Stream of Consciousness Hong Kong:

Luke Sciberras & Elisabeth Cummings

By John Mcdonald

Hong Kong Harbor at Dusk, 2015

Elisabeth Cummings, oil on canvas, 76cm x 56cm

Hong Kong launches such an assault on the senses that the best way for an outsider to convey his or her impressions might be a simple list. The British writer, Jan Morris, obviously had the same idea, because she has provided a catalogue of sensations in her 1998 Hong Kong. In what must be the lengthiest sentence ever written in a popular travel book, Morris gives us her observations in a style that reproduces thoughts flashing quickly through the mind, a style literary critics call “stream of consciousness”: The garish merry signs, the clamorous shop-fronts, the thickets of TV aerials, the banners, the rows of shiny, hanging ducks, the washing on the poles, the wavering bicycles, the potted plants massed on balconies, the canvas-canopied stalls selling herbs, or kitchenware, or antiques, or fruit, the bubbling cauldrons of crab-claw soup boiling at eating-stalls, the fantastic crimson-and-gold facades of restaurants, the flickering television screens in shop windows, the trays of sticky cakes in confectionery stores, the profusion of masts, poles and placards protruding from the fronts of buildings, the dragons carved or gilded, the huge elaborate posters, the   tea-shops with their gleaming pots, the smells of   cooking, spice, incense, oil, the racket of radio music and amplified voices, the half-shouted conversation that is peculiar to Chinese meeting one another in the street, the ceaseless clatter of spoons, coins, mah-jong counters, abaci, hammers and electric drills.

Seventeen years later, following Hong Kong’s reunification with the mainland, it’s intriguing to ask what might be added or subtracted from Morris’s list. The restaurants are just as gaudy, the markets no less hectic. One need not venture far from Central to find all the pot-plants, washing lines and other bric-a-brac of daily life. Chinese conversations, in Cantonese or Mandarin, still sound like furious shouting matches to Anglophone ears.

The aerials are now satellite dishes, which may be just as ugly, although they resemble an outbreak of electronic toadstools alongside the spikey outgrowths of old-fashioned antennae. The hammers and electric drills are still making a clamorous sound, but they have been overshadowed by the whirr of gigantic cranes, as an ever-growing collection of futuristic skyscrapers and apartment blocks reaches hungrily towards the sky.

Perhaps it’s only my imagination, but I can feel all of this surging activity in the paintings produced by Elisabeth Cummings and Luke Sciberras during their recent residency in Hong Kong on behalf of the Nock Art Foundation. 

Michael Nock began bringing well-known Australian artists to Hong Kong and China last year with a successful show of paintings by Peter Godwin and Euan Macleod. Both men responded enthusiastically to their surroundings, with Godwin finding an appropriate challenge in the mountainous scenery of the Li River, in Guilin, while Macleod turned – for the first time in his career – to the urban sprawl of Hong Kong.

Cummings and Sciberras, who are both known as landscape painters, decided to follow in Macleod’s footsteps by taking the city as their subject. The results are startling. Cummings has produced an entirely new view of Hong Kong, with the concrete corridors of the CBD transformed into shimmering vistas of light in which the forms of tall buildings appear as tremulous as mirages. Sciberras has alternated distant views with forays into densely compacted streets.

Tug on HK Harbour, 2015 Luke Sciberras, Oil on Board, 120cm x 120cm

Tug on HK Harbour, 2015

Luke Sciberras, Oil on Board, 120cm x 120cm

Between these artists there is a significant difference in age and experience, with Cummings being a long-term friend and mentor of the younger painter. Among all the artists of his generation, Sciberras (b.1975) has been the most willing to learn from an older generation of artists. He has studied their work up close, helped out in their studios, travelled and socialised with the painters he admires. Cummings (b. 1934) is the artist with whom he has the greatest affinities. Her influence is palpable in Sciberras’s painting, which tends towards abstraction while clinging tenaciously to traditional genres such as landscape, still life and interiors. These subjects were good enough for the most famous Modernists, such as Cézanne, Bonnard, Matisse, Braque and Picasso, and they are equally sufficient to these two Australians.

