A Conversation with Angus Nivison
© Dale Amir and Figure/Ground
Angus Nivison was interviewed by Dale Amir November 4th, 2006 and revisited in January 2016
Angus Nivison left teaching early on in his life to pursue his art. He is inspired by the natural surroundings of his property in the northern tablelands of NSW. Through his paintings he explores landscape, memory and the human condition: http://angusnivison.com/biography/index.html. His work is now sold exclusively through Utopia Art Sydney at http://utopiaartsydney.com.au/
What first inspired you?
The short version of what inspired me was that as a young lad at school I was a typical eight year-old boy, not paying much attention and not excelling at academic studies when someone praised my painting, which I’ve been doing ever since. Painting was something I was good at and it felt right even from a young age. I didn’t have a concept of what art was. There was not a lot of art in our house, but I just knew painting was what I wanted to do. Now my parents’ house is chock-a-block with art, but it wasn’t back then.
I was at boarding school. Coming from country in those days, you had to go outside your local area to do the Higher School Certificate. When I came home on holidays I would be doing art. Painting was always an absorbing pastime.
When did you decide to become an artist?
It became apparent to me, and to my peer group, that I had some talent. I keep saying that talent doesn’t have a lot to do with it, that succeeding as an artist is mainly perseverance, but talent helps in the beginning because it is what sets you apart from all the rest. I found the facility to draw easier than some of my peers. I won an art prize at about age ten for my picture of a bright red plane: The Rural Bank Art Prize for young artists. I received five pounds in a bank account in my own name and thought, ‘this is easy. I’ll be an artist.’ You think everything is easy when you are little. I never had any doubt that I would be an artist. I would play motorbike hero or artist and model with my sister.
How do you approach painting? What’s the process?
In Uncertain Light, there are many different perspectives and in my work generally. There are many different landscapes in Uncertain Light; there is no one perspective. I see something and think I could use that. I learnt it from Fairweather and also Matisse. You can see in some books on Matisse, from time sequence photos, how much a painting can change throughout its creation. With Uncertain Light, I painted layer upon layer until it all sort of worked. My work is not representational. I’m never satisfied. I don’t know when to stop and sometimes I misjudge it. The first thing to do is to ‘stuff it’ and then set about salvaging it from your disaster. It’s best to get the mistake over and done with, quick smart. It takes away the fear of flying because I tend to paint in layers. I can always go over and let bits peep through. I learnt the technique of doing layer upon layer until it all sort of worked. That is also why my work is not that representational – I love the accidental as well. You start off going somewhere and you end up somewhere completely different, but I’m never entirely satisfied, which is why I keep doing another painting. Uncertain Light, the name itself, is about where we are now. We are in uncertain times, which is both beautiful and scary in that painting. It is a very contradictory thing. You can read a lot into it. I think that our times are very scary and very beautiful. Every now and again you hear a good story that lifts you and you think, ‘Oh, God there is hope for us yet’, and then it gets back to children overboard and all that stuff and you think, ‘Oh will we never learn?’ I guess I paint about the hope and despair of humanity. Some days I think we are going to make it and some days, I think that we will never learn.
The role of art is to contradict the twenty-second grab. I hate art that gives me everything at once. I like art to catch my attention, sit me down, and demand that I spend time with it. If looking at art we reflect on humanity, and ourselves, and if I can paint a painting that helps you and I do that, then I feel successful. I want people to stop and look and think about the bigger picture. Where do we want to be and all that stuff? But it is not preachy painting. It is a very meditative approach to painting.
Uncertain light was one of those wonderful paintings that took me by the hand and took me somewhere completely unexpected. It was for me a very risky painting. Originally it was meant to be a big beautiful thing in memory of my wife’s father who had recently died. I was thinking about him and it was meant to be a painting called Listen, about listening to the murmurs that are coming into our consciousness and, in the end, a little about global warming. However, it became something else altogether and I just went with it; fortunately I had the sense to go with it. Again, it was a huge salvage mission – that painting. It was a painting that went somewhere that it shouldn’t have gone, and it was very uncertain. When I was painting it, I was feeling uncertain, not sure that it was going to the right place. When I stood back and looked at it, it took my breath away. It wasn’t where I wanted to go. That was part of the name. It was a very beautiful, fierce, threatening landscape with little glimmers of hope or terror. It was hard to tell which was which and hence, the title. At about that time all those terrible things were happening in Iraq and it wasn’t specifically about that, but it was a mix of cultures, a mix of stuff. Uncertain light is very much just a reflection about where we are.
