James Timothy Gleeson

Born: 1915

Died: 2008

James Gleeson is one of Australia’s most important artists. For more than six decades his work has explored the realms and possibilities of the Surrealist creed and sought to show that there exists, beyond the obvious and everyday, an alternative reality experienced through dreams, hallucinations, and differing mental states. Rather than focusing on purely private fantasies, the most significant contributions made by Surrealist artists, including James Gleeson, are the visionary and profound statements that comment on the human condition. Although James Gleeson has been the subject of two monographs and several smaller, focused exhibitions, a full-scale retrospective of his work has never been seen.

Gleeson’s inspiration for many of his early paintings merged the imagery of TS Eliot’s poetry with the paintings of Salvador Dali, whose work was first shown in Australia in 1939. Reverberations to Dali’s fantastic compositions were immediately felt, and by the following year the high proportion of artists painting in a surreal manner was duly noted as surely indicating ‘that in surrealism the Australian artist has recognised a medium that is both artistically valid and socially valuable.’  In several works from this period Gleeson articulated the way in which established patterns of thought restrict our reactions to events by predetermining our responses, and encouraged audiences to look at the world in a different manner.

During the 1940s, Gleeson responded to the atrocities of war with extremely powerful images that exude violence and mutilation. Flesh and earth become indistinguishable, and in works such as The sower, 1944, the dislocated and monstrous limbs infer a world on the brink of self-destruction. Gleeson’s paintings from this period have been described as ‘ amongst the most terrifying in Australian art’ and act as a precursor to the apocalyptic visions of Peter Booth.

Travelling abroad for the first time in 1947, Gleeson absorbed the works of old masters and key figures in the history of twentieth century art. His monumental image, Italy, 1951, celebrates the extraordinary cultural achievements of the Western world, but also alludes to the sense of loss and destruction caused by the Second World War. Gleeson’s paintings of the latter 1950s reveal an increased interest in showing the unconscious in abstracted forms. Admiring the distinct surfaces of the paintings by Max Ernst, Gleeson experimented with pressing sheets of polythene onto wet paint in order to achieve effects that provided infinite possibilities and increased tactility. Occasionally he combined this process, referred to as decalcomania, with the palm of his hand and finger-tips to provide additional passages of heavy impasto. During these moments, Gleeson came closet to merging Surrealism with Abstract Expressionism.

During the 1960s Gleeson created numerous images relating to Greek myths and legends, where man attempts to free himself and others through heroic deeds. Gleeson’s renditions of Hercules, Icarus, Orpheus and Perseus, are concerned with the spiritual journey rather than a particular defining moment of action or violence, and often allude to the Christian belief that mankind would only be freed from the inheritance of sin through sacrifice. In these works the human figure assumes a startling clarity and sense of physical perfection, which accords with the Neo-Platonic ideal that only the most beautiful forms can render goodness and purity.

By the late 1970s, Gleeson’s heroic figures were supplanted by technological gadgets and space-age machinery, reminiscent of the Star Wars era, in a series of large collages. ‘Having experienced the idea of man as the measure of all things, I began to deconstruct that concept and link up with earlier thoughts about man being limited. Gradually, the human form disappeared, as Gleeson came to believe that it could be adequately represented by ‘an arm, a hand, and eye.’

In 1983, Gleeson entered the most prodigious period of his painting career and embraced a radically different pictorial format that included a dramatic increase in scale and shift in technique. Initially based on small drawings made of rock-pools situated on the Queensland coastline, these panoramic paintings transported the viewer an alternative reality, ‘hovering on the edge of identity yet still unnamable – a constituency freed from the cage of fact, a thought sprung from the compost of forgotten memories, fed from darkness yet held in stasis as something that had not been before.’ 6 The meticulous and sensuous application of paint added a further sense of realism that was simultaneously beguiling and disturbing. A sense of prophecy pervades many of these images. The illogical and disturbing landscape appears to look simultaneously to the past and future – inferring a future, but perhaps also suggesting a punishment for the past.

In his eighty-ninth year, James Gleeson remains one of Australia’s greatest epic painters and social commentators of his generation. Although he has pursued a life-long vision of subverting the workings of the rational world, his work has never been an absurdist gesture, devoid of meaning and context. Each work possesses an extreme seriousness, with political, philosophical and moral implications, and encourages us to look below the surface and ‘beyond the screen of sight’ .

James Gleeson: Beyond the Screen of Sight includes 120 paintings and works on paper from public, corporate and private collections throughout Australia. Many of these works have not been seen since their initial exhibition and several have been recently repatriated to Australia. A detailed and fully illustrated catalogue, published by The Beagle Press, accompanies the exhibition.
Written by Lou Klepac and Geoffrey Smith