The thing about abstract art is energy. It has to match the drama that has traditionally come from representational subject matter.
Landscapes and still life subjects draw on our imaginative experiences, while paintings featuring human beings automatically engage us.
But deliberately non-representational works must ultimately depend on the forceful handling of materials.
The exhibition at the University Gallery, extended until May 29, is a master-class in manipulating paint.
Charlie Sheard is a committed abstract painter with a long history as a teacher and regular exhibitor.
He has shown work all over the world and had plans for 2020 which included an exhibition in Berlin and an extensive residency in China.
COVID made this impossible, deeply disconcerting to an artist recently retired from teaching generations of students at COFA.
But it has meant that the University Gallery has been able to mount an unscheduled exhibition. The recent works, large and small, look splendid in the expansive space, providing opportunity for close study of the paint surfaces and compositions to discover how this dedicated and ambitious artist creates drama and generates energy.
The artist speaks in his catalogue statement of working regularly with a live model to absorb the energy and unpredictability of the human body.
He ascribes to his self-generated imagery the same innate force as the paintings of the old masters.
At its simplest, small paintings float an apparent blob of pigment across an empty ground.
In larger works, strongly coloured shapes conflict and interact; in others thin watery colour recedes like tide lines which, in the two-metre square Chinese Painting, ebbs and flows as a sort of emotional map.
Sometimes there are violent confrontations or a vivid linear element, as charged as a lightning strike. A huge green painting suggests surreal plant life, perhaps undulating seaweed.
Sheard also explores a variety of surface textures, verging from the apparently mirror flat to works with clumps of impasto and, in several cases, skeins of handprints and finger marks, even small dark scratchings suggesting bird claw-prints.
A group of black paintings has heavily built-up surfaces almost impossible not to read as land forms. How hard it is for a deliberately non-representational painting not to invoke suggestions of the visible world.
In one heavily textured painting there is something closely resembling a squashed frog.
Some satisfying composite works exploit the diverse dynamics of watercolour or acrylic with pastel and charcoal.
Charlie Sheard is a serious painter whose work is constantly evolving. No doubt the COVID pause in 2020 has provided the opportunity for new ways to express new concepts.
It is rewarding to have this courageous abstractionist showing in Newcastle. But it is a pity that there are no longer cohorts of art students to learn from the master.
At the university's other gallery, Watt Space, until May 23 there is also an exhibition of paintings. They are not the usual work of undergraduate students or postgraduates, but are from a diverse group of Lower Hunter artists, many of whom were prominent at the now defunct Gallery 139 Beaumont Street.
Its creator, Ahn Wells, is the guest curator of this exhibition.
These artists, too, appear to have gained from last year's COVID lockdown. Many have rediscovered landscape as a still viable inspiration.
Malcolm Sands is now a bold and inspirational painter of desert forms. Helene Leane has expanded her practice from printmaking into mixed media.
Peter Lankas is now giving his service stations giant patrons. Michelle Teear, a new name, paints an abstracted landscape with gusto.
Dino Consalvo is at his very best with solid rock and foaming surf directly captured at Merewether beach.
Olivia Parsonage makes fabric collages, with odd scraps creating eerie interiors inhabited by morose potato heads and a couple of gesticulating banksia men.
Perhaps the greatest innovation comes from Paul Maher, playing new tricks with Bar Beach suburbia in digital drawings, even braving the cliffs and precipices of the Anzac walkway.
Meanwhile, inhabiting the Lock-Up's loaded spaces until May 30 are memories of the off-grid joys of growing up at Elands, within sound of the Ellenborough Falls.
Senior artists paint the landscape while evocative videos explore domestic ruins with nostalgia for a vibrant lost community and perhaps for childhood itself.
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