At Newcastle Art Gallery it becomes clear very quickly that the survey exhibition devoted to George Gittoes is not the usual collection of works by a senior artist.
First, there are walls of huge paintings, obviously surreal, even grotesque, and often packed with densely varied images. Then there is a wall-filling film depicting the joys and terrors of film making in a radiantly vernal Central Asian valley with an elderly man with waist-length grey hair greeting his hosts with warm embraces and friendly banter.
This is George Gittoes in his nomadic working life; travelling to and becoming part of a community in many deeply troubled parts of the world. The film is of Jalalabad in present day Afghanistan, still threatened by ISIS, where the artist and his partner, singer and actor Hellen Rose, have established a Yellow House, where the community can come together to make art, film and music.
Realted: George Gittoes retrospective show opens at Newcastle Art Gallery(February 6, 2020)
Around a corner in the gallery are walls of graphic panels documenting experiences in Afghanistan and elsewhere, along with a showcase of sketchbook diaries. The ink drawings they contain are the everyday documentary journals and creative outlet of an extraordinarily gifted draughtsman. Great rhythmic swirls suggest the continuum of chaos, throwing up animated faces, in the manner of the old masters.
Drawings with texts document encounters with local people from war zones of different continents. There have been frontline experiences of conflict in Central America, Yemen, Palestine, Rwanda and Afghanistan over the last 30 years.
One powerful page depicts a legless boy with a tricycle in Cambodia, a victim of the lethal landmines. Another drawing six years later shows the boy, surviving with stoic acceptance and nursing a baby. Elsewhere there is an imposing group of puppets, chimeras and monsters, veterans of many cathartic performances spanning 50 years.
Three large, sensitively drawn portraits come from one of George Gittoes's most recent residencies in the black ghetto of south side Chicago, where regular gun fights make it one of the most dangerous cities in the world and where sudden death and hopelessness create a toxic mix, while across town the city celebrates its ballet company.
Why would an artist choose to live his life in constant emotionally-charged danger, seeking out war zones? George Gittoes says he has been "waging a personal war against war with art". Working on films and individual paintings amidst chaos creates contacts of hope and trust with individuals and local communities. It also sharpens an artist's response to the visual world.
George Gittoes was born in Sydney in 1949. In 1970 he was one of the founders of the notorious Yellow House Artist Collective in Kings Cross, where the community was invited to participate in a range of counter-cultural activities. While other Yellow House artists became part of the psychedelic revolution, Gittoes started travelling, and increasingly was able to establish collaborative creative environments in troubled parts of the world. Art became a cogent tool for the survival of hope and human dignity.
There is a group of works with a Newcastle inspiration. In 1989-90 the artist spent time in Newcastle, Wollongong and Whyalla. He was here when BHP's steelmaking operations were winding down, when the great behemoth of rusting sheds and towering furnaces was almost deserted. He immediately found a poignant human presence amongst the industrial ruins, an apparently suburban house dwarfed by bridges and gantries, a scorched plastic chair alone beside a rail track, surveying hellish vents of smoke and steam. These works are part of the Newcastle Art Gallery collection.
This ability to humanise a threatening environment links half a century of an extraordinary artist's projects. His films and paintings introduce us to a collection of real, breathing people. Art nurtures us all, if we will let it. As the exhibition's curator, Rod Pattenden, states: "These works reveal the hopeful power of creativity in the face of prejudice and fear".
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