In viewing himself firstly as a drawer rather than a painter, and being known more for delicate watercolours than lusty oils and acrylics, Nic Plowman’s Popes, Kings and Other Fools exhibition at Anthea Polson Art marks a turn in his career. Where Plowman’s two previous shows were self-referential in reflecting his serious health issues and near-death experience, his new work examines the unparalleled status of religious figures in Christian art. Plowman explains the impetus for this exhibition as being: ‘I have always been fascinated by the strong narratives and the use of symbols in the great religious works, but how do you make a religious work when one’s inherited beliefs no longer measure up?’ (1)
Philosopher, Alain de Botton observes ‘one of the most difficult aspects of renouncing religion is relinquishing ecclesiastical art and all its beauty and emotion therein.‘ (2) In a crisis of faithlessness akin to the plight described by de Botton, Plowman tackles the papal portraits of the Renaissance and other religious icons with a conflicting blend of respect and mockery. Respect for tradition is suggested in the detailed copying of parts of the original work, and mockery arises from the artist’s changes that alter the entire tone of the original painting.
Pope II: A Little Bird Told Me cites Carlo Saraceni’s portrait, Pope Gregory the Great (1610.) Consistent between the paintings is the orientation of the seated pope at his writing desk, a dramatic use of colour, and the white dove symbolising the Holy Spirit. These consistencies, however, only serve to highlight the discrepancies between the two portraits. In a visual pun, Plowman portrays Gregory sketching a lyrebird as opposed to writing his well-known doctrine of purgatory. Furthermore, Pope II shows a large chimpanzee behind the Pope’s shoulder (suggesting a ‘not-so-holy’ type of inspiration) and the artist’s silhouette appears as an interloper within the pope’s halo. In questioning the divide between the holy and the secular, Plowman subverts the Pope’s carefully constructed identity as a grave and regal figurehead.
Produced in the wake of Australia’s first parliamentary enquiry into institutional child-sex abuse, Plowman’s subject is topical and potent. The change in medium from watercolours to mainly oils and acrylics is due to the artist believing that his subject requested – even demanded – a raw visceral approach. Consequently, many works have a purposive crudeness that reflects the unresolved nature of his weighty subject. For instance, in Pope I: The Great , the chimpanzee that squats on the papal throne is half rendered – the body being delineated only by rough preparatory markings. In a reverse gesture, the carefully rendered face of Clement IX, which cites Carlo Maratti’s portrait of 1669, has been painted over so that the pontiff’s presence appears ghostly and outmoded. The effect of these markings and erasures conveys the uncertainty of moral values in the Church.
The visual similarities between Plowman’s painterly approach and his appropriation of papal portraits inevitably draw comparisons to the British artist, Francis Bacon. Plowman openly admits his debt to Bacon. The use of a frenetic figurative line and a flat monochromatic background are distinct “Bacon-esque” traits. Yet Plowman’s paintings differ from Bacon’s abject aesthetics in being more contemplative than masochistic.
Plowman’s recurring figure of a chimpanzee does much to lighten the tone. It’s hard not to smile when noting the disconcerting affinity of simians to human beings. For Plowman, the chimpanzee is akin to the Shakespearean fool who, in standing outside society, sees through our antics and bravely speaks the truth.
In a show dominated by large portraits concerned with the legacy of faith, one small gem of a portrait stands apart. In portraying private faith, Prayer is a study of a man immersed in spiritual communion. Although the face is craggy and his naked body appears deathly frail, the face emanates inner resolve and innate spirituality. This small work signals that which is beautiful and touching against that which no longer has meaning.
Plowman’s most recent series, now being exhibited at James Makin Gallery, scales back the iconography in favour of a much more observational, and nuanced, perspective. It is as if in spending time with each model, the artist slowly teases out traces of their character and temperament.
Blending a personal narrative with a dedication to working from life, Plowman’s work bypasses any art school cool for a blistering sincerity that moves the heart and punches the guts. Life drawing is considered by many contemporary artists as obsolete, even arcane, preferring photographic reference. But they can’t draw like Plowman, if at all. ‘Life drawing is the hardest thing in the world.
No wonder Plowman is drawn to the human form. ‘The human condition is all we have to talk about really and the human body is smack bang in the guts of all those stories – whether you’re discussing death, life, fear, triumph, sex or magic… it all comes back to us in one way or another. In essence, my work discusses the very real experience of being human’. Often using recurring imagery that draws upon symbols of masculinity, religious iconography and the odd pop culture reference, Plowman’s work presents us with images of internal conflict, especially in contrast to his more serene life drawings. ‘I do have a fascination with iconography and great religious works of art,’ Plowman responds. ‘The gravitas that is associated with religious works is mesmerising – my musings have always been about how do you attempt this, when my inherit beliefs have been challenged and my very real experiences with death hold no great ‘other’ knowledge’.
I think most of my work contains a duality, from the materials used, the construction, the underdrawings and multiple views to the intentional meaning in the work … Nothing is black and white, life is complicated and so are people and relationships and therefore so is art.