Published  01/02/2002

The Art of Ken Done

The Art of Ken Done – book review

Janet McKenzie, Sydney: Craftsman House, AU$100/ US$60/GB£50

Janet McKenzie's book, The Art of Ken Done, is about an Australian artist who, apparently, has never been recognised by some of his country's leading art critics, and who poses problems because of the seeming naivete of his work and the fact that he is also a designer. In fact, he spent almost 11 years with the New York and London based advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, before taking the momentous decision to return to Sydney in 1969, and to become a full-time painter in 1975. Since then, he has remained involved in posters, T-shirts and other forms of fabrics while from 1989-99 he designed the covers for the Japanese magazine, Hanako. Done has also worked on sculpture and interior design.

And there is another problem: Done has never been afraid to quote from other artists whose work he loves, be they Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Dufy and others. Indeed, some of his paintings, such as ‘Thinking About Sunflowers’ (1990) and ‘Gauguin Morning’ (1994) are inspired by well known examples of their work. Inspiration has also been taken from Japanese prints and Aboriginal paintings, as well as from such places as Sydney Harbour, whose bridge and Opera House often appear in Done's imagery, and Ayers Rock. Furthermore, the imagery itself is usually (though not always) bright and joyful. This presents yet another problem to some of his critics: his work is just too hedonistic. But it is not a problem, McKenzie says, to Done's Japanese admirers, who enjoy the sensual colours used by the French expressionists and painters inspired by visits to Morocco and the South Seas. Such colours — and such scenes — are also seen as representing the 'other,' which also fascinates the Japanese.

McKenzie divides her book into several sections, including Early Work and Travel, Sydney Harbour, Drawing, The Figure, Nature, Japan and Icons, and from the beginning establishes that many of Done's paintings can be read as a private diary — their titles and imagery recording the places, people and emotions of the moment. There is something of this that is akin to Basquiat (who is never mentioned) and, in principle, to the narrative paintings of the Renaissance, which require a good knowledge of Greek and Roman literature, and of the Bible, to truly understand their meanings.

In fact, McKenzie is so persuasive in her analysis of many of Done's work — of his use in a work like ‘My Father’ (1982) of aircraft, a truck, a bicycle and various cars, all on a tiny scale compared to the main figure in the painting — that it is easy to accept this. What is not so clear is how meaningful some of the paintings are without having a detailed knowledge of their stories because, arguably, the stories are so much a part of the imagery. Clearly, there are many other paintings in which the sheer exuberance of the scene, as in ‘Postcard from Sydney’ (1995), is enough in itself. And there are others, such as ‘James and Don (referring to jazz musicians James Morrison and Don Burrows) at the Opera House’ (1995), whose title alone will enable some people to get the meaning in full. There are also paintings like ‘Tokyo Girls, Tokyo Night’ (1991) in which the painting of one of them in a kimono and the other in the punkest of punk outfits needs no further explanation, despite its Japanese calligraphy, female nude, bowl of flowers and decorative border.

What is demonstrated by McKenzie's analysis is that the sometimes childlike imagery with its bright colours and many changes of scale, absence of shadows and absence of — or simplified — perspective of many of Done's paintings, is deceptive. Given the inside knowledge which she provides, their role as an intimate diary reflecting the emotional and physical lives of Done, his family and the people he meets and places he visits, becomes very clear. It is also understandable why, to his critics, his painting technique may not seem very sophisticated. But that has to be set against his skilful drawing of a basket of shells (1979) and of nudes (as in ‘Reclining Nude’ of 1992 or the ‘Blue Nudes’ of 1996) and his ink drawing, ‘November Lilies’ (1986). The trouble with McKenzie's book is that there are so few examples of his work as a designer, and none of his work for J. Walter Thompson, to offset judging Done entirely by the very fast and often expressionistic techniques used when he puts oil on canvas.

Given his beginnings in advertising, when he worked at a time enlivened by the work of people like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, it is not surprising that Done continued to earn his living as a designer when he returned to Australia in 1969. Nor is it surprising, given the success of his posters and T-shirts, that he set up his own company, Ken Done & Associates, in 1975. His work as a designer is also given a chapter in McKenzie's book, where she cites the examples of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, the Omega Workshops, the Wiener Werkstätte, the Bauhaus and other organisations which saw no real distinction between art and design in defence of this aspect of his life.

Done is, of course, just one among many artists who have worked in different media: Picasso in ceramics, Chagall and Matisse in stained glass, Dali in jewellery and so on. And, just like them, the evidence presented in McKenzie's book is that Done's paintings are the foundations upon which his designs are based, just as the Scottish designer, Bernat Klein, would often use a small detail of one of his oil paintings as the inspiration for a textile design.

Besides providing an insight into Done's work, and his role as an artist and designer in a way that is both well written and referenced, McKenzie's book presents a very comprehensive record of his paintings, beautifully reproduced in full colour. As she says, Done's purpose, like that of Matisse, is to dream of an art that is essentially decorative in conception, instinctive rather than cerebral, and wholly dependent upon the feelings of the painter for his subject. In addition, Done is unusual for having been an early visitor to Japan (in the early 1960s). So perhaps it is not surprising that his paintings reflect the Japanese love of escapism and, as has already been said, of the 'other.' As Ron Sternberg, at Hanako magazine, said in a conversation about Hanako with Dr McKenzie, ‘In Ken Done, they see an open, free spirit. This is why, with the colours he uses in his work, the magazine is so embraced by the Japanese’.

Richard Carr



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