Ars longa, vita brevis.

On Saturday 5 June 2021 Easel Art Space welcomed a ‘maximum’ Covid Crowd to the gallery to Open Port of Call, a joint exhibition of Gwendolin Lewis and Robert Carter – two senior artists, each of whose practice extends over decades. The central focus is Newcastle Harbour, its life of ships and shipping. In the works of both there is a visual as equally an intellectual dynamic: Robert’s Windjammers and early Steamers partner with all oceans; Gwendolin’s Red Columbus and sister ships are at ease on the ocean or safe in port. As the gallery’s guests spoke, the forceful fog-horn of harbour shipping sounded from just a few hundred metres away. The Opening was at all levels – artistic and socially – alive, lively, purposeful.

Each painting communicates the urgent, compelling, central unison of contesting sea and safe harbour, the expansive practical role of ships in the world at large and – more personally – the individual imagination. Daily social life and practical economic enterprise furnished, by courageous shipping by water, by sail at least since the Egyptians (3400 BC), and by power in the industrial era. Continuing now.

Careful consideration of each of these 28 works leads to improved knowledge, improved understanding of the Archimedean engineering making all possible, but also to brighter colours of the imagination. Here is layered beauty.

For the observer, the gallery guest, there can however be difficulty in ‘realising’ each work, in fathoming art and artistry. In every work, the image is entirely clear, the apparent available, figurative work carefully executed, the ship and harbour as natural context immediately enjoyable. But the meaning and change they bring to the observer?

For many, this is truly difficult. For many Australians a life led institutionally – from age 3 years at school, to university, then into professional life in institutions or corporations, accompanied by tertiary institutions across a lifetime of study – does not prepare the individual for meeting these arts ‘up close and personal’. Institutions, corporations quell, solidify the spirit even whilst delivering essential knowledge, essential commerce. Routines, the necessary hierarchies, years of meetings, minutiae of every day, wide-ranging responsibility, ‘the buck stops here’ – these rightly can deliver the essentials, the cognitive furnishing, but do not often recommend creative rebellion.

They do not prepare anyone for that creative personal reconstruction required by freedom that comes when the farewelling lift doors close, gates close.

Best then to recognise that confronting facts is directly to neutralise them. An alert post-bureaucratic mind will know that not even the Administrator’s Handbook of How to say No lasts forever.

That was then; art is now.

Better to join David Hockney in recognising time, brevity, and the core power of art to capture time and hold on to it.

“You notice more with each successive year; I am doing that now. I can go in and look at things more closely, such as blossom. I took a branch and brought it in here to draw as a still life. It didn’t last long; I had to draw it in about four nor five hours. It just rots when you bring it inside and lay it on a sheet of paper. It’s temporary, but then most things are…”

Weekend Australian magazine 29 May 21 pp 10 -12. See: What makes an artist?

The current exhibition Port of Call, coming immediately on the heels of Nature’s Children (Sarah Duncan, May 2021), reminds the gallery or website visitor of these truths.

In Port of Call, centred entirely on Newcastle Harbour and ships it has hosted since the turn of the 19th century, two senior artists sensitively interpret seafaring life for both vessels and crews. Gwendolin and Robert bring decades of successful practice to glorious historical windjammers and steamers which served over centuries, as well as contemporary ships of massive contemporary ‘presence’ and inherited commercial purpose. To our advantage both artists thereby imply the future; both artists offer works to be savoured and treasured, in our homes, in our daily immediate present.

These artworks confirm time can be captured by art. Through them all, fortunately we can exceed time even though we know the clock keeps ticking. The transient moment captured artistically for us to savour, to relish, to remember. Transience, confronted, is difficult – a famous poetical ancient theme.

Yet paradoxically and simultaneously there is human delight in recognising parallel visible, revealed permanence. Sarah Duncan – solo exhibitor Natures’ Children - is just entering her early 20s; Robert Carter looks at his work with the experience of 90 years, decades of practice. Gwendolin has arms around the shoulders of each. Generations continuously making art, in that generous tradition. Their work accompanies us, as, later, it does others.

Thus the two exhibitions are in every way optimistic; there is no melancholy or dismay. Ars longa, vita brevis. And the work of hands, from cave paintings to Nature’s Children to River Steamer William the Fourth arriving at Morpeth (Carter) and Summer Morning – Newcastle Harbour (Lewis), keep generations exhilarated, accepting, aware. Perhaps even aware of the glory of daily life, even in institutions or corporations.

For Easel Art Space the contiguous placing of Nature’s Children and Port of Call has indeed been unexpectedly powerful, some excellent results unforeseen. There has been so much to see, so much to learn quietly, so much to extol accurately, so much to realise about the ‘life’ of each work. So much to hold onto, so much to carry into daily awareness. So much for which to thank the artists.

Now it is much clearer why, CS Lewis (1898-1963) said that when he was a boy in Belfast, he thought a painting on the wall at his home of Herefordshire’s Golden Valley was a picture of heaven. There he chose to ‘locate’ Narnia. By gift of others the visual art work he lived with in childhood informed his creative literary life. Informed his life.

Art captures time. Ars longa, vita brevis.

P.J Cornish June 2021.


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