Biennale of Sydney 2010 – Dale Frank

Biennale of Sydney 2010 – Dale Frank


Dale Frank has specially created a new series of twelve abstract paintings for the 63-metre-long gallery space that forms part of the Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island.

This poetically titled series of works, set in the watery depths, establishes a visually stunning metaphor for the death by drowning of ‘Jewboy’, an absconded 19-year-old local convict who, after years of brutality and indifference, was forced into failed revenge and ultimate death.

Adjacent to the sea, the fluid forms of these works suggest both sky and water, yet they also have a dark and foreboding quality that taps into the forgotten brutal history of the island and the ambience of this convict constructed gallery.

Made with coloured varnishes poured on to horizontal canvases and allowed to pool, drip and run, they attest to something uncontrollable, even anarchic, about beauty that baffles those intent on taking the measure of things.

Frank’s paintings dry for hours and days, their shapes and degrees of translucency shifting according to the laws of gravity and optics. These shifts are helped along by Frank’s various, unobtrusive manipulations (he raises different parts of the canvas for different lengths of time to let the liquid run). The results, inevitably, have something arbitrary about them: a sense of the thing observed being disconnected from motive, point or meaning.

For Dale Frank, colour in its liquid form is “a living entity”. Poured onto the horizontal canvas surface, luminous pools of pigmented varnish immediately begin to resist and coalesce; the viscosity and drying times determined by seasonal temperatures and humidity. As further layers are added, the angle and direction of the varnish flows are controlled by the manipulation of wedges and blocks placed beneath the painting.

“It is a totally hands on and cerebral way of painting,” declares Frank. “Much more intense than a half-centimetre brush and tubes of oil paint. The process can take up to 24 hours where I have to be permanently standing over the painting, constantly considering every minute aspect.” 

Born 1959 in New South Wales, Australia – Dale lives and works in the Hunter Valley, Australia


Dale Frank  is one of Australia’s foremost contemporary painters. His career spans over thirty years. In 1983, he was included in the exhibition ‘Panorama della post – critica: critica ed arte at the Museo Palazzo Lanfranchi in Pisa along with Thomas Lawson and Anselm Kiefer (curated by Helena Kontova)’. In 1984 he was included in the Aperto section of the Venice Biennale.

Returning to Australia, in 1990 he was included in the 8th Biennale of Sydney (curated by Rene Block).

By the late 1990’s, Dale Frank  began experimenting with commercial varnishes and the complex chemical reactions that occur when certain pigments are added.

The application of paint appears random and spontaneous, its movement on the canvas not due to the deliberate application of the artist, but instead the reaction of the differing viscosity and gravitation influences.. This spontaneity belies the control the artist has over his work. Much control over the medium and environment where the work has been done is indicative of a scientific controlled atmosphere.

Reactions of the varnish/paint and dust free conditions must have been carefully considered. The paint is so thick that gravity has caused great pockets of wet paint under a thick drying skin which hangs tenuously, threatening to explode out onto the floor at any second.

A major solo retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2000. Frank was included in the important recent survey exhibition, ‘Contemporary Australia: Optimism’ at the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art in 2008.

His paintings are held in every major public collection in Australia and in numerous private and corporate collections in Australia, Europe and the U.S. In 2005 Frank won The Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize at the Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria.

A major new monograph on Frank’s work ‘So Far: the Art of Dale Frank 2005-1980’ was published in 2007.


Via Artworld   —   Dale Frank is a true maverick of Australian art. For 30 years his drawings, paintings and installations have surprised, shocked and seduced. An impressive new book charts the intellectual and stylistic shifts in his work, from early performances through to his recent and much-lauded “varnish” paintings. Ashley Crawford looks back at the career of this elusive artist.

One might wonder whether the artist John Olsen had any idea what was to come when, in 1975, he awarded the then 16-year-old Dale Frank the Red Cross Art Prize. This was the beginning of Frank’s artistic career, one that would reach beyond the ambitions of many artists, albeit with moments of controversy and drama – mostly instigated by Frank himself, for whom arguments and tantrums are a regular occurrence.

