What’s talking about painting worth? Not much, thought Edward Hopper. ‘If you could say it in words,’ Hopper said, ‘there’d be no point in painting.’ So I might divert you, in launching this exhibition, by talking first of the artist, my friend John Scurry. We first met ten years ago via my former colleague CJ, in the context of my cricket club, the Yarras.
CJ explained that her new man had expressed an interest in cricket, of which, over the years, he had been a very occasional player – very occasional compared, at least, to my rather compulsive involvement in the game, which bridged winters with long practice sessions to put a floor beneath the sag of middle-aged mediocrity.
Of course, I replied, John was welcome to join the institution of Yarras STU – the Special Training Unit – then convening Sunday afternoons at Melbourne High; and soon enough he was a fixture; these many years later, there is no more stalwart Yarras member.
If you know cricket club culture, John is that guy. The guy who does the humdrum stuff around the club whose doing everyone takes for granted; although, in that nice way clubs have, nobody takes for granted the individual who allows everyone else to take things for granted. He’s been clubman of the year at least three times, and only isn’t every year because of a sense that we should share it round a bit.
I gave him his nickname, Scuz, or Scuzza. Yes, sure, it’s a play on his name, but there’s also, in my mind, a tiny note of irony. We all know that Australian capacity for reverse and inversion – the tall guy called Shorty, the redhead called Bluey. Nobody could be less scuzzy than Scuzza. He’s that guy too. Mellow, straightforward, honest, reliable. A couple of years ago, I was in the field when John took his hundredth wicket, and from the balcony wafted a jubilant chorus of ‘Scuzza!’
I was initially unaware of John’s art or his music. He’s not one to draw attention to himself. In fact, getting to know John is very like gazing on one of his paintings. The superficial acquaintance is always congenial. The effort of closer study is always rewarding. About both the man and his art there is a quiet self-sufficiency, an attention to detail that is nonetheless unfussy, a seriousness of purpose that is never earnest and always good humoured. In its understatement and particularity, John’s painting has always put me in mind of William Carlos Williams’ oft-quoted poem from Spring and All:
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
In the same way, a Scurry is greater than the sum of its parts; the precision keeps you gazing and contemplating. These are paintings on which to hone your faculties of perception and meditation. I like John’s objects, of course. But I also like the way John turns people into objects; he has occasionally made an object of me, including vestigially in Melbourne Still Life. I suspect as life had sped up, John has grown stiller and stiller, and in doing so encouraged us all to slow down, just as art should. Being sensitive to Hopper’s injunction, I won’t address specific works here, save for the most obviously Hopperian, The Office at Dusk, which takes its cue from Hopper’s eighty-year-old classic, Office at Night.
As Hopper was inspired by a peering through an office window while travelling the elevated railway in New York, so John’s painting began with a sketch of a three office workers framed by a big window on High St, Kew. As Hopper posed his figures with an exquisite suggestiveness, so John has captured something about modes of work communication. The woman is elaborating her meanings, immemorially, by word and gesticulation; the boss in the middle is attending, although the fist on the desk and the proximity of the laptop suggest that his attention is at least divided; the third figure, in thrall to his phone, is physically present but mentally detached, there but not there, in that way we often are. The window frame divides them, isolating her; to the left, there is a fragment of a fourth figure, who has almost become part of her office swivel chair and headphones. The Office at Dusk also sets itself up by timing for comparison with Collins Street, 5pm, and various other Bracks: the dividing line in the glass reminds me of the one in Brack’s The Telephone Box, the desk of Brack’s The Block, the general scene of The Manager’s Lunch. And what do you know? Having started by talking of John, of Scuzza, I’ve ended up talking about his art anyway; I’ll use the excuse that the slippage is inevitable when the work is so distinctive and mature. Please enjoy the exhibition, and also your private thoughts afterwards.
Gideon Haigh. February 2022.