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Crooke's paradise

     "Australia's Gauguin" is what they've always called him. But now the art world is beginning to appreciate that Ray Crooke is his own man


 It's ironic really that after a lifetime spent sidestepping suburbia, Ray Crooke should now be ensconced in it. More so that this painter of South Seas sensuality and archetypal Australian bushscapes is "quite liking it". For while it's not exactly in the mass-produced sprawls of
Sydney or Melbourne, in Cairns terms his low-slung bungalow with its synchronised ceiling fans, unruly manicure of tropical garden, front-door carport, kidney-shaped diving pool and converted granny-flat studio is as upmarket suburban as it gets.

For the better part of his life, Crooke has sought the non-suburban; living and working amid the relative wildernesses of Far North Queensland and its islands, or going bush, or discovering rural or rainforest retreats, or seeking solace in the Pacific Islands. There's been the odd period of city living as well, but then contradictions are an essential part of the tale.

Contradictions also govern his progress as an artist. He's always been more a people's painter than a museum mainstay, his "frangipani figurative" style sitting easier in suburban fantasy than on the critical cutting edge; his work is represented in many public collections, but most hangs in private collections here and overseas.

In these PR days of artist as public figure, Crooke has painted full time while largely avoiding the spotlight. You can put that down to an unassuming nature, his physical distance from "art central", and the fact that he's actively shunned the hoopla for the hearth; family life has been his focus, not the cultivating of curators (which, in an art scene run by boosters and tsars of trendiness, hasn't helped his cause). For 20 years from the late fifties he did enjoy a solid-enough fame before being somewhat brushed over by the new wave of art commissars. In many ways that was generational. Categorising him as "Australia's Gauguin" suggested a familiarity and expectation about his work while damning him as derivative. Within the experimental impetus his quiet studies were almost anachronistic.

This is not to say he became anonymous. For 40 years now he has shown extensively, developing his style and selling consistently. Some of the biggest names in commercial art around the country have sought him out, and signed him up. Suddenly, however, Ray Crooke is again receiving mainstream attention. Critics and curators have begun to talk of "significance" and "stature", the auction demand for his work has begun to increase.

The catalyst for change was a touring retrospective initiated by the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery in Townsville. It opened there last November and is making its way through Queensland centres to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne later this year. For many, seeing the authority, range and extent of his production en masse was a revelation. The Australian's Giles Auty gave the retrospective a "don't miss" rating, praising Crooke's Dawn, Papua 1964 as belonging "with the best Australian paintings of the past 50 years". Others echoed artist James Gleeson's 1972 opinion that the "special kind of magic" in Crooke's paintings "only begins to work when one has discovered the stillness and the silence that lies at their heart". Ahead of this week's opening of an exhibition of his latest works in Brisbane, and with the retrospective hitting that city next weekend, there is a quiet buzz of expectation.

At 75, Crooke is beachcomber brown in his well-worn shorts and tan wiriness as he greets me at Cairns airport. His manner is self-effacing to the point of diffidence, but it's shyness not timidity. Beneath an insubordinate scraggle of hair, his ruffle of beard frames eyes that assess astutely. If his words are casual, the import and thought behind them is not.

As hosts, Crooke and his wife June take some beating. They met in 1949 on Thursday Island, after each had been introduced to the Far North through their war service. Melbourne born (two months apart) and bred, they were seduced by life in the tropics. Now, after 47 years of marriage - which has included the raising of three children and the death of their eldest daughter in a road accident, a gypsyish lifestyle, periods of precariousness, extensive exploration of the outback, occasional isolation, recurrent travel, and Crooke's recent winning bout with cancer - they have obviously reached a workable accommodation.

Both have strong wills, and their anecdotes are Dad and Dave, each offering laconic insights and astute observations, correcting dates, qualifying asides. (And each gruffly praises the other's contributions when he/she is not around.) But their life together has been so eventful, so full of transition, momentous events and significant friendships that it becomes difficult to maintain a cast list and a timeline. Over the next two days, we spend a lot of time together, at the end of which my journalistic distance is under threat.

How to sum up without belittling a life that has traversed a journey from Melbourne suburban boyhood and "a pretty cut and dried future of commuting to an unchanging, unchallenging job" through the war-induced "liberation" of army postings to the wilds of Western Australia, Cape York, Thursday Island and Borneo and a corresponding introduction to classical literature and music? Then the rambling from repatriated art studenthood via casual labouring, trochus diving and work with missionaries on Thursday Island to art teaching to professional artist at 35?

