Bela Kotai’s speech at the Artsource 2010 Lifetime Achievement Awards

22 Nov 2011

Tom Stoppard, the great English playwright wrote a radio play years ago called - Artist Descending a Staircase.   The play was about modern art and one of the characters during the play says,
of every thousand people there’s:
nine hundred doing the work,
ninety doing well,
nine doing good,
and one lucky bastard who’s the artist.
I am here to explain why we are fortunate that George Haynes is that lucky bastard.
This award goes a little way to awakening our recognition of his lifetime contribution to the visual arts in WA.
Every society honours its resident conformists and its absent troublemakers.
As George is plainly with us, this honour means that somebody thinks he is no longer a troublemaker.
George has been with us, in Australia, for nearly forty years. We have become used to having him around, though lately he conceals himself behind his work.
Don’t be fooled.  He is still the rebel he ever was, seldom even ordinarily respectable and usually doing what he can to keep body and soul   apart.

George Haynes was born to be an artist.   He is a person with an immense and searching intellect.   An intellect located just behind the eye,   and what an eye.     An eye with perfect pitch,  an eye that can read light like a composer following notes on a music score,  Parts distinct – rhythms clear – everything observed.
But not just an eye.   Where observation is concerned, chance favours the prepared mind - and his mind is always active, always studying, always ready.   He composes and improvises in that space behind the eye,   then lets the hand take over and lay down the structure and harmonies with authority and wit.
Neither this,  nor the disappointingly little scholarship we have on George’s work explains why he is so transcendentally good at it.
By its sheer quantity and quality George’s work defies logic.    Hundreds of paintings.    Thousands of drawings.
To get close to the great truths about George’s work we must dig deeper.
At the heart is an unworldly beauty.     Not prettiness, not cuteness, but a deep and profound beauty - lyrical, elegant and emotionally restrained.
We gasp in disbelief and wonder – time after time.

George’s landscapes hold for us   an element of surprise  –  a jolt caused by a leap of understanding and an expanded sensibility.     There is a feeling of discovery when viewing those works   as aspects of our environment not previously seen or imagined are revealed.
In his figures and studies lies the seductive and physical power of paint.   Sometimes touching us softly   and sometimes punching out from the canvas.    Combinations of indulgence and delight delivered in luscious harmonic sequences.      There is a sensuality and a gentle eroticism in these paintings that is impossible to miss.
In his draughtsmanship you see a finely tuned command of the vocabulary and syntax of drawing.     An underlying structure that pulls the eye across the marks – unfolding passages of tension and resolution in a way usually found only in good music and good painting.
The anamorphic sculptures are the shapeshifters of drawing.   They grab the third dimension,  then the fourth as you take the time to move around them.      Like the syncopated cross rhythms of jazz they resolve, dissolve then resolve again in a dazzling sequence of transformations.   A logical and contemporary extension of drawing.
George’s work offers us a model of genuine beauty.
It combines lyricism and drama with a depth of expression that speaks of prodigious technical mastery.  An innate understanding of the complexities of colour, tone, form and harmony.
The result is a body of work that is unique, not just to Perth or Australia, but unique to the world    a lifetime achievement that stands in any company.  An artist we can justifiably revere.
It is a beauty that arises from the remaking of the rules   rather than exemplifying them.
Anything that is worth doing…gets done frequently.    It becomes a formula, and in art there is no formula worth keeping.    For this reason making art is not an industry and an artists’ life is not a business.
Both critics and followers anguish over the way George remakes the rules and heads off in new directions, usually away from any business plan.   It is simply a manifestation of an inventive mind at work.
The proper work of an artist is to challenge – to disturb complacency - and it is in the strangeness and newness we will later find fresh beauties.

When it comes to finance, George doesn’t think of himself as lucky   and he’s right.
All his life he’s been a fugitive from the law - the law of averages.   Artfully evading the rule that says ‘sooner or later, your boat will come in’.    George limps from one financial crisis to the next,  occasionally lamenting the fact that he’s once again shot himself in the foot.
To his great credit, during the more comfortable periods, or after a good sale, he puts what money he has where his heart is and buys – with cash – the work of other artists.
Now I, and most artists I know, collect the work of friends.      We have a shameless wheedling and bartering acquisitions policy – anything to avoid paying cash.
Not George. George ponies up the full gallery price for the work of his fellow artists as an act of tangible support and generosity.     If you’ve ever been broke, you’ll know what that means.
In turn, he has been able to achieve what he has with the support,   and yes - tolerance, of a strongly bonded extended family.     This is the proper occasion to acknowledge their contribution and to thank them for it.
Of course George has his critics, but when it comes to critics, we love him for the enemies he has made.
If there is any revenge for artists, it resides in the fact that the only critics that history remembers are the ones that proclaim the wrong things about the right people.     Still, when you’ve been the target of undue criticism, there is a sting that persists.
Critics seem to appraise George against a special high standard.   A yard and a half of the yardstick used for others   -    perhaps held to greater account because he is regarded as a seminal influence behind the succeeding wave of artists and former students who have transformed Western Australian art.
Jane Martin, Eveline Kotai, Marie Hobbs, Giles Hohnen, Nigel Hewitt, Jeremy Kirwan-Ward, Ben Joel, and Jonathon Snowball to name a few.
As a lecturer, you would give body parts to get students such as these.
As a serious university student you would sell body parts to get a lecturer like George.
Much has been said and written about the magnitude of his influence over these artists and some of it is,   frankly, small-town nuttiness.
Of course he affected them deeply with his thoughtfulness, insight, discipline and enthusiasm.  Of course for a while they saw painting and drawing through George’s giant lens and of course they were transformed by the experience.
Then they evolved.
A teacher that leaves no mark is no teacher.
You can never tell where, when and how the influence of a teacher will appear and you can never tell where or when it stops.
Many of the artists mentioned will hand on their own versions of George’s ideas – either through their work or their teaching.
The best way we can measure his effect on us is to ask ourselves what Perth would have been like without George  -  take the sum of what we are and subtract what he has given.   It is..a boatload!

In 1930 when Mahatma Gandhi was disembarking at Southampton he was asked by a journalist   ‘what do you think of Western civilisation’.
To this he replied   ‘that would be a good idea’.
In 1962 when George was asked what he thought of Western Australia we can only be grateful he gave the same reply.

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