Children see bushfires in Uncertain Light; it could also be of war and another place. In the middle is that blue sort of darkness or shaft of light. Lightness and dark are very similar really. It could have been called strange weather. But it all goes back to where we are and the bush fires certainly. The other painting that was beside it for a while, One Degree, was very much about one degree of global warming. This is what is going to happen, we are all going to burn. But it isn’t all nasty – I find beauty in it too. When I look at a snake I know it is both poisonous and beautiful and it could kill me. I find fear and beauty very close. Uncertain Light is quite a beautiful painting but it also has that edgy terror, that scary stuff there.
When I think of how I approach the process of creation, utter chaos springs to mind. I usually start with a ground, so I put a really solid Jesso undercoat and then I stain it, an ochre-orange-red colour. But each of those panels wasn’t just a wash. Straight away I’m working, I’m putting shapes in there as I put the stain on. Then I start drawing onto the surface with charcoal, and then it is a mess and then l start taking it out. Then the paint and the charcoal start to combine and there is probably about 15 separate layers on a painting. Then little bits peep through and sometimes the really good bits have to go. Sometimes a good bit can show up the rest and make it look ‘daggy’ because you have a good bit and you tend to paint around it, so sometimes the good bit has got to go.
Orange is the original colour in Uncertain Light. The three panels that make up this painting weren’t painted together; they were painted separately. I learnt that from Fairweather. When you have a close look they don’t quite align. You can never join perfectly, so why bother? The middle and right side were reversed at the end. That’s why has that incredible dynamic. That is why it is slightly jarring. In fact, it is incredibly difficult to tell where the joins are. Since I’m not particularly representational I can have that luxury.
Also, that is why I use acrylic. There are absolutely no rules with acrylic. You just do what you want, whereas with oil paint you can’t apply the paint thick and then thin. I sometimes use a roller but with Uncertain Light I think I just used big brushes, gorgeous ones about 12 inches wide.
My work is big and slightly difficult.
There are a couple of my paintings that I wouldn’t sell. There was one called Late Burn Ascending, which was painted just after C. Coventry died. It was completed as I heard the news, so this painting has a special place in my heart as does the odd portrait, some of which I would never sell; one, for example, is of the kids and Caroline. They are really works just for me.
What were the main influences on you?
I started at the local school Walcha Central and then, at the end of Year Six, I went away to Shore. I had a fantastic teacher who nurtured quite a few artists – Tim Storrier, Tom Carment, Ross Laurie, Steve King and me. There were quite a few of us and some even better known artists. I’m not sure whether that particular man taught them, but they did come from that school. The school was into sport and stuff, but there was this little enclave, which was the art room. Ross Doig, the teacher, was a fabulous man. He gave you the ability to trust yourself and he took you seriously. He was tolerant and interested and I think that was his secret. He helped us to take ourselves seriously. He didn’t dominate anybody. Nobody came out painting like him or like anyone else. Everyone painted in his own way.
I come from a rural family and my parents were very tolerant of my bent towards art. I pretended I would go into advertising because there is money in advertising and I enrolled in graphic design and then changed over to painting. Mum and Dad were fine with that. My parents were behind me 100%. They had a concept of nurturing and looking after you until you found your feet.
I tacked a Diploma of Education on at the end of my degree because I knew I wouldn’t make any money painting and then I went teaching for a while. I won the Sydney Morning Herald Travelling Scholarship the same year that Kevin Connor won the Open Section. Then it dawned on me that I had to take this art a bit more seriously and so I retired from teaching at a very young age. My family found a way to support me, building a studio and a house on the property for me, and then I worked part-time for my brother while painting part-time. The family farm is passing to my brother to keep it intact and I’m selling my small ‘holding’ to him. I will own a house and keep a small acreage around it and then I’ll lease my land back to my brother.
