivist ethic, the one who brought back from his experience with a film unit working in Papua New Guinea a fascination for fetishist sculpture which steered the group in some ways towards being a kind of wild heir of the early Cubist interest in indigenous art. He maintained the rage of provocation until his death in Melbourne in 1997, but was largely marginalised by the establishment. Lanceley took the course of refinement and became a successful international artist. He made his works more durable, polymorphing those relics collected from the back lanes of Darlinghurst and Paddington into smoothly finished and painted extrusions on the canvas. Brown later vilified him for succumbing to the evil of modernist taste-making and capitalism - a great many could hardly avoid being so regarded in his eyes - but Lanceley was the only real survivor of the three.
'The Dry Salvages' in particular represents a transition between the birth of a young talent eager to lose himself in the crusade of recovering a sense of poetry from the noisy, haphazard detritus of contemporary life, and a natural inclination to suppress these manifold disturbances as time went by to make something permanent out of it. For in spite of its apparent randomness of beads, trinkets, dolls, photographs and countless other little objets trouvés arranged across the entire shallow reaches of the picture plane, the instinct of the painter's eye has unified the work with red paint throughout, giving a flat structural overtone to the whole. This instinct would gain strength and determine Lanceley's priorities over the next three decades.
'I had no view of any future for ourselves. And don't forget that at that time it was really quite impossible to live as an artist ... and we certainly had no real skills to make things terribly well ... But I think that those skills became more important as I began to explore that language more and more. That it needed more precision of meaning the further I went with it, and the more totally absorbed I was the more I had to shape things, even within that very ambiguous poetic context of theatre that goes on here ... I had to hone the image more and more ...' (1)
'The Dry Salvages' represents that last moment before he began to form a viable plan for his own future.
(1) Colin Lanceley in video filmed at AGNSW, 6 November 2000.
'Colin Lanceley: junk start'
by Deborah Edwards
Curator of Australian Art
Depending on chance and serendipity, great Australian artist-scavengers have found their way to a variety of dumps. Rosalie Gascoigne was a frequenter of rural council tips and one whose sturdy weathered materials had always to carry the impression of country. Robert Klippel has been a quiet raider of large loads of archaic machinery and assemblage kits, set up as a 'form field' for the chance and spiritually charged process of assemblage. Colin Lanceley, an early street scavenger, has long relished the seductive nuances of his materials, for their textured, coloured, shaped beauty and their evocative power, with, it seems, all the passion of a nineteenth century collector for his cabinet of curiosities.
Environmentalists may emphasise litter as disease. Lanceley has emphasised, like T.S. Eliot, that one can read the deepest meanings of society, as in the tarot or the teacup, from the detritus of our lives. And like the tarot, it is in the method of re-constituting disparate fragments into new wholes - collage and assemblage - that meaning becomes most acute. Trash has been treasure. In the isolated, certainly complicated area between sculpture and painting which Lanceley has occupied, from one transformation to the next, the suggestibility of junk materials appears to have been central to the work created, whether painting or sculpture or both, until at least the seventies. Nonetheless, if 'The Dry Salvages' 1963-64 and 'Gemini' 1964, do take their place in a period where Lanceley's junk materials lie more exposed, and sculptural, in his work, both before this time and afterwards painting has imposed itself more heavily on his art.
In 1961, in the rough-and-ready works of vintage Imitation Realism ('Glad Family Picnic' AGNSW for example), painting featured in the combination of 'trash and tribal' which was the means by which Sydney's own urban 'primitives' sought an authentic presence in their work. Street rubbish - silver milk bottle tops, dismembered toys, beaded fringes, gaudy plastic parts, crushed paint tins and cans filched from Lanceley's Dulux day-job, wads of bill-board poster papers torn from the walls of Central station's railway arches - were all thoroughly manipulated into meaning. They were glued, flattened, nailed, and partially disguised with painting - muscular and whimsical - into quasi-tribal masks, tessellated surfaces, strange effigies, polychrome patterns: a kind of physical painting which transformed contemporary trash.
