Pro Hart: “gutsy kook”
When he wasn’t bodysurfing dessert into a Stainmaster carpet, he was dropping paint from hot air balloons, firing it at a canvas from a century-old cannon or swiping it on with an old credit card instead of a palette knife. Or he’d be dancing to avoid the shower of sparks while he hacked away at a metal sculpture with his angle grinder... wearing thongs or Ugg boots.
But the stirrer and stuntman of Australian art paid a price for his showmanship and commercial savvy. He was routinely overlooked when survey exhibitions of Australian art were assembled; his greatest works were dismissed as derivative while forgers gleefully attempted to cash in on his signature; and he never received the critical analysis and respect he deserved in his lifetime. Even after his death yesterday, aged 77, a couple of major public galleries pointedly declined to comment on his importance as an artist.
The Monday Morning Miner, 1981 (click on the image to enlarge)
Hart was 75 when he found a place in the public gallery system, when Monash Gallery of Art (on the outer fringes of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs) assembled an impressive, mid-size, survey exhibition. The three-year, five-state tour is still going. Next stop: the Gold Coast.
Hart was delighted with the exhibition. “That would be one of the best shows I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s good to see some of your best work, the important ones, all together. I was pleased to see it.”
The survey exhibition includes several variations of Hart’s signature dragonfly: on carpet, in ceramic, in various etchings and, best of all, on board in oils -- one on a blood-orange background from 1967 (left) another in a darkly glowing emerald green.
Curated by MGA director Jane Scott, the exhibition includes sixty-odd works from Hart’s own holdings: paintings, etchings, sculptures and the 1973 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow painted in 1999 -- “for the millennium” -- to protest the move towards an Australian republic.
Hart’s aversion to Fabians, Republicans, gun-control and land-rights lobbies -- and all forms of secret societies and grand conspirators -- is the stuff of legend. In the flesh, he presented as a mad old coot. But if you dared scratch the surface of his bluff eccentricity, you found a gentle joker; a man happy to have a good stoush. A friendly, almost boyish, man.
There is a disarming ambiguity in his work which more than matches the visionary skill. Many of the paintings in the touring exhibition date from Hart’s first exhibitions in Adelaide in the early 1960s. At the very first exhibition, in 1962, Hart was dismayed that his paintings of masked, faceless men were seen as mimicking Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. Hart told me, two years back, he “didn’t know Nolan from a bar of soap... I put masks on all the people I sent up, so I don’t get into trouble. So they can’t sue me.”
Yabbie Eaters, 1996 (click on the image to enlarge)
The mask is one of the great dramatic motifs in Hart’s paintings. And its use is as iconic and as memorable as the Kelly mask is in five decades of Nolan’s work. The other Hart trademark is a robe-like mantle. It typically represents a miner, though it is often as hollow as the cream-coloured leering Klan-like masks. In one painting, cottony puffs of smoke rise from an empty shirt as if from an exhausted volcano.
Miner Waiting for his Clothes to Dry, 1983 (click to enlarge)
Doubtless he would have cringed at the word, but Hart struck me as a good ol’ fashioned anarchist. He opposed rule. Hart was deeply suspicious of all kinds of institutions and organisations -- church and state alike -- from the TAB to the police force. And he was opposed to all kinds of organisers, from the humblest of union shop stewards to the architects of “the New World Order.”
Some of Hart’s most endearing and easily understood paintings take a fresh look at the Tower of Babel story. In Hart’s The Holy Tower (1972), for example, various religious denominations band together to contruct a huge Pisa-like Tower in a determined search for god. All the while, unseen by the builders, Christ-the-man leads a file of the ‘real’ faithful through the back streets. The church-goers can’t see the wood (of the cross) for the scaffolding.
“I believe inspiration comes from God,” Hart told me. “A lot of paintings I’ve done are from the Bible. Rembrandt done that, and even Arthur Boyd, he painted a lot of scriptural [stories].”
Yet Hart dodged specific questions about a painting in which a Christ-like figure (crowned with barbed wire and clutching a sad bunch of flowers) is lowered by a squad of AK47-toting thugs wearing grotesque laughing clown masks. There’s a pin through the unmasked man’s skin and INRI (an abbreviation of the Latin words “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) pasted to his upper arm. Even more bizarrely, one of the menacing long-barrelled rifles has a metal badge with the word ‘Hart’ on it.
Now, Hart-the-inventor claimed responsibility for various machine gun designs and improved trigger mechanisms, and he is a crack pistol shooter to boot. But the placement of the signature still raises eyebrows... and plenty of ire.
He also declined to explain a painting in which a queue of people filing into a church yard is divided into left and right, like an extermination camp, with blacks sent off to the right. “I like stirring the joint up,” he said, and “[putting] people on their toes.”
Hart always had a soft spot for the foolhardy and for loners. For the people he called “gutsy kooks”: from Christ to Bruce Ruxton... to the unimbedded reporters in Iraq. He couldn’t abide bullies. Or crooks.
Asked if he was still keen, Hart replied: “I haven’t really started painting yet. I don’t think I’ve really started. I’m still learning after all the years I’ve been going.” When the memory of his antics fades, maybe there will be a new appreciation for the Drysdale-like intensity and Boyd-like spirituality in Hart’s vision of the world.
Jane Scott, who pitched the survey exhibition to Hart, reckons “there’s still a lot of snobbery in the arts” and that Hart is “an easy target.”
I think these people only know Pro’s landscapes they are not aware of his political or spiritual work. He has done a lot of successful commercial activities like the Stainmaster [tv commercials] which confirmed to many that he was too commercial.A good sample of Pro Hart's work can be seen here.
In Australia we seem to be keen on the idea that our artists should be poor, struggling and depressed, Pro is none of these things. In Australia to be a successful artist must mean that you have compromised on quality.