Paul Connor
Recent Paintings
Essay by Elizabeth Fortescue

Art Atrium, Contemporary art, Australian art, Art gallery, Art exhibition, Art & Design, Australian Artist, Landscape
May 3, 2024

Paul Connor

Recent Paintings 

Essay by Elizabeth Fortescue

Paul Connor was eight years old when he returned to Sydney with his parents and sister. The family had lived overseas for five years, chiefly in Spain and New York.

Back in the city of his birth, the young Paul fell immediately in love with Sydney Harbour. Why wouldn’t he? He had a little boat, and the harbour was a playground offering endless delights for a child who loved nature and would spend entire days exploring.

Dozens of secret little beaches were waiting for him, often with sandy shallows where tiny fish darted. Weathered sandstone rocks, perched at the tideline, were reliably alive with crabs and periwinkles. Rock pools held miniature worlds.

Connor explored it all, embedding in himself a love of natural locations that would resurface in his parallel adult vocations as architect and artist.

Connor is still a captive of the harbour’s beauty. The jumbled, industrial foreshore of Balmain, with its tugboats, slipways and boatsheds, is a short step from his front door. His 22-foot launch swings languidly at her mooring in the bay. Red Handed Lil was built right here in 1922. Now she does service, motoring to and from the semi-secret coves where she serves as a platform for Connor and his family to leap into the water and swim back to her matronly safety.

In addition to using Red Handed Lil on a regular basis, at least twice a week Connor tops up his senses by kayaking around the harbour foreshores near and far.

Most of the time, unless a huge storm comes lashing in, Sydney Harbour is a peaceful enough sanctuary and a kayak is the perfect vantage point from which to observe everything that is beautiful.

The same can’t be said for the ocean-facing cliffs of North and South Head, hulking twin sentinels that guard the entrance to the harbour.

There’s a brutal, frightening aspect to these cliffs which is utterly at odds with the charm of the inner harbour encountered such a short distance away.

For years, Connor unconsciously avoided the Heads with their curtains of grey, forbidding stone facing the horizon. But a year ago, he forced himself to face up to them. He wanted to test and define the power they so effortlessly exerted. At the very least, he wanted to try.

You don’t know Sydney, the artist says, “until you know that edge”.

Connor took his sketching gear and camera and drove out to South Head, wanting to grapple with the enormity of the drop to the gashing rocks below.

He was on a quest. But at the same time, there was an overwhelming sense of trepidation. Connor is scared of heights, and found the experience frightening but exhilarating.

The longer he stayed on that forbidding clifftop, the more clearly he thought about the Heads as symbols of arrival and departure, of giving and taking, of the enticing and the deadly.

It was here, he reflected, that boatloads of the enslaved were brought unwillingly to these shores in colonial times. And it was here, when they got the chance, that many of them tried to escape in boats and were smashed on those terrible rocks.

Connor came to believe the Heads were emblematic of so much that has occurred in Australia since white settlement. By massacre or disease, a genocide was enacted after the boats sailed past those Heads and moored in Sydney Harbour.

And yet, Connor says, for many of Sydney’s five million residents, the Heads simply don’t exist. Cocooned in houses with air conditioning and Netflix, most people never go there. They will never feel the raw, cruel power of Sydney’s portal to the ocean and to the rest of the world.

Yes, there’s a smattering of houses with backyards, washing lines and all, that end abruptly at the clifftop. But paling fences along the cliff keep the forces of nature mostly at bay, and certainly keep the view hidden from those residents living on the precipice.

What if people living in their cosy homes could feel the force of nature at Sydney Harbour’s open maw? If people were awake to the beauty of nature, would they show more respect for it?

Connor wonders if a greater respect for nature would lead to foreshore property owners electing to leave their magical, higgledy-piggledy harbour frontages untouched, instead of building right down to the water and finishing with a big wall?

In this exhibition, Recent Work, Connor gives us two sides of the same coin. In a collection of small paintings we feel his joy in Sydney Harbour with all its tangled bushland, water glimpses, puffy clouds and sandstone rocks.

These paintings are done in the open air, with finishing touches added at home in the studio. They are domestic in size and feel.

Then there are 11 large canvases in the exhibition, and the change of gear we feel could not be more complete. In these paintings we perch – disconcerted and in awe, but also with a sense of the romantic – above the unknown.

In these South Head compositions, which so grandly thrust us into a keenly uncomfortable emotional and physical state, Connor acknowledges his debt to David Hockney’s experiments in perspective.

Connor the artist and architect has now faced up to that part of Sydney that is dread and wild. How much more seductive the simple joys of the inner harbour will seem to him by comparison.

Elizabeth Fortescue is a journalist who writes about art.

Click here to view Paul Connor’s profile and artworks.