The Evening Post: ‘Down-to-Earth Sydney Riding High’

The Evening Post, Tom Cardy.  “By any measure, things are going pretty well these days for Dunedin-based painter Grahame Sydney. His book, The Art of Grahame Sydney, won the top non-fiction prize at the Montana Book Awards last month. His paintings, of which he’s best known for his landscapes of Central Otago, sell for more than $30,000 each. There’s also a waiting list…

Nor does Sydney believe he’s at his peak. ‘I don’t feel I’ve done my best by any means. And I’m looking forward to being a damn sight better than I am now, because I’ll know more and I’ll know more about me; what I want my pictures to be like, how I want them to represent me.’

While popular with the public and some art critics, he’s been dismissed by some critics and galleries because of his style and subject matter. Sydney says he’s learnt to ignore criticism and praise.

‘I am perfectly well aware that there are as many [people] who regard them [my paintings] as utterly insignificant and pointless in this day and age, as there are those who love them.

In the art world it is regarded with ridicule by a great many because it has nothing to do with internationalism or avant-garde work, or current political attitudes to what art should be doing. It’s rather traditional and conventional, but I still believe in it. All I can say is that I have to do them because I can’t help myself. This is what comes out of me because I’m like this.’

Sydney says he doesn’t paint to be popular: ‘If you start thinking about the audience or your supporters, you’re a goner. You have to be able to ignore the market. I’ve always been lucky that I could ignore the market. I have always been able to find just enough people to support me. I have been allowed to be totally self-indulgent and someone has been able to help me out by supporting me. Sydney, however, does agree with curator Michael Findlay who wrote in The Art of Grahame Sydney that his work follows a tradition which began with realist painters Rata Lovell-Smith, Rita Angus, Bill Sutton and Christopher Perkins, who from the 1930s depicted the landscapes and people in New Zealand’s regions. ‘I’m extremely thrilled to be numbered among them,’ he says.

There’s also a couple of assumptions about being a realist painter which Sydney knocks on the head. For his landscapes, he doesn’t drive out to a spot in Central Otago, set up canvas on an easel and start painting away. The paintings are done in his Dunedin studio, based on sketches he’s made from his visits and, when short of time, the occasional photograph. The other big assumption is that Sydney’s realist paintings are an exact copy of what can be seen at a location. In other words, if you had a copy of his painting you could drive to the spot, compare it to the painting and it would be exactly the same.

Far from it, says Sydney. ‘I don’t want the paintings to be thought of as examples of ‘This is what I saw’. That would imply that in some way they are accurate, truthful or honest and they are not,’ says Sydney. ‘They are recreations and reconstructions based loosely on truths… What you try to do is find images which can do some justice to your own inward life. When we talk about depicting the landscape we are talking every bit as much depicting my inward responses as anything visual’.”