After winning this prize, Frank wasted no time, holding his first solo exhibition in 1979 at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. But with no intention of settling in what was at the time a decidedly parochial art scene, in the same year he took his first overseas trip. In 1980, displaying a confidence way beyond his years, he had solo exhibitions in Dublin, Budapest and Milan and, in the following year, in London, New York, Bologna and Perth.

Despite this early international success, Frank never abandoned his ambitions within Australia – he held his first solo exhibition in 1982 at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Commercial success was matched with curatorial and critical acclaim: in 1982 he was included in the 4th Biennale of Sydney, and in 1983 Achille Bonito Oliva and critic Helena Kontova selected his work (alongside Thomas Lawson and Anselm Kiefer) for Critica ad Arte: Panorama della Post-Critica at Museo Palazzo Lanfranchi in Pisa, Italy. That year, sipping chilled champagne on a balcony overlooking the Yarra River in Melbourne, Frank happily admitted that “it was pretty fine company”.

In that same year his work featured in Tall Poppies (curated by Art & Text founder Paul Taylor) at Melbourne University Gallery, and in Perspecta ‘83 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

He garnered the support of a number of influential international curators, including the Dutch theorist and new-media artist Paul Groot and the German curator Rene Block, and from 1982 his work featured in an impressive array of important art magazines such as Artforum, Domus, Flash Art and Studio International.

The key works that Frank was producing around this time were large acrylic paintings such as The Snail Fleeing. Portrait of Paul Groot with a Small Snail Portrait and Self Portrait (1983) and The Two Moons (1984), which combined landscape elements with unsettling references to facial features. These haunting paintings are explorations of muscular explosion, with hints of faces in torment or ecstasy.

“The appearance of the work looks similar to muscle structure, or almost the structure of… the physical representation of tension or strain or of pain… of orgasm, of alienation,” Frank explained in 1983. “But the face I’m talking about is a defence system – the shock of the bone through flesh, in a way. The eating away of the flesh and just leaving the bone. A totally undefended face, but a defended face both as an attack system and a defence system…”

His inclusion in Australian Art – An American Perspective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and Aperto ‘84 at the 1984 Venice Biennale cemented Frank’s international reputation, but in the early ‘90s he returned to Australia after developing an intense dislike of flying. As if to mark this shift away from nomadic art star, two important exhibitions heralded his return home. The first was a collaborative show with stalwart abstractionist John Coburn at the Nolan Gallery in Canberra in 1992, and the second was the exhibition Rad Scunge: New Art from Sydney at Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in Melbourne in 1993. Curated by Frank and featuring work by Hany Armanious, Mikala Dwyer, Adam Cullen and Tony Schwensen, Rad Scunge embraced the grunge aesthetic of the time and placed Frank firmly at the cutting edge of Australian art.

Frank’s powerfully “self-automated” drawing style of the time was summed up by his comment that “more and more… I am letting the energy control me”. It’s a statement that is clearly illustrated in the extraordinary scope of works to be seen in Frank’s new book, So Far: The Art of Dale Frank 2005–1980. Conceived by Frank and publisher Morry Schwartz, with an incisive text by writer, curator and artist Christopher Chapman, it would be fair to say that this monograph is the most ambitious Australian art book yet published. At an impressive 216 pages, it features a remarkable dye-cut cover – making it a beautiful sculptural object in itself – and spans the extraordinary breadth of Frank’s activities, from agent provocateur to poetic landscape painter with a twist.

There’s Reclining Nude – Woman In The Nudie The Vicious Coin Stealer – Pocket Grabber (1993), a couch re-covered in canvas and painted red, with its front legs balanced on plastic funnels. When it was exhibited at Sherman Galleries in Sydney people simply sat on it, effectively dismantling the delineation between high and low art, but also sending the delicately balanced sofa flying, and transforming the viewer into art vandal. Another work from the same year, Do it in half the time – I knew Patty Hearst before she was falsely kidnapped (1990–93), attracted a huge amount of media coverage when it was first shown at Sherman Galleries in Sydney in 1993. The work consisted of a huge pile of the artist’s collected correspondence with his former galleries – Stephen Mori and Roslyn Oxley amongst them – bundled into a pile and priced at $20,000. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story on the show titled “A Frank Exchange” in which Dr Gene Sherman, the Director of Sherman Galleries, was quoted as saying: “Dale is very cheeky, isn’t he?”

