Such is art
For fifty years, Keith Looby has battled his way through the Australian art scene. As a fifteen-year old, he enrolled at East Sydney Tech in 1955. His childhood cartooning had encouraged a belief that he could earn a living as a commercial artist, joining his brother, Harvey, in advertising and marketing. In those distant days, before training in the visual arts had been transmogrified into degree factories, Looby’s teachers were practicing artists, such as John Passmore, who imparted craft skills in drawing and the handling of paint. Inspiration came from Sidney Nolan’s high-toned, anecdotal outback cartoons, such as “Pretty Polly Mine”.

Like all of his generation, Looby knew that he had to look overseas and, in 1960, set out for Europe in a Greek liner. The typical ended there because, after roaming Museums across the continent, he settled in Turin, then notable for the vast Fiat factory with its militant workers. From there he moved to Rome where the potency of two millennia of Christian imagery at once stimulated and intimidated.

At this point, Looby reacted in a way typical of Australians in the arts and humanities. As a poorly educated, working-class twenty-four year old, he could not be certain what the limits were to his creativity. He did not understand that he was not supposed to remake what he had seen. Had he been a local, he would have confined himself to copying the Old Masters. As an interloper, he launched on two mural-sized canvases, “Resurrection” and “Incarnation”, which combined an array of iconography and ideologies, not to mention the inevitable personal element.

The theology in this series was nothing if not idiosyncratic. The superstitions that he had imbibed from his invalid mother were one source. Orthodox icons, Medieval carvings and Counter-Reformation canvases fed the symbolism. The openness in the Roman Church from Vatican II under Pope John XXIII encouraged the prospect that Marxism and the Papacy could form a popular front. Most of the communists whom Looby met in Italy were churchgoers. 

Beyond these particulars, Looby developed a sense of the sacred as a this-worldly experience. This secular approach treats the sacred as any conviction that value is to be found in going beyond the immediate, past the moment of gratification. Human action is validated by its contribution to a continuing process which we could term “work” or “history”, without a capital-H. Art is one of these way of asserting the worth of reaching beyond the individual and the present.

Looby completed the second of these masterly works, “Incarnation”, in London where he drew support from the eccentricities of Stanley Spencer who integrated his private obsessions and the mundaneness of suburban Cookham into a reworking of Christian miracles. Rumours about Looby’s achievement produced the offer of an exhibition in Sydney. Worn-out physically but bursting with ideas, Looby was happy to return home late in 1966.

During Looby’s five-year absence, the Australian art world had moved towards commercial dealerships, abstraction and prizes as the dominant form of criticism. At first, he benefited from all three. He sold well, paid attention to painterliness, and carried off several awards.

Boyhood cartooning reappeared on a higher plane as Looby created a suite of drawings envisioning the origins of the universe, life and humankind. From these, he moved into the story of Australia, from before Aboriginal arrivals and through a radical rendition of European occupation. From these drawings came prints and books. Convicts, bushrangers and agitators revealed his debt to the left-wing ideas of his communist father, Jack. If these subjects appealed to buyers, the qualities of his illustrative techniques attracted aesthetic praise. Looby filled his pages with cobweb lines, each one delicate yet condensed into a mass of detail. Nothing could be further from the sweet expanses of a Whiteley.

Looby painted by day and drew at night. This distinction between light and dark applied to his subjects. His paintings continued to play with religious sources, though the irreverence became pronounced in their titles, such as “Knock. Knock. Is God Home?” (1972) Marriage, two children and a residency in Canberra brought a new theme. Furniture replaced figures, or rather, represented their stolidity in suburbia. His palette had lightened to expose a tonal gracefulness of pinks, fawns and lime. These smooth surfaces were broken with crusts of paint. The fineness of the brushwork paid tribute to the fashion for painterliness while the forms flirted with the Greenbergian call to flatness. The composition still eschewed deep perspective but the objects remained voluminous. These adjustments were minor compared with Looby’s refusal of abstraction.