In the fabulous junk gem produced after this time, 'The Dry Salvages', the Imitation Realist 'passion for incrustation' had lost substantial ground, to unmanipulated junk and a more traditional painterly purpose. If this ambitious tapestry carries with it, through the forms of its shaggy street litter, elements of the Imitation Realists' cluttered, theatrical evocations, the kind of junk adhering to it, like the artists' rooms in Kings Cross and Annandale, proved temporary lodgings. Within the trash and treasure layering of the earlier works lay an artist committed to the traditions of high Modernism, for whom the clinging histories of street rubbish began perhaps to cloud the issue of art and of craftsmanship. In this context, and in the context of a new association with 'purist' junk sculptor Robert Klippel, somewhere between October 1963 and June 1964 when on the prowl for parts, Colin Lanceley made an extremely propitious discovery, and one which would end his time as street scavenger.
It was an enormous cache of wooden pattern parts for machinery in a disused Balmain store belonging to Morts Dock Pty Ltd. According to Robert Hughes, 'One morning while scavenging for junk in the abandoned drawing offices of the old engineering firm, Lanceley blundered onto ... the basement ... crammed to its collapsing ceiling with thousands of obsolete dusty spider-webbed wooden patterns once made for sand-casting maritime machine-parts, arbors and axles, cams and poppets, rotors, pinions and flywheels ...' (1) These may have been fragments for cast machinery but they look like a lexicon of all organic and mechanical forms in the world. Both Lanceley and Klippel carried off truckloads of the pieces, eventually using them in very different sculptures.
With this haul, Lanceley assembled a group of large works quite unlike any he had done before, including the spectacular 'Gemini' 1964, and the sculptures, 'Object possessed by a secret sound', 'The great aviator', and 'Phoenix' among the stars. In these he bid a final farewell to the low relief jumble of ephemeral bits and pieces in earlier collages, and a temporary farewell to painting. Here was a new junk which was not only permanent and crafted, and demanded spatial configuration, but was opaque in terms of its history (where previously fragile, ephemeral, and manifest). Such was the formal seductiveness of this material that it was allowed to stand alone, undisguised, in extraordinary assemblage sculptures.
'Gemini' is a great winged assemblage made largely from these pattern parts, with their antique-looking patinae and differently poly-chromed surfaces (a worn version of Massey Ferguson red, and earthy black, a yellow stain which hasn't faded, and all variations of wood colours), put together with the tonally sympathetic innards of a pianola and turned furniture legs. The whole has the feeling of having been carved. It seems clear now, especially in the light of the highly individualistic constructivism of Robert Klippel's pattern-part sculptures, that the sinewy organicism of 'Gemini', which stems from Lanceley's gravitation to the bulging rounded lines of particular pattern pieces - tube sections, curving slices, circular plate forms - can be related to the fluid arabesque of painterly form.
Yet, notwithstanding Lanceley's consistent claim to the sensibilities of a painter over that of a sculptor, and the very clear use of sculpted parts for painterly purposes in recent decades, at this moment in the mid-sixties when he emptied his art of the disparate associations and quasi-narratives of litter-tacky detritus, and moved to an endlessly renewing field of formally coherent parts, Lanceley was at his most sculptural.
Today, while the 'sculpture or painting' controversy surrounding Lanceley's win in the 1964 Helena Rubinstein Scholarship looks limited, 'Gemini' and three of the other four works exhibited it are not paintings but exceptional assemblage sculptures, in spite of their frontal orientation, their arguably painterly rhythms, and Lanceley's own perception of them as more painting than projections. Such was the seduction and suggestibility of the pattern-pieces that, upon departure for Italy in 1965, Lanceley sent a box of them ahead to London, and produced as his first work there, Inverted personage 1965, a free-standing sculpture of biomorphic Surrealist overtones constructed from pattern parts and wooden pieces carved by the artist. It seems significant that once Lanceley decided, shortly afterwards, to deliberately halt this direction in his work - to harness the liberating and complicating pressure for sculptural presence in this material to the traditions of painting, the pattern-part pieces and with them junk material in his art, dissolved away. In their wake came decoratively carved architectural embellishments; curved vegetative forms, shells, snaking wooden tubes, Miro-esque buds and spiky nodes, supplied by English carvers. They were crafted, sensuous and able to be manipulated for shaped canvas-carved form 'hybrids' such as Altar 1967, and other intricate extensions of the pictorial which are seminal for all that has come since. Perhaps Lanceley's materials have never been so powerfully directing as when he has been a sculptor, and never so malleable as when he is a painter.
