Charles Billich and his surrealist escapism.
Charles Billich is one of the senior figures of Australian contemporary painting. His style can be defined as a skilful blend of figurative (hence the realist note) and abstract painting, with a graphic design inspiration which gives his works the shine of refinement, the whole being sometimes enhanced by a surrealist touch which he finds useful to convey his metaphysical ambitions. Often, his oils on canvas give the impression of being soft and light watercolours, an effect the artist sometimes combines with the chiaroscuro technique.
To each master his muse: Picasso immortalized his Dora, Dalí extolled his Gala; Billich, as for him, has his Christa who, since their first encounter in 1985, has been for many years a great source of inspiration for many of his nudes. Billich is one of these painters who want the nude to be a sensual art form. As he puts it, “My erotica style is more about aesthetic clarity than explicit. My proclivities are more sentimental than carnal. Introspective rather than descriptive, playful rather than casual.”
The spectator will find it hard to see lewdness in Billich’s nudes: women’s curves are rather scarce and their gaze is never lascivious. His sitters are often depicted as rather slim, slender and graceful. His colours – red and orange being the predominant hues – convey all the passion that transpires in these poses. The spectator comes close to be unwittingly placed in the shoes of a voyeur with a soft focus reminiscent of the dream-like quality found in surrealism (1).
Billich’s work is based as much on the persistence of his mental vision drawn from memories as on an effort of his imagination. Images come to his mind in the guise of altered, if not “hyperbolated”, memories. The artist has an explanation for it: “I manipulate reality. I turn it into some kind of symbolic analysis which works on several levels of meanings. There's a touch of irony in what I paint as there is in all surreal art, it contains a fair amount of humour”
In Rings of Confidence (1996), Billich takes his revenge on a childhood passion of his that he was not able to harbour for a long time, namely his short-lasting ballet experience in the Rijeka Opera Corps. It is this very obsession which resurfaces a decade later with Bolshoi White Nights (2007), a painting with surrealist overtones that discloses the painter’s personal fantasy – escaping the tyrannical weight of gravity. As Billich points out, “So I dream of a world free of gravity where space has a totally different meaning and our faculties mimic those of the geckos […]. With Agravitationism I have achieved the management of complexity, winning over the spatial restriction of linearity, evading the boundaries of the canvas, freeing myself of physics and logic in order to propagate my visual message in all directions.”
We can go as far as to say that, generally, Billich’s surrealist inclination is the mirror of his obsessions, fantasies and abortive plans. In Rings of Confidence, the painter defies the sad reality of gravity and the limits of the human body by depicting an ethereal ballet in which his figures dance with a light step. The central figure, the only male dancer in the foreground, almost flies to the sky. This could be construed as the artist’s fantasy-packed projection, an attempt to symbolically carry his childhood dream of becoming a principal dancer to a successful conclusion. To find solace, Billich paints with his head in the clouds intoxicated with the fire of his imagination … for the greatest pleasure of his admirers. Perhaps, one could look upon Charles Billich as a star shining continuously at the height of Australian painting.
Jean-François VERNAY specializes in Australian culture. His latest book is The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama (Melbourne : Brolga, 2010).
(1) See Jean-François Vernay, « ‘La poésie de la sensualité’ : les nus de Charles Billich », Correspondances Océaniennes 2 : 2 (December 2003), pp. 22-3. Also available on this blog.