The influence of art school was also very great. My main teacher towards the end was Sid Ball. Art school gave me a belief in myself, a confidence, which is so important to one’s ‘stick-ability’. Being an artist is such a long haul. Art stars are a tiny minority. The rest of us do it by hard work, hanging in and slogging away. I had to leave Australasia for the travelling scholarship. It was quite a lot of money. I bought a mini van and travelled around Europe. I stayed in accommodation provided at an art Foundation in the south of France and I saw the Giocometti sculptures at that time.
More recent influences include Ann Thompson, who was probably my mentor. She was showing at Gallery A the first gallery I began showing at, the gallery run by Annie Lewis. Ann Thompson was one of her top painters when I first began showing. We became friends. I have always admired her work and she’s a wise person.
I adored Ian Fairweather from school age and I loved Godfrey Miller. His drawings are exquisite. He’s one of the best draughtsmen around. I’ve also been influenced by Asian art, Chinese, and to a lesser extent Japanese art. But I think that everything influences me. Just living shapes my work.
What about Aboriginal Art?
There could not be some influence! Our indigenous art is some of the most exciting painting in the world. That is not to say it is all good art. Rover Thomas I adore. However, I’m not sure whether Aboriginal Art or love of the land came first. I’ve grown up on the land and I have that sense of place as well as the seasons – I was the son of a rural family and until recently I’ve worked on the land. It is probably a combination of both influences.
Still, Aboriginal art certainly gives you a sense of place and a bigger vision. I find that a lot of Aboriginal art is not solely about the landscape but it’s also about the mythology, whereas when I paint it is landscape based and it is very much about the things that happen, about my mythology and our mythology.
For instance, my painting, Remembering Rain, is all about the land getting drier and drier and it is all about that longing for rain, and the memory of when it was wet. You can almost hear the land sigh when it rains after a long period of dry.
We very much paint about similar things. We just have slightly different mythologies. I guess my myths and religion are more about the human spirit. I’ve been painting about global warming for years without ever putting a finger on it. I’ve always been concerned that we were using too much and always concerned about where we are going as a nation and a race.
However, perhaps unlike many Aboriginal artists, I would be happy anywhere – I guess the bush is just where I am. I ended up on the land because it was a way for me to paint. I didn’t have to buy the land. My family allowed me to build a house and a studio and made it all possible. I was always painting about the land so it made sense to be in it. I would be quite comfortable painting about the city, because I believe art is really about the human condition.
How do you see yourself in the art community?
I don’t know how other artists view me. I have always considered myself as contemporary. I like video art if it is good. Ricky Swallow I find engaging, and Richard Serra, the guy who does the big steel curves. I like to see something that intrigues me.
I have friends whom I went through art school with and who are still practising. In the earlier days when I was going through art school I think that there was more dialogue between artists. When I started out painting there were only about ten commercial galleries in Sydney, and about 30 or 40 well-known artists. Now there are millions of galleries and artists and everybody is very competitive so people tend not to be as generous with their time or themselves. Ann Thompson is a very generous person and we have many conversations about art and other things. I love dialogue with artists but it doesn’t happen enough and that is partly because I live in isolation even though where I live there are quite a few artists. Anyway, James Rogers, who won the 2006 Sculpture by the Sea competition has a house here, as do Ross Laurie, Steven King and Julia Griffin.
Artists whom I would like to get to know better are Kevin Connor and Brian Blanch flower because I like their work immensely. I met Robert Klippel years ago and he was very generous with his time. I come to galleries whenever I’m down in Sydney. I can tolerate someone disliking my work, as long as they aren’t indifferent.
Where do you see yourself going with your work?
I just hope it gets better. It is very flattering when someone either buys some of your work or actually looks at it and writes and tells you. If I can paint works that matter, I feel that is development. God knows where I’m going. I don’t have an earth-shattering vision. I just want to paint about stuff that pops up. I’m stumbling through life and really what I’m painting is memories, things that stick, memories of people.
Wherever I go I try to make it stick in my mind. Ian Fairweather did that. He wasn’t in China when he did his works on China. Matisse’s Memories of Oceania was more powerful because, in a way, the memory is not complete and the longing is strong. So, when I look at a landscape, whatever doesn’t count, doesn’t stick. What eventually remains are the bones; it’s the essence that makes a place.
Can you describe a typical day for you as a painter?
