gary portrait 83sml

Gary Willis, Sydney 1982. (Photo: unidentified)

Art forms of the 70s were like a bag of mixed lollies, always guaranteed to be different, in the 80s this happy variety has given way to less eclectic fashions. Painting now dominates and performance art, for example, has given way to all the pleasures and problems of easel painting. Sydney painter Gary Willis is well aware of stakes involved in these changes.
Pam Hansford - Sydney 1986


1990 - 1998 

Move to London


Artist in residence at Bundanon, N.S.W. (12 months

Commission - 12 illustrations – Production Manual- Film Services, Australia

Commission - 20 Menu Drawings - Burdekin Dining Room, Darlinghurst, Sydney


The Painter’s Gallery, Sydney

Works on paper - paintings & drawings


The Painter’s Gallery, Sydney

THE FOUR SEASON's plus a series of 30 B/W drawings


Canberra School of Art Gallery, Canberra

THE BATCHELOR'S ARIAS - Series of large paintings

Opened by the Marketing Director of the National Gallery of Australia. Ms Marian Vickery


Performance Space Gallery, Sydney

LA CARNIVALE: Series of 30 large B/W drawings

LONDON 1984: Series of 15 large coloured drawings


Air Gallery, Australia Coucil Studio, London

LA CARNIVALE: Series of 15 large B/W drawings

Portsmouth City Museum, UK.

LONDON 1984: Series of 15 large coloured drawings

Coventry Gallery, Sydney

FUTURE MEMOIRS: 12 sets of 9 paintings


Roslyn Oxley Gallery, Sydney

Burnie Art Gallery, Tasmania

Adelaide University Gallery, Adelaide.

DIARY OF A ROOM: Series of large B/W drawings

Poster installation: Sydney City - WALK-WALK

Perspecta 1983 - Art Gallery of NSW

Beyond Traditional Photography - NGA Drill Hall Gallery ANU

The Centre - Art Gallery of South Australia


Move to Sydney from Melbourne

Reconnaissance Gallery, Fitzroy Melbourne

THE CENTRAL JOURNALS; Series, paintings on photographs



The Development of the language of painting & drawing

anatomy verticalhugh ramage 1989

Although I began art school studying to be a painter, I graduated as a conceptual artist, thus my relationship with the concept of painting has specific history.  My conceptual critical distance from medium-specific art practice in general is self-evident in my work throughout the 70s, for more contemporary reading of the issues at stake read my Ph.D; 'The Key Issues Concerning Contemporary Art'. My specific relationship with painting becomes apparent in the conceptual work exhibited at Warehouse Galleries 1978.  My natural draftmanship and fascility with the sensuality of paint always took second place to a conceptual overview, although it is clear that the basic skill-sets required for painting were still in place with projects such as The Art Tram 1978 or The Flying Trapeze Cafe 1980 but clearly the mindless production of products using paint was never an option for me. However the return to 2D images is denoted in 'Diagrams 4 Clones' exhibition 1981, and marked a turning point which signalled the return to a committed studio-based practice, which came in recognition of a number of critical factors;

  1. Experience had demonstrated that the enourmous financial & personal pressures of producing ephemeral work within the public arena meant every production comes at a cost but without the possibility of ever recouping losses,
  2. The financial costs & institutional obligations entailed in maintaining a video practice ultimately threatened the stability and independance of artistic practice. (Given the shifts in the cost of video technology I understand that this is no longer the case.)
  3. After 10 years of post-object practice I came to believe that innovation for its own sake, can threaten the critical distance and independence I expect of 'artistic' practice.
  4. The development of an artist's oeuvre eventually comes to a committed relationship with the production of language structures. Much like a writer might accept the text, I chose painting and drawing as a managable system because it offered a sustainable and independant alternative.
Gary has a wonderful understanding of his craft, and a natural draughtsmanship underpins everything he does. There are very few painters who share his commitment or his moral strength.
Arthur Boyd - London - 1996

In 1982 I resigned from my position teaching video art at Melbourne State College and moved to Sydney.  The following 10 year period represents the transition from the 1970s post-object activities to a studio-based painting /drawing practice. Despite the apparent inconsistencies of style and exhibition profile during the 1980s, it was a period of intense and strategic development.  In effect this meant a complete about-face from the earlier conceptual post-media modes of art practice which had determined 1970's practice, where every event was driven by a different idea, using very different means of production & resulting in very different material outcomes.

From my experience making and teaching video art, it became clear that significant development in art necessitates a commitment to the studio rigors entailed in the production of language, regardless of which technology or studio system you chose.  The decision to take up painting meant re-configuring a skill-base within drawing/painting as an articulate and expressive language system for the representation of subject and sensibility. During this period I focused on the development of the chemistry & craft of studio-based painting and figurative drawing skills.

