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Inspiration + Realisation: Peter Wegner

by Katherine Russell, 1 June 2006

Peter Wegner's approach to portraiture could be considered a visual record of the rapport, the dynamic space between artist and subject.

Portrait of Professor Graeme Clark, 2000 by Peter Wegner
Portrait of Professor Graeme Clark, 2000 by Peter Wegner

Inspiration+Realisation features three prominent Australian artists for whom portrait painting is an aspect of their practice. Each artist will deliver a public lecture followed the next day by a masterclass in portraiture from a life model. Lecture attendees and masterclass participants will have the opportunity to work directly with and be inspired by these eminent Australian painters, each of whom brings a differing perspective to the art of the portrait.

On winning the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2006, Peter Wegner was amused to overhear a journalist introduce him as a portrait painter, for he makes a subtle but important distinction - he is an artist who paints portraits. Wegner's insistence on not seeing himself as a portraitist can perhaps be understood in the context of his movement from plein air to favour a studio based practice that involves not only portraiture but still life. He only now exhibits figurative work. Wegner's approach to portraiture could be considered a visual record of the rapport, the dynamic space between artist and subject. This is no more evident than in his paintings and etchings of Graham Doyle.

It is undeniable that winning the Moran has brought Wegner's portraiture practice to public attention - but none of that fanfare is considered once he is in the studio which is full of old things, chairs and a lived ambience. Art critic Robert Nelson has written of the artist, 'Wegner's painting is about people and the place they visit, the studio. Models, friends and dogs come to the studio for a snoozy conversation with an artist    in many ways; the hero of Wegner's pictures is the motif of the arm chair'.

Wegner was awarded the Moran Prize for a recent portrait of his friend, fellow artist and poet, Graham Doyle - and it is in such a chair that he is sitting. Looking back at the myriad paintings and etchings he has made of Doyle over the years since they met at art school in 1984, Wegner puts it best when he says his own development as an artist, 'is carried on that tide'. The artist sees the body of collaborative work with Doyle as their joint project.

Robert Nelson writes, 'Wegner's way of painting is congruent with the subject matter. The irregularity of the old chairs is painterly in itself, with tears and incidents riddling their form. The tendency of the upholstery to break up or gather a patina of grazes and bumps compares with Wegner's idiom, which is battered by the brush, full of movement and change, a demonstrative give and take with thrust and slide that works happily with the weathered textures of the furniture'.

Wegner loves the act of painting portraits; its highly charged character. He always paints from life. With his oil painted portraits of Doyle, often taking six to eight sittings, there is much physical movement and conversational exchange. His method is to go straight in with the paint. Wegner does no preparatory drawing or sketches. The image is built up entirely with tone and colour. He makes a judgement, he makes a mark. As Nelson perceptively writes: [t]he rhythms of observation and construction are not just rough but anti-smooth, as if the searching and grabbing of eye and hand want to celebrate mottled things, objects or beings with episodic surfaces and eventful histories'.

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