Time Travelling: A How-To Guide

Profile of Michael Vale, Artist.

A straw-thin, straw-pale young man, with red-gold quiff and trim goatee, steers his shy pretty dark-haired companion around the Gothic Beauty exhibition in Bendigo Art Gallery and directly to the exhibits on the rear wall. He leans in towards her, drawing them both closer to a large, remarkable oil painting. With a proprietal air and a stage whisper, he tells her an anecdote about the artist. His admiration is palpable in the tilt of his head, the confidence of his voice. His eyes catch mine and reflect the glow of a neophyte’s enthusiasm, as the couple move along the line of artworks.

Let’s say around half a century earlier the artist himself straw-pale but clean-shaven as a schoolboy, took his shy pretty dark-haired girl to see his own work, a seated nude demurely turning away from our view, on the end wall of a Toorak tea rooms. Did Michael Vale know then what he’d be doing 50 years into the future? Well, the answer is rare: yes he did. 

The works themselves, in the Bendigo exhibition: Gothic Beauty: Victorian Notions of Love, Loss and Spirituality (November 2018 – February 2019) are indeed remarkable.  These large, traditional-technique oil paintings leap snapping and giggling from the walls, clacking their lipless jaws and winking their sightless eyes; they leave the rest of the gothic-themed exhibition: china figurines, memento mori, arsenic-green wallpaper and amorphous photographs, muttering and fumbling in the shadows. 

The artist, born in 1952, does not identify with the Australian landscape or any tokens of patriotism, rather adhering to a classical Northern-hemisphere aesthetic acquired through the foreign influences of his 1960s youth, and rejecting the culturally arid Melbourne suburbs where he grew up.  Yet this same aesthetic, towards landscape at least, was beloved by his parents’ UK-centric generation.  It’s sometimes hard to tell, with this artist and many other children of the 1950s in Australia, whether we are inwardly conservative with a solid radical armour, or thoroughly radical with a deeply conservative overcoat…

His works embody his own contradictions, and we in Australia are notoriously contradictory. We despise those that go overseas and despise those that come back. We head north for the winter.  We call red-heads Bluey, and bald men Curly. Australian memes are full of gothic humour (~ What do Australians do in a year of record-breaking drought? We check our flood insurance ~) and the very Englishness of this exhibition in Bendigo’s baking summer just fits this: so unlikely it was almost by act of god that it took place.

So, these works of visible ambush by this contradictory artist: beauty and revulsion, reality and horror, softness and chaos. The clownish nobility of the figures’ tartan trousers crushes against the random horror of skewers in eyeballs, dense nothings in eye sockets, eyes in Otherness; a world that as much recalls the pagan mysteries of the Renaissance, as Papa Legba and the Guédé, and laughs at both. The fast decay, the new Antic. The slow burn.

The comedy/horror imagery in the large-format works is nested in varied European landscapes; one setting is as likely to have been the last sight of a Pompeiian in October 79CE, as another would have been the centrepiece over a genteel Edinburgh parlour one hundred years ago.

The layering of the scenery, the push and pull, the lush rendering of a dingy landscape: the recognition of rich colour beneath, soft and dusty like a rare silk carpet, a tapestry slightly worn by time or distance. The essential ‘ground’ of a medieval ballad or Elizabethan stage; it is beautifully done. 

And stage it most definitely is; recalling Dr Vale’s early years as a sets painter.  Figures on this ground dance and caper, play cards and fools, hesitate and wobble off-balance. To those who know him, the figures may recall nothing so much as the artist himself in familiar shoes but unfamiliar, tweedy burlesque; or they may in fact have no human characteristics at all – two-headed dogs, half-bats, ghosts, things from ectoplasm and horror films and nightmares – in the best gothic tradition. They may be that most inhuman of human images: a smoking skeleton, a laughing skull, an invisible man of visible bandages, a torso pierced through with views of the mountains behind his disrupted abdomen.  Notably, they have a great collection of hyperbolic hats, delightfully recalling to me my own days as a freestyle milliner.

Elements of nature, planetary beings and lightning are the final members of this motley cast. And quite a bit of planar geometry; someone’s been playing in the maths cupboard again, miss!

The colours are gorgeous. Dusty rusts and lava-hot oranges, expensive reds from autumn fires, blues and jades the colours of a beloved’s eyes, blacks rich with form and emptiness, whites of biblical inspiration, and deep earth colours smelling of mould and toast. Tones of ash and leaf and glass.  One comment describes the works as poetic; TS Elliot’s Whispers of Immortality, and John Betjeman’s Late Flowering Lust both hold that same dark humour. Vale himself will cite a multitude of influences, from literature, music, and an ever-increasing pantheon of visual artists; looking for the flavours of balance, wit, narrative and depth that feed our souls.

So, how did we get from that shy self-aware juvenilia in silky verdigris and vieux rose, to these tartan macabres and tweed-coated grotesques, these happy thylacines and capering hounds?  And what would that young schoolboy think of it all? Michael admits he often wonders about his 17-year-old self, and what he would feel about the ‘current version’. He remains conscious of the aims and hopes of his youth and is still working through the bucket list set up in the late 1960s, as well as fulfilling the aspirations of the younger self.

“So many of the aesthetic inclinations of that slightly confused teenager have survived the decades, despite many detours… I had the self-belief knocked out of me for quite a while, [by] art school and life generally… but I’ve managed to persevere. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Vale hopes the younger self would approve.  But to have the young Master Vale in his Monash University fine art classes might be challenging to the older man: “There was a kernel of stubbornness and belief there that would have been hard to persuade or influence” he admits.

