The James Gleeson oral history collection
James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists
Observation post II 1968
Painting, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
246.0 h x 185.0 w
1 April 1979
James Gleeson: All right Jan, well, we’ll go on to the next one. That is one we haven’t got a photograph of, Observation Post No 2 1968.
Jan Senbergs: Nineteen sixty-eight, yes. That was at a time, I think that would have been painted when I had a studio in Chapel Street, Prahran, in Melbourne here. I used to share a studio with Peter Clark at that time. It was rather funny. You know, we were good friends and close. But we were both completely different to each other in our painting. Particularly at that time, it was another kind of a period then because that mostly The Field exhibition was around then.
James Gleeson: Oh, yes, of course.
Jan Senbergs: Peter, I’m not saying that he was towards The Field, but he very much had a different approach to mine in painting. His was the sort of more restrained, abstracts, which he’d done so well, and I was doing my sort of other things. But I was very aware at that time of this sort of influence that was all around the place. It almost became important to sort of hang on to your beliefs and everything else, and you were challenged more often at that time. Because often you were said to be, you know, ‘Well, why do you work like this, this is old hat?’ and so on. But it seemed to be—well it was a period of sort of asserting your own images more and more than ever.
James Gleeson: Well I notice between this picture in 1966 and this one in 1958, there’s an enormous difference in not only subject matter, but in technique and treatment, the whole way of working has changed.
Jan Senbergs: Yes.
James Gleeson: How did that occur?
Jan Senbergs: while, and they were also becoming very busy and the blackness was so strong.
James Gleeson: Yes.
Jan Senbergs: I wanted to sort of introduce some light into it. The only way I could sort of handle it at that time— I tried with the enamel technique; it never sort of quite worked out—was to switch to canvas. In a way I did a complete reverse where normally previously to that most of my paintings were mostly on dark backgrounds. Where at that stage I just, in a sense, transferred into a light ground, with a darker image, but also on canvas. This also happened just after I came back from the Rubenstein trip that I won. Previously I got the award—was it the Helen Rubenstein Award—was it ’66, ’65 ’66? So I had to go overseas and I did, that it was my first trip overseas. It opened up a lot of other things too and naturally I looked around. I realised more and more that I wanted to sort of improve, well, mainly the technique. Out of that sort of need which I felt I reversed it and I started painting on linen and, you know, just different canvas instead of board and I gave away painting on board. Then again because of the nature of the surface being more absorbing and not like putting a sort of shiny paint on to hardboard which is easy to slip around at all time. I was slipping around too much, you see, I had to do something about it. That’s what it was.
James Gleeson: Was this one of the paintings where you began to use screen-printing?
Jan Senbergs: Screen-printing, yes, I introduced that too. Around about that time too because it seemed as though the images, I wanted the images to be a bit more crisper than they were beforehand. I’ve always tried—even those earlier ones—I’ve tried to retain that sort of structural form behind them. But they were becoming a bit too organic, too much sort of movement. I wanted to sort of tighten them up a bit and more and more I became aware of the image, of let’s say inventing an image, because that’s really what I’ve been trying to do most of my time, is to invent an image that is related to something. But, you know, it has a sort of ambiguity about it. So at that time I did that and I introduced the screen-printing and that was mainly because of, well, the training I had as a screen printer.
James Gleeson: Of course, naturally, you knew all the techniques.
Jan Senbergs: It occurred to me one day that, you know, why not? I was working as a screen printer at different times on and off and I was using all these different techniques for just normal jobs that I was supposed to do, and I thought well why not introduce some of this sort of ability that I had for that for my own purposes, you know. That’s how it came about. Then, of course, before that I did do some prints but they weren’t prints in a sense of editions. I just knocked out four or five prints in all kinds of tones and variations, just using the screen. It was almost like painting with a screen. I wasn’t really aware of it, of printmaking as such earlier.
James Gleeson: I see.
Jan Senbergs: The very, very earlier things are like that. It’s later when I learnt what printmaking was that I started to keep editions and so on. So a lot of these had these screen-printed images in them, yes.