Recently I found myself rummaging through some old art videos and found one featuring artist Fred Cress (1938-2009) that was screened on Channel 9's "Sunday" program. (Yes, it's THAT old).
Cress was born to English parents in India in the dying days of the British Raj, but was educated in England before sailing to Australia as a '10 pound pom' in 1962. Within a few years he went from being booted out of a teaching job and having trouble finding a gallery that would hang his work to being one of the most successful abstract painters of his generation.
Some years later, and to the dismay of his high profile backers, Cress turned his back on all this and began producing figurative work. He went through a personal crisis (which ultimately cost him his marriage) during the 1970's and into the 1980's, which was partly brought on by a trip to New York in 1974. There he met the leading lights of the abstract expressionist movement including Clement Greenberg, Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler and left disappointed with the experience. He was expecting to encounter confidence, clarity and strength from them about their work, but instead they seemed fragile and super sensitive to criticism.
The conclusion he came to was that the problem lay with drawing – "the fact that these artists did not draw worried me. For me, drawing was important because that was where touch lay, where intimacy lay, where your total individuality lay – that was the way you could tell who was an artist and who was not.”
In the early 1980's he formed the view that Western art had lost an important element when it could not tell stories and art students were taught that telling stories was not in the best interests of painting or the artists themselves.
It was in 1988 that Cress abandoned abstraction once and for all and artistically "I became totally myself". Cress says people who see his recent work are surprised at how peaceful he seems when they meet him. "I live my anger in my paintings." In many of his works people appear leashed up, or fighting against the odds and he says that's how he sees life. There is disquiet, sexual banter, the nudge, the wink and human frailty.
Cress likes to observe society as an outsider, even a voyeur and there is always some sinister enjoyment for the viewer who is enticed to participate in the scene. On the Sunday program, the interviewer (Max Cullen) asks Cress "Why would anybody want to buy them?" "That's a very good question, I have no idea" was the response. But Cress went on to say that he made a decision after his abstract years that he would never paint anything that bored him and if he was to earn money it would be by making things according to his own dictates.
He enjoyed considerable success as a figurative artist before dying of prostate cancer in 2009.
Sources: "Sunday", Channel 9 1995
"Fred Cress: Figured It Out", Art Collector 2006