Imprint, Vol. 35 No.2, Winter 2000

Bruce Latimer


Joanna Mendelssohn

Associate Professor, College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales


The cats lie in their tree, reflecting mirror images. Their bodies make black and white Rorschach blots against an elaborate pattern of branches and the depth of green leaves. In its whimsical use of animals as pattern, Bruce Latimer's Bush Full of Cats is almost, but not quite, quoting his Gardens Full of Dogs, a quintessential image of Australian art of the 1970s. Bush Full of Cats is both a virtuoso exercise in colour etching and a gentle acknowledgment that Latimer will always be remembered as the creator of an image which still symbolises the innocence and exuberance of the years when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister of Australia and the life of an artist was made legitimate. Bush Full of Cats also shows how Latimer's technique and sensibility have matured with the years. Back in the 1920s, in his classic manual on the art of etching, E. S. Lumsden wrote that etchers were spared the "full tornado of Cubism" because "to be a great etcher a man must be peculiarly sane and yet sensitive and alive." On a following page Lumsden accidentally betrayed his argument by praising the etchings of one Pablo Picasso. How could he know that the artist who produced the Vollard Suite also made Les Demoiselles D'Avignon? Behind the confusion of the writing there is a fundamental truth. The nature of the medium does shape the art. Because the creation of an etching is such a prolonged act, because the printing must be precise in order to create an edition, the medium encourages a subtlety of thought and an understanding of the complexity of line, tone and shade. The act of etching teaches the etcher the value of accident and the purpose of art. In Bush Full of Cats the whimsical images of the feral moggies are printed a la poupee, a technique that requires a special precision in inking. The dense layered foliage, printed using two plates to give an added richness of colour, makes a crisp contrast to the black and white cats, a homage to the tradition of illustrated books. The point where the cats meet is also where the print can be folded, making yet another layer of ambiguity. In terms of the imagery, from dogs to cats, Latimer has perhaps not travelled very far, but the journey has taken time and the diversion was a long one. In the 1970s, enticed by the apparent visual liberation of the USA, he moved to New York, where he stayed for fourteen years. In 1977, When Geoffrey De Groen interviewed expatriate Australian artists for his book Some Other Dream, Latimer said of American art, "it's more about the modern world: it's more related to things that are going on now." And now? Since his return to Australia in 1991 Bruce Latimer has been looking at objects that were once part of the modern world, and are now made old. The 1950s 'modern' style toilet blocks and industrial landscapes of his childhood are now in decay, and although he recalls them with affection he sees them as having a past. There is another change too in Latimer's way of seeing. Maturity has deepened his understanding of some of the Australian artists he once disregarded. Returning after such a long absence he was able to look at landscape with fresh eyes and see new value in the way these artists saw and drew. "John Brack's somebody I never really thought of in Australia," he says. "But now I can't get enough of him." There has always been a sympathy between Brack's acid humour and Latimer's whimsy. Now, in the refined etched line of his recent works, there are occasional visual tributes across generations. In Traffic (after Glover) he pays tribute to both Brack and John Glover, while at the same time making a wry comment on the destructive paths carved through ancient landscapes. Glover made etchings in England long before he emigrated to Tasmania, but Latimer has turned the romanticised trees of the classical landscape artist into a magical wilderness and through it has driven a stark road, with Brack-like cars and the grandstand from Sydney's Wentworth Park. "After I did it, I realised this is my bit of John Brack," he says."It's pretty obvious mechanical versus natural,

Traffic (After Glover)

Bruce Latimer, Traffic (After Glover) 1996, Etching 31 x 46 cm


Walk-in Skip

Bruce Latimer, Walk-in Skip 1994, Etching 31 x 46 cm


but I like obvious ideas." The effect is not obvious, but disquieting, as if the tribute to past artists has added another dimension of loss to changes in the modern world. The transformation ofBruce Latimer's art, from virtuoso screen printer to thoughtful meditative etching, came in part from the intervention of Michael Kempson at the Printmaking department of Meadowbank TAFE in Sydney. It is one of the paradoxes of modern art education that in Sydney, the best place to learn printmaking is this suburban Technical College. Over the years Michael Kempson has established an enviable reputation for both technical excellence and stretching his students' creativity. He initially invited Latimer to teach part time, and in doing so encouraged him to increase his range as a printmaker and turn to etching. "Michael's ten years younger than me, and when he offered me work there he regarded me as a bit of a legend, which I regarded as rather embarrassing and he's just been so helpful." Kempson's technical expertise has helped Latimer achieve the visual effects he wants stretching his knowledge of the technique, allowing his understanding of contradictions and absurdities to have full play. as though the bush has been purified by fire.
Walk-ln-Skip, made in 1994, is one work that encouraged Latimer to broaden his technique while demonstrating a renewed romantic attachment to the natural landscape. "It's based on a business card, one of those photo business cards that I found up in the Blue Mountains and this was basically the image. It was for a skip company. They plonked a skip in a creek and took a bloody photo of it." The skip company was celebrating the power of its mechanical object against the fragile natural world, it was a slick image from the commercial world. Under Latimer's hand and eye the landscape is one of lyrical beauty, ageless yet quoting the 19th century landscape tradition. The skip is an intruder; pale pink, damaged and worn, yet glowing with opalescent beauty. "I did the colour with stencil roll. I think Michael Kempson did the spit biting on the skip, I'd never done it before." Sometimes the juxtaposition of strident intruder and ancient land appears to be a simple plea for the land, but nothing is as it seems. The red brick house that scars the trees in Building Block was in part inspired by the house Latimer's father built for his retirement.

"My father was a solicitor, retired early," he says. "Had his builder design and build this concrete and brick box. Plonked it on Wedderburn." In his mind the surrounding landscape was to be filled with light, but the bite of the acid has given it a stark beauty, This is art with a message. There is decay and corruption, but also a lightness of touch as man-made forms join nature. In The Food Chain the decline and fall of manufactured objects is concealed in a complex layering of lines and shapes, and it is only after a long look that the viewer sees the Otto bin and supermarket trolley, concealed as though elements of a visual puzzle "I don't see myself as looking for new technique, it's imagery that is important." Latimer's use of imagery arises from his way of seeing, his ability to extract gentle humour from the discards of suburbia. Others looking at a builder's rejected fibro on a bush hillside might think of pollution, rubbish scarring the landscape, but Latimer sees a fantastic Chinese river and makes Bush Carpentry/Fibro in the Forest as the fibro cascades from lush vegetation to scarred building block. "Discarded fibro, corrugated fibro, is the most useless stuff on earth. It's so abject and hopeless," he says. "And a river, a river that diminishes as it flows through the landscape, which is the ultimate intrusion on life. We do that to rivers these days. Rivers should get bigger." But in our world they are choked like the once mighty Snowy. What is so enticing about these works is that even when the message is bleak there is an up beat, a source of visual joy in potential destruction. In Latimer's world there are compensations for the encroaching manufactured decay. Epiphytes grow on wooden telephone poles, in a Central Australian landscape a tree could be covered with snow (a concept as likely as a snowflake's chance in Hell), and even axes come to an accommodation with the ancient grace of tall trees. It is not that he disallows ugliness, but rather that he simply disarms it.