Painter Marcus Beilby has an eye for light. The West Australian realist has been capturing the state's otherworldly glow for decades. His depictions of Perth and Fremantle's working class—their spaces, style, dynamism—speak to the shifting faces of both the local and national socioeconomic landscape. By highlighting the static nature of Perth's visual memory, Beilby has lifted the recurring motifs of deli shopfronts, train stations, and old pubs—many of them now closed—in their heyday towards an intersection of the banal and the sublime.
Creators talked to Marcus about his exhibition Sightings, a retrospective of his work currently taking place at the Fremantle Arts Centre.
Creators: These paintings depict pubs, train stations, pie shops. Working class spaces that are so typically West Australian. Tell me about that.
Marcus Beilby: My father was writer, so to a certain extent I look at these as short stories. You have a theme running through, they're weaving together, you have recurring characters. In these paintings there's that kind of aspect: they're independent but they give an integral vibe, an open-ended narrative, you can just step in. You know there's a past and there's a future, and you're immediately in this section of the narrative. With the class thing: we are less class-conscious than the East. We are one major suburb, essentially.
As I move through your work chronologically, I can see the past thirty years of Perth unfold. How have you balanced the rapid change with the city's persistent sameness?
A lot of them are of Freo [Fremantle], which kinda typifies that mix of change and sameness. The interesting one is this one [The National Pub], done in 1990, before The National burnt down. When you paint them they're contemporary—about the life everybody's living—but after a period of time they almost become history paintings, because time moves on, things change, and these become a record of what things were. The funny thing is, I have a daughter that's 25, and of course her friends come and recognise the barmaid.
The paintings give you an uncanny feeling if you've lived in Perth your whole life as I have. Is there intentionally that bit of everything in Perth being super similar—sort of bleeding together?
Oh yeah. But I also pick images that are the kind of places people pass through, like the train station, you take them for granted. And you look into the image and it's got this intensity, and suddenly you find an aspect of your life that is done in such scrutiny that you have this reawakening of it.
As a painter how did you develop your style and subject matter?
When I was younger I lived in America. And I organised a show in New York, and in doing it I had to go and have a meeting with the guy, and he was caught up and tried out my spiel on the gallery across the road. He says, "You'll be fine, because each city has its own parochial style, and you're figurative and New York's figurative. Chicago is surrealist and expressionist, San Francisco is colourfield, Los Angeles is pop art. The West is cowboy art. Then you go, I wonder I this applies to Australia.
With Sydney you think of Brett Whiteley and those guys, in Melbourne you think of the dark paintings of the Tuckers, and you wonder how it all applies to Perth. The first schools that a city starts are landscape schools. We were right in this process in Perth, of discovering our own interior style. It's quite interesting to see what comes out. I did a painting of a guy and he said the one thing about being in Western Australia as an artist is that there's no footprint on the sand. You're not in awe of someone else. You don't have to dance around some other people's ideas You can just do what you want.
I'm curious about "the Perth aesthetic". In a lot of mediums, the city and its culture are depicted with a kind of hyper-realism. Why do you think that is?
You know why I think that is? Because we have yellow light. And it's bright, and it's really clear. You've got violet shadows. You have really dark shadows and really bright light. You can see the leaves on trees—when you travel over east it turns blue, it has tonal fades. But we live in a graphic light and it is super clear, contrasted—it is surreal.
So the light is key.
I got into trouble. I did a show in Sydney and they said, "You paint with the light of a West Australian." And it's true. You'll be painting something and you'll think, that needs to be highlighted, that's not pumped up enough. You kind of pump and put more light into things, you put more edge and crispness into your shadows—they don't have that. It's kind of weird. You're sitting and you paint it and you think, it doesn't look right. It doesn't have that zing.