In a wry deflection when asked to explain his divided career in the visual arts, Ross Wolfe romantically likens himself to the amnesiac character, Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton in Wim Wenders’ 1984 film, ‘Paris, Texas’. Lost to the world for several years, the elusive Travis unexpectedly ‘reappears’ in the desert, from which moment he attempts to recover his life and his links with the past.
1984 also marked a turning point in Ross Wolfe’s own life. After training as an artist in the 1970s, circumstances drew him to activism and publishing, through which he became founding editor and publisher of a celebrated art magazine, Art Network, exemplar for many of the new Australian art journals that were soon to follow.
Despite Art Network’s critical success, independent art publishing in the early1980s proved a treadmill of small rewards, and Ross was recruited to ‘irresistible’ work as director of the Australia Council’s Visual Arts Board, a role that afforded unequalled insight into all aspects of Australian contemporary visual arts. Several years on Ross Wolfe is recognised as an influential administrator and art museum manager. His path seemed set.
But Ross has recently surprised his colleagues by reappearing, Travis-like, as his original artist self, reclaiming a part of his life that had appeared lost, or put aside. In fact, he suggests, ‘I never left’, and has these past years been gainfully at work making art in what he jokingly calls the ‘studio of the mind,’ a refuge where he potters and dreams expansively, experimenting and reflecting on art.
In reality, the studio is physical, an ample, well-appointed building off his shady garden, cluttered with the apparatus for making art and bolstered by poetry books, art journals and Warhol-like storage boxes of archived clippings and found things, accumulated over many years. Ross sifts and sorts this archive as it grows, apprehending things of meaning and making visual notes of ideas. With increasing frequency, ideas have progressed tangibly to resolved and finished works.
His procedure of collecting also entails pausing to consider the lives of particular individuals who for some reason come into view, and who interest him. Among these are many ‘greats’ from world culture and history, creative individuals who serve as inspirational projections for the artist and have become integral to Wolfe’s own ‘story’. His meditations on these people can be protracted. For example, he will often contemplate the enigmatic reclusiveness of lifelong itinerant, Ian Fairweather, and the poignancy of his hard labour on the tropical roads of Darwin, at age 60, during which period he not only was painting, but all the while quietly preparing for his extraordinary ocean voyage to Timor. Wolfe is conscious, as he himself grows older, that Fairweather’s best work was yet to come.
‘That was mad,’ says Wolfe, ‘and brilliant! He was possessed – reckless – a true sadhu; no different whatsoever to those holy men walking the jungle of tigers at night, gripped by some kind of spiritual fire’.
The interesting perception of Fairweather as ‘sadhu’, reflects the lasting influence on Wolfe of religious India where he travelled extensively in 1969, also spending time in Kerala at a simple Advaita Vedanta ashram. In this vein, among Wolfe’s intriguing compendium of noteworthy lives are also individuals whose obscurity barely registers a public pulse, but who nonetheless are special. Maladjusted, inscrutable and homeless hermits such as Karl Kulper, for example, who passed away in the bus shelter outside Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, in 2002, where he had lived anonymously for over two decades.
Wolfe is fascinated by such examples of extreme solitary experience, of driven inner life, social dislocation, memory and time. Much of his recent art alludes to these themes.
His major 2005 project, ‘The Mystery of Forgetting’, at the Flinders City Gallery, Adelaide (and then at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery, Sydney, in 2006) comprised a body of his own recent paintings and photographs placed alongside of works he had drawn from the substantial Flinders University Art Collection. These careful selections were designed to complement ideas and themes expressed in Wolfe’s own work, relating to landscape, religious search, storytelling and human challenge. The exhibition consciously reprised a similar project – ‘The Play of the Unmentionable’ – produced by conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth at The Brooklyn Museum in1992.
Ross Wolfe’s new work, at Place Gallery, Melbourne, takes a strategic step away from the method and complexity of ‘The Mystery of Forgetting’, though it continues to reference the work of other artists.
The exhibition’s principal work, Untitled (2008), is a colourful, mixed-media ensemble, comprised of four plywood, wall-mounted sculptures, with ten small paintings of different sizes dispersed around them. Each painting has its own immaculately rendered ‘date’. These dates, at first sight opaque in meaning, record the deaths of several individuals Wolfe has drawn from his ‘archive of lives’, and whom he seeks to honour. The plywood fabrications suggest the seminal forms of Donald Judd, yet they are different.
Wolfe describes these ‘fugue-like’ ensembles as ‘poems’. In a comment of sorts about time, the format and colour scheme of Untitled, 2008, emulates a similar work that he produced, almost twenty years before.
The unlikely combination of paintings and sculpture in Untitled, 2008, is an elegant ploy that serves to lure and arouse curiosity in the educated viewer. But Wolfe is also giving original expression to his own personal past and passions, particularly his project of devising modes of storytelling that blend different discourses and media. His abiding interest in Judd is personal, and stems from his time working at the Art Gallery of South Australia in the late 1980s, when his ground-floor office view was directly opposite Judd’s simple, geometric concrete sculpture, set in the gallery’s public grounds (where it was mostly disdained by visiting adults, but not the children who would constantly climb upon it).
The date paintings, by contrast, openly quote the ‘Today’ series work of Japanese conceptual artist, On Kawara, whose sustained meditations on human life and the idea of vast aeons of time, resonate strongly with Wolfe’s own concerns.
Though ultimately serious in purpose, Ross Wolfe’s work is punctuated with playful humour, albeit a trifle dark. For example, in ‘The Sun & The Age’, he builds a discourse around an archival newspaper banner he collected on the day of Elvis Presley’s death (August 16, 1977), and a banner published precisely thirty years later (August 16, 2007). This banner is serendipitously titled, ‘Dream Run Ends’. Similar principles operate in another work, ‘9/11’, that aligns two historic and powerfully opposed public events, by circumstance of date.
In Untitled, 2008, one of the dates – February 14, 2016 – is entirely fictitious in character, being drawn from the film, Ghostbusters 2, in which two psychics are interviewed by Bill Murray’s character, Dr. Peter Venkman. They forecast this as the day that will prove to be – ‘the end of the world’.