I arrive a little early to meet David’s wife, Fiona Larwill in Melbourne’s inner north. There’s a large wooden sculpture of a foot at the front door. It’s early Friday afternoon and I’ve done the dinner shopping en route. It feels a bit intrusive but I ask if it’s okay to leave the steaks in the fridge while we chat. Fiona says sure, of course its okay.
We sit down with a cup of tea at a long wooden table upon which rests the small maquettes David Larwill made in 2011. Bird and Contemplating his Place in Humanity are each dedicated to the artist’s sons. The bronzes bare the indentations of repetitive gestures and so lend themselves to handling.
It’s odd to think of a material like bronze, offering comfort but these works invite the viewer to hold them at length, like a teddy bear or a small pet.
The walls hum with paintings and assemblages, predominantly by Larwill. It is the assemblages that first catch my eye – the makeshift nature of the portraits created from weathered plastic found on the beach at Somers.
These bits of plastic – fragments of bottles, containers and rope, are re-arranged into Larwill’s signature cartoon-like figures. The objects are placed in a mosaic format, similar to the compositions found in his paintings.
Here, the initial appearance is jumbled, but upon closer inspection there is an intuitive regard for balance. These assemblages of found plastic speak of the immediacy with which the artist engaged with his surroundings.
“The people you love become ghosts inside of you and like this, you keep them alive." Robert Montgomery.
Along the floor are numerous shields, masks and artefacts collected by the artist on his travels both overseas and throughout Australia. These patterns and markings are the raw source material for many of the tribal patterns to be found in the paintings. The objects lead to a conversation about David’s steadfast engagement with and commitment to Indigenous culture in Australia – his friendships with Ginger Riley and Paddy Bedford; his yearly trips to the annual exhibition at Papunya Tula; and his unwavering support for elders when fighting the Jabiluka Mine.
In 1998, Larwill, Mark Schaller and Peter Walsh travelled to Kakadu, and together created works for an exhibition which raised funds to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine being built in the national park. Later, when I am admiring a vivid abstract painting by Sally Gabori, Fiona points out that it was these brutal abstract gestures that Larwill aspired to in his own work.
There are paintings from all stages of the artist’s career. The influence of Ian Fairweather is striking in a demure work in greys and browns in the living room. In a large early work from the eighties, Fiona explains how Larwill often painted on the same canvas many times, lending to a thick palette of distorted fragments. In the nineties, the format became looser, with more emphasis on the space between the subjects. Post 2000, she describes how he embraced a tighter but flatter painting scheme.
In each instance, the subject is something at close proximity. After having children, much of Larwill’s output revolved around the everyday domestic routines of family life, perhaps best illustrated by the chaos of figures in Bouncing.
Fiona and I speak of the curious way that artists insinuate themselves so strongly in your life, how they speak to you through their paintings, even after they’ve died. It reminds me of a quote from the Scottish artist Robert Montgomery who said that “the people you love become ghosts inside of you and like this, you keep them alive”.
I leave and head down the long narrow lane to the parking spot I’d secured earlier, sad not to have ever known David, but happy to have experienced something of the artist’s intrepid and generous spirit. I hear my name yelled – it’s Fiona. Of course, I’d forgotten the steaks.