What of the period of religious fervour on Thursday Island? ("It was the aesthetic appeal of the singing and chanting and the island people that appealed" although "I still see the world through those values.") Or the optimistic but doomed attempts at business ventures? Or the multiple moves, from Ferntree Gully in Victoria to the beachside Yorkeys Knob ("a Cannery Row of croc shooters, pearl divers and fishermen") near Cairns to Sydney's inner-city Balmain and rural Mittagong, and back to Cairns, with a seven-year stopover in Kuranda, and regular visits to the unit in Sydney ... among others?

What about the expeditions into the bush with Percy Tresize and Dick Roughsey looking for Aboriginal cave paintings, or invitations to tribal lands or the scouring of the Kimberleys? Or the first of many journeys to Europe's galleries at 50-something, or the 20 years of travels to Fiji? What about the OA, honorary doctorates and artistic triumphs and the friendships with Boyd, Drysdale, French, Blackman, Olley and Mabo among many? And more, much more. It's patently impossible.

As a man, Ray Crooke has a humanist core. He respects, even envies, the Aborigines and Pacific Islanders that fascinate him, and is keenly aware of not exploiting their culture. Deeply spiritual, he's also intrigued by human frailties. He's in love with Arcadian ideals yet tantalised by the cosmopolitan. He's modest, yet has unshakeable self-belief. And he betrays beguiling contradictions of humility and pride, tolerance and impatience.

As a painter (whose father was a failed artist and whose daughter is a successful one), he is deceptively subtle. His paintings work on more levels than are first apparent: for an alleged "primitive", he has conquered the demands of design and message with authority, without ego. His landscapes elicit an emotional response to an Australia few of us see but all recognise. And his portraits have a discerning edge. Perhaps most tellingly, sometimes he falls short of his own standards simply because he is pushing on. Always a disciplined worker, he hits the studio early each day and works uninterrupted "until the good light goes".

"Much of your painting is actually done in your brain during the night, where you get and work over ideas; it's a luxury to be able to go straight in after breakfast and put something down." He admits to being "a sort of workaholic, I suppose, but there are so many things I respond to, and want to capture. Because I've been the sort of painter who can express things very quickly when they go right, people mistakenly think I am very prolific."

That's an oblique reference to a snipe by some critics that in the sixties and seventies he was "carelessly overproductive". "Painters," he says, "are really at the mercy of their agents and galleries _ the tendency is to give them what they ask for, and I was supplying galleries in every major city." That criticism, though, obviously rankles. He clarifies the point. "Art is an emotional, reflex thing, you can't rely on recipes and you can't say really what controls your hand. The key is not to let it get out of control so that content is lost. But no matter how hard you work, you know that in every show maybe six paintings achieve your aim, and you hope these elevate the rest."

Sydney (and, next month, Melbourne) art dealer Denis Savill believes Crooke is too harsh on himself. An unabashed fan, he's bought his works for many years, increasingly in the past two or three - in late '96 he snaffled 34 works from Crooke's retiring Sydney representative Gisella Scheinberg, and a fortnight ago paid a record $42,000 for a single Crooke painting. "His paintings always have a calm romance and sensuous charm that can transport you," he says. And he scoffs at claims of overproduction. Wise-sayers used to decry Arthur Boyd for painting too much, he points out. In the same way he bought Boyd's Shoalhaven scenes by the score and then scored big as the market rose, so he's backing Crooke to do the same. Savill's totally biased business tip? "It is a very good time to buy Ray Crooke; he is affordable, appealing and will only grow in reputation."

Such an endorsement would please most artists, but big prices are not a Crooke imperative. "It may be commercially stupid," he tells me as he shows me a studio in a state of pre-exhibition chaos, "but I've always got some satisfaction at trying to be moderate in price - that gives the buyer leeway if the market fluctuates. I'd feel uncomfortable with the high prices paid for some works; I'm more than rewarded for what I do, compared to the average worker on a fixed salary."
Earlier, as we'd tramped the beach at Yorkeys Knob on my Crooke's Tour of Cairns' sacred sites, he'd mentioned what a privilege it was having people wanting to exhibit his paintings, and "even buy them _ most don't realise it but as a painter you never take it for granted that your work will sell." That must have meant high anxiety at times, I suggested. "There were a few trips to the post office on some occasions to see if a cheque had arrived," he'd smiled. "But I always had the net to throw out here; fish were plentiful."

His recent skirmish with cancer, conquered through chemotherapy and a firm belief he would pull through has, he admits, "catapulted me into a more realistic view of what I should be doing. Before that I think I'd quite foolishly taken on too much. We probably went to live at Kuranda 10 years too late [at 67, when he and June began planting thousands of trees on their property].

