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Rick Amor is a painter
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Rick Amor is a painter
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Rick Amor is a painter
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"I’m not working for myself, I’m working for other people. The viewer."
Conversations
1 July 2012

Rick Amor is a painter

Interview by Josephine Rowe
Photography by Lauren Bamford

Josephine Rowe on Rick Amor

‘I think it’s becoming of an artist to be honest about themselves,’ Rick Amor tells me after we’ve spoken for an hour or so, across the scarred surface of a large worktable in his home studio in Alphington, Melbourne.

Propped against an easel is a shaving mirror that I recognise from one of his numerous self portraits—I’ve never been able to work out whether they could be called ‘unforgiving’, or just the opposite; unflinching, ultimately accepting—but the honesty is unmistakable.

Rick’s studio is surprisingly modest for an artist who has been working prolifically for over four decades. The walls and door frames of the two adjoining rooms are a collage of maps, postcards, poems, sketches, and photographs—of old friends, of children and grandchildren, of himself as a younger, scruffier man with a black leather jacket and acoustic guitar. Two of his father’s paintings hang amidst prints of admired works by Titian, Morandi, and de Chirico. Another photograph shows his mother as a young woman, standing on a beach in a swimsuit, her eyes shaded by a straw sombrero.

A khaki shirt hangs in one corner, ‘Australian Official Artist’ emblazoned on the sleeve: Rick’s uniform for East Timor in 1999. He recalls the uncompleted cathedral in Suai, bloodstains on the outer walls where women had been shot down while trying to scramble up the scaffolding. “And you’d come across burnt patches in the earth,” he tells me. “There’d be nothing left but teeth. Bloody awful.”

He came to these atrocities with restraint, depicting the stillness of their aftermath, and the everyday details in the lives of the peacekeepers. A graduate of the National Gallery School and a student of John Brack—whose own paintings drew largely on the human condition—Rick adopted Brack’s philosophy that an artist’s subject matter could typically be found within a mile of their front door.

A resounding sense of desolation and impending danger permeate his land, sea and streetscapes — there is always an ill wind rising, an abandoned or burning car beneath an expressway, a shadowy streak fleeing some invisible threat.

Outside of his portraits—whose subjects include Peter Carey, Dorothy Porter, Sir Daryl Lindsay—the figures in Rick Amor’s paintings are typically faceless and unknowable, engulfed by the landscape even when they are the focus of the work, diminutive against hulking ruins of ships and monolithic structures.

“You know when you have a dream and you’re in some familiar place, but it’s not quite the same?” Rick asks. “That’s what they’re like.”

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

JOSEPHINE ROWE: How do you go about painting memory? All of the Frankston, Long Island subjects— they seem to have a particular kind of light. Or that might just be me…

RICK AMOR: No, it’s me, it’s me because I always dream and remember in that light. I had a dream last night that I was going for dinner at the Melbourne Club, and I was dressed like this, in jeans and a work shirt. And I said, ‘God, I’ll have to change.’ And it was dusk you know, that gloaming light. And I was looking for a shop, everything was shutting. And I found this shop run by a couple of old queens, and they only had clothes from the ’70s. It was all bellbottoms and shirts with things sewn on, you know, it was just awful, and I woke up thinking, Thank God it was a dream!

Did you change into the bellbottoms?

I did! I had to wear them. But anyway, the memory stuff has that light because it is invented, and I don’t paint things directly from memory; I actually find objects that I need for the painting in plein air studies and photographs, then reassemble them to evoke the memory. Take the painting of The Cat Man, an old French Canadian who wore a fur hat; as kids we assumed it was cat skin.

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

He had this bag with him, which we thought was full of dead cats that he was going to skin and make into hats.

In the painting he’s in the bottom corner. The trees come from that hill near the airport — Gellibrand Hill — you can see it from the airport. There’s a whole lot of pine trees on that hill. Cypress Pines. The old house in the painting comes from up the road here at Alphington, and so on. So it’s all assembled to reinvent my memory.

Like a collage?

That’s right. And I’ll search things out that I know will fit the picture. That’s how it works. My partner, Meg, keeps telling me, ‘Do more memory pictures.’ But there’s only so many memories you can really use in a painting. You run out of eccentric people you can paint.

You’ve anticipated the next question I was going to ask, which was about The Cat Man and the other figures from that era—Miss Prosser, The Albino, and The Burnt Boy. There is an urban—or suburban—mythology around them.