This meant a re-evaluation of all modes of painting from classical to contemporary, and the determination to re-activate the skill-sets underpinning these practices. During this time the focus of art schools had swung toward conceptual art practice which meant that painting and drawing classes were becoming unfashionable.  Teachers capable of guiding students through the rigourous process of developing these old-fashioned skill-sets into contemporary outcomes, were becoming hard to find. I took up all the teaching opportunities in these areas I could find, with a keen interest in life painting, life drawing and the alchemical processes of oil painting. 

Begining with the material processes of tachism and abstraction I taught figurative painting and art history, focussed on the historical approaches to imaginative, mytho-poetic figurative painting. At this point I must acknowledge a debt to Bernard Smith's 'The Antipodean Manifesto; essays in art and history' which I must have read when it was published in 1976, because it has exerted asignificant influence on my thinking about what it meant to be an artist ever since. My short list of painters working in this tradition would include; Tiepolo, Fragonard, Goya, Hogarth, Picasso, Dali, Beckmann, Neue Sachlichkeit, The Cobra Group, Bacon, Boyd, Nolan, early Bazelitz, Whitely, Booth, Roar, Sansom, Davila, Neo Rauch. In fact, any painters capable of bringing imaginative content into form through the language of painting. My interest in imaginative expression should not to be conflated with 'expressionism' but rather is better understood in terms of a choice for the representation of a human response to the life and times of the artists' experience.  As opposed to the production of art as genre, taste or decorative objects.  This is not because I foolishly imagine my own perspective is of any particular value or merit, rather it is because I think this is what an artist has to offer the world; a model of their own way of seeing the worlds they inhabit. Ultimately, the merit of this project comes down to the quality of mind and skill in the articulation of the individual artist's world-view.

Whilst I introduced my students to all modes of painting; process painting and various modes of abstraction, painting as performance, decorative modes of painting, realism, impressionism, death of painting practices, and the reference of 'painting' through alternative media such as photography and installation, I must confess reductive formalist and post-painting modes of painting practice were of little interest to me personally. I remained keenly focussed on the development of painting as an articulate language system, one capable of working will all the possibilities of painting from the ontological impact of pure paint to the medieval rendering of the imaginary.

My approach to studio production & exhibition profile was to switch between various modes of drawing and painting in a bid to reclaim the skill-sets that underpin any rigorous painting practice. During this period I presented a fractious series of exhibitions which appeared break the mould associated with studio painting; the development of a consistent studio style.

The sequence of exhibitions which I presented to Sydney in the 1980s must have seemed like they were by quite different artists and often amateurish. I certainly ran into this criticism of my work during this time. The problem was that many people make the mistake of imagining that painters are essentially manufactures of decorative aesthetic product, that any shift from the development of a consistently marketable profile is a error of judgement. This traditional position for painting is in marked contrast to what I would call a post-conceptual approach to painting, which uses all possibilities of painting (painting as performance, as installation, as image, as surface, as object, as idea) to engender ways of seeing and affect conceptual response.

Although I mark a definite shift from the post-media position; for me the move to painting did not mean a betrayal of my considerations a conceptual artist, painting has a long history as a conceptual language, painting simply became my preferred weapon; the vehicle for my experience of the world to come into form. The sequence of exhibitions of the 80s was little different to the exhibitions of the 70s, every exhibition was different, every exhibition presented a conceptual and installation experience.  Where the 80s differed from the 70s exhibitons, was 80s performances were only available through the language of painting/drawing. Whilst this approach seemed to exacerbate my critics at the time, for my part it served a two-fold process;

  1. Maintaining a fundamentally conceptual approach to art making whilst at the same time,
  2. Making a serious commitment to development the skills sets entailed in taking on the challenge of serious painting in the post-modern era

In effect this meant swimming against the rising tide of artists and curators who were focused on conceptual and post-object approaches to art practice.

Although I produced a lot of anatomical studies, life drawings and paintings during this period as well as experiments with the chemistry of painting and various modes of abstraction and process painting, I did not exhibit this work. Rather each exhibition was directly focused on the determining conceptual parameters reflective of personal and social concerns. Each body of work appropriated visual and language codes reflective of the artistic influences of the time.  These tactics of appropriation mark the work as characteristic of the post-modernism of the period; however where my work differs from some of my contemporaries is that, unlike the earlier approaches to appropriation obvious in works such as The Flying Trapeze Cafe or The Art Tram; the work from this period struggles to appropriate the genre rather than the image.

It was only the development of these skill-sets that enabled the appropriation of various modes of European painting that I affected during my time in London in the 90s.