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Memorial Retrospective Exhibitions
29 August – 11 September 2010


In His Own Time



Paintings. Drawings & Assemblages 1976 - 2009

Co-curators: Russell Craig, Gwenn Tasker & David Nixon
Queensland College of Art Project Gallery
Level 2 Webb Centre, 226 Grey Street
South Bank Qld 4101


Professor Pat Hoffie, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane contributed the following review for the special Memorial Retrospective Exhibitions catalogue: –



Image from Catalogue Front Cover: – Untitled (2008)
Watercolour on Paper  38cm x 29cm

• following the tracks (no Final Statements)


When I was approached by Iain’s father Gavin to write something for this catalogue, I retrieved this small paragraph from another catalogue I’d written for an exhibition at Metro Arts in which Iain participated with a group of fellow Honours students in 2004.

These small prints of Iain Turnbull hover between representation and abstraction. In the artist’s words, these works ‘involve a dialogue with decision and indecision, or the resolved and the unresolved’. Their scale invites us closer, to peer into and beyond the surfaces, to trace the outlines of the tiny marks and small forms as they lie somewhere in a state of becoming. If there is a sense of visual play in the work, then there is also a sense of tension – one that seems stretched taut right beneath the surface.



I can remember that 2004 was a good year for Honours students. It’s probably wrong to talk about students like crops, but in that group those students were in particularly good company. We would meet every week and the discussions about art and ideas that ensued turned over thoughts and shared in the voluptuous possibilities of taking risks with the ‘what ifs’ of thinking.

During such sessions these students played with the heady luxury of not having to arrive at decisions or conclusions or ultimata. It is a luxury that few artists can sustain. They had ‘bought into’ a year where they could take the liberty of self-critique; of entertaining the possibility that might be other ways to think about or represent things; of considering points of view that might challenge or tweak or irritate their own. These kinds of forums provided a kind of thinktank that bubbled out into their studio work; and, in turn, the rich brew of the studio production was distilled and re-introduced right back into those discussion sessions.

The kind of tension I wrote about at that time came from what I saw in Iain’s work as a sustained commitment to refrain from any sense of finality. He said as much at the time; in his own words, he was committed to the ‘dialogue with decision and indecision, or the resolved and the unresolved’. And now, looking back on this body of his life’s work, it seems as though the tension of keeping the doors of speculation open has been maintained throughout his career in a number of ways.

One of the earliest works in this exhibition is dated 7.11.1983. It stands out because of the dense saturation of its colour, but also because it is perhaps the most representational image in the selection. It would have been completed when the artist was eighteen. The rapt attention to detail suggest that it may have been made as a travel drawing – a notation made in an effort to slowly imbue the image with the details of light and place and the moment in a way that cannot be matched by the instantaneousness of photography.



Untitled (1983)   Mixed media on paper   19cm x 12.5cm


It is of a small portico – a contained, elevated space enclosed by four ornate, tall slender columns. The artist has taken pains to show, via an inverted, twisted perspective, the details of the tiles on the underside of the ceiling supported by the columns, and of the cross-like ornamentation featured on the balcony railings. The floor within this space is flooded with a sense of airiness, with high-key greenish-blue pools of light falling across the tiles, and either side of the centrally placed portico are suggestions of statuary and details that have been defined with just enough detail to invite the imagination: what are those flurries to the left of the portico – angels wings? Heraldry? The edges of clouds?

The light airiness of this space stands in sharp contrast to the dark compressed vitality of the space beyond the balcony railings. Here the crayon or pencil has been applied with a heavier deliberation. The blues have been worked into and smeared as if to allow as few suggestions of the underlying paper as possible. Cutting diagonally across this space a green form seems to emit a penumbra of light that cuts through the velvety blue of the background.

Untitled (1987)   Gouache on paper   19.8cm x 20.1cm


Again, the exact nature of the object is denied us: it could be a cyprus – a cactus – a trailing arm of bougainvillea that has grown up from the cooler interior space of a walled garden. The marks that define it are sharp and incisive and precise, yet we are denied any precision of interpretation. Instead, we are presented with a tiny corner of the universe in which all things have been arranged in a proximity to each other that has been formally ordained yet which is presented as interpretatively elusive.

And even, here, at this beginning of an artistic practice, the forms are showing signs of warping and distorting and disintegrating. The columns lurch and lean as if at the beginning of a dance; the roof line careens away at odd angles; the details of the balustrade seem more akin to musical notations than as purposeful supports. This work appears abundantly full of the rich contradictions that persist throughout Iain’s practice – a concentrated deliberation to extract what is essential, and an equally matched devotion to allowing those details to reconfigure into new possibilities, relationships and contiguities.

The title of this piece shares a certain obliqueness; almost indecipherable, it seems to read ‘Ravenna-Brisbane’. Although the work is saturated with the exotic light and architecture of southern Europe, perhaps, after all, it is ‘just’ an image of home.



