This show of paintings and drawings has the fervour of an artist in their youthful prime, but Connor is 87 this year. He is one of the grandest old painters in Sydney with many works in the Art gallery of NSW.
Reproductions of his earlier work in the books at the gallery, consistent in feeling and expression, prove these late works as even looser, painted with more velocity. There is nothing to understand, you look and “get” it, like a knack. It’s all in the sensations, the feeling.
What these works are not: playful variations; “product” made to exhibition deadline; dutiful studio work. They have arisen from a precious ideal that I can imagine the late critic John Berger ascribing to the artist: that the artist is free.
Man in the city (2018) is a vivid, fierce drama, but is also only what the title states. The smoker and the gobbler (2018) has Biblical intensity, but is merely a cafe scene. To grasp the storm in a teacup is a poetic instinct: it’s what happened when Wordsworth saw a swathe of daffodils, when Van Gogh saw a vase of sunflowers, or a flock of crows over a wheat field.
Mostly oil, the painting here is thin and thick, oily and matt. The stroke making is fast and spontaneous. In a 2013 interview Connor says: ‘I am a painter. I don’t even like calling myself an artist any more — it’s an overused word … Overall I go where … the painting takes me, so there is a consistency of inconsistency in my work. I don’t set out to preplan a painting in any way.’
Like a vintage wine, Connor is rich in allusions, and makes me think of many other artists: Auerbach theatrics, Whisson figure weirdness, Kossoff gravitas, Boyd Penguin anger, Bomberg desperation, Kokoschoka turbulence. The dream I forgot (2019) is of a person with a yellow sun-fur face accented with pink and viridian, and is fresh, bizarre and memorable; I am told it is a dream image of Rembrandt making a self-portrait — it might have been painted by the groovy young Rhys Lee rather than a late octogenarian.
Looking at a phantasmagoria of spectral figures in a livid El Greco landscape, against its banal title Two figures and old steamboat, Queenstown, New Zealand (2016) main image, top, really floats my boat — there it is in full, Kevin Connor’s unmistakable aura of rare, priceless freedom.
At Nicholas Thompson Gallery, 155 Langridge St, Collingwood, Melbourne until June 30