Well in those days Frankston was a very small town, it was at the end of the railway line.It was quite an odd place. There were eccentric people around, people who frightened me and stuck in my mind. Miss Prosser—who was the bus driver—she was a nice woman but she had this mannish outfit, tweeds and short hair. It was frightening to a kid. She looked sort of like a man but not quite like a man. But she was a nice woman. And the albino turned out to be a woman…I always assumed she was a man. I passed her—passed him—as I walked home from school every day. He ran a boarding house—or she ran a boarding house. And I would see her there and think, That’s a man, but it wasn’t, it was a woman.

And The Burnt Boy?

He lived in our street and he was burnt in a fire when he was a child. His face was like a Francis Bacon, sort of melted, and in those days people couldn’t afford facial reconstruction. So he rode around on a bike—he had a car-cleaning service—and we kids said, ‘Oh, he’s saving up for the big op.’ And then tragically he was burnt to death in a fire.

Oh my God.

In the painting you can see smoke on the left. Well, that’s the fire coming for him. Rather a sad figure, I knew his parents. It was a great tragedy. I was brought up on the beach, because my mother was crazy about the sea. A curator sent me a cutting from a 1920s newspaper, talking about a picnic of poets at Frankston. The article talked about the picnic on the beach, but the star of the day was little Gobbie Morris, my mother, who was playing in the water like a little brown sprite. She was mad on the beach, so we always had to live near it. The sand from the beach came through the back fence. I grew up on the beach with my mate, Ted Emery, the film director… you know, the Kath & Kim guy. We were great friends as kids — spent our whole life on the beach. We were burnt black every summer. There were always things washed up, strange objects. People drowning and storms blowing up. The weather in my paintings comes from those early experiences. I still dream about them.

Do you miss living by the beach?

Oh, no. That’s childhood. Same with swimming, I hate swimming now. I was constantly in the water when I was a child. But I hate it now.

Was your first studio space at home?

Yes, my father kindly built me a studio when he built the house. My mother died when I was thirteen, and he and I went to live with his sister, which didn’t really work, because she was a tough old nurse. And I think she was lesbian—she had friends called Tommy and such, and she played a lot of golf…

Wait—does playing golf go part and parcel with being a lesbian?

[Laughs] I think it does, actually. Well, that was my impression at the time. So my father was in his fifties when he built our house. We always rented houses when I was a kid. He built a studio out the back. It had a skylight—it was terrific. I pulled the bed out from my bedroom, moved it out to the studio, reassembled it and sort of moved into the studio.

You just lived there?

Yes, and I just worked away at painting and worked on a poultry farm a friend of mine owned at Mt Eliza—well, his father owned it. I worked there from seven in the morning till midday, then I could paint all afternoon and at night. It kept me very fit.

Were you still backing onto the beach?

No, this was Frankston Heights. In those days, the house was surrounded by bush. It was scrub all round and had a beautiful smell. We used to have terrific parties there. My father and his friends were always nice and we used to play bar tricks when my friends would come over, and we’d drink as you do when you’re young. It was all fun and games; I was only twenty.

I missed the draft by one day, so I missed out on the Vietnam War.

Then in 1970, I moved to Melbourne. I met Tina, who became my first wife.

Your father, he gave you your first art materials as well as your first studio, is that right?

Yes, when I twelve he handed them over to me. It was a sort of oedipal moment.

So they were his?

Yeah, and he more or less stepped back, you know. That’s his painting over there of Mum.

The one in the red? She’s very beautiful.

She was, actually.

What’s she doing… is she knitting?

She’s knitting a dressing gown for my sister Liz, I think. Liz went to art school in the ‘50s. She was nine years older than me, and a… beatnik. So the whole atmosphere was arty. My aunt Myra Morris was a poet, writer and painter. She knew a lot of artists and writers, and her house and our house was full of paintings and books. It was great for a kid to grow up like that. I was very lucky.

Has poetry always been a big influence for you?

I like a lot of poetry. T. S. Eliot’s terribly important. It’s the imagery—he seems to nail the 20th century so well. Dylan Thomas I loved when I was younger. Not so much now—I’m a Yeats man now. And Dorothy Porter, I admire her poetry a lot. It’s a great tragedy, that she died.

It is—a big loss. Are there other contemporary Australian poets that you’re interested in?

I read poetry haphazardly. But I read all sorts of other books; I’ll read Bleak House next. Then some war history, a biography or two. And I’ve got War and Peace over there, which I’ve been putting off.

I’m sure everybody has War and Peace on their shelf, that they’re putting off.