               Brisbane Drawing (8)          Untitled (2002)  Two Figure Studies
Figure Study (1989)          Watercolour on card (ea) 

               46.5cm x 34.5cm             28.4cm x 16.8cm


I have a sneaking suspicion that Iain would have enjoyed this kind of perplexity over interpretation; details from conversations and from within his work reveal him as an artist who eschewed hierarchies of value and meaning. To him, the commonplaceness of ‘home’ would offer every bit as much of the intellectual and creative challenges as those of the ‘exotic’. One of his notebook entries quotes Marcel Proust’s words, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes..’


             Untitled (2004)   Assemblage - Wood & found objects

             25cm x 35.7cm x 14cm



            Diptych (c.2004) Watercolour on paper (ea) 77cm x 57cm

And the form of so much of his work – meandering lines, apparently random pools of colour, deceptively unfocussed scratching at surfaces – is evidence of his dedication to the deferral of final statements.

His notebooks are scattered with little notations and quotations that underline a life-long loyalty to the suspension of any finality of interpretation. A few of these quotes have been selected for this publication, and each of them, in its own way, is a gentle but no less forceful reminder of the sheer folly in assuming that there can ever be any such thing as finality. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Beckett’s ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’ might have been of particular appeal to Iain’s sometimes-wicked sense of humour, especially in a posthumous catalogue, for Beckett’s cry in the face of the futility and finality of life was just that: the will to create is the ultimate postponement of the inevitable.



            Trial Balance Lines & Trial Balance Grids (Specimen Pages) (2008)

            Watercolour on book pages (ea) 17.8cm x 24cm


The tension between could-be, maybe and might-have-been continues like a whisper throughout Iain’s production. One of the last series, Trial Balance Lines and Trial Balance Grids (2008) consists of two images painted on book pages titled Specimen Pages that were exhibited as part of an exhibition titled Yatta, featuring the work of Iain and Jen Lowrey, I coordinated at the Tribune Street Gallery in Brisbane in 2008. In these works Iain’s usual meandering scrawling and pooling use of watercolour has been strictly contained into the parameters of measurement: lines and grids. Yet even within these tightly mathematical boundaries the muted density of the paint survives to evoke a poetic quality – one that seems to throw sand into the eyes of the title on the top of the page: Specimen Pages. It is as if the artist is sharing a joke – one that knows that the ebullience of the creative act cannot be contained within any dicta of analysis.



                Untitled (1989)   Etching   8cm x 13cm

In an untitled line etching dated 1989 (see Catalogue p.17) there is another – rare – surviving suggestion of deliberated representation. Above a series of simple singular horizontal striations a small form hovers; it could be a bottle or a bed or a bench. It has been very carefully articulated, and yet the precision with which it has been delineated takes us no further towards understanding its purpose. This denial of exact reference does nothing to deter the viewer from attempting meaning; on the contrary, the teasing quality of its insubstantiality seems to seduce the viewer to make connections.

To Jonathan Tse the drawing is clearly a view from a window – he points to the way the vertical lines intersect and alter the lie of the lines beyond on the extreme right of the frame. ‘Like a view from his dreams’, he suggests. Iain’s works are like that – they suggest – they infer - they gesture in the directionof, but they refrain – always – from directly describing.



          Triptych (c.2004)   Watercolour on paper   55cm x 37cm (each panel)



                Untitled (2009)   Watercolour on paper  (ea) 15cm x 10cm




           Untitled (2009)   Watercolour on paper   (left) 11cm x 7cm

           (centre) 9.8cm x 8.7cm (right) 8.2cm x 6cm


There is a tension in all this – this love of acknowledging meaning as an elusive, temporary, shy thing is meted with an almost steely refusal to look at things head-on. The productive tension is at its best when the artist stops at that point in the making of the drawing or the painting or the print where the viewer seems compelled to enter as an arbiter – to perform the role of a kind of hyphen who might establish a tangential detente between chaos and meaning.

What Iain leaves us with, then, is the ongoing task of continuation of consideration about what this ongoing vision, that has (apropos his notebook quote of Gwen Harwood’s) neither been realised nor abandoned, might point to, or suggest. And because Iain was as keen to pan in literary as well as artistic streams for clues, I include a small poem by Edward Lucie-Smith for consideration:


Looking at Drawing

The line sets forth and
Wanders like a fox
Hunting. A blot falls
Here like a birdfoot.
This is like a man’s
Steady striding round
The familiar paths
Of his own garden,
And this like the dragged
Belly of something
Wounded. The blood drops
Follow each other,
Hedgerow to hedgerow.
The mind follows that
Track. So many marks,
So many footprints
In the fields of snow.

In this body of work we are left with painted, etched and scrawled clues about journeys made, places entered, thoughts toyed with. The works make it evident the artist has been well aware of the limitations and insubstantiality of the tools he has chosen to suggest his experiences of life, and that he is also as aware that these most humble means of suggesting anything of value are also sufficient. He has left the task of tracking for clues to us.

Image from Catalogue Back Cover: – White Box #3 (2008)

Painted wood box, stripped twigs & lino  22cm x 17cm x 7cm


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