The key feature of Looby’s development thereafter was the thickening of his paint. Thinness had been surpassed in the 1960s. By 1980, the surfaces were becoming clotted. The image-maker was at war with his materials. Arthur Boyd could cover a canvas with colours before moving them around to “find” his picture. Looby kept applying paint to a pre-existing form until only its outline remained, immobilized and crude. This awkwardness blinded critics to the chromatic brilliance achieved through the several centimeters of paint. The size and weight of these canvasses became another impediment to their purchase, even to their transportation. The expense of the paint proved a barrier to their making as few found buyers.

The difficulties that Looby encountered in earning a living from his art compounded his life-long disenchantment from the structures of capitalism and from its art market. As the world moved away from the expectations of the Sixties radicalism and after the disappointments and dismissal of Whitlam, Looby retreated into a personal struggle with art bureaucrats, which he waged in several series of paintings, accompanied by manifestos which mocked their pretensions but could not diminish their power. His failure to attract even the attention of the art managers – curators, trustees, collectors, dealers – can be read in the clotting of his paintwork. Despair became density. For several years in the 1990s, Looby in effect ceased to be a practicing artist. He drafted a novel, broke with his dealer, and lived overseas.

The personal as the political has been both a strength and a weakness. Resistance to every system has given him insights while his nagging at slights has wasted his energies. The two have been inseparable, and both contribute to why he keeps returning to the fray as he did in the late 1990s with considerable achievements such as the portrait of the surrealist and art critic, James Gleeson. That homage also contained a hope. Gleeson’s art had been out of favour for nearly thirty years. Then he returned with a new theme. Homo-erotic mythology gave way to protoplasmic universes. Every artist dreams of enjoying such a consummation, as blessed Frans Hals in the 1660s.

Looby made his reputation as a figurative artist. A handful of portraits were extensions of his politics or his friendships. Collectively, they offer a statement of how the Australian Left has changed since the 1970s. Hundreds of other paintings and drawings depict the history of society and the tangles of art and life. Public galleries have found it easier to accept those images that focus on the latter – notably those of his childhood and of suburbia.

The domain into which Looby has hardly ventured is that of landscape. His history drawings gave iconological importance to trees. His paintings have no spare room for the outdoors. Unlike almost every other Australian visual creator, Looby has remained an artist of the interior, in both its physical and the psychological senses. Their enclosed worlds are perhaps no less a reaction against the Great Australian Emptiness than was the minimalism of a Fred Williams. Certainly, the chromatics of his thick paintwork lent itself to a Perceval-like account of the bush.

To lament the absence of the natural world in Looby’s oeuvre is to ignore its greatest element, namely, his handling of the noble Grotesque. The term derives from the decorations discovered in the grottoes of Rome just before the Renaissance. Artists, such as Michelangelo, used designs based on the interweaving of animal, human and vegetable until the Church forbade this apparent denial of Genesis where the different life forms had been created independently. The Grotesque defies fixed categories. All is flux. Looby’s drawings relied on this free flow from earth to tree to human being. 

By the eighteenth century, the grotesque extended to caricature, an extreme version having been the portraiture of Arcimboldo who composed faces from fruit or books. This subversion of fixed categories became widespread in post-1940 Australian imagery, notably Nolan’s Kelly series where flesh was armour. For Antipodean heads, Albert Tucker rendered human flesh as metal, hardwood or stone. Historically, this making of one material look like another had led to the double-goers doppelgangers that came to haunt Looby portraits, for instance, of Paddy with his doll, or Max Gillies as Bob Hawke.

The Grotesque’s domain of fantasy, fancy and fear represents another strand in Looby’s ouput, to wit, his obsession with childhood. His self-portrait is that of the life-long new kid in a playground of art-world bullies. He depicts himself as the innocent who cannot help being an irritant. More specifically, his series of classroom portraits from the early 1970s speaks to us all about our fading memories of the faces in primary school photographs. By developing those emulsions into oils, Looby’s art challenges us to remember who we were and to question who we are becoming, individually and as a people.

Humphrey McQueen
25 April 2003 

Humphrey McQueen is a freelance historian working from Canberra. In 1988, Penguin Books published his study of Keith Looby, Suburbs of the Sacred.