I’ll read it after I read Proust, and after I read Paradise Lost and after I read…

Anna Karenina.

But I do read the new translations of Dante’s Inferno all the time.

You go back to that?

Justice! That’s what I love about it, justice! My parents had the book with the Gustave Doré illustrations. We had Paradise Lost too, with his illustrations, which was a huge influence on me.

There’s a picture of the ark sitting up on a hill, with all these struts, and I’m still doing it! The same image, it still comes back to me—this boat with struts holding it up, and these desolate scenes and wild weather, and Satan falling to earth. It’s just fabulous stuff.

I’ve heard you talk about the feeling that, fundamentally, every painting that you’ve ever done has failed. Do you still believe that?

Oh, God yeah. All the artists that I know who are any good think the same thing. It’s always going to be the next painting that you do that’s going to be the masterpiece. People say, ‘What’s your favourite picture?’ And I’m really scratching my head trying to think which one it is. Which picture would you keep? Oh, I don’t know—none of them. Because you paint them for other people. I’m not working for myself, I’m working for other people. The viewer.

Is the product itself working for other people, and the process… is that yours? Do you do that for you?

Oh yes, that’s mine because I have to make the painting. The artisan craft of painting has largely gone these days. Heritage painters, we’re called now—people who paint with ‘oil’ on ‘canvas’. It’s a very old-fashioned thing to do but I love the whole thing—I love the paint, the canvas, the smell. Etching and printing, clay, bronze…the whole business.

The craft?

Yes, the craft of it, it’s very important to me. You can’t make it too easy for yourself. You’ve got to keep setting yourself difficult tasks and make an effort. And it gets harder as you get older of course; you want to relax a bit, you know you’ve got a bit of success you can coast a bit… but you don’t. You want to keep—you have to keep—pushing yourself . You don’t want to fall into the trap of repeating yourself. But we all do it. Each artist has so many subjects in them, I think, and you keep repeating them in varying degrees and styles over the years. You’re basically saying the same thing, over and over and over, and maybe it’s something that’s rooted in childhood, something that happened to you in the past or who knows what.

But there is an obsession about certain things with artists, and mine harks back to emptiness and void. There’s always an empty space in a painting of mine, always some expectation of a disaster. And when I think back about my childhood I do think there was an atmosphere of anxiety. But then again I went through the sixties too, existential anxiety was in.

And it never quite left me; it formed my philosophy of life. You know, ‘It’s all meaningless in the end, we just play a game.’ All you can do is leave a record of your short stay. But you’re joined in the billions of others in nonentity.

And rust?

Rust?

Rust.

That’s interesting. I love rust. The stains running down buildings… It indicates decay, the passing of time and things falling apart. It’s a nice colour, you know. It’s a nice warm red and my palette’s always got a range of the earth reds in it. The old masters used them, you know. Rust is a perfect local colour for earth red.

The East Timor work—did you limit colour a lot more for that? Or was it just what the landscape required?

No, it was what it looked like. A dun-coloured place. A bit too green, actually, if anything. A bit like Northern Australia.

You were the first official Australian war artist since Vietnam. How did that posting in East Timor come about?

Well, I believe the curator at the art gallery of New South Wales recommended me to the War Memorial. They phoned up in September, just after the whole place had fallen apart. Would I like to go? I said, ‘Yes, of course I would’. Because it’s nice to have an adventure at fifty-two. And you couldn’t say no.

I went to Canberra at the end of October, and I spent about a week there while they mucked around working out what I should wear as a uniform, what sort of rank I should have and all that sort of thing. They ended up making me temporary defence attachment or personnel or some such, with a red passport, which fell apart in the humidity, just turned to pulp in my pocket. I couldn’t wear the army uniform because that would make me a legitimate target. So I had a drill outfit, with a patch that said ‘Australian Official Artist’.

So that was ‘99?

Yes, and being a product of the ‘60s, I was very suspicious of the army. But it’s a whole different army now to what it was then. I was lucky too, because the Australian-led peacekeeping was a popular thing. The whole nation was behind it, you know, Cosgrove and the whole business. The publicity I got was great, it was all positive. The subsequent war artists didn’t have the same chance that I had. I felt a bit sorry for them, because they were unpopular conflicts, you know it was Afghanistan, Iraq… they were dubious commitments.

How was your set-up over there?

I took too much gear with me—I took the folding easel and all that sort of stuff. And I realised once I was there that, because we were travelling around a lot, I’d be better taking photographs and just making sketches. So I took lots of photographs when I got the chance.