The battle to dodge the disapproving family, the deeply conservative Melbourne upbringing, and the distress of finding that all the struggle to achieve a place at art school had simply left his Romantic/Surrealist sensibilities marooned in a sea of 1970s hard-edged Abstractionism, is a story that underlines the commitment to his aspiration, and indicates a strong determination to create his own future.  People can be very talented yet sink without trace.  To combine talent with the energy and focus to achieve it is what marks out Michael Vale. There’s a kernel of stubbornness and belief…

He describes the journey from that student “swimming in a sea of self-doubt, a mix of fragility and toughness” to where he is today, as “a winding, up-hill and rocky road at times, with lots of twists and turns, lots of potholes, and no map.” Michael worked in scenery painting to pay the bills, in a grim paint factory to learn about colours and develop a coping mechanism against suspected colour-blindness, and so on, but always painting in some way.

Kids who experienced his joint-effort decorations of the Melbourne Lunar Park Ghost Train ride in the 1990s are still sleeping with the light on.

To keep his vision alive, he marked the calendar with three evenings every week dedicated to painting, with music and wine to keep the fun going after a long day at drudging work.  Short of living in a garret he couldn’t be more the embodiment of the struggling, dedicated artist.  I can’t say for sure that he did not live in a garret. 

Vale’s aims as an artist he describes as “simple: to follow in the footsteps of people… who have created their own world in some way, through words or music or images. These worlds appeal to me as parallel universes, and through painting, it’s sometimes possible to go there”. He has described his painting practice as akin to time travel.

At an early age Vale was attracted to the music and poetry of Bob Dylan, and John Lennon’s ethos; there might also have been some interest in the style and freedom of the classic jazz icons of different times and places.  His interests were always in figurative art, and the images from music and literature fed into the visual mix. But absurdism, surrealism and especially the works of James Ensor, the eccentric and influential Nineteenth Century Belgian artist, have held a life-long interest.  Figurative imagery from the B-grade horror movies of the mid-Twentieth Century, delivered with strong representational skills and sheer visual proficiency, also fed his love of “a sense of the impossible… the fine line between horror and humour”

Dylan and Ensor introduced Vale from a very young age, to “the malleability of language and images, heading towards an absurdist and anti-rational view of life… and their influence has never waned – if anything it’s grown stronger”. It takes a feel for the awfulness of 1960s Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to understand why ‘anti-rational’ was oxygen to a suffocating teenager.

In addition to his explicit influences, he is constantly looking for answers to problems, ideas, and seeds of ideas; looking to build his own unique visual poetry using the common language of artists through the centuries; looking to combine familiar elements into an unexpected neologism, fresh and unique.  Although always exhibiting in oils, Vale loves the techniques of collage and uses it both as a mechanism for his own discovery and as a major teaching tool. 

This brings us to his work as senior lecturer in Art at Monash University, and there’s an interesting cross-fertilization in this second career which he has taken up with delight.  He is a dedicated teacher, with the commitment only found in someone who suffered through a series of bad experiences as a student. As he puts it:

“I hated the way I was taught both at school and art school. It’s made me want to be the teacher I never had. But now I find that teaching is a wonderful privilege, it’s definitely two-way traffic”.

Wearing the uniform of art academics everywhere – camel-coloured corduroy jacket, comfy trousers – his dedication to teaching earns warm responses.  Numerous students and friends (they soon become interchangeable) tag Dr Vale as an inspiration, a great influence, a positive support and encouraging guide, in terms that must be totally heartening to this once-miserable student poacher become gamekeeper.

Outside the academic world, Michael has had notable success in recent years and the works themselves continue to stage an ambuscade of lush absurdism.  With group exhibitions in Bendigo and Brisbane, a one-man show in Hobart garnering excellent reviews, and involvement in a unique art experience in the Venice Biennale this year, he has also been short-listed for the Archibald Prize for the third time with splendid reception, and in 2018 he was awarded the Hutchins Australian Contemporary Art Prize.

Always involved in broad creative endeavours, Michael has also worked in film, scripting and art direction including his PhD Le Chien qui Fume video installation, and scripting Shirl’s Neighbourhood for TV. He was Art Director and joint writer on his wife Donna McRae’s 2017 thriller/horror film Lost Gully Road, which won Best Feature Film at the 14th Annual ‘L A Femme’ International Film Festival in 2018, among other accolades. It’s the language of image making that excites Vale’s interest in film, writing and art. “Strangely, I think writing can be the most potent image-maker! An image made of words can shape-shift in our mind endlessly” and the obvious link between the imagery of film and art has a strong appeal, affecting as they do the same areas of the brain, and creating memories as if in real life. He finds working with film can be both enormously difficult and enormously rewarding.

The future comes bounding towards Vale like an excited werehound, carrying its leash in its jaws and wagging its bloody tail in anticipation of more walkies:

“The thing I’m most proud of is that I’ve kept going, which hasn’t always been easy. The most exciting thing has been, every now and then, to make a picture that wanted to come into existence. I’ve made three of four of those.  … I want to live long enough to make better and better pictures. I don’t take anything for granted any more, so I see every day as an opportunity.  The older I get, the more my visual antennae seem to be on the alert.  I notice lots of beautiful moments that I never would have seen when I was younger”

And that straw-coloured young man on a hot Saturday morning in Bendigo? Leaving the exhibit with his sweetheart tucked in under a looping arm, he gives me a second, departing, smile: “It’s awesome” he says to his girl, but looking at the room generally, “when awesome people make awesome art”.

“Yes!”, agrees the girl in the Toorak café half a century earlier; “Yes, it will be”.

Photo: Donna McRae 2018

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