Before seeing Peter Kingston: First Light at the S H Ervin Gallery, I was reminded that the late Giles Auty once compared “Kingo” to Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). Although I would hesitate to endorse most of Giles’ observations about art and life, he may have been onto something. Although the Frenchman commands a place in the pantheon of modern art, he left a body of work that is generally held to be light, colourful and whimsical. While his idol, Matisse, could make a masterpiece from the simplest of subjects, Dufy could never exorcise the demon of the decorative.
In Kingston’s case, it’s information rather than decoration that handicaps his attempts to be a painter. Until the early 1990s, he was known chiefly for his prints and drawings, which were busy and anecdotal. His other claim to fame was his pop sculpture, mainly his satirical chess sets. Like his friend, Martin Sharp, Kingston produced work imbued with nostalgia for the pop culture of a bygone age, and for a Sydney that had not been ravaged by unchecked development.
Few artists could be more closely identified with this city than Kingston (born 1943), for whom Sydney has been a lifelong obsession. Living at Lavender Bay, often painting from a small boat, he has taken possession of the harbour in a way no other living artist can match. The S H Ervin exhibition is one long hymn of praise to that famous body of water – seen by day or night, captured in sunny or stormy weather.
This survey charts Kingston’s heroic attempts to reinvent himself as an oil painter after decades of drawings, cartoons, short films, small sculptures and other activities. In Barry Pearce’s recent monograph on the artist, this change of direction is presented as nothing less than a date with destiny.
For many years, Kingston stood in the shadow of his friend, Brett Whiteley (1939-92), who had encouraged and intimidated him by turns. When he showed Whiteley a small picture he called “my first attempt at painting”, the response was: “I think you may have left your run too late, mate.”
This must have been traumatic for a restlessly creative character whose admiration for Whiteley verged on hero-worship, although it’s consistent with stories one hears of Whiteley’s personality.
It was only after Whiteley’s death that Kingston began painting in earnest. Having spent his days at university studying architecture and commerce, and hanging out with Richard Neville’s bohemian crew, he never had the benefit of an art school education.
As a painter, he is largely self-taught, having relied on hard work and imagination to overcome a lack of technical expertise. But while many self-taught artists end up with a technique of almost photographic precision, Kingston has tried to remain loose and expressive.
This is probably because he was a fully formed artist before he began working with oils in his late 40s. As a talented and prolific draughtsman, Kingston already had a style, a sensibility and a temperament. Determined to strike out on a new course, he abandoned the painstaking detail he captures on paper with pen, pencil and charcoal. His oil paintings are distinguished by simplicity of composition and often by thick impasto.
Look, for instance, at his elaborate charcoal drawing, Shag Shed Resumption, Walsh Bay (1998-99), and then at paintings such as Fruity’s Water Taxi (1998) or Kurraba Road Wharf (1999).
The drawing is immensely detailed but unfussy, with a faint quiver in the line that instils a pulse of life into the scene. The paintings, by contrast, are dominated by opaque areas of blue-black, trowelled on thickly. Fruity’s Water Taxi is almost a monochrome, interrupted by the yellow streaks of two boats making their way across a field of infinite darkness. This particular picture features a network of cracks spreading across the surface which I can only assume is due to a botched varnish job. It’s possible to say this adds to the overall effect, although conservators might see things differently.
At first, Kurraba Road Wharf seems as far from a drawing as one can imagine, but in a brightly lit corner, there’s lively sketch of a crowd buzzing around a ferry. The problem lies in reconciling the fidgety energy of the drawing with the emptiness of the rest of the canvas.
In trying to capture the movements of the current, the wake of a ferry or the glint of light on water, Kingston relies on vigorous swirls of the brush. These brushstrokes represent water, but don’t suggest any of its intrinsic qualities. This is most obvious in the large painting, Sydney Queen changes course (1995), where the nocturnal path of the boat is denoted by a huge smear of white and pale blue in the midst of the darkness. Where Kingston’s drawings have exceptional finesse, his paint handling can be crude.
These 1990s oils might be viewed as dramatic experiments in a new medium. Over the past 20 years, Kingston has reassessed his approach, thinning down the paint and allowing the drawing to play a more prominent role. Works such as Self Portrait as a Rope Thrower (2004) and MV Lithgow (2006-19) are not only more clearly defined than the earlier paintings, but they are far more intimate. These “close-ups” are a welcome change from the panoramic views of the harbour Kingston continues to produce.
Another positive development has been his willingness to paint harbour scenes that are softer and more atmospheric. In First Light (2018-19), a large commission for Cranbrook School, he allows the thinned-down layers of paint to spread light evenly throughout the composition. The boat in the left-hand top corner is scarcely more than a dim rectangular shape that casts a dark shadow on the water.
Utzon’s Dream (submission 218) (2013-15) is a drawing on raw canvas but it has an appealing spontaneity. Kingston also made a useful discovery when he hit upon the idea of portraying the Opera House as a pair of towering black silhouettes, hovering over the harbour like a fortress from a gothic romance. Never one to let a good pictorial idea go begging, he has created numerous versions of this motif.
After almost 30 years slogging away as an oil painter, Kingston remains a draughtsman who has forced himself to master an art form that does not come naturally. The many drawings in this show have an ease and vitality that is often absent from the paintings, although these works have continued to grow in self-confidence and accomplishment.
This raises a more general question about the status we assign to grand-scale projects. There are novelists whose real talent lies with short stories, and composers who are much better at chamber music than symphonies. Kingston has never stopped making drawings, but his transformation into an oil painter has been a matter of will rather than inclination. One can admire his perseverance but wonder if he hasn’t caused himself a lot of unnecessary stress in pushing so resolutely against the tide.
First Light: The Art of Peter Kingston
S H Ervin Gallery, until February 14