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Cubism in Australia

D. M. Ross and the Cubist Muse

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Egypt: Oil on Board
2000 - 76 x 60 cm

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Guitar: Oil on Canvas
1999 101 x 76 cm

Can a school of art which burst onto the art scene almost 100 years ago still be replenished and given new vitality in a time which is a world away from the one where it first emerged? The artist, D. M. (David Martin) Ross firmly believes that it can. For him cubism is not only alive and well, it is offers new and uncharted opportunities for exploration.

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Houses after the Rain: Oil on Canvas
1999 - 151 x 90cm

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Untitled: Oil on Canvas
2000 - 122 x 90cm

In a short, incendiary period between 1908 to 1914 Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in a unique partnership took painting by the scruff of the neck, gave it a good shaking and spat it out. They built on what Cezanne had begun and what they invented – cubism – meant that art would never be the same again.

The flat plane of the canvas could no longer contain its subject. Mandolins, newspapers, pipes, glasses vases and the bric-a-brac of Parisian cafés were presented as fractured, anxious entities; as if they’d been analyzed by Freud or subjected to Einstein’s theories. It was the edgy, neurotic world of pre-war Europe made tangible.

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Houses and Trees: Oil on Canvas
151 x 91cm

Cubism was modern. It was taken up with gusto by Robert Delauney, Fernand Leger and others. But by the time they were exhibiting, Picasso and Braque working like ‘two mountaineers on the same rope’ had already moved on to delve ever deeper into the form creating synthetic cubism, which aimed to capture the essence of its subject rather than simply playing with its surfaces. Braque along with Juan Gris explored this for the rest of their careers, Picasso would return to the idiom to varying degrees over the next 60 years. But largely cubism, although recognized as a major art form, languished as other isms took center stage in the frantic race to stay at the cutting edge; to stay modern.

A new apostle of cubism

Synthetic cubism is the territory that D. M. Ross has staked out for himself.

The question is: is cubism relevant to today and can it be made fresh. Ross firmly believes in the power of cubism as a means to communicate the world around him.

‘I have strong belief in the analytical style and beauty of cubism,’ says Ross, ‘and that has made me pursue the possibilities of it to the exclusion of all others.’ With this single-mindedness he has been painting and perfecting his style for close to 30 years.

This Australian-based artist is a cubist in the truest sense; like his earlier counterparts he is obsessed with his immediate environment – his subjects are those things he intimately knows; everyday mundane things – chairs, guitars, houses and trees – recur in his work. Once in his sight, he will return time and again to the subject to try to extract new and deeper meaning from it. The more he views the subject the less superficially apparent it becomes; it can become a series of modulated lines or it can fragment into a helter-skelter rhythm of disconnected surfaces applied in dense palette knife strokes.

‘It’s more to do with the color and the shape rather than the subject,’ says Ross, ‘I am finding that the older I get the less I want to paint “objects” and find myself heading in a more abstract direction.’

More than meets the eye 

But like his predecessors, the starting point is always reality: the view from his window across the red roofs of inner-city Melbourne (Houses and Trees, 2000); a guitar sitting in the corner of his studio (3D Guitar, 2001); the shapes and tones of a Cairo alleyway remembered from a holiday (Egypt, 2000).

‘I firmly believe there must be more to a painting than initially meets the eye,’ says Ross, ‘An inner calm and balance should be evident beyond the subject matter.’

These images are not simply pleasing patterns based on the subjects (a la the Futurists), they are explorations into the nature of the subject. The roofs in Houses after rain (1999), are pictured as shields, the trees as unwanted invaders encroaching and disturbing the suburban symmetry. In Richmond (2001) the rooftops have won out and become a dense barrier allowing no flora to intrude.

Likewise, the re-occurring images of guitars (3D Guitar, Guitar 102, etc.) are informed with an intimate knowledge of how the instrument works – the paintings are as much as products of Ross the musician as Ross the visual artist.

The guitars have a musicality about them that is almost audible.

The color of new cubism 

Ross’ paintings are no mere homage to the gray-brown, Gaulois-reeking works of Picasso, Braque or Gris. His paintings are as airy as the earlier masterpieces are claustrophobic, as vibrant as their works are monochromatic.

The new cubism of D. M. Ross takes sudden shifts across the color wheel. A burst of ultramarine blue may find its way into a field of earth tones, or cadmium red may suddenly bounce against an electric yellow field. On those occasions where he resorts to dark interiors such as Café (1999) there is always the sense the glaring Australian light is just behind the door ready to break through, ready to bleach the canvas.

His colors are applied in thick layers, mostly using a palette knife. He works solely in oils for the depth of color they impart as well as for their workability.

“I find the thick application of the paint and the ability to have a hard edge to lines very appealing,’ he says. The result are surfaces of rich buttery texture, glossy and tactile. For the sheer enjoyment of paint applied to a ground look no further than his untitled paintings where the motif has long since ceased to be important.

A long process

The final images are wrought over long periods of time. Few of the paintings that we view are ‘first layer’. They have often been worked over and over, over long periods.

‘Some of my pieces can sometimes linger unfinished for years as I wait for the picture to come together in my mind,’ Ross explains, ‘It’s not unusual for them to be “modified” months after I believe they are finished.’

Some of these “modifications” are dramatic: ‘I have been known to repaint over 90 per cent of a piece because only a small portion of it seemed worth keeping.’

He continues: ‘I have some pieces that may never be complete. Each time I drag them out to “fix” them, I realize that I can’t pin down what’s wrong with them, but there is something not right yet. And so they go back against the wall and wait until I find the solution – if I ever do.’

This laborious process of revisiting a work means that his output is not huge and this is compounded by the fact that he is own worst critic and will not release a picture until he’s totally satisfied with it. Quality, not quantity has been a hallmark of his work.

Mostly his work sells through word-of-mouth and more recently, by displaying his work on the Internet, he has sold work internationally to collectors in Japan, USA and within Australia. This has meant that his exhibition history has been limited, with his successful first and only solo show so far taking place in Melbourne in 2002.

The journey continues 

When we have been confronted with endless Monet and Van Gogh pastiches at local art shows, it’s easy to dismiss artists who revisit earlier styles as being irrelevant, mere copyists. D. M. Ross is an artist who unashamedly decided to continue the journey started by Braque, Picasso, Gris, et al at the beginning of last century and, along the way, he has bought a fresh, modern sensibility to the idiom.

With Ross as our travel guide for the next stage of the journey, there is every reason to believe he is going to reveal to us new and wonderful sights. You can see some of the ‘postcards’ he has already sent back from his travels on his website.

D.M. Ross has shown us cubism can indeed still be relevant, and can offer new and uncharted opportunities for exploration.

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