The difference is they are painting in an era that has seen the rise and fall of abstract art as a movement and ideology. Today it is not possible for a sophisticated painter to ignore the breakthroughs made by artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and Pollock. We have seen art distill itself into a Minimalist moment, and disappear into pure light. Nowadays all tendencies co-exist, like neighbours in an overcrowded apartment block, each one suspicious and curious about what’s going on next door. (This may be an appropriate metaphor for a show in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities on the planet.)

Emerging from the brief, tumultuous heyday of Abstract Expressionism – she was 22 when Pollock died in a car crash - Cummings understood the language of abstraction but did not feel the need to be part of an avant-garde. Painting for her has always been a natural process, closely bound up with everyday life. This doesn’t mean that each piece arrives in a free, spontaneous manner. One only has to look at the surfaces of Cummings’s pictures to see what fierce battles have been fought. A typical canvas make take weeks or months to complete, including long periods when it lies dormant in the studio, as the artist gathers her courage for another assault. 

To say Cummings is a “natural” painter is merely to emphasise the personal, intimate nature of her work. This is one of the reasons she has always loved Bonnard, who painted incandescent pictures from the seclusion of his domestic idyll in Le Cannet, where he lived for the last 37 years of his life.

Like Bonnard, Cummings is an artist who draws inspiration from her immediate environment. She lives in relative seclusion in Wedderburn, a bushland suburb on the outskirts of Sydney, where she has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of motifs at herdoorstep. Inside her home/studio, there is an equally voluminous set of still life subjects. Yet Cummings is very far from being a hermit – she has taken the opportunity a travel and work all around the world, by herself or with groups of artists.

A veteran of many trips to the Outback and other remote locations in Australia, she enjoys finding herself in front of an entirely new landscape that forces her to rethink her approach to painting. This is exactly how she has responded to her time in Hong Kong. To those familiar with her oeuvre, the Hong Kong paintings are among the most dynamic she has ever created. There is a tremendous sense of freedom in these pictures, a willingness to plunge into a fresh visual experience with an almost reckless disregard of everything but the here and now.

What remains, of course, is the artist’s own style of painting, as instinctive as handwriting, but there is a different feeling about the colour, energy and complexity of these works. They represent a significant addition to Cummings’s achievements of the past two decades, which have seen her evolve from being a solid painter with a small, devoted coterie of fans, to her current standing as one of the country’s most acclaimed landscapists.

Sciberras has not had to wait so long for recognition. His works have always found admirers, drawn by the restless bravura of his technique, which hints at a family relationship with acknowledged Australian masters such as Sidney Nolan and John Olsen.

He has been more dramatic than Cummings in his approach to Hong Kong. Whereas the older artist has stood back and created light-filled views of the urban landscape, Sciberras has dragged us through dark alleyways in which daylight is parceled out in glimpses. The “shiny hanging ducks” that caught Jan Morris’s attention float through the air like cherubs in a Renaissance altarpiece – although they are more like flayed martyrs, sacrificed to the island’s ravenous appetites.

It takes a little time to decode Sciberras’s images – to disentangle the awnings, signs, pipes, windows and other detritus of the streets from the bold, sweeping gestures with which the paint has been applied. In these pictures Sciberras narrows the response time between eye, mind and hand, trying to capture his impressions before self-consciousness interposes an idea about what things should look like. When that first frenzy has diminished, Sciberras will return to the composition, adding the layers and details that keep a work anchored in the observable world.

This does not mean that he follows a course of tidy, conventional revisions: a patch of paint representing the background may push forward into the picture plane, reminding us we are not, after all, looking through a window onto the world. Sciberras insists on the painter’s right to rearrange space to suit the demands of a personal vision. He has absorbed a huge amount of voltage from the streets of Hong Kong, and is happy to return the charge. Each painting is a contest between what the artist sees, and his need to pummel those observations into a more dynamic shape.

Not less than Jan Morris, Cummings and Sciberras have felt the need to soak up the sights and sensations of Hong Kong and send them back out into the world in the ‘stream of consciousness’ manner. They have given us an inventory of experiences, filtered through the eyes of outsiders who have had to jettison much that is familiar, and lay themselves open to a new level of awareness. The life of the streets is a constant presence in these views of the city - a buzzing, swarming metropolis so immersed in the art of living that it has only recently found time for the immortal ambitions of artists. •