"It made me realise how at our age we've lost a lot of friends, and how because so many were heavy drinkers or smokers we'd get annoyed at them when they drop off. It came as a bit of a shock to me to realise I actually wasn't going to go on for ever." It was only after he'd left hospital that his doctors confided they hadn't thought he would pull through. "I always had complete faith they would fix everything up; it was only when they mentioned chemotherapy that I began to realise it might be a bit serious." The upshot is a "make the best of your time and be grateful for every day" resolution. He smiles wryly. "These are things ageing people always say, I suppose, but I have decided I should spend more time doing what I'd like to do, making statements that are my own personal feeling. I have to be more selective, ration my energy. I'm experimenting more, discovering and rediscovering, yet being more discriminating."

Space, light and air have become the essential elements of his art, he says. The first two were always impulses but "early on, the air was accidental. I didn't realise what it was until others pointed it out. Now I've learnt to appreciate and cultivate it _ it's not trying to be an illusionist, it's just trying to get an area which allows you to go into the painting." Thirty-five, I segue, was quite old to go into full-time painting. "It was, wasn't it? But it was good I waited. Until then I had spent most of my time drawing, as a way of recording and collecting references. And I had so many distracting interests in those days; history, botany, religion, everything in the natural world. I wanted to see how things worked."

And learn to look beyond seeing? "Of course. My early art interest was in the English black-and-white engravers, social commentators like Blake, Hogarth and Samuel Palmer, because I saw myself as an illustrator, with a message. I was also attracted to the religious painters of the Renaissance like Botticelli and Giotto. And later, of course, to Gauguin.

"For me to paint like that was just a compulsion. When I was in Thursday Island, I wrote that the islanders dressed in their bright primary colours - whether walking or working or sitting around dreaming away - were just waiting to be drawn. It excited me _ it was probably youthful excess."

When his retrospective was first proposed, he confides, he was almost regretting it. "I felt that some of my earlier paintings were rather too rudimentary, painted when I was struggling to make a statement. But people seem to respond well to them. For me, the paintings of what I'd call the middle period still have quite an impact. I couldn't paint them today though, because my response has changed, and so have the times."

So what is the difference between Ray Crooke now and the man of those early island paintings? "I've been to Europe, studied the Impressionists and post-Impressionists and I've lost that dramatic primitive impulsion. I've become - or I try to be - a more sophisticated painter. You can't maintain that innocence of vision when you have been exposed to other values." One aspect that's as strong now as it was then is his dislike of painting individuals, while loving to paint people. He has a real facility for portraiture but it is, he says, "too demanding to cope with the personalities". Despite this, his CV still includes perceptive portraits of friends like writer Xavier Herbert, former Governor-General Zelman Cowan and artists Margaret Olley and Dick Roughsey. And his 1969 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of George Johnson ("a year when there wasn't much competition") is a haunting image. It was painted when the writer was at a low ebb after his wife Charmian Clift had died: "He was very lonely, living a street or two away from us and relying on us for company. It was a very accurate mirror of what was in his mind as he faced a rather sad future."

As an aside, he mentions that Johnston became intrigued by their then rural property, Little Forrest, at Yerrinbool, near Mittagong, although he was too sick to visit it. "He'd quote Virgil: `All I want is a little stream and a little forest.' After he died, we ceremoniously buried his ashes on the property near a little stream, which was a spring that bubbled into a pond covered with lilies. And we planted thousands of daffodils around the site because they were a favourite of his."

Painting people as Everyman is another matter. "I particularly like to capture the natural, restful physicality of Fijians," he says. "They are always so graceful and interesting in whatever they do. But I prefer my people to be anonymous because once you instil personality, you get an added psychological element in the painting which can be distracting. I like it to be classical and true and frozen in time; to paint the moment in terms of solid things, not decoratively."

A lot of modern paintings fail, he says, because they are just form. "True success lies in merging that with content; you must say something that is beyond mere mood." But, I ask him, isn't your emphasis on pandanus and the perfect moment a romantic ideal? "I'm sure it is but it's also a classic thing. Paintings must catch your eye, but also guide it and rest it. And I like to leave enough unsaid ... real art lives because it allows your own mind to fill in the gaps so that it becomes part of you." He laughs. "But how seriously can you take a painting? Life is much more important - I'd never put it beyond my responsibilities. Art can so easily disappear ..."

En route to my return flight, my cab driver practices Philosophy 101 on me. "Cairns is as good a place as any to live this life," he offers, "but sometimes I think life is just one gigantic joke; what's the point?" It's a bit existential for me, but as the plane takes off, I regret not suggesting a visit to a Ray Crooke painting.


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright 1998 (c) Murray Waldren

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