Cheeky is right: the 1996 installation Untitled: 1965, Ramos, Monterey Jackie. The Chairman of the Board for the Dead Felix, featured a live Calvin Klein model in his underpants reclining on a dining table, while Tilted Arc, Steel, Richard Serra. Project for Queensland Art Gallery (1998) consisted mainly of one of the artist’s toenails displayed on a plinth and resembling a tiny version of American artist Richard Serra’s monumental steel sculptures.

Since the ‘90s Frank continued to exhibit in Australia, with frequent solo shows with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne and Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland. In 2000 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney held a survey exhibition of his work titled Ecstasy: 20 Years of Painting, and in the same year he had a solo show in the Project Space at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. By this time Frank had embarked on an altogether different phase of “landscape” paintings, with works such as From the Gatton Bypass back towards Plainlands from the BP McDonalds parking area near Meaning To Stop turnoff at about 3.00pm, January 27th (2003). Despite the ultra-literal titles, these works were anything but; they were actually a carefully orchestrated maelstrom of colourful, viscous varnish – violent and cathartic, and often very beautiful.

“If people broadened their perceptions of what landscape is, and the history of Australian landscape painting, they would be able to embrace what is, on the surface, non-representational art as landscape instantaneously,” Frank said at the time. “One aspect of approaching the work from this angle is that I’ve become aware of a strain of landscape running through the work from the early ‘80s.”

But, never one to allow himself to be easily pigeon holed, Frank was soon to shift gears yet again. While he continued his investigations into the clash and flow of colour beneath varnish, his titles – an important element of his work – changed entirely. Having often in the past played with narrative in the naming of his paintings, the titles of his most recent works are almost full-blown short stories: I was sent off to find an 18th century diamond brooch, dressed in a donkey jacket and cement-dusted workman’s boots. He understood the past, whereas today’s brilliant butterflies who dine out talk only about the new and know only about the future of their art portfolio’s pricing structure. Their lead shoes are very much in need in the light gravity-less atmosphere (2005). There could be another book devoted solely to an investigation of Frank’s titles.

Changing tactics has always been a part of Dale Frank’s work. Having interviewed him many times over the past 25 years, I can confirm that he’s a highly literate and articulate interviewee. He’s also renowned for having a certain perversity – the more you might compliment his work, the more cynical he becomes. Even when suddenly refusing to do an interview – as he did with this one – he does so with an interesting dismissal of art world discourse. Choosing not to talk about his book – and the milestone it must surely represent in his career – Frank explained his decision in the following email:

“Many years ago it became clear that my not taking part in any interview rhetoric situation was better. I have maintained this policy now for a long time. (I really do not need to justify this, or wish to engage in a dialogue on my decision.)

Regardless of the truth, falsity or irrelevance of the opinions of others, it is not my role, in any other guise outside my work and the decisions I make, to lubricate those opinions. Contemporaneous Influence is an illusionary self-deception. I will not aid the justification of my Self and my Work with the illusionary notion of any influence from my part to play.

There is the Art, there is the Business of the Art, and there is the Rhetoric of the Business of the Art. I don’t have energy for all three. To do so would add to the rhetoric epidemic already existing of macho blogspot Period Spotting and ping pong Bloating. My Art and the decisions I make within that can succinctly articulate over the wordy jostling. You no longer need to conquer those around you to create a vision of a longevity greater than your moment. The thoughts, the mark, you make in silence can be the powerful of all Mafia.

Ignorance, the most severed rationale or opinion stems from a precursor no one else can enter into. (Even though I refute length of tenure, sentence served, as any justification) from the myriad complex experiences involved in 30 ‘working’ years, my position on this, like my work itself, is ‘output-centric’, pragmatic, correct, impassioned, clear, detached and sane. Any view to the contrary serves not my work but the interests of those promoting the contrary view.

You have your own history of excursions into my work. I am sure you will be able to satisfy your requirements…

With my best wishes, Dale”

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