Terry Batt, A delicate balance 1, 2011 oil and wax on linen, 153 x 183cm (14719)
Art and its Double
I was an only child until my sister was born. Terry Batt was in a similarly unique position until he was 10 years old when his brother arrived on the scene, so I can empathise with him when he says that "I developed a vivid imagination of fictional characters hot off the comic strip pages, and from the silver screen at the local picture theatre and drive-in movie house."
It was during those early, formative, years of his life that he developed his lifelong passion for travel, originally moving with his parents from Bristol in England as "classic ten pound poms." One of his earliest memories is of his first glimpse of Australia from the side of the ship, the Morton Bay, as it made landfall off the coast of Western Australia. "I ran with my father from the cabin to see our new home. He fell and was knocked unconscious. Unlike me, he didn't get to see his new country until about two hours later, sitting dazed on the dockside."
If anything defines Terry Batt's twenty-five years of exhibiting with Niagara Galleries, it is this love of travel and adventure. Beyond childhood, and at least one lengthy return trip to Bristol to visit his mother's large and extended family, this has mostly been through residencies and research trips to places as delightfully varied as Pontiacq in France, the Egyptian pyramids, Kashgar in western China and Xining on the Tibetan Plateau, Hong Kong, Macau, and - much earlier - Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the US. Postgraduate supervisions - for Terry is a gifted and inspiring academic of whom RMIT University is justly proud - have also taken him many times to Goroka in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea to work with a Masters candidate. The visual culture and the varied flora and fauna of PNG is especially evident in Terry's sculptures - where coloured bands on birds' legs echo the hooped patterns on sports jerseys.
In an unselfconscious way, Terry has always collected objects that grabbed him by the eye, or attracted his fingers to their tactile qualities. Some would inspire paintings, others sculpture. There was a fez bought in an Egyptian bazaar, a Chinese doll from a Hong Kong market, and a fly-fishing lure from an American store. These would eventually become "characters" within his imagined worlds. Inanimate objects would take on a life of their own. In the same way that the Mona Lisa is not a person, but paint on canvas, and René Magritte's pipe "ce n'est pas un pipe", so Terry's fish lures are not fish lures per se, but remembered objects that have taken on human qualities.
In recent compositions, some of these carefully selected objects have been "doubled", and when I saw them I immediately thought of Dan Cameron's paradigm-shifting exhibition "Art and its Double "1 . This pairing lends itself to the title of Terry's own exhibition "A Delicate Balance". A third, quite different object - such as a tea caddy - often becomes the emotional tipping point between the other twinned images.
I was curious about this, and asked Terry to elaborate on the background to these painstakingly fashioned compositions. Each is filled with humour, delight and intrigue - plump with personal codings and significant memories.
"The general theme of the exhibition references issues of balance in relation to a number of things," Terry tells me from his Bonbeach studio, which is itself a magical container for so many collected objects and their associated memories. "There is the balance of my life between teaching and painting. There is the cultural balance between East and West, particularly for me as a Westerner living in Asia. Hong Kong itself represents a remarkable balancing act between its predominantly Chinese cultural heritage and its geography, together with its past colonial history and the current impact of Western business interests, due to its global economic focus. The other kind of balance that I refer to in these works is how they are structured in terms of symmetry. Each panel of the diptych paintings is a mirror of the other. I began using this strategy in the 2005 painting of two dogs entitled Double happiness, and it has been a recurring theme since. The same principle exists in the painting A delicate balance 1 which is of two girls sitting on the lid of a Chinese porcelain tea caddy. The balance created is both formal in structure and a metaphor for the container and its precious contents, Chinese tea, which is highly prized. Tea in China is regarded in much the same way as we view fine wine in the West. A well balanced blend of unique fragrances and complex flavour, held within that gorgeous container."
Terry, and his family, have travelled a long way since his first exhibition with Bill Nuttall at Niagara Galleries in 1986. He and Bill played cricket together for the Monash University team, and a long friendship grew from those days with Mostyn Bramley-Moore. Before that, he studied at what is now Melbourne University, a year or two ahead of David Thomas and Godwin Bradbeer, both of whom have become friends and colleagues.
Prior to that first exhibition, Terry moved to Boston with Janine and their two sons Micah and Lincoln, to undertake a Masters of Fine Art at the Massechusetts College of Art. "It was a wonderfully creative period, and I was given a job teaching at the art school to supplement my fees." They travelled to New York many times and rounded off their lengthy trip by buying a Kombi van and driving the length of the United States from Massachusetts to Mexico.
Back in Melbourne, full of ambition and ideas, the paintings he made for Niagara "were very large, and we had to take them up the back stairs to the upstairs gallery. At one stage it looked like we were going to have to dismantle the door jamb in order to get them into the gallery." The National Gallery in Canberra made a major purchase from that first exhibition, and Terry Batt's work has been collected nationally and internationally ever since. I'm looking forward enormously to the exhibition of these new paintings and sculptures that stand on the shoulders of the previous quarter century.
Dr Peter Hill
Geelong, October, 2011
1 Madrid, 1986