Nick Howson


September 21 - October 6 2013

It has been said that the traditions of the past provide the platform from which the artist makes his leap of imagination. For Melbourne-based Nick Howson the adage holds particular relevance. Quite recently he stood like a mariner from long ago times at a vessel's prow as it entered the ports of fabled cities. Howson describes the marvel of approaching ‘Constantinople' at dawn, the air filled with the chants of prayers, the sea and ancient buildings ablaze in the rising sun. His experience of sailing into Sicily, Malta and Rhodes through the portals of centuries-old fortifications remains one of undiminished awe.

Musings on the lore and artefacts he encountered along the Mediterranean's ancient trade routes permeate Howson's latest body of work. Known for his characteristic patchwork-like paintings, it is not surprising that he was drawn to the exquisite Roman and Byzantine mosaics, particularly those that featured animals and heroic feats. Although the hieratic images provided a conceptual basis for the new works, Howson's primary concern lay more in using them as vehicles for abstract investigations into colour value and pictorial structure: his is a patient search for a harmony of form and hue that will result in visual poetry.

The motifs and tessellated floor surfaces of the region's many Roman ruins are recalled in the paintings Samson and Lion. But unlike the mosaics, Howson's compositions have evolved from an intuitive process of gradual accretion, forms changing as a certain shape suggests another. The ambiguous distinction between form and ground produces a shifting, optical conundrum. Art is like a game of hide-and-seek in which the seeker is not sure what he is looking for until he has found it.

One of the strengths of Howson's work is its hushed, contemplative nature. His signature hazy, otherworldly atmospheres are created through the multi-layered scumblings of oil pigment into coarsely textured Belgium linen. The colours are carefully modulated so as to generate reverberating ‘chords' of warm and cool hues. The paintings Christ and George are wonderful examples of this. The quietude, the sense of time itself dissolving, ushers the viewer into metaphysical realms.

By simplifying form in the flat, two-dimensional format reminiscent of ancient and mediaeval iconography, all extraneous, distracting detail is pared away. Exemplifying this, the paintings Archer, Warrior and Football Icon take on an emblematic presence. The animal-headed figures manifest, nebulous and glowing, as if conjured from dark antiquity. In the manner of Greek vase depictions as well as Egyptian, Etruscan and Sumerian murals and bas-reliefs, Howson's hybrid beings are rendered with eye and shoulders full frontal while the heads and shoulders are shown in profile. This style of representation lends a curious, ceremonial flavour. Even the small paintings of cow and bird heads may be seen to carry a symbolic import. Because they can fly, birds have been widely regarded as mediators or messengers between otherworldly realms. The bull's power and potency and the cow's benign, nurturing attributes have been revered since paleolithic times.
Calm, hieratic and luminous, Howson's paintings project a sense of wholeness. Through a process of distillation and metamorphosis, an amalgam of diverse source material has been transformed into something new and vital. His works have all the dignity, meaning and permanence of the ancient artforms that inspired them. With their mythic content and fugue-like interaction of shape and hue they are metaphors for a fusion of past and present understandings - a continuum.

Nick Howson has a Dip. Fine Art, Prahran College, Melbourne 1986 and his paintings are represented in numerous collections including: the Mater Hospital, Brisbane; Art Bank, Sydney; the Australian Tennis Centre, Melbourne; the City of Whitehorse Art Collection; Crown Casino, Melbourne; the Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Queensland; Horsham Regional Art Gallery, Victoria; the St Kilda City Art Collection, Victoria and the Tullamarine Airport, Victoria.


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