Many of you will know the artist Peter Tyndall’s long-running series A Person Looks at a Work of Art in which we see line-drawn gallery goers who look like happy families in a children’s story—Famous Five Go to the Art Museum. Stephanie Radok’s new book An opening:twelve love stories about art looks back at that person who looks—mother, father, child—and gives them a filled-in body and a mind, a history, a habitat, a set of memories. And a faithful dog. ‘A Dog Looks at a Work of Art’ the book might have been called. It is the dog that takes us out of the museum into a shared world, blurring distinctions between art and life, giving us a wonderful image for the way artworks leave their traces everywhere, just as exciting smells are left for the dog to discover. Art as fart. Well, not only.
An opening is a memoir wrapped around a discussion of art and a discussion of art wrapped around a memoir in such a way that makes the two indistinguishable. The attentive adult contains the experiencing child, connected by the continuing presence of things, their ‘shapes and colours and forms’, known through the capacity, as Radok writes, for ‘somehow both going inside them and putting them inside me’. An opening is structured as a calendar, a book of hours, month by month from January to December, as the author walks with her dog through her suburban, bush-fringe Adelaide world in changing seasons and environments and at the same time journeys mentally and emotionally to the works of art that have become part of her life, bringing them into her present and reflecting on their meaning for her, which becomes their meaning for us. The private acquires significance through an inquiring intelligence that positions things in the largest possible context. At the same time the work of art moves from rarefied space into the ordinary world. One way Radok does this is by attending to the way we find and carry artworks with us in our lives, in postcards and clippings that become tatty with time. That allows segues like this one:
I have a postcard of an interior painted in 1955 by Grace Cossington Smith stuck to the wall in the laundry above the old square white ceramic trough…. The whole work contains a lot of yellow in broad square panes of paint, like pieces of solid light pouring in to flood the room with radiance and a kind of dissolving energy. The postcard is next to the laundry window that looks out onto two plum trees and an olive tree, but it is the tiny painting that suggests an escape from domesticity which is nevertheless embedded in the domestic, the possibility of glowing visions in a lump of butter or a drop of light like a coin on a window sill. (page 19)
That is art writing of the highest order. Cossington Smith would have understood it. And what makes it so original is the lead in from a discussion of a woodblock print by Hiroshige that was given to Radok’s family at a dinner in Chinatown in New York in 1961 by a Japanese man who worked at the United Nations with U Thant. In those connections and traverses, Radok’s finely tuned global positioning device is always at work.
I did not know Stephanie Radok personally before An opening though I knew her name from the art journalism I’d seen here and there over the years and found sharp, fresh, sometimes provocative. I’d noted her as a kindred spirit and made a point of reading things with her name on them. Adelaide, in particular, is lucky to have such a good art writer, at a time when art writing is generally so dire in this country. She has found her own way of doing it, and her own venues, where she can remain independent and a bit marginal. She’s made those short review pieces into an art form of her own. So when I saw an earlier draft of this book I was truly excited. Reading it in the finished version now I appreciate how layered and subtle it is in selectivity and speculation and its beautifully crafted and situated style. It’s an extraordinary, ambitious work that belies its intentional modesty. Not your typical art book. Radok follows in the footsteps of another Adelaide artist-writer, Barbara Hanrahan, in her first book, The Scent of Eucalyptus, with a book of place and memory that is vibrantly alive to the colours and shapes of the world, as seen and felt by a practicing artist. I’m happy that the author and I like so many of the same things: Simryn Gill, Ah Xian, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Durer, Colin McCahon.
There’s a condition known as Stendhal’s syndrome in which people are overcome, swoon, faint, become feverish, by the intensity of their experience of a work of art. The love in Radok’s subtitle–‘twelve love stories about art’—is different. It is not a pathology. There’s a great moment of realization when the author goes to the Prado in Madrid to see for the first time in actuality a painting she has travelled with for years, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and of course does so in a crowd of other tourists, buying tickets and queuing. She writes: ‘Yet on this recent trip rather than being annoyed by the global nature of cultural tourism in the twenty-first century … I found it alright.’ ‘…our private obsessions belong to many other people as well … Thus the experience was solitary and individual but communal.’ Sharing is part of this love.
An opening is grounded in a longstanding and deep relationship with Aboriginal art, from which perhaps this recognition of the power and necessity of sharing has developed: an embodied and relational way of thinking about art. Her book rests on that understanding, and it’s what makes it radical, a critique and expansion of much else in the art world and its conventional ways.
There are many meanings that open up from the book’s title: An opening. An invitation, a door in the wall, an aperture, a Pandora’s box, a beginning, a hole worn through, an overture, or an opening like this one at which something new is introduced and celebrated. Let me conclude with another passage from the book:
‘The potential in every art exhibition, every artwork, is present at this point of opening, a point of potential expansion of the world, of surprise, celebration, learning and illumination.’ To which she adds in a characteristic startling leap, that her opening also refers to ‘the bright clear light that characterizes Australia which can be seen as potentially leading to an opening of the mind.’ We live in hope.
Read it and perhaps it will happen to you. I congratulate the publishers. I congratulate the author. It’s a very beautiful book. A revelation, a gem. Open to the public.