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Alan OLDFIELD (b.1943; d.2004)

Alan Oldfield was born in December 1943 in Sydney’s Inner West. His interest in art was aroused by the local Marrickville library which specialised in art books and he decided at a young age that he wanted to become an artist. At the age of eleven he was awarded the children’s prize in the local Rockdale Art Prize. He attended East Hills Boys High, a comprehensive school, where his Latin teacher was Bill Collins, later to achieve national fame for his love of the cinema.* After completing his Leaving Certificate, with his parents reluctant for him to pursue his ideal of becoming a full-time artist, Oldfield reluctantly agreed to work in an office. Eventually his parents relented and Oldfield enrolled in the National Art School at East Sydney Technical College in 1962 completing the five-year diploma course in four years. **

Oldfield became friends with the Central Street Gallery artists, such as Wendy Paramour, who were influenced by hard edge New York-inspired abstraction. His early work was characterised by crisp, clean abstract paintings which combined a hedonist sensibility with the austerity of hard edge abstraction but also brought to bear a touch of Pop art.*** He began to exhibit his paintings in Sydney as well as writing articles for the short lived art magazine, Other Voices.

In 1970, Oldfield travelled to England to visit his partner, Jim Davenport, who was an academic at Cambridge at the time. Oldfield and Davenport then spent three months travelling around Europe as well as visiting the USA. Oldfield returned to live in Sydney that same year but, in 1974, funded by an Australia Council Visual Arts Board travel grant, Oldfield was able to revisit Italy and spent a year and half living in Rome. During his time in Europe, Oldfield was influenced by Italian Renaissance art giving way to a more meditative style in his later paintings. ***

Returning to Sydney in 1975, Oldfield began to lecture at the Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education in Sydney (later becoming the City Art Institute and then the College of Fine Arts, as part of the University of New South Wales) in 1976 and remained on the staff until just before his death. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1991. He was known as an inspirational teacher of art history on Renaissance art, and his passion for the art he loved was totally infectious. *

Oldfield had a deep and abiding religious faith and was a devout Anglo Catholic. He created many religious pieces of art including paintings for St Julian’s Church in Norwich, Linacre College in Oxford (where he was artist-in-residence from 1988-1989) and Christchurch Cathedral in Newcastle, NSW. He also painted the shrines of Our Lady and Our Lord at Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney. In his later years, he served on the Parish Council of his church at St James, King Street in Sydney.

Oldfield was also active as a theatre and set designer, uniquely involved in the actual choreography as well as set design, for Rumours and for Afterworlds for the Sydney Dance company from 1978 to 1980 and for Beyond Twelve for the Australian Ballet in 1987.

Oldfield first made his mark as a pop art and hard-edge colour field painter with an exhibition at the recently opened Watters Gallery in 1966. In 1968, he was one of the younger artists selected for the ground-breaking The Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria which introduced colour field works of abstraction to a wider Australian audience. From then, he held numerous solo and group exhibitions between 1966 and 2003 but always resisted exhibiting overseas.

Oldfield was awarded the Blake Prize in both 1987, for his painting of Julian’s revelation A High and Spiritual Shewing of Christ’s Mother, which is still displayed in St Julian’s Church, Norwich, and again in 1991. He was also a finalist in the 2002 NSW Premier’s Literary Prize for his series of paintings made into a book Lizard Island, the Journey of Mary Watson, with text by Suzanne Falkiner.

Oldfield was precocious, talented and individual. Even as a student, one of his teachers, Peter Laverty, who later became director of the Art Gallery of NSW, recalled him as “a gifted and industrious student, who tackled problems from a distinctly personal perspective”.** Oldfield’s early work assimilated pop art characteristics into his paintings, with references to comic strips, advertisements and the loud, flat colour of posters. However, even as the infamous The Field exhibition opened in 1968, many of the participants were beginning to move to new ways of painting and Oldfield famously quipped that: “The Field exhibition opened a Gallery and closed a style”. **

By the 1970s and 1980s, Oldfield had moved to more figurative work that was intimate and colourful. ** His paintings of this time included a series of meticulously painted chairs, empty, but awaiting the presence of a human body. One work included a book placed on a beach chair: it was a monograph on Caravaggio.* Oldfield said: “But certainly it became quite apparent fairly early to me that I wasn’t an abstract painter at all—that a literate sort of message or story or idea or something in a painting is quite important to me. Particularly in earlier works I think it shows up in the titles, they have these very strange titles that tend to pun on art movements, even things like that. Therefore, because some sort of painting is an expression of yourself, it was obvious that I was like a fish out of water in abstraction which is on about other things”. ****

Despite moving away from abstraction, Oldfield remained fascinated by colour saying: “I like the clarity of the colour and so forth because colour interests me such a lot in what I do. I mean, I think pictures really should have beautiful colour.” **** He also retained a sense of irony in his paintings. As Peter Pinson commented on his death: “Oldfield left behind an important body of paintings that demonstrated that figurative paintings could deal with complex themes of religion, myth, social and environmental relationships and with questions of representation, in a manner that was fresh and contemporary.” **

Oldfield’s works are held in Collections across Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Cairns Regional Art Gallery as well as many other state and regional galleries, churches, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia and in the UK. *

Alan Oldfield, Obituary by Joanna Mendelssohn, December 2004 ** Master of the sacred and profane, Peter Pinson, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 October 2004 *** Alan Oldfield, Design & Art Australia Online ****James Gleeson Interviews: Alan Oldfield, James Gleeson, 1 August 1979


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