“In these days of focus specialization in the arts, it is a delight to come across a “crosser”, someone who is as much at home in the musical as in the plastic arts.
It is actually a distinguished tradition. From the hobby satisfactions of the violon d’Ingres to the avant-garde experimentalism of John Cage, there have always been crossover artists like David Tolley.
Mikolajus Čiurlionis, Lithuania’s greatest composer, was also an important symbolist painter, while the late Romantic Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg was – not surprisingly – a tough expressionist.
In the contemporary field, jazz musician Herb Alpert is a sculptor, Jefferson Airplane’slead singer Grace Slick a painter. And who could forget Anthony Benedetto – the nom de brosse of crooner Tony Bennett.
In the 1960s David Tolley was a sculptor, producing biomorphic sculptures of – in the words of Age art critic Patrick McCaughey – ‘slimy elegance …gobbets of crumpled flesh juxtaposed with smooth buttocky forms.’
With those kinds of reviews, it is perhaps not surprising that David withdrew from the visual arts arena, spending the next decade concentrating on playing jazz bass and on his teaching.
But by the late 1970s, avant-garde artistic – and particularly sculptural – practice had become such an expanded field that it caught up with him again. Post-object art’s emphasis on structures and systems and processes and components and particularly on improvisation and performance led to synergies and alliances between the musical and plastic arts. Some of you may remember the seriously wacky intermedia events of the late 70s and early 80s, at the Australian Sculpture Triennial, the Clifton Hill New Music Centre and elsewhere. David was once again in the thick of things.
But the end of the decade saw another withdrawal, this time occasioned not by criticism but by illness. Now centred on the studio, over the past 20 years David’s work has oscillated between computer-generated composition – or as he calls it, “sounding” – solo and collaborative improvisation, and occasional returns to paint and canvas.
This show is in fact his third major painting exhibition in Melbourne. And very fine paintings they are: rich painterly fields over which float linear jigsaws of organic and geometric contours and angles.
They’re a bit like Fernand Léger, a bit like early Dick Watkins, a bit like late Willem De Kooning. There is also remnant figuration. There are bodies in there, too, and relations between bodies. There is conversation. There is conversing.
In declaring this exhibition open, I would like you to join me in saluting the artist not only for these marvelous pictures, but for a lifetime’s achievement.
David Tolley is a one-man cultural phenomenon, an artistic treasure who has probably earned himself the epitaph of another painter-composer, the eccentric Englishman Lord Berners:
Here lies Lord Berners
One of life’s learners
Thanks be to the Lord
He never was bored.”