Allan Mitelman is one of Australia's foremost abstract artists. His work defies classification but at the same time draws liberally from the traditions of Western art. His style involves a joyful convergence of process and material and each new work seems to involve some form of extemporisation. Besides being a painter, Mitelman also plays improvised jazz, a musical form related to extemporisation on a musical idea. As a musician Mitelman understands the nuance and ‘abstraction’ of music with its chord changes and tonal relationships, and it is a similar intuitive progression from idea to substance, that he brings to his art.


Untitled 1982
Synthetic polymer paint and scratching back
76.2 x 57.2 cm (sheet)
Collection of the artist

The substance of his paintings, prints and drawings reveal traces of other artists producing objective, abstract work, including artists like Cy Twombly, Brice Marden and Robert Ryman. Any comparison with these artists can only be superficial though, for in reality Mitelman has developed his own objective language.

What he does have in common with these artists is the way he considers the material of his art, the paints, the emulsions, the drawing media etc, and how he places technique at the centre of his objective language. The way he controls the passage of say paint to canvas, or pastel to paper is vital to the outcome of the work and like Cézanne he considers the synthetic nature of material to be as important as its analytic application.

To begin with the support, whether it is canvas or paper, he approaches it with the reverence of a Zen Master calligrapher. The support is the beginning; it is the fertile ground where the hand makes its mark. The process is a continuous feedback between what the hand is producing at the surface of the support and the way it is perceived by the intelligent eye. The artist gets a feel for how different supports interact with different media and thus the artist’s touch becomes very important, determining just how the work will proceed.

The relationship between the medium and the support is an inexorable one and the artist extends this relationship to come up with new paradigms, new ways of looking at the relationship between material and surface. Mitelman’s abstraction involves making acute and subtle changes to his surfaces, using the effects of layered colours, interlaced line and tonal variation.

Untitled (Diptych) 2001
watercolour and gouache on printed
maps on paper
12.8 x 19.8 cm (sheet)
Collection of the artist

Untitled 1989
Oil on canvas
91.5 x 76.5 cm
this work is available to purchase

Untitled 1992
48.5 x 38 cm
this work is available to purchase

The painting Untitled from 1989 is painted with oils and is predominately black. Mitelman has a long attachment to the colour black, but the blacks in this painting take on the colours of actual material. For example there is the shiny black that suggests anthracite and a more textured surface suggesting slate. With these two particular surfaces he builds up an impasto relief with some sections more heavily painted than others which he has scraped back to create a unified surface with various dents and craters scattered throughout. Interspersed with these layers is a layer of dull yellow, made up of scraped dashes of colour running across the entire surface of the work. Then other colours are applied more sparingly, including a bright yellow, a viridian and a purple, again applied and then scraped back to the level of the black. Although integrated into the body of the painted ground, visually these dashes of colours remain suspended in their own space. The effect is a surface of dense black, creating a feeling of weight and mass, with flashes of colours producing movement and animation.

To return to the analogy of jazz the musician plays with the range of our auditory perception and likewise, with his painting, Mitelman plays with the range of our visual perception. We are invited to look, to scrutinise the work and in so doing become involved in a dialogue with the painting. We are no longer the passive observer for we are provoked into a response, a sophisticated ethereal response to fundamental material processes.

A survey of Allan Mitelman: Works on Paper 1967-2004 was shown at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV, Melbourne and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney in 2004-5. The curator Elizabeth Cross wrote in her introduction to the exhibition:

"There are not so many painters working in Australia today who bring to bear in their art a knowledge and love of painting which embraces Chardin and Delacroix, Degas and Seurat, Matisse and Picasso, Klee and Morandi … So to each of his viewers, Mitelman's art holds open the possibility of touching that tradition - of remembering in some subliminal sense the touch of paintings which have gone before.

Much of Mitelman's work from the past two decades can be seen as a palimpsest on which the imprint of a century and more of art can be traced, on which fragments of observable phenomena are registered and in which the echoes of an equivocal spirit are heard, both his own and that of our richly endowed and troubled age."

Mitelman trained as a printmaker and a large part of his oeuvre consists of prints, including lithographs, etchings and monotypes. The methodology of printmaking can be a goldmine of inspiration for certain artists, especially with disciplined artists like Mitalman, who are happy to let the aleatory aspect of printmaking take centre stage. The fact that printmaking seems to be about control and happenstance appeals to him and in a way by mastering various techniques in printmaking it has liberated his approach to painting.

For instance the etching Untitled 92 has an affinity with the painting discussed above. Although the edition was made after the painting we can see with both mediums how he approaches the concept of looking at darkness. Mitelman is not interested in the opaqueness of black but rather he is interested in how it renders depth and involves our faculty of perception. With Mitelman one must tell oneself to take the time to discover what rests below the surface because there is always more to the work than can be divined from just a cursory glance.

The etching Untitled 92 is a window onto darkness. An opaque layer of black has been overlaid with a grey mesh of compact lines with a scriffito technique penetrating the mesh to reveal the black layer below. Thus the scriffito or drawing becomes at once the object of our gaze and the conduit to the depth below the surface. Elizabeth Cross sums up Mitelman’s surfaces in the following way:

"Always there are the same qualities of ambiguity and contemplation, the obsession, the delight in, the play and embroidery of the surface; these essentials to Allan's work are always there.

On the other hand, this unfolding reveals something else. Upon these surfaces there is an expanding of distance and mood you can't quite understand.

It is as if he is in the quest of making something beyond the real world. He pushes his surfaces to this point where there is the shadow behind the playfulness, as well as the play. He sustains the whole thing there, holding off the moment of judgement."




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