I couldn’t get out as much as I would’ve liked, because they keep you in cotton wool if you’re a civilian, you know?

We were in compounds and you had to have a vehicle to get out, with a driver and a guard, and vehicles were rationed and so forth, so it was hard to organise.

I made the mistake of sticking with the troops. I could’ve organised things better if I’d befriended the officers. But I didn’t, I stuck with the troops. But that was actually a good thing because the War Memorial got about six hundred photographs of things no-one else ever photographed. Soldiers repairing trucks, and the cooks peeling potatoes—these guys are working in fifty-degree heat, and I thought, Christ, I should include them as well. So I photographed all sorts of soldiers doing things in daily life. The army wouldn’t take them because they weren’t useful for publicity. The news wouldn’t take them because they weren’t heroic or anything. So the War Memorial got this huge record of daily life in the army in East Timor.

And you were sleeping in tents?

Yeah, tents and burnt-out buildings. And like all armies, there are long periods of boredom, nothing happening, and then there’s a flurry of activity. People count down to the time that they eat, you know, When’s lunch? When’s dinner?

It’s the big event.

The big event! And it was like kid’s food, it was all jelly and spaghetti bolognese and that sort of stuff. It was good actually, I really enjoyed it.

The works that you created from that time—you’ve said that with a lot of your other paintings you’ll bring in different elements as you need them; you’re quite open to making something of a collage. Was there a responsibility to be almost journalistic in East Timor?

As I said to the people at the War Memorial, look, this isn’t an art gallery. It’s a museum. But I did combine different things to make a statement. The ‘Rural Destruction’ painting was a composite landscape of various photographs taken around Suai, which, to me, expressed the atmosphere of the place. I took a tree from here, a village from there, a burnt sewing machine left behind. I combined them into one picture to give a summing up of the area. I had soldiers patrolling through it—it’s called pepper potting, they walk at intervals, certain distances apart. And it was all very quiet, like the aftermath of a bushfire. As if something had just roared through. The trees were all burnt too, plus huts and houses. The TNI and the militia destroyed all the school books and the law books; the whole infrastructure was destroyed. And it made me boil, seeing this level of personal destruction. It wasn’t as if it had been bombed from the air or anything. It was all handmade destruction. But of course the beauty of it was that the Australians could actually shoot back. Whereas in places like Bosnia and so forth, the peacekeepers couldn’t do anything. And of course the minute the Australians arrived in east East Timor, the militia melted away because they weren’t fronting old women and children and old men, but other soldiers, and they just disappeared across the border.

So much of your other work deals with loss and void and that sort of thing. Was that a consideration when you were coming to East Timor?

I was looking at things as I always look at things. I mean it just happened to be East Timor. The void and the loss were more obvious because they were part of the landscape, I didn’t have to invent them. Like, there was no-one around in some areas, it was just deserted. But you could see the effects of mass murder; people had been killed and burnt and that sort of thing. There were rape centres which were pretty awful. And people had been thrown down wells, and some blokes at Balibo were actually disinterring bodies, which wasn’t a very good job for them to have to do.

In those works I noticed a quietness…

Well it was, as I said, like after a bush fire. It was that same quiet. As if a storm had raged through and then passed. It was quite palpable.

In your early work, you can see the influence from John Brack. Were you interested in Picasso as well?

Well, you see, people always assume it was Brack, but there were many other artists—Brack was mainly for the philosophy and the moral stand as a painter, and the technical know how. Apart from a little bit of work at art school which was very influenced by Brack, my early work when I left art school was mainly influenced by Joan Miro, the Spanish artist, and his early work. It was very precise and careful. And Jeffrey Bren, who was a student at the art school before me.

In those days I painted with a lot of colour, because I assumed that modern art was bright and colourful. And I had my first show in 1974 with that air about it. There were portraits of people which were basically caricatures. And it was quite successful, but then I thought, no, this isn’t right.

I floundered about for years, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did a lot of book illustration, worked with the trade unions and generally tried to make ends meet. It took years, and I thought, I’ll never find it, I’ll never find my voice. Each day I used to have a sinking feeling in my stomach, and I painted all these different sorts of pictures. Bloody awful, you know? And I’ve kept not much from the middle-to-late ‘70s. I even tried painting religious themes for a while

Really?

I mean I’m a life-long atheist, I hate all religions, I just loathe them. I think they’re a blight on mankind. That didn’t work either, but it gave me the running man. I was doing a picture of Cain fleeing in the desert, fleeing the eye of God, and that ended up being the running figure. So that was something that actually came out of it. Anyway, where were we again?

