Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
In one room, the remarkable world of Sydney’s essential artist
Only in meeting him do I realise I’ve been half-expecting Martin Sharp to look like Luna Park’s big face. Or like the Mambo T-shirt of same, all bright primaries and cartoon contrasts. In fact, silver-haired and self-effacing, he could hardly be more different – and the current Big Face isn’t even his. But there’s common ground, all the same. For just as Luna Park is a funfair with a dark secret, so Sharp’s work stretches an antic mask over a profoundly serious core. And it’s this particular form-content contradiction that qualifies him, arguably, as the essential Sydney artist.
Most bios separate Sharp’s life into discrete incarnations; Sydney Oz (’63-’65), London Oz (’65-’67), the Clapton years (’67-’69), Yellow House (’70-’71), Luna Park (’74-’79) and so on. But the overwhelming import of the Museum of Sydney’s current retrospective is a sense of the wholeness of the life and the continuity of the work.
It’s a single, breathtaking room, largely self-curated and, in kindness to the audience, chronologically arranged. This simple ordering reveals that, rather than developing in phases like, say, Picasso (I’ve always thought a blue period sounded rather icky) Sharp’s interests are abiding, plaited in from start to finish.
There are the faces (even at school “I did hundreds of faces”); the cartooning (“my grandfather drew cartoons and my grandmother used to make me booklets of Boofhead cartoons from the Daily Mirror, sewn together”); the textuality; the appropriations (from cartoonists and poets, Great Moderns and Old Masters) and the figure of the lone artist, sometimes played by Mickey Mouse, sometimes by Tiny Tim – “Tiny is a giant” – whose fluting falsettos, many recorded in Sharp’s own, tiled kitchen, accompany the show. There’s also Van Gogh.
Sharp’s art-master at Cranbrook was Justin O’Brien, himself an accomplished painter, who nurtured the boy’s talent and, in giving him as a prize a slim volume of Van Gogh, changed his life. Matisse, Magritte, Dubuffet, St Exupery, Botticelli all glimmer through the work, but Van Gogh is embedded, as though what Sharp calls “the double helix of Van Gogh’s paintings and letters” genotypes his own work.
There’s the famous Yellow House, resuscitating Van Gogh’s failed attempt to create an artists’ colony with Gaugin at Arles. There’s Vincent, the 1968 portrait, with one grossly magnified eye and the speech-bubble “I have a terrible lucidity at moments…” Now, four decades on, Sharp prepares another, outsize Vincent – every bit as arresting as the Gulpilil image from Thousand Dollar Bill – a high-relief acrylic in which a segment of ear flies off into the blue.
There are direct van Gogh homages, like Courage My Friend, a high-chroma rendition of The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, and more oblique references such as the flame-flecked Pentecost (2001) and the terrifying Snow Job (1995), where an open-mouthed clown emits a silent scream, worthy of Munch, under the smothering snow.
It’s impossible to deal with Sharp and not deal with Luna Park; the lorikeet brightness, but also the fire. The 1979 fire, says Sharp, changed Australian history. Certainly, as a tale of innocence lost it became the pivot of his own life and work, his keyhole into the heart of darkness, much as the quarrel with Gaugin became the pivot for Van Gogh.
“In the heat of that fire,” says Sharp, “justice melted”. We may never know the truth of it, but the symbology is compelling. The midwinter night, the ghost train, the full moon, the train strike, the seven male victims, the circling powerbrokers; Abe Saffron, Harry Seidler, Leon Fink, Peter Abeles, John Ducker, Neville Wran.
For Sharp, the burning of the fun park so loved by so many, the deaths-by-fire of the six boys and the wanton selling off of the painted works represent the sacrifice of innocence to profit. Luna Park, he says, is our temple of Moloch, where the Ammonites would toss their male children into the flames to empower the king, before relapsing into sexual gratification with priests.
Golgotha is the cruciform septych, if that’s a word, formed from the portraits of the seven victims. These paintings are so unlike the rest – so consciously without style or allegory – that, although they’re inauspiciously hung, they centre the show. Do not pass, they command, without stopping and wondering why.
You ask about drugs – have to, considering; the ’60s, the psychedelia, the unifying mysticism apparent even in late paintings like Pentecost. Sharp answers patiently, noting without rancour these same old questions. Yes there was some tripping, for a bit, learning to see “another dimension”. But “I don’t like to be under the influence of anything”. What interests him now, more than ever, is truth.
And the question? It’s not just who lit the match, if anyone. The question is much larger, as to Australia’s true moral nature. Sharp harks back to Bernard O’Dowd’s words, cited in his 1990 Oz tapestry for the Mitchell Library: “Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West in halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest? …
A new demesne for Mammon to infest? Or lurks millennial Eden ‘neath your face?”
Sharp believes in hell. Oh yes. “When you get a good look at the devil,” he notes thoughtfully, “it makes you believe in God.”