I remember well a painting by the Bavarian Albrecht Altdorfer in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Under a huge, gnarled oak, old man Lot lies with his daughter. In the far distance. beyond the river, Sodom burns apocalyptically. Between desire and desire, at the edge of the erosive river, the wife looks back (and is turned into a pillar of salt).
Or again, in Altdorfer's painting of "The Battle of lssus", we speak of "the sun breaking through the sky and defeating the moon". It is a painting in which the echo of an earthly battle has the dimensions of a solar storm; a subjectivism that defeats the reasonable detachment of Renaissance perspective, damming up space momentously, turning the eye and the mind back into the "one thousand years of darkness" of Petrarch's Middle Ages.
The inwardness of the Northern Tradition is symbolised by such works, by the exacerbated dualism of the "lsenheim Altar Piece"; the bleak, abstract darkness of the Crucifixion, against the swirling, genetic redness of "The Annunciation; Virgin and Child with Angels; The Resurrection". They are contrasts that split and subjectivise the image. I think it was Panofsky who suggested that perspective representation is a set of conventions that symbolises human alienation, that the ideal vantage point reifies all perception, mechanises all response; that the secularisation of the human mind begins with Leonardo's "Last Supper".
It is as a contrast to the rationalism and clarity of Renaissance thought that we speak of the Northern Tradition. The influence of Flanders against Tuscany. The weird involutions of Hieronymus Bosch, or the strange detachment of Pieter Breughel the Elder. Later, Durer's woodcut of a machine to produce a perspective projection is simultaneously a demonstration and a critique. He himself argued against the devaluation of human skill and judgement through the mechanical application of its conventions. Another work attributed to Durer in the National Gallery in London makes clear the ambivalence of the Northern artist. It is both hubris and a fear of the reality of the image. The work is listed as a portrait of his father, head slightly rotated to the side, eyes tense and violent, drawn with a meticulous skill and observation. The old man looks back at his son with extraordinary intensity and resentment. Surrounding the head, applied to the limits of the frame, as though smeared with the artist's hands, is a gelatinous, blood red, field. It is the moment when the artist overturns the conventions of his style, and yet this field flows from the implications of his father's gaze. It is the field of impotence of the son. Between these two domains of the painting there is an extraordinary disjunction, one that cracks the carapace of the image returning its content to the immediate experience of the artist.
It is the intensity of such subjectivism that is the context for the work of Dale Frank. It is something that he and I have talked about in passing. My story of the Durer portrait brought a gleam to his eye. Now, at this moment, it is as if we have an absolute distance from this tradition which I have been writing about. Dale Frank is a very young Australian artist from the country town of-Singleton. From these two facts everything flows and all becomes improbable. And yet I think we can go on. We are talking about the symbolisation of content. How content emerges through the image, and the absolute relativity of means.
From Dale Frank's performances of the late seventies, to his current painting, there is a clear continuity. The performance pieces are among the most intense done by an Australian artist. The best have a strange, amnesiac quality. I have texts for these pieces. The language is aphasic, disjointed, mediumistic. Many of them have religious overtones, some involve children in strange rituals, others hint at explosive sexual impulses, violence, incest. Gradually, as we proceed through these texts (which Frank has collected into simple books), a pervasive, disquieting world builds up. It is a world that submerges us completely. At no point can we be certain of the position of the artist. We are reminded of the miasmic impact of Artaud, of the early Michaux, and more recently of the fires of Anselm Kiefer. The symbols expand and swim in an oblique sea of dissolving connections. We are talking about an oeuvre without clarity, but it is the very absence of clarity that is the vehicle for the emotional impact of these images.
And yet, in a sense, this is the ideal world of Frank's imagery. It is the field of the communication between he and I. One that should be provoked as the potential context of meaning. The actual works (the recent paintings and drawings) rise and fall against the mark.
Behind the ambiguous suggestiveness of this imagery is the sophistication of recent art. Insofar as we can speak of the East/West axis (Paris/Moscow, Paris/New York), we can speak of the North/South, culminating in Munich in the early part of this century, with the strange synchronicity of Duchamp/De Chirico, against the backdrop of a bathetic and self-conscious nee-classicism, it is an axis, terminated by the excesses of National Socialism. And yet, in the strange dualism between metaphysical inwardness and declarative style, is concealed an earlier opposition, between Rome and the Hermannsschlacht, between Tuscany and Flanders, between Catholicism and the Reformation, and between the Nee-classicism of Jacques Louis David and the Romanticism of Friedrich. Admittedly, a contrast in high and low relief; a dualism, nevertheless, which the post-structural eighties bring lightly to the surface (a semiotic context). The recent work of Dale Frank still bears the strong imprint of the "Be-Headed Hand". Achille Bonito Oliva in a recent text comments on the nature of subjectivity in young Italian painting, characterizing it as comprised of the structural elements that typify subjectivity per se: changeability, provisionality, contradiction and love of detail, rather than a subjectivity which is private or autobiographical. Self-conscious stylisation has been an aspect of Dale Frank's work. At its extremes (within the movement), these tendencies lead to dandyism. To a relativity of styles and references that is merely decorative at best or attitudinal at the worst. The museums become caches of raw materials (an amusing idea). It is the Albedo of the Alchemists or the hubbub of Babylon.
And yet, in contrast to all these tendencies, we have the expressive painting and imagery of the "Neue Wilden". Of course irony in the eighties is endemic. Against the great bulk of a falling fir in a recent painting by John van't Slot, we have the deer vomiting its revulsion into a chasm. Archetypes in fear and loathing. And yet, as Philip Peters in a text on this artist indicates, the falling fir stands pars pro toto for the forest, "which in a broader sense refers to the Middle-European painting tradition that can be traced from Altdorfer via Friedrich and Ernst to Kiefer".
Against the orotund coherence of this tradition, the young artist from Singleton is forever marginal, and yet within this marginality we discover part of the weight of Australia's own burgeoning tradition. For we are talking about the image, and in the end the intensity of the image belongs to the intensity of the artist's experience. It would be as well for us to remember the early painting of Tucker, Perceval, Boyd and Nolan.
—Mike Parr, July 1982