Still on voice…

The voice! I was living at Baxter in those days, which is behind Frankston. And I went to the Frankston pier with a girlfriend one day, to take some photographs of her. And I remember thinking, I used to hate this place when I was a kid. It used to really frighten me, the sucking water and the stingrays and sharks.

There were stingrays there?

Oh, big ones! I used to hate it. Imagine. Being trapped on the end of the pier, and it collapsing! Suddenly a whole lot of things came back from when I was a kid—I did all these really quick little ink drawings and it was suddenly me, you know? And it’s autobiographical, but it’s not. It’s about anxiety, general anxiety, but using these images that I remembered from childhood to carry the message. And that’s basically what I’ve done ever since.

So it was that day?

It really was.

And your girlfriend…

I last saw her in 1983, and she has since died of breast cancer. I always wanted to apologise to her and I never got a chance. You know when you stop drinking, you’re supposed to apologise to people.

Oh, you did the Twelve Step thing?

No, no I didn’t go to AA because God is mentioned, or a higher being or something, so I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Oh, okay, right. So you just…

I just stopped drinking.

I guess you’d feel like that anyway, regardless of somebody telling you to apologise.

Yes. But I didn’t get a chance to. But I met someone who knew her, who worked at Heide during my exhibition. She said she was a friend, and I said, ‘Oh, I suppose she was always bagging me.’ ‘No, no—she never said anything bad about you.’ Then she said, ‘Well, I’ll forgive you, because I was her friend.’

Did it feel like …

Yeah, I thought Oh, thank God. I was such a hopeless drunk.

But you worked all through that, didn’t you?

Oh yes. But it certainly helped when I stopped drinking. I mean I got 50% more time, for a start.

So what year was that, on the pier?

That was about ’83.

It’s interesting because you can see it: this point in the mid 80s where you just dropped into something that was distinctly you.

But another factor that was very strange—and I only saw it in retrospect—was when I got divorced…I’d split up with Tina in 1982, I suddenly felt like I felt when I was a student. I felt… like myself again. As if I’d played a role for 12 years. Dad, family man, making enough money to keep going. Suddenly, I was free again. And personal freedom has meant a lot to me over the years. That period coincided with stirrings of my own way of seeing things. You know, the feeling that I had something to say of my own. I still didn’t know what it was but I sensed it was there somewhere in front of me, in the future. It was coming up.

So do you feel like you’d picked up…

where I left off! Tina was a terrific mum and a great companion for a young, penniless artist, because we never wanted anything. Poor thing went through all of the tough times. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. We’re still friends, of course.

In an interview from a few years ago you talked about it being at a point where you were taking stock of everything. You were recovering from cancer…

After the bone marrow transplant……

and you were in a position to take stock of things. And you said, It’s time for the old man’s paintings. What are the old man’s paintings?

People talk about it. Ron Kitaj, the American artist, talked about it quite a lot, the old man painting, but his old man painting didn’t quite work. I think he had something like Titian in mind, or Rembrandt. Or Degas. It’s a certain look, and it’s rare that it works.

It works with the great people. Doesn’t always work with the second-rankers. Matisse had a particularly good old age, he really bored ahead. Titian too, he went on to his nineties. It was only the plague stopped him.

You hope for a greater simplicity, I suppose, in old age, a brevity and surety of touch, a distillation of life’s experience… just put on one canvas! Of course it never happens like that. You just struggle along. But you do hope to be able to do it with a bit more… assuredness.

Do you see that? Assuredness?

I think so. I often think to myself, did I really do that? That’s pretty clever, I’m not so bad after all. But then you think, ah well. Not really.

So it’s never in the moment, it’s always in retrospect? You’re looking back at it going, Oh, okay, that worked.

Look, I never feel I’m that good when I’m painting. I always think, Oh, I could do this better. I wish I knew how to do it better. I’m nervous about showing it to Meg in case she doesn’t like it. It’s fraught with insecurities.

Your painting, is it ‘Empty Days’, of the museum storage rooms?

Oh, yes.

That always makes me think of the idea that when you sell a painting, that’s it. That’s the thing, gone. How do you feel about letting go of work?

Oh, it’s fine by me. Because pictures have a life of their own. They go to someone’s house and people weave stories about them, and they’re told to other people. The whole thing takes off to another place you can’t control.

I want more things that inspire me to...

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