Surrealism per se in Australia has seemed out of favour for decades. That’s not to say it hasn’t continued a strange, almost underground, presence in many forms that continues to this day as exemplified by the recent showing of Ron Francis’ dark, often ominous and oddball works at the Scott Livesey Gallery.
Sporadic attempts to keep Surrealist tendencies alive and public occur, but they are few and far between. In October 2015, The National Gallery of Victoria held and exploration of the form with Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, an exhibition that revealed the broad range of artists seduced by the unreal. The range was vast and included Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Zoë Croggon, David Noonan, James Gleeson, Tim Schultz, Peter Daverington, Rosslynd Piggott and the unfailingly uncanny Pat Brassington amongst others.
But, tucked away in the foothills of Adelaide and, more recently, in the cold haven of Hobart, Ron Francis flew beneath the curators’ radar.
Born in Sydney in 1954, Francis studied at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney before settling in Melbourne in 1974 where he took up his vocation as a painter with fervor and began exhibiting in 1980. He then settled in the hills of Macclesfield in South Australia, the realm captured by Hans Heysen. Indeed Heysen’s autumnal colouration is hinted at in a mad painting of three farmers, stark naked except for gumboots, contemplating their cows grazing in dappled sunlight. “I became interested in involving the viewer more directly in my paintings,” he says. “I realised that there was a direct mathematical correlation between a viewpoint and the objects in a painting, which eventually led to developing formulas for application with perspective.”
A bout with throat cancer in 2004 threw the artist off-kilter for a period, but an introduction to morphine during that episode led to some particularly lurid and haunting images. But Francis seems to consider his phantasma, as bizarre as they may be, an everyday activity which, at times, it is. In Too Late a man carries his mothers’ corpse through a door, an image that, however unnerving, is essentially simply sad rather than surreal.
“I work mostly from imagination, inventing scenes and trying to make them as real as I can,” Francis says of his works. “This causes me to study how things work in the natural world, particularly how light interacts with objects and environments, so I can more easily recreate it on canvas.
“Subjects vary considerably from one painting to the next, ranging from recreating past events or dreams, to comments about what I may find odd or ironic about things people do.”
“Most of the time I exaggerate a scene, often using allegory, to try to distil the essence of what I’m trying to express,” he admits. “It is common for the meaning to be an intangible feeling that I can’t express with words.”
In his 2017 exhibition, ‘Metaphorically Speaking’ moods range from slapstick to somber with dizzying regularity. In Homer and the Mini a looming Homer Simpson peers at the diminutive car as if pondering how, exactly, he’s going to get in, while in Wrong Way Home a house is enveloped in mist with hints of the rural setting of American painter Andrew Wyeth combined with a storyline from H.P. Lovecraft. It is a strangely chilling mise en scène that makes one long for sunlight and warmth.
Walking Leviathan is a classic example of Francis’ dark sense of humour. Two children squat by a muddy estuary, captivated by a monstrous crocodile within arms reach. He has visited such leviathans before in a painting called Darwin “Darwin was a recurring nightmare that I had at least three times in different forms.” He told the website ‘In The Real Art World.’ “Each time I was surrounded by crocodiles and I was so scared that I couldn’t move. The oddest part of the dream was that there were people around me carrying on as normal, completely disregarding the danger.”
Tree Museum, with its carney ticket booth seems to sell tickets to an Arcadian setting without entertaining accoutrements. It is pure David Lynch meets Norman Rockwell. In Beach House a tidal wave washes up a hallway as thought it were an everyday occurrence while in Storm Water three young boys peer into a drainage pipe and we anticipate their exploration and potential doom.
Part of the seduction of Francis’ work is the strange sense of spatiality he achieves.
“The perspective in most of the paintings is calculated to look right from a particular viewing position. When viewed from this position, the viewer should be able to feel like they are part of the scene, looking around in it as if looking around in real life.
“Paintings can condense an idea or emotion into an image that can portray something that can’t be described using words. I approached learning to paint with one main aim; to refine my technique enough to be able to create a realistic representation of anything that I may imagine or dream.”