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Catalogue Essay: Tough Vulnerability: 'Purely Visual' by James Kearns and 'Trading Places' by Nick Osmond - Associate Professor Kit Messham-Muir School of Design and Art, Curtin University, Perth

dr kit messham muir art

Associate Professor Dr Kit Messham-Muir
School of Design and Art, Curtin University, Perth

Tough Vulnerability: 'Purely Visual' by James Kearns and 'Trading Places' by Nick Osmond

These two concurrent exhibitions, Purely Visual by James Kearns and Trading Places by Nick Osmond, bring together new work by two artists who are in many respects very different, yet for which there is some interesting common ground in the works they present together here.

James Kearns Art
The Bird Played in the Bushes of the Mehi | James Kearns | 2016 | Mixed media canvas | 124 x 150 cms

Nick Osmond’s work resonates with the paintings of Marlena Dumas, Peter Doig, and perhaps George Condo and Francis Bacon. Like many of Dumas’ portraits, these faces bear partial resemblances to faces we know – celebrities, friends, archetypes – and similar to Bacon, Osmond fragments and distorts, to sometimes blur the boundaries of figure and ground, subject and object. The rendering of the paint is loose to the point of semi-abstraction, so the presence of paint and painterly technique is immanent in each work, yet there is a softness to each figure, a vulnerability that is fixed often to the eyes of the subjects. 

James Kearns Art
Blue Bull | James Kearns | 2016 | Acrylic on canvas | 61 x 61 cms

An abstracted motif of Ned Kelley’s armoured headgear appears in two number of these works, rendered in calligraphic style, flat and black, sitting on the picture plane of the canvas’s surface, or as a green pillar-box form. The reference to Ned Kelley and the abstraction of his armour evoke Sidney Nolan’s famous series of paintings from the 1940s. However, in the context of the works presented here, such as Vietnam Vet Playing Guitar, 2016, and Wheat Farmer, 2016, Kelley’s armour situates the broader body of works collected here within a specifically Australian context. Osmond’s image of the 1970s anti-drugs campaigner, Donald MacKay, murdered by associates of crime boss Robert Trimbole and the Griffith mafia, brings narratives of the Australian outlaw mythology of Kelley into more recent decades. Along with Aboriginal Stockman and Australian Troops Vietnam, Osmond depicts archetypes of a tough and rugged Australia.

Nick Osmond Art
Man Wearing Ned's Aura | Nick Osmond | 2016 | Oil on canvas | 60 x 65 cms

James Kearns similarly draws upon archetypal iconography – birds, bulls, a fighter, a rugged landscape. And like Osmond the definition of his subjects is nearly lost in the looseness of Kearns’ semi-abstracted rendering. The bird at the centre of Kearns’ The Bird Played in the Bushes of the Mehi, 2016, is echoed in the marks that suggest the tree and the background. To the left of the bird a roughly rendered twig reverberates with the line of the bird’s back, while to the right the form of its tail repeats across the lower portion of the image. The bird itself almost disappears.

Nick Osmond Art
The Donkey and the Azure | Nick Osmond | 2016 | Oil on canvas | 61 x 77 cms

Although only one bull appears in this current exhibition, they are a recurring image in much of Kearns’ work. We can draw an obvious line from Picasso’s recurring use of the bull as motif, but Kearns’ bulls are very different. These images of bulls immediately evoke a kind of raw and particular masculine strength. Kearns’ bulls are muscular beasts, charged with potential energy and danger; yet in Kearns’ paintings their lines and tones are often broken and fragmented, diminishing the sense of power we might immediately perceive with that of a defencelessness. Similar to the rendering of vulnerability in Osmond’s figures, Kearns’ paintings often create a tension between their expressive technique and the subjects they depict.

James Kearns Art
Portrait of Katrina | James Kearns | 2016 | Mixed media canvas | 198 x 188 cms

Perhaps one exception to this tendency in this exhibition is Kearns’ portrait of Katrina Rumley, until recently the Director of the Moree Plains Gallery. Rumley’s impact on the northern New South Wales town of Moree, which is also where Kearns now lives, is long-reaching. Kearns’ portrait captures in Rumley’s face the kind of robustness it takes to get things done in a sometimes tough regional town like Moree. Here both Kearns and Osmond play interestingly with toughness and vulnerability, creating images that hold the tension between the two.


'Purely Visual + Trading Places' from James Kearns and Nick Osmond opens at Cooks Hill Galleries Friday 11 November 6 – 8pm and continues to Monday 28 November 2016. If you cant make it to the gallery browse + shop the collection here or view the digital catalogue here.

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