(1) William Wright, Robert Hughes, 'Colin Lanceley', Craftsman House, Sydney, 1987/1993, pg. 12.
'The Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship 1964'
by Vivienne Webb
Assistant Curator of Australian Art
Colin Lanceley won The Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship in 1964. 'The Dry Salvages' and 'Gemini' were two of the five works entered in the competition by invitation: the others being 'Temple of earthly delights', 'Kindly shoot the piano player' and 'The great aviator' (also known as 'Icarus').
The following excerpts from the press, relate to the controversy regarding the sculptural nature of Lanceley's work:
Wallace Thornton, 'Helena Rubinstein Scholarship', Sydney Morning Herald, 17.9.1964:
'... Is the award for painting and if so must the examples of their work showing indicate the nature of their achievements in the field of painting? This questioning automatically arises when one is confronted by the exhibits presented by Colin Lanceley. Only one of his five entries retains the character of his past assemblage paintings; works which at least kept to a relatively flat plane and embodied some substantial use of oil paint in relation to the found forms used. But this year, in 'The Great Aviator' and 'Gemini' particularly, Lanceley exhibits assemblages pure and simple and as such must be regarded more of a sculptor than a painter. ... What a problem this must be for the judges. These two works are a brilliant tour-de-force by Lanceley. It is a spectacular development in which a relaxed romanticism (which reminds one of Olsen's painting) is combined with a tougher, stricter understanding of form (Klippel's formal concept is an influence here), but the final fusion of these elements is an individual expression of importance ... '
James Gleeson, 'Best work he's done', Sun, 18.9.1964:
'The contest resolved into a struggle between three N.S.W. artists, Lanceley, Rodney Milgate and Elwyn Lynn - who have each made enormous progress in the past year or so.
It is perhaps a little unfair that the paintings of Milgate and Lynn should be asked to compete against Lanceley's impressive assemblages. 'The Great Aviator' and 'Gemini' are certainly the best things the award winner has done. While his approach might be vaguely called painterly, the result must be classified as sculpture. Their three-dimensional presence gives them an actuality that is a great advantage in competing with strictly two-dimensional work. The Helena Rubinstein award is open to painters, not sculptors. There is no doubt that Lanceley is much closer to sculpture than he is to painting in four of his entries, and the fifth, or truly painterly work, is the least effective of his entries ...'
'Assembled junk wins £1,300 travelling grant', Sydney Morning Herald, 18.9.1964:
'... One of Mr Lanceley's five assemblages, a mixture of six cedar table legs, wooden struts, car parts, and other pieces of broken debris, measures 10 ft by 10 ft ... Another is a mass of cogs and wheels surmounted by flimsy wood and paper wings. The cogs and wheels are actually wooden patterns for marine engines. His three other works include old keyboards, rusted poker machine parts, distorted doll's limbs and coloured beads. Another artist at the exhibition featured brass portholes and opening doors with latches in his works. All exhibiting painters, except Mr Lanceley, submitted "flat surface" paintings as opposed to three-dimensional forms.'
