SYDNEY, Grahame

Charlie’s Bar

1977
Egg Tempera On Gesso
370 x 560mm

Grahame Sydney was born in Dunedin into a family which travelled between the green soft coastal landscape of Karitane on the Otago coast and the raw extremes in winter and summer of the “vast empty and silent landscapes” around Arrowtown. As a teenager he grapples with watercolours under the tutelage of H.V. Miller (1907–1986) whose Saturday morning art classes he attended. After studying at Otago University and Christchurch teachers’ College Sydney taught at Cromwell District High School and worked towards his first solo exhibition at the Moray Gallery, Dunedin in 1972. In 1973 he left New Zealand but so missed the clarity of the Otago sky that he returned eighteen months later convinced that it was only there that he could ever paint.

In 1974 with the help of his parents he set up as a painter living in a small cottage in Naseby. His full time career began with images of the Maniototo and continued with paintings made of the Mackenzie Basin or the Canterbury Plains. Sydney’s Otago and Southland landscapes are wholly dedicated to the meticulous recording of the precise detail of a subject. Sydney’s works often resemble those of the American photo-realist painters of the 1960s who took colour slide images, projected them on to a prepared surface and then painted the projected image. The effect was a heightened realism which took viewers by surprise. Such paintings were widely praised by people who disliked abstract or expressionist art, preferring their art to “look like life”.

In admiring work like Sydney’s only for its skill in execution and its resemblance to reality is to ignore the fact that such paintings are in fact just as carefully “composed” and aesthetically ordered by the artist as is any expressionist work. Sydney has said that he could teach anyone to paint as he does but what he could not teach is the singular process of selection of objects, the choice of colour, the often peculiar use of space in his work. In Charlie’s Bar the artist has isolated a run-down rural building from its surrounding landscape in order to concentrate exclusively on the essentials of its facade. The texture of its various decaying materials, the fallen sign “Bar Open”, the empty metal drums give the sense that time has passed this building by and that its relationship to humanity is merely residual.

Grahame Sydney’s work, like Peter Siddell’s may be accurately described as realist art in that there is a close resemblance between the scene we non-painters see out of the car window and the finished work. But the best realism is far from being a re-duplication of reality. It is a mistake not to look deeper than the surface and to admire only the technique. Certainly Grahame Sydney spent at least a whole month making the many tiny brushstrokes which make up the image. But his paintings are, more tellingly, expressing sombre truths about the way the past impinges on the present.