What Have We Got Here

We have fourteen acrylic paintings on canvas by Philip Trusttum whose subjects come from Halloween masks from the $2 shop, the music of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) and international brands of popular cars.  On first encounter this might seem like a curious alliance. 

Yet, they all share common ground and territory for an artist whose full-time practice can be tracked to the early 1970s and a grouping of paintings referred to as The Garden Series.  Returning from Europe and the first-hand experience of an encounter with the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Trusttum grounded the impact of the Dutch post-impressionist’s starry days and nights in the subjects of the plants and flowers in his home and backyard in St Albans.

What Have we Got Here?  We have paintings from an artist whose subjects have always originated from his home and neighbourhood.   Trusttum’s art maintains a paramount interest in life’s daily encounters but not necessarily as we may immediately recognise them.   Although we all face the ritual of breakfast, say, without too much deliberation, for American singer/songwriter Tom Waits it could be an unexpected experience, an occasion where ‘the eggs chase the bacon round the fryin’ pan.’[1]  Likewise, Trusttum’s paintings encapsulate and give voice to the complex and enlightening realities of the days of his life.

The Gnomus comes from Trusttum’s Pictures at an Exhibition series, 2005, the artist responding to a suggestion from a friend, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (1943 – 2014) senior lecturer in Art History at the University of Canterbury, for a series of canvases based on Mussorgsky’s musical suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, and the composer’s response to the work of artist-friend Viktor Hartman(1834 – 1873) who depicted his gnome as a mischievous figure with crooked legs.  

Trusttum’s The Gnomus, is more of a harbinger or marauding lion king/super-hero riding a cloud, brandishing a knife and martial arts weapons in pseudo-Japanese clothing with cinematic authority, as much about popular culture as it is about a history of Western, African and Asian art and culture. This is a gnome with attitude, an inescapable presence, pressing on all four corners of the canvas, poised to invade the spaces that we also occupy in the gallery. Trusttum’s painting may begin with Mussorgky’s music and Hartman’s illustrations, but is every bit as much about an artist receptive to all possibilities with a home full of books, numerous visits to the library, music stores and local book shops.

And regular walks in the neighbourhood are also important to Trusttum’s art.  His paintings of logos for Holden, Renault, Suzuki and Mazda cars have their beginnings in the artist taking photographs of the back of cars, (not the grills at the front) and the branding symbols of different cars parked in the neighbourhood’s streets and driveways.[2]

These are succinct images, paintings duplicating the stencil processes of screen printing and street art, their silhouetted logos possessing a painterly exuberance, sharing as much in common with a Rorschach blot test as they do with an international brand. Therein also lies a paradox about the ambiguities of the creation of space on canvas and its potential to simultaneously be positive and negative.  Is it the sharp- edged lines and their surrounding flat colours that shape Trusttum’s centrally placed subjects -or is it the image formed in the layering of paint dragged and wiped by the artist across and into the canvas, forcing it to stream and bleed colours into one another?  Or is it both?

The eight faces or portrait paintings from 2018 in What Have We Got Here are from two different series.  In Hold That and Don’t Know we have two faces seemingly pressing beyond the constraints of the picture plane with two large dots and lines for eyes and thick black lines and shapes for mouths.  What is going on?  Trusttum’s subjects and his acrylic paint and canvas are vying for our attention – Notice me! Notice me!, shifting our interest back and forth between face/ figure and materials/abstraction.

The other portraits in What Have we Got Here look like a series of active verbs.  Just consider their names: Help Help!, Lets Party and Donky Dance.  These are calls to action from Trusttum’s grand-children who are wearing Halloween masks and demanding our attention.

And why the masks? In 2015 Trusttum embarked on Boo, a new series of paintings that also began with the grand-children in masks and on that occasion, so was the artist.  Boo saw Trusttum masquerading, declaring that the task of vacuuming the home was a disruptive and contrary task.  Boo was a gleeful announcement about the state and reality of house and garden and the assumed notion of it as a place of rest and security, exposed by its alter-ego as a site for chaos.

In Boo and the portraits there is a theatrical and cinematic weirdness about the reality of life’s experiences – not to normalise or excuse the strangeness and confronting nature of human behaviour – but to put it on a stage for greater scrutiny, discovering that, as we become conscious of it, we are also looking back at ourselves and the peculiarities of our behaviours. 

These are portraits impossible to ignore.  Try to look past them and the shoulders of each figure looms large like a road block.  Yet, this is not necessarily bad news.  These portraits are confronting, but there is also an invitation to join the party.  Donky Dance might not be such a bad experience to be part of and that noisy demand from Really, for an explanation of its circumstances and its scream for help, may not be as difficult to address as it initially appears. 

Life in the home and the neighbourhood is a complex creature and it has fuelled the art of Philip Trusttum and the subjects and methodologies of his practice for more than five decades.  It is life, but not as we may initially realise that we know it.

Warren Feeney

[1] Tom Waits, In the Neighbourhood, 1983

[2] Lee Trusttum, 16 August 2020

Photos from Philip’s artist talk, 26 September 2020