THE world is beginning to take notice of Australian art -- and with good reason. It has produced a number of highly individual younger artists of considerable talent and originality, one of whom, Peter Booth, is well on his way to international stardom. It's possible he won't be the only one, for several of his compatriots are beginning to receive serious attention in Europe and America, and members of the next generation are eagerly awaiting their turn. Such recognition is a welcome change for Australian art. For all its accomplishments, it has generally been viewed as provincial, and as either too dependent on European and American styles and examples, or as a bit too idiosyncratic in its tastes. In this, as in several other matters, it shares a common history with the art of the United States. Both devoted a major portion of the 19th century to celebrating the glories of their native land and the early decades of the 20th to making rather tentative f orays into the mysteries of modernism.
All that has changed, thanks to the international ramifications of American Abstract Expressionism and the more recent emergence of such Australians as Peter Booth. While it may still be too soon to know how much of an impact the latter will have on world art, it seems quite certain at least that the derogatory label of provincialism can no longer be applied.
The seeds of this new art were planted by a group of remarkable painters who emerged in the 1940s. Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Albert Tucker, and Arthur Boyd combined elements inspired by Surrealism and Expressionism with a highly personal and exotic imagery to produce pictures unlike anything else in Australian art. Such provocative individualism was bound to attract attention, and Nolan did become known abroad for a while. Lasting fame is made of other things, however, and he soon faded from view.
That is, he did everywhere but at home. To the artists coming into their own during the mid to late 1970s, Nolan and his colleagues were very much the local heroes, the artists who had forged their own styles and who had stuck out their necks to say and do exactly what they felt.
Much the same independent spirit and aggressive creative attitude can be found in the work of Booth and his contemporaries Dale Frank, Vivienne Shark LeWitt, Mandy Martin, Jan Murray, Susan Norrie, and several others. These qualities may be expressed in images that are much larger and that utilize more specifically modern formal devices than those that animated the paintings of the 1940s, but they nevertheless speak a similar language and celebrate the same kind of rugged individualism.
Peter Booth, in particular, has made a virtue out of passion and eccentricity. His huge, dramatically idiosyncratic canvases in which people intermingle with -- and indeed are transformed into -- demons and monsters have already taken their place among the genuinely apocalyptic paintings of the 1980s. Born in 1940, he is the oldest of the group by several years and is, in several ways, its leading figure. He is also one of the relatively few painters to emerge in this decade whose worldwide star status was well earned.
Susan Norrie's lush, richly textured, and vaguely romantic pictures stand at the opposite pole from Booth's and resemble his only in that the works of both painters seem profoundly obsessional. Where he delights in an aggressive stance, however, she prefers a passive one. In fact, were it not for the oddly claustrophobic nature of her bulky forms jammed together and tightly framed to prevent the eye from moving into depth, one could easily assume she was a still-life painter. But no matter how one desc ribes it, her work is unquestionably original and deserving of even higher praise than it has yet received.
Dale Frank, born in 1959, is the youngest of these artists and the most cosmopolitan, having lived in Europe and New York as well as in New South Wales. His large and extraordinarily dense images consist of thousands of paint strokes tightly organized into swirls that suggest both Van Gogh's technique and Pollock's labyrinthine compositions but that ultimately reveal themselves to be highly stylized faces.
Jan Murray's paintings, on the other hand, are closer to morality plays. In her words, they ``are about journeys and discoveries . . . about hope against doom.'' They include fragments of classical and European sculpture and architecture and elements of religious iconography isolated from one another and threatened with destruction. But disaster never strikes those who perceive the danger and escape. For them, there are ladders and boats and the ocean over which to flee.
In this manner, Murray comments on both European civilization and the frustrations of producing art in Australia. Because of the latter, escape to Europe and America is still a dream for several of that country's more talented younger painters and sculptors. No one knows how much longer this will be the case, for it depends almost exclusively on the degree and quality of local support and on the kind of stimulation these artists want and feel they need. It's difficult to predict. Some, like Picasso, may
thrive best in foreign art centers, while others may fully realize their potential only on native soil.