Three Quarter Sky
Catalogue Essay by Joe Eisenberg OAM
Three Quarter Sky
Every man and every artist, whether he is Nietzsche or Cezanne climbs each step in the tower of his perfection by fighting his duende, not his angel, as has been said, nor his muse. This distinction is fundamental, at the very root of the work. (Federico Lorca)
The Australian landscape has been a source of inspiration, creativity and motivation for making art from First Nation artists going back millennia – although their art has only been recognised in the past few decades as being significant – through colonial artists, plein air artists, twentieth century artists and onto contemporary groupings. Middlebrook adds:
Colonial art in Australia was about three quarter sky because they didn’t know how to cope with painting the land and painted the English sky. That is where I get the title for my exhibition.
The paintings in Three Quarter Sky are an adventure in an aesthetic experience and, tacitly, an ethical and even spiritual experience. There are also some half dozen oil mono types on paper: too few. Middlebrook’s mono types constitute an immense achievement in their own right, and their resourcefulness and grace are best perceived in a larger quantity. They demonstrate a generosity of spirit.
As colour resumes a leading role in his overall canvases, straight crafted horizontal lines continue in this recent art work and they make you look directly at them. You feel the force, however baffled and flailing, at an ambition to reconcile boundless pictorial space with raw, emotionally driven physicality. As Middlebrook states,
I paint about a sense of place, it’s a conglomerate of deserts that I have been to.
The passion, the time of day, the colours, the landscape he seeks are in the outback: White Cliffs – a good centre from where to go in any direction, Mutawintji much the same and, of course, Tibooburra.
Middlebrook travels to the outback for two or more weeks and camps with a swag. He often takes someone with him. He makes small drawings in pen and ink or sepia wash. The daily process is a practiced routine:
Drawing pen and ink, occasionally sepia wash, most of the time it’s straight sepia. Drawing at night I play with it a little bit more and then, in the day time, I go through the process again.
He brings the works back to the studio and puts them away. He does not refer to them on his return. Instead, he goes back to working on whatever he was painting when he left the studio before he went bush.
As the months go by a memory, feeling, colour, vision or thought returns of a place that he had been to and made a small drawing of, but he does not necessarily look at the initial drawings. He turns to his memory to recall the place which he now commences to paint. Months and months after he has visited a particular place and witnessed, responded, memorised or etched into the subconscious, he palettes paint onto canvas:
I find I need time to work out what becomes important.
The canvases in Three Quarter Sky are painted by crafting the horizontal lines of the sky. This he does by turning the canvas upside down and forming the lines with a one inch palette knife and pulling the paint lines horizontally towards him. When the three-quarter sky has been created, he turns the canvas upside down again and forms the lines for the land. At no time throughout this process does Middlebrook forget that his art takes him to deserts, for in deserts he can think. As he explains:
The overwhelming subtleties of tone, colour, form, beauty, brutality, the silence is noise, shadows haunted, earth stained, unbearable heat or penetrating cold, but delicious isolation and stillness.
Middlebrook works six to eight hours per day in the studio. Some of the time he sits and looks. He moves, changes and polishes, scratching out and repainting the image.
… alive with hope and wounded with self-doubt.
By this stage the original drawings, and the subsequent sepia drawings created in the studio as the next step towards abstraction, have given way to a sense of place rather than a depiction of place. No particular place is at the base of the work, tone, textures and form. The horizon is always important.
Ravishing palette work is combined with mysterious, Xanadu-like landscapes that emerge and radiate out of the linear horizontally dragged applications of paint. It is all there and it is just paint. Middlebrook has become more adventurous with his colours, while courting abstraction to the point that it is impossible to determine whether we are looking at a landscape, a landscape abstraction, an amalgamation of paint marks or perhaps just coloured parallel lines.
Middlebrook returns intentionally to the same subject matter. His conscious desire is to opt for where he has been before, and drill down further, look again and see with fresh eyes, to achieve his ideal. As he states:
It’s like listening to Mozart, unless you do it again you are missing so much and you lose the passion for the piece.
He has an unshakable confidence in himself as an artist, and knows how to observe solitude in his practice which allows for time to spend on his own in the studio. This grants space to be an eclectic and dynamic thinker, employing both abstraction and more conceptual approaches. He unreservedly employs craftsmanship and free-ranging imagination to its ultimate.
Middlebrook can therefore produce a small group of mono types in oil on paper, as in this exhibition. He inks oil paint on to a cut of plywood (or block) and then takes a piece of arches paper and presses it like a print on top, rubbing with the burin to transfer the colour from the wood onto the paper. Some of the plywood has been inked six or seven times after each pressing with different colours to get rich tones. Middlebrook is cognisant of all the colours and hues of the landscape.
He employs one piece of paper (60x56cm) and uses the same piece of plywood, inking it over and over again to create both the bottom and the top panels while leaving the horizontal whitish division in the middle. So, each artwork, both top and bottom, has multiple colours placed on the block and transferred onto the paper to create the final image. He leaves all the residuals on the board and never cleans or wipes it allowing what colours and left-over hues to remain as he leaves oils for another lift. He reminds,
I attended the Desiderius Orban School, so a dirty brush or dirty pallet are quite acceptable.
These mono types in oil have a sense of serenity and calm in the landscape, yet the arches paper has an effect that looks like wounds that cannot be healed. Middlebrook adds coats of paint and yet it looks as though the act is one of reduction rather than addition. It is energy that drives what seems to almost be a spiritual reckoning.
Middlebrook has a simple mantra for every art work he fabricates: it has to have a reason for existing, there is no uncertainty and he never, never produces for the market place. The purpose of his art is to improve people’s lives with the beguiling stillness and wonder in the work that he presents in Three Quarter Sky. This is an exhibition with energy and consideration about what is suffused with poetic presence that matters.
Middlebrook has found his duende. The duende, as Lorca explains, climbs up inside you from the soles of your feet. It is not a question of ability, but of a true living style, of blood, of the most important parts of your culture and of spontaneous creation. It is like a mysterious power which anyone can sense but few can explain: it is the spirit of the earth. Lorca goes on to say that we only know that the duende is with us as an artist if we have emotion and sincerity. As for Lorca, Middlebrook in Three Quarter Sky, has brought unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces enthusiastic results.
Joseph Eisenberg OAM
Maitland Regional Art Gallery
1 Federico Garcia Lorca, In Search of Duende, New Directions Books, New York, 1998, p.58.
2 All quotes come from David Middlebrook, notes to the author, 18 April 2022 or from a recorded telephone interview on the same day.
Click here to view David Middlebrook’s profile and artworks.