It looks like a colour chart, but it’s code for the artist’s heart

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It looks like a colour chart, but it’s code for the artist’s heart

By John McDonald

ART

Blue over Time: Robert Owen, a survey

Heide Museum of Modern Art, until May 23

Artist Robert Owen shares his name with a famous great-grandfather who was both a capitalist and a utopian socialist. Owen (1771-1858) ran his cotton mill in New Lanark, Scotland, as part of a model community that held the wellbeing of workers to be no less important than profit. He saw this enterprise as a template for a new society but it would remain a one-off, an ephemeral creation of his own philanthropic vision.

Cadence # 1 (A Short Span of Time) installed at Heide

Cadence # 1 (A Short Span of Time) installed at HeideCredit:Clytie Meredith

Two hundred years later Blue Over Time: Robert Owen – A Survey, at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, celebrates a descendant no less utopian in his aspirations. For this Owen utopia is an aesthetic ideal: an art that unites painting, sculpture, science, mythology, music and the spirit, in a body of work that defies categorisation.

Born in Wagga Wagga in 1937, Owen was painting, drawing and making things from early childhood. His route to the city came as a window dresser, when he secured a job at a store in Sydney. If this sounds unromantic it’s worth remembering that Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns worked as window dressers in New York.

Blue Over Time at Heide

Blue Over Time at HeideCredit:Clytie Meredith

Owen would go on to study at the National Art School under Lyndon Dadswell, before making his way to Europe, where he lived for three years in Greece on the island of Hydra, and for another nine in London. When he returned to Australia in 1975 he was an experienced artist who had learned a lot from the English constructivists and enjoyed some modest success.

Back in his homeland, Owen set about reinventing himself as a maker of ambitious installations, large geometric colour paintings, and abstract, linear sculptures. The Heide survey samples most aspects of his diverse career, although we see no more than a fraction of a vast output. It’s a bewildering selection, from a book of poems inscribed by Leonard Cohen (a fellow resident on Hydra) to some spindly sculptures from early days, to a vibrant blue installation and a room-sized geometric painting.

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The transformations are remarkable but one leaves the show feeling that the outlines of Owen’s œuvre remain blurred. We see an artist who begins by making jewellery and ends as a maker of large-scale public artworks. For a long time his work is austerely geometrical, with a few opalescent touches added to the most basic grid forms. His earliest installations employ the impoverished materials favoured by Joseph Beuys and the Arte Povera artists, but he goes on to produce immaculately painted environments, both pristine and mysterious. Geometry meets alchemy, with cosmic intent.

An artistic bower bird.

An artistic bower bird.Credit:Clytie Meredith

There are so many echoes of other artists in this show it would be tedious to list them. Owen is a bower bird, which may be as good an explanation for his fascination with the colour blue as the official explanation: an epiphany in Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel. He hints at deeper meanings but is addicted to surface effects. An enormous geometric abstraction such as Cadence # 1 (A Short Span of Time) (2003), looks like a colour chart on a grand scale but it’s based on the artist’s record of his own emotions over an 80-day period, with a colour value assigned to every fluctuation. Although there may be no set colour for an emotion in the phenomenal world, in the ideal realm of Owen’s dreams anything is possible.

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