George Haynes at his Spearwood studio. Photo Lyn DiCiero.
If George Haynes’ exhibition at Holmes à Court Gallery is anything to go by, age and experience count for everything. Now 82, Haynes did not disappoint his league of fans who never cease to be amazed by his masterful use of colour and light, as well as his tantalising reaches into abstraction and anamorphic illusion. Haynes produced 46 works over two years for the exhibition (cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic), the majority large-scale, in a feat artists half his age would struggle with.
The opening night featured a highly entertaining opening speech by comic Ben Elton, and an illuminating one-on-one chat between the artist and Janet Holmes à Court. Elton, who purchased an edition of Haynes’ 2006 anamorphic sculpture Sister Ship (winning the Judges Prize at Sculpture by the Sea the same year), warned future buyers of his large-scale sculpture against the temptation to allow the artist to place the work. “My father-in-law and George spent a great deal of time finding the right spot for it. George said it had to be in a certain place to catch the light at 4pm. The trouble is you can’t see it either unless you’re in a certain quite hidden position!”
Though Haynes has been exhibiting since 1962 when he first arrived in Australia, he has no idea how many exhibitions he’s had to date. “I wouldn’t have a clue,” he says when we catch up later at his Spearwood home and studio, shared with his life partner, artist Jane Martin. “I’ve had at least one a year since then, sometimes two. I used to have them quite a lot in the eastern states too.”
Born in Kenya, Haynes studied at London’s Chelsea School of Art, and counts himself lucky to have had the experience. “I was awarded a diploma from the London County Council. They said I was competent at painting, and that meant competent – like a tradie,” he says. “There was a lot of drawing, and very interesting art history lectures. People say Chelsea in the early 1960s was the place to be. Everyone had done National Service, so they’d had two years of twiddling their thumbs, and they weren’t standing for any nonsense from yobs like me from Kenya who wanted to muck around. They were just keen to get on with it.”
His familiar landscapes plot travels around the state developed from earlier gouaches for this exhibition. Closer to home, others depict the vistas around the Holmes à Court Heytesbury property in Keysbrook, an hour south of Perth. He says the scarp above it is one of his favourite locations to paint. “Janet Holmes à Court very kindly lends us the staff quarters there – which is lovely, and we’d stay a couple of weeks at a time.”
The immediate world around him has increasingly entered his output, with works depicting his studio, the kitchen and a clutch of bamboo in the back garden for instance, or shirts fluttering on the clothesline. The truth is he doesn’t travel far these days. “I don’t have a driving licence,” he says. “I can’t see well enough. It’s a bit of a nuisance for Jane, because she has to drive me everywhere, but I do have an electric bicycle which can carry my painting kit as well. I actually do quite a lot of work at the letter box,” he chuckles, “mainly painting the street. It faces due west and it gets quite dramatic sometimes.”
He says one work didn’t make it into the exhibition. “I had a cataract operation and when I saw it after that I could see it was out of kilter. I’m waiting for the other cataract to be done, so maybe I’ll get my license back then.”
His advice to artists starting out is “don’t do it if you want to make money, because it will get in the way. What I think happens is people develop clichés because they sell. Look at Pro Hart or someone like that – eventually you can’t do anything without the cliché, and it stops your development. You should be always looking forward to a new challenge.”
Indeed Haynes, over recent years, has explored abstraction overtly. Respiration, in this show, shows the process of inhaling and exhaling simply as increasingly dense light or dark colour.
In Moonlight Sonato, paint rises and falls in sync with the first notes of the music by Beethoven. “Walter Pater said ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.’ Music engenders a feeling, and that’s what I’m trying to get across,” he says. “You’re constantly working and you come across ideas that swell. You can’t sit around waiting for it. I work 320 days a year, I think. I love it. It’s a world I enter and everything falls away. Then you come back, and bang! What does this electrician want? “
Despite his long experience and years, Haynes still finds the nerves before an exhibition never really go away. “It doesn’t go away if you’re always feeding it,” he says. A book produced for this show has added to the pressure. “It nearly drove us both mad.”
I ask if he has plans for his next exhibition. “Get away!” he says in astonishment. It seems for now he’s creating simple drawings now the weight of this exhibition has passed. “I’m just getting my eye back and following the traces of ideas from this show.”
George Haynes 2020/21 is on show at Holmes à Court Gallery @ No 10 Douglas St, West Perth until 1 May.
At the End of the Day, 2020 by George Haynes. Image courtesy the artist. George Haynes is represented by Art Collective WA.