The art that made me: Tony Costa


Image: Tony Costa

In The art that made me, artists discuss works in the Art Gallery of NSW collection that either inspire, influence or simply delight them. This selection by 2019 Archibald winner Tony Costa first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine.

Tony Costa finds inspiration in the AGNSW collection in the rhythm of Ian Fairweather and the distortion of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Harmonious and contemplated compositions are key. These elements can be traced in his meditative, winning portrait of artist Lindy Lee.

‘The challenge for me is to trap the energy of my sitter,’ he says, ‘the emotional feeling over and above the physical reality. In my portrait of Lindy, I have kept the colour minimal to avoid any visual noise. Ultimately the invention and the unity of the work is what matters most.’

AGNSW collection Kevin Connor Pyrmont and city (1992) 104.1993
AGNSW collection Kevin Connor Pyrmont and city (1992) 104.1993

Kevin Connor Pyrmont and city

A highlight of my life has been the time I was a postgraduate student at the City Art Institute (now UNSW Art and Design). It was there that I met Kevin Connor. I vividly remember spending a day with him at Pyrmont, drawing and painting the landscape around us. He later won the Dobell Prize for Pyrmont and city.

In this drawing, we see the artist allowing the subject to appear and disappear without too much interference. It is as though the painting has made itself. It is full of courage, spontaneity and poetic lyricism. The whole drawing delivers a symphonic effect which speaks directly to us because it has come from the artist's plein air drawings of this environment. He is painting the life force and rhythm of the city; qualities which I hope to trap in my own landscape paintings of the Australian bush.

AGNSW collection Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Three bathers (1913) 158.1984
AGNSW collection Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Three bathers (1913) 158.1984

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Three Bathers

German Expressionism has always been a great love of mine. We see Kirchner distort and exaggerate colour and form to express emotion in this painting. Distortion moves us away from the norm to arouse our emotions. Up close, the painting is visually rewarding, and we are made aware of the artist’s touch through many textured brush marks.

I’m also drawn to the composition, and the bird in the top right corner that always reminds me of a sulphur-crested cockatoo. Once, a cockatoo landed on my shoulder in the Royal National Park while I was drawing. They are such beautiful creatures, and their cacophony is deafening and wonderful. This painting is essentially flat, but at the same time it recedes. What matters to Kirchner is the unity and the invention of the work.

AGNSW collection Sidney Nolan Pretty Polly Mine (1948) 8169
AGNSW collection Sidney Nolan Pretty Polly Mine (1948) 8169

Sidney Nolan Pretty Polly Mine

Sidney Nolan is a master narrator and his sense of composition has always excited me. His bold use of colour and mark making is breathtaking. There is a primitive strength to Pretty Polly Mine and a clarity that delivers enormous visual impact. The painting is full of poetry. Rather than reporting the landscape, Nolan has found the poetry within it.

We are witness to his sense of humour, which I find delightful. Nolan has recognised how incongruous it is for a man dressed in a suit to be feeding birds in such a desolate landscape.

I have always enjoyed the upside-down bird, which is utterly surprising. I was at the Art Gallery of NSW when Nolan was asked why he painted the bird upside down and his answer was simply, 'I don't know.' A perfect response, because painting is not about knowing.

AGNSW collection Ian Fairweather Anak Bayan (1957) 184.1982
AGNSW collection Ian Fairweather Anak Bayan (1957) 184.1982

Ian Fairweather Anak Bayan

Ever since I became aware of Fairweather's work I’ve been under its spell. I think it’s because I’m constantly drawn to the rhythm in the work. Anak Bayan is pulsating with rhythm. The shallow depiction of space, as well as the restricted palette, means his line is in perfect harmony. These lines not only fracture the surface of the work, but also move away from solid form.

I am drawn to the primal, unfinished and raw accidents – the simplified forms which liberate the inner spirit. Fairweather was influenced by Eastern philosophies and Action painting. Poetic complexities entered his paintings because of his interest in Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Intuition together with spontaneity have played a big part in making the emotional content the focus of his work. The Chinese talk about spiritual rhythm, which is only possible when the artist forgets he or she is handling a brush. This work is a perfect example of that spiritual abstraction.