Robert MacPherson

My Father said not to poke your nose into other people's business, Robert Pene St Joseph's Nambour, February 1947
mixed media on paper
30.0 x 42.0 cm

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Yuill Crowley, Sydney
Private collection, Sydney

These four portraits by Robert Macpherson belong to the open ended series of drawings by Robert Pene, a grade IV student from St. Joseph’s convent in Nambour, Queensland, working under the tutelage of one Sister Bonaventa. They have been ripped from the schoolboy’s notebook, special merit stamps proudly visible. With the stain of a leaked highlighter and clouds of well-aged ground, these economic line drawings are so satisfyingly proficient under the moniker of the young Pene. Driven by delight in the graphic possibilities of a pencil and rubber, they are frankly and exquisitely composed.

We are shown two side profiles so as best to see the ‘nosey nose’ sticking into somebody’s business, and the ‘lying nose’ rapidly growing longer. With our subject front-facing, we see the few comic spikes of hair and crinkled eyes disappearing into squiggles of mirth, then the hat donned – the hat that maketh the man.

These are secular pearls of wisdom handed from father to son, addressed to the Catholic Sister. And also, it would seem, to the art world at large with simple materials and direct means. Pene allows Macpherson to be explicit with narrative, in a way we don’t see in his other work. Its often said that MacPherson has the guts and confidence of a generation after Cultural Cringe. Though his references are not from within the art world, more from personal history, his works have always shown a real affinity to naked materials - from his 1973-78 'A proposition to draw', 'Hand Rituals' and 'Filled Gestures' from 1978, and 'Scale from the Tool' as early as 1977.

Pene has drawn prolifically about family recollections, neighborhood boastings and snippets from Australian history. Memorable titles include ‘The Spangled Drongo’, and ‘My Uncle Norm’s Kangaroo Dog Ripper’. In these subjects Macpherson saw poetry and above all, things to be rescued from obsolescence, lost truths to be recuperated. Macpherson, like Pene was also convent educated, a country boy from Queensland who first exhibited at the age of 37 after leaving work in the cattle and sugar industries, to be instantly recognised as a leading conceptual artist.

  • My Father said not to poke your nose into other people's business

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Robert MacPherson's paintings, sculptures and installations can be seen as lively investigations into the language of Modernism. Incorporating the styles and motifs of roadsign signage, slang expressions and hand painted shop placards, MacPherson's work is often created using the humblest of materials, such as paint-brushes, pots, socks, shovels and blankets. Through these modest domestic materials, MacPherson creates works that are strikingly beautiful, humorous and decisively Australian: works that highlight the poetry of the everyday.

Born in Queensland in 1937, MacPherson worked as a ship painted in the 1960s before travelling extensively throughout Europe and the US during the 1970s, where he took in the history of modern art and began assimilating that knowledge into his own work. Interested in the environment and farming, his works frequently reference elements of nature and working the land in a variety of ways, from portraits of drovers and cattlemen through to large-scale text paintings and installations that reference agricultural work.

MacPherson's work has been the subject of several survey exhibitions, including his first in 1995 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and, in 2001, a major survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. In 2018-19, the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, exhibited BOSS DROVERS (1996-2014), an immense work of 2400 drawings all executed in the name of his alter ego, a Year 4 student named Robert Pene, with each work dated 14 February 1947 and stained to add to the illusion.