I only get out of bed for the cup of tea. Mostly I go into the studio each day from nine to five. I used to paint a lot at night when I was working full time, but now I don’t paint at night at all because my eyes just aren’t good enough any more.
Still, I do continue to paint under studio lights. I also have a lot of natural light in my studio and halogen lights as well. I like a lot of light – it keeps me warm. I’m one of those painters who have to start a painting and finish it. I just have that one idea. I’m not like an oil painter with a few on the go and I don’t do series. Mum will come over sometimes and say, ‘What have you been doing?’ And what I have been doing might have been just thinking, planning the next move. I spend a lot of time just thinking and looking. Looking is so important. When I was doing Art on the Rocks, I had to work in front of people and I had wonderfully patient people who would sit there for half an hour in the freezing cold. But I ended up just doing a mark to please them and I’d think, ‘Damn I didn’t want to do that”. I’m a very slow worker, sitting in front of the work and considering my options. I will often look at other people’s art when I am working. I will have lots of books around me. If you look at something for too long you can’t see it. So I will look away and then I’ll look back and sometimes I’ll see what needs to change. It is a journey.
I’m completely random. One of the last big paintings that I have done is called All Souls. It is a sadly, beautiful seascape and there was no plan behind it. I went down to the coast and sat one evening looking at the sea. I thought of past friends, people who were no longer with me, people who had died, and it was a sadly beautiful, self-indulgent time so that is the painting that came out of it. You look at the sea and think of all the people who don’t make it, who drowned. Hence, all this other stuff came out. It wasn’t planned.
It doesn’t matter, whether people are aware of the inspiration for a work. The title is always the key. Having people really look is what makes me exhibit. I have this feeling that if no one looks at a picture, then it is not a work of art. It is only truly complete when someone goes and looks at a painting and has a dialogue with the work. The individual has to put his or her own story to it. They have to give it twenty minutes. That is so nice. The idea of meditation is half the story. The viewer is half of the work of art.
I’m an instinctive artist. I hope that if I stick at it I can get something moving, something profound. Having Uncertain Light bought by the NSW Art Gallery was not something I coveted. It isn’t why I paint. Painting keeps me on an even keel. One of the reasons I’m painting is because of the person who bought the first painting. Someone had unbelievable faith in me. They gave up their hard earned cash to buy my thoughts and impressions. Now I’m condemned for life.
Painting is hard work. What I get pleasure out of is if people write me letters or ring me up. When I won the Wynne I received lovely letters. When you touch that emotional chord it is immensely fulfilling. I think that if you paint from the heart it will affect the heart. I try to keep my work honest, from me. When it doesn’t work or I get trounced it is very hard. One critic referred to Angus Nivisson’s sickly sweet paintings. That was when I was using pink a great deal. I paint about what matters to me and about what should matter to most of us. I assume that people are intelligent. I would love them to work it out for themselves, to weave their stories and take ownership of them. I would like the viewer to pause from the hustle and bustle of life, stop and ponder something of great beauty and see the ramifications, the bigger picture. There are lots of echoes. I love beauty, but I’m a very glum man.
I try to make my work beautiful, but I love black. My work just gets blacker and blacker. I use big buckets of stuff. Often what I start with is just what I had mixed up from the last painting. There’s a bit of Scottishness in me because I never throw anything away. But slowly all the colours change because you run out of one colour and mix up another. I’m fairly random. My mother would come into the studio when nothing had happened for two months and say, ‘You know Angus, if you were any lazier you would suffocate’. But art is long-term; it’s a hard slog. It’s lonely; you are there in a studio by yourself. I think that’s why many of the incredibly talented people I went through art school with are now doing something else and leading another type of life. It’s not the most fulfilling thing being a painter. You don’t make any money. It’s a long, long haul and you get a few knock backs. If your aim is to make money, it is better to become a plumber.
I buy younger artists, whom I can afford, and I’m sometimes given art, or we exchange works: Ewan and Ann Thomson and I have each other’s works. I adore other people’s work. If I had a lot of money, I wouldn’t mind a Matisse or a Giocometti portrait, or a Kiefer. In Australia I would probably buy a lot of young people’s art. It keeps you painting when somebody buys your work. A collector can save artists every day.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Angus Nivison, Dale Amir and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Amir, D. (2016). “Conversation with Angus Nivison,” Figure/Ground. March 19th.
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