Sunday, 18 February 2007

George Gittoes' No Exit exhibition drew a small crowd of about 40 people to the Australian Galleries in Paddington yesterday, where we heard him talk about his work. Pressed, after about an hour, for more information on Iraq by eager visitors, Gittoes also discussed the war and his experiences on the front line.

I mentioned on Friday that I was planning to visit the exhibition. Throwing the camera into my satchel, I crawled through the Saturday traffic toward my destination. I arrived about 15 minutes late.

"Great art is pain squared," said Gittoes at one point, surrounded by his works, which are in either pencil or ink, and sometimes have photographs affixed to them, collage-style.

He is dedicated to his craft, often taking out his materials while driving from one place to another, or whenever he gets a spare half hour. "You've just got to keep on drawing."

"Good drawing is like classical music because you've got to practice every day," he said, highlighting his dedication.

"I agree with Goya: I'm not going to draw it unless I see it."

The exhibition is dedicated to Margaret Hassan, the charity worker who was murdered by insurgents in 2004. "She's like my mantra," Gittoes said. "She's the greatest humanitarian I ever met."

Clearly, he was influence by her example. While resident in Baghdad, Gittoes boasted, he did not stay at the journalists' hotels, preferring to live within the Iraqi community. He said that he tried to behave charitably toward ordinary Iraqis, including his driver, for whose sake he would on occasion bring out breakfast from the hotels he visited. The two would sit in the car outside and eat together.

"The locals who help you are risking their lives to do it." It is only right that foreigners treat their Iraqi colleagues with respect.

"The biggest influence on my work is early German humanist art," he said.

He also likened the preoccupation of German expressionist George Grosz with cabaret to his own interest in rap artists.

Gittoes has been drawing for a long time. According to the catalogue, written by Joanna Mendelssohn, he was doing a lot of it in his teens. "I still remember the remarkable freedom of his flowing line, surprising in its confidence for a boy of seventeen."

"Wherever he has gone, whatever other paths his art has taken him, George has always drawn," she writes. But Gittoes said he was frustrated by his lack of success as a figurative artist. "I often feel like blowing my brains out because noone buys my stuff."

He compares himself to Australian artists Peter Booth and Noel Counihan, saying that he sees himself as sitting between them.

As for his reasons for drawing what he does, he said: "We've got to show that we felt something." Clearly, he sees his work as a reminder that not all Australians support the war. Mindful of the judgement of future generations, Gittoes said that when people look back, they'll be able to see his art, and register the protest that it embodies.

On the war itself, Gittoes was unable to decide whether it amounted to civil war or not. When asked, at first he said: "I wouldn't call it a civil war yet." But, pressed, he admitted that he thought it likely to ensue. "There will be a civil war, there's no doubt about that."

The work itself demonstrates his facility with pen and pencil, although it is quite expensive. One work I took an interest in, Blood on the lyrics (portrait of Marcus Lovett), is listed in the price sheet at $5,700. It is a drawing in ink (72 x 57 cm) showing a young man's head. Lovett was the brother of one of the rapping soldiers Gittoes met in Iraq. He features in the movie Rampage, which was shot in Florida.

Gittoes' line is easy, to be sure, but the ideas it communicates are actually quite similar to those you can find in works that are sold by kerbside artists around the city. The message is often brutally obvious and single-faceted. There are few grey areas in his vision.

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