MELBOURNE WEEKLY MAGAZINE & MELBOURNE WEEKLY BAYSIDE
July 6-12, 2005
Now, after more than 20 years as a commercial painter, there’s a shift in the curiosity factor. Australia’s art establishment is becoming more interested in Done, whose esteem in critical terms has hitherto been lukewarm, even disparaging.
CHANGE OF ART
Interstate art dealers appear to be taking commercial painter Ken Done more seriously these days, but will his work ever catch on in Melbourne? Story by Debbie Kruger.
Immediately upon arrival at Ken Done’s waterfront Sydney home, the artist becomes tour guide. Or, more accurately, location guide. This is nothing new for years, Done has opened his home to photographers and journalists, feeding the curiosity of those intrigued by the sunny, flowery life depicted in his paintings.
With an exhibition currently in Brisbane at Philip Bacon Galleries, the art community is paying attention. Bacon is among the most highly regarded art dealers in Australia, and the question is whether a Melbourne gallery might be next.
For Done, what the art critics and dealers have to say about him matters less and less. But it’s clear it still matters. “Probably those people really don’t know what I do,” he says. “There are so many things that I paint.
“In my book, for instance, you’ll find paintings about Vietnam, Northern China, Burma; paintings about relationships, about the complexity of women; paintings about all kinds of things. It’s just that the things most people in Australia are familiar with tend to be about a celebration of life. And I’m certainly not against that.”
Done’s journey as a painter began when he was 14 years old the youngest art student ever at East Sydney Technical College. By 18 he was a graphic designer, and that work quickly took him overseas. He indulged his interest in Eastern design and culture with trips to Japan; his love for the exotic and colourful was enhanced by visits to Tahiti, Mexico and Bermuda.
In New York, Done joined major advertising firm J Walter Thompson, who transferred him across the Atlantic. Done landed, as many creative Australians did in the 1960s, in swinging London, and worked as an art director with some of the most prestigious brands of the time; from Bacardi to Apple Records. One of his most memorable campaigns was for the Beatles’ White Album.
“I didn’t imagine, nor was I interested in it at that time, just going to a studio and calling myself an artist,” Done says. “I think you’ve got to work for about 50 years before you can call yourself an artist. Most of the time I’d call myself a painter.”
Done painted in a studio in his London home on weekends. Then, before leaving London, he saw a Matisse exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. It was a seminal moment: “I suddenly realised if I wanted to be a painter that I had to do it.”
Done’s influences range from the European masters to American painter Milton Avery and Aboriginal artists. Indigenous art has had a profound effect on him.
“White Australian paintings can have dreamings as much as Aboriginal paintings,” says Done. “White Australians can feel the same kind of affinity to the land as Aboriginal people.”
Other Australian painters that have influenced Done include Lloyd Rees, and it’s a story loosely connected with Rees that brings Done back to the subject of art critics. The anecdote refers to a Melbourne writer whom he prefers not to name.
“She was writing about my work and she said, ‘Ken Done just paints everybody else’s picture’. And she made particular reference to a picture she’d seen through the window of my gallery. She said, ‘It’s just like a Lloyd Rees copy’.
“Had she come into the gallery and looked closely at the painting, she would’ve seen that it was called Looking Out to See a Lloyd Rees Morning, and that I’d drawn Lloyd Rees up in the corner of the painting. It’s a reference!”
That same journalist later criticised Done for not winning any art prizes. “I’d been given the Order of Australia, which I thought was a prize, actually,” he says.
It’s that refusal of the art establishment to take Done seriously for so long that bemuses him, and has him wondering: just what is “serious art”?
Why reaching a wide audience is so abhorrent in contemporary art also puzzles Done. In the 1980s, while he was commercialising his work, Australian couture fashion designers Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee were receiving accolades for unashamedly iconic symbols of Australian flora and fauna on their commercially available clothes. And galleries see no problem with putting the works of Impressionist painters on calendars, T-shirts and even tea towels.
Would Monet or Van Gogh have turned down such opportunities in their lifetime? Done believes Van Gogh, who died in dire poverty, would have gladly produced hats emblazoned with sunflowers had he known it could be profitable.
“If you believe art is important, the exercise should be that you widen the audience as much as possible,” Done says.
The attitude to Ken Done among Melbourne’s gallery owners is mixed. Most prefer to speak off the record. One dealer in an upmarket eastern suburb doesn’t think Philip Bacon’s exhibition is a barometer of where Ken Done stands.
“It’s a commercial decision to show the work because it will sell,” she says, adding that she can’t imagine a mainstream gallery in Melbourne showing Done’s paintings. “There’s nothing serious about his work. It is extremely decorative. He is a great illustrator with great capacity for decoration, but there is a difference between good art and rendering.”
She believes the absence of struggle in Done’s life and work the kind of struggling Brett Whitely went through, for example makes for a lack of meaning. “Done’s works aren’t demanding enough,” she says, “and he will never be taken seriously by the art establishment.”
Stuart Purves, director of the Australian Galleries in Melbourne and Sydney, and president of Australian Commercial Galleries Association, disagrees. “I think Philip Bacon runs a really good gallery,” he says. “I’m sure Ken Done could have an exhibition in Melbourne if he wanted to.”
Paul Sumner, director of the Mossgreen Gallery in South Yarra, says a large part of Done’s problem is also one of his best assets having his own gallery.
“Selling your own art is always a problem, because third-party endorsement has more credibility,” he says. “Historically, it’s been very hard for artists who are commercial beyond just painting paintings to then keep the credibility and the purity in the art market.”
Sumner says Done’s Brisbane exhibition is a major step towards larger acceptance by the establishment. “I think Ken Done is actually a very good artist,” he says. “I also think some of his work is quite interesting. But it will take Philip Bacon and others to change people’s perception of what he’s doing.”
That said, Sumner is not rushing to exhibit Done himself. However, he rules out the age-old Sydney-Melbourne rivalry as reason.
“If he’s too Sydney for Melbourne then surely he’d be too Sydney for Brisbane,” Sumner says.
“I don’t think that’s really an argument.”
Ultimately, Done hopes the public will decide the value of his work. His renown overseas has been growing steadily; one London gallery has had enormous success selling his work to English and European collectors.
He is cautiously optimistic about the shifting opinions of his work in his beloved home country, and credits that shift in part to his own development as an artist. “More paintings are staying in Australia,” he says. “People are buying more expensive pictures to be here.
“Maybe I’m better. I’m simpler. It’s still in a sense the joy. But it’s much more abstract; it’s much more about the colour relationship.
“But it took me time. I hope that it’s because the work’s deserving of it.”
Thanks to the Melbourne Weekly and Melbourne Weekly Bayside Magazines
for supplying images for this page.