Frank Cozzarelli, 'Rubinstein: hack's birthright', Art and Australia, vol. 2, no.3, 1964, pp. 184, 186:
' ... Lanceley uses found or ready-made objects, then proceeds to lose them. Their former identity and function are no longer applicable. The cog or camshaft do something new. The noun is still applicable but the verb is lost. The ready made is used as a symbol of the remade. In his hands banal objects become implacable, hostile, malevolent. They are implacable in their frontalism; in refusing to yield an inch to taste; in their insistence. They are hostile in their merciless flaying of convention. They are malevolent in their destruction of the weak and fragile. And they are funny. It is the black humour of tragi-comedy: otherwise their implications would be unendurable. They are ludicrous: butterfly wings with which to lift tons. In their rapid, telegraphic communication, each part to the next, Klippel comes to mind; in the surreal meanderings of line, Olsen. All three deny it. Lanceley: 'They are my friends not my parents' ... Visual puns abound. The irony of it! To satisfy the specification that the prize is for painting it is this inferior effort that technically justifies the award. It interests for non-art reasons - its manufacture requires an encyclopaedic repertory of refuse. They remind one of the battlefield littered with the corpses of commerce, both sides having suffered total defeat -'
The research files relating to this focus exhibition are available through the Australian Art Department, AGNSW.
Australian Collection Focus Series no. 8
1 January - 25 March 2001
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Excerpts from the Australian Collection Focus Series no. 8 catalogue, available at the Art Gallery of New South Wales
oil and mixed media collage on plywood
triptych: 187.6 x 374.4 x 18.0 cm overall (approx.); 183.3 x 122.2 cm (left panel); 183.3 x 122.2 cm (centre panel); 183.5 x 122.4 cm (right panel) :
a - left panel; 183.3 x 122.2 cm
b - centre panel; 183.3 x 122.2 cm
c - right panel; 183.5 x 122.4 cm
Signature & date
Signed and dated l.r. centre panel [part b], red oil "Lanceley 63/64".
Not on display
© Colin Lanceley. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.
Shown in 4 exhibitions
Colin Lanceley, South Yarra Gallery, Melbourne, 28 Apr 1964 -
Selections from 'The Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship' 1964, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 Sep 1964–11 Oct 1964
Australian Collection Focus: Colin Lanceley The Dry Salvages 1963-64 and Gemini 1964, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 01 Jan 2001–25 Mar 2001
Wastelands: A poetic legacy, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 10 Aug 2005–09 Oct 2005
Referenced in 7 publications
Elizabeth Fortescue., dailytelegraph.com.au, 'Australian art legend Colin Lanceley dies after long illness', Sydney, 30 Jan 2015, n.pag.. viewed 30.01.2015, http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/arts/australian-art-legend-colin-lanceley-dies-after-long-illness/story-fniv7r7y-1227201808929
Jane Hampson, Look, 'Lost and found: Colin Lanceley on urban collage, TS Eliot and the Annandale Imitation Realists', pg. 18-19, Melbourne, Dec 2000-Jan 2001, front cover (colour illus., detail), 5 (colour illus.), 18 (colour illus.), 19. Australian Focus series
Barry Pearce, Australian Collection Focus: Colin Lanceley The Dry Salvages 1963-64 and Gemini 1964, 'Colin Lanceley: poeticising the banal', pg. 2-3, Sydney, 2001, 2-3, 4-5 (colour illus.), 7-8, 10, 11, 12 (colour illus., detail).
Barry Pearce, Look, 'Focus on Wastelands: How the idea was born', pg. 16, Sydney, Sep 2005, 16, 17 (colour illus.).
David Thomas., The Australian, 'Art citadel breached by new impressionists', Sydney, 31 May 1965, page unknown (illus., detail of right panel). Right panel reproduced with caption: 'Colin Lanceley's assemblage Black Magic in the exhibition of Sydney Painters '65 which opened on Saturday evening'.
Editor Unknown (Editor), The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Assembled junk wins £1,300 travelling grant', Sydney, 18 Sep 1964, page unknown.
Editor Unknown (Editor), Truth, 'Is Lanceley really serious or is he pulling our legs - and at £600 for a triptych called The Dry Salvages that's a considerable leg pull?', pg. 24, Melbourne, 09 May 1964, 24.