Crafts Arts international, No. 87
Bruce Latimer is a keen observer of life and of patterns of human behaviour. His favourite working strategy is to examine a particular scene,
often obsessively and in meticulous detail, and then juxtapose it with an element of his own invention. Through this intervention a new dimension
is revealed in the imagery which may totally subvert the original bucolic view or that observed by the innocent eye.
Latimer was born in Sydney in 1951, the son of a solicitor, John Latimer, and a secretary, Zelma Blackwell. His parents separated when Bruce was five or six and he grew up on the North Shore attending the local Chatswood Primary School and then North Sydney Boys High School. Here he was fortunate to encounter as his art teacher Cameron Sparks, a trained artist from the National Art School who exhibited frequently with the Macquarie Galleries. Sparks instilled in him the idea that it was possible for him to be an artist at this exciting time when the art world was in a state of flux with touring exhibitions, including the Two decades of American painting in 1967 from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Field exhibition from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968. Latimer also witnessed Christo’s wrapping of Little Bay in the following year. As an adolescent he went to painting and sculpture classes at The Workshop Arts Centre at Willoughby and, as with so many people of his generation, became involved in mainstream left wing politics spurred by Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam.
After completing school, Bruce Latimer enrolled at the National Art School in 1970 for the four year Diploma in Fine Arts and moved to Paddington. He recalls that “I always saw myself at odds with the art school and I did not pay attention to drawing and painting, but was interested in art beyond Cézanne, while the school was anchored in Cézanne.” At art school he took an elective in printmaking with David Rose, studying screenprinting, while his primary interest was in installation art with a great passion for the work of Richard Serra. He formed a close friendship with Tim Johnson, who was two years his senior, and became involved in the Inhibodress Gallery cooperative in Sydney, where he was attracted by the conceptual art of Johnson and Peter Kennedy and Mike Parr. In his final years at art school he was drawn to Sydney Ball who had recently returned from New York where he had worked at the Art Students League under Theodore Stamos. Latimer had his first solo exhibition at Watters Gallery in East Sydney in 1974. Much of Latimer’s early work involved drawing and ephemeral installation pieces frequently realised on quite a large scale. Immediately on completing art school in 1973, he did his Dip Ed at the Sydney Teachers’ College and then taught at the Condell Park High School for a couple of years.
Bruce Latimer’s earliest prints from the early in 1970s were in the form of colour screenprints, quite often engaged with conceptual concerns dealing with the construction of space and questions of reality and illusion. His Gardens full of dogs, 1973, made when he was twenty-two years old, subsequently became one of his most famous prints. Conceptually it is a picture of a picture and by printing the border it destroys the illusion of a picture being a window into the world. Technically there is the principal photo-stencil while the rest of the seven stencils have been cut by hand. The brilliant flat blocks of colour and bold truncated compositional structures are laced with humour and bring to mind parallels with David Hockney’s pop imagery of the sixties, while technically there is the continuing influence of David Rose.
At about the same time Latimer made the colour screenprint, A new orchid, 1973. This is a considerably larger and in some ways more ambitious print, where at first glance it appears to be quite an innocent image of a person, a self-portrait of the artist, admiringly looking at an orchid standing on a table in a garden pot. Then, like a hidden visual assassin, one notices that the table cloth is in fact a red hammer and sickle communist flag and the whole reading of the image is destabilised as we are not quite certain whether this image appears in humour or is part of a more subversive agenda.
Many profound ideas in art are embarrassingly simple. A basic philosophy in Bruce Latimer’s etchings is that the natural world is a beautiful place and,
in its interaction with humans needs to be protected. Perhaps a simple idea, but one that needs to be constantly stated, but not didactically, but involving
a process of self-revelation on behalf of the viewer. Many of his observations are drawn from a very localised environment, such as Callan Park near where he
lives and walks his dog everyday, but they trigger off associations with global implications. His more recent etchings, including Tenuous connection, 2004,
Growth plan, 2005, Spring, 2008 and Hold up, 2009, employ the element of human intervention to make the necessary comment about a fragile and threatened
environment. In his technique Latimer still thinks in terms of collage with overlapping forms as he did in his early screenprints, and conceptually the work
still may comment on art, as in his The rest (after Cézanne), 2010 and Fluorescence 1, 2011, but now all is saturated with vibrant colour built up through
aquatint with an almost infinite tonality.
Bruce Latimer has the rare ability through the complete mastery of technique to create wonderfully seductive images which are beautiful and captivating as art objects, but which also carry a considerable punch. He is not an illustrator of pious sermons, but a major artist who manages to think through the techniques of intaglio printmaking to create exciting and immaculate surfaces. The narratives, which he creates are fantastic, humorous and unusual and are loaded with a myriad of poignant detail for the viewer to discover. He has an unusual ability to see the world with fresh eyes and to expose the dark side of the landscape in such a humorous manner as to make his art engaging and memorable.
Prof. Sasha Grishin, AM, FAHA
The Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History Head, Art History, Australian National University
All quotations from the artist are taken from a taped interview between Bruce Latimer and the author, Canberra, 14 October 2012.
The artist's current solo show is at Beaver Galleries, ACT until 19 March.
Copyright © Bruce Latimer 2020. All rights reserved.