Julian Meagher’s most recent collection of paintings emerged from a chance encounter with a scuba diver hunting for discarded longnecks that litter the seabeds of Sydney Harbor. Ghostly glass relics of past foreshore carousing, these salvaged vessels prompted the artist to explore the subtle inflections of contemporary Australian masculine strength and fragility through the tinted glass of inherited history, pairing still lifes of reclaimed bottles with lineage portraits activated through ancestral artifacts. Borrowing its title, ‘Drinking With The Other Sun’, from barfly Charles Bukowski whose poetry interlaces flashes of feather-like sensitivity with machismo grit, the exhibition explores the historical and geographic ‘other’ as a reflective shade embedded in the matrix of personality and place from England to the Antipodes, from grandfather to grandson.
Sourced from junk shops and building sites in addition to the Harbour, Meagher’s bottles offer a distilled vision of the detritus of drinking. A number are embossed with “Imperial Pint”, a pre-metric measuring standard that functioned as a form of liquid currency upon which the British Empire was built.
Protracted through spectral mirror reflections that haunt the canvas, they point to the continuous cycle of alcoholism as cultural practice. The recurrent device of bottles balanced lip to lip, prominently placed in works such as Too much, too little and Not to be taken, evokes the tangible imprint of time passing through an intimate hourglass emptied through sips and swills, an ingested history referencing a history of ingestion.
Enhanced through the vestiges of corporeal connection implied in titles such as Heart and hand, a lyric extracted from the national anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’, Meagher’s resonant compositions are further illuminated through the inclusion of flowering branches of rose and banksia. Organic embellishments that re-purpose his discarded drinking vessels into makeshift vases, these botanicals exude a palpable sense of Australian identity oscillating between an imperial heritage embodied in the archetypal English rose and “the subtle charm of this fantastic land of monstrosities”, which so captivated the colonial writer Marcus Clarke, epitomized in the banksia, emblem of new world curiosity and Antipodean idiosyncrasy. Delicately rendered from bud to bloom, Meagher’s considered arrangements also allude to life’s cyclical nature, underscoring the bind of inherited history that infuses this series of works.
Articulated in essential form, his still lifes, in their pared-down instinctive simplicity, recall the emotive purity of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), channeling the metaphysical through the mundane. Meticulously built up through transparent layers of oil and then scrubbed back to achieve a muted luminosity, Meagher’s paintings are rendered flatly in a diffuse color scheme of worn glass tones, punctuated by the vibrant emerald hues of the rose plant, invoking a nostalgic English landscape in microcosm, and the sombre withering tonalities of the banksia curbed by the harshness of our ‘native sun’, a title bestowed on one of the compositions. Tangible and ethereal, anchored in the here and now and some other place in the past, they subtly subvert still life conventions through the coalescence of the material and immaterial. Within these works, Meagher’s clinician’s approach derived from a career in medicine gives way to a nuanced empathy for the auratic potential of the object-cum-artefact in which the artistic process morphs into a cathartic encounter entangled in personal experience.
Activating a sense of uncanny reunion, this trajectory of animation culminates in his accompanying series of lineage portraits in which the artist’s friends and relatives are materially cloaked in history through the portrayal of significant familial heirlooms that function as tactile portals to the past. In Suit of light, Meagher’s cousin is depicted in his father’s Spanish matador costume from the 1960s, its richly textured and embellished surface seemingly ricocheting off the figure to infuse his face with scintillating patterns of light enhanced through the artist’s flickering gestural brushwork. Such irradiant energy echoes in his own self-portrait, Too Close To The Sun, vibrating beneath the exterior. Wearing his father’s shirt, haphazardly unbuttoned, Meagher presents himself in a figurative state of undress, vulnerable and receptive to the elision of time generated by the juxtaposition of skin and cloth, the permeable surfaces of which bridge the temporal gap to resurrect and confront past personas.
These intimate portraits and their shadow still lifes imbue the artist’s introspective analysis of contemporary Australian masculinity and its links to a latent culture of inebriation with a gently pulsing humanity. Superimposing individual and collective inherited histories, they embrace the circuitous convergence of a non-linear temporarily invoked through the boundless transparency of glass condemned to endless reflections and refractions. What then is to be made of the lingering presence of the past staunchly lodged, as Meagher would have it, in the contemporary male psyche? As Bukowski questioningly laments in The Sun Wields Mercy, “has this happened before? Is history a circle that catches itself by the tail, a dream, a nightmare….”