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50 Treasures: Sentinel by John Coburn

Our thirty-ninth treasure is from an abstract painter, tapestry designer and printmaker who incorporated religious and spiritual themes into his abstract works. From the James Cook University Art Collection comes Sentinel by John Coburn.

Dr. Anneke Silver answers the question "why is this significant?"

What is so special about this artwork and John Coburn? Several reasons come to mind. For instance, the fact that he was a local boy (from Ingham) who gained worldwide stature, and that Sentinel is the first artwork to have been acquired for the University Art Collection. Most of all it shows all those qualities of Coburn’s work that later develop to make his reputation. He is represented in major private, public and university collections all over the world. Among many of his achievements are winning the Blake prize twice (1960, 1977), receiving the Order of Australia medal and an Honorary Doctorate from James Cook University.

John Coburn, Sentinel, 1962, colour screenprint (serigraph) on paper, 46 x 53 cm, Edition 11/12. James Cook University Art Collection. ©John Coburn / Copyright Agency, 2019.

This work, produced in collaboration with his printmaker wife, Barbara, is also one of his earliest original artist prints. Sentinel consists of many layers, starting dark and moving towards light, which gives the work visual weight. It shows an emblematic shape – suggesting a presence – against a golden shimmering background, like the gold of religious icons. These characteristics come to full fruition in the late 1960s when they develop into organic stylised flat shapes with much clearer outlines – deceptively simple – on backgrounds of glowing colour. They are inspired by the immensity of the Australian landscape and memories of the lush plants in his mother’s tropical garden in Ingham, adapting them, in the way of religious iconography, into emblematic forms that trigger ideas of a divine essence, or the miracle of creation.

Curtain of the Sun, artist proof. From Kolenberg, J. (2000). John Coburn: Prints 1959 - 2000. Collingwood, Australia: Australian Galleries. Page 11. Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture, JCU Library Special Collections.

A major reputation-making commission came when he was asked to design the Curtain of the Sun and Curtain of the Moon for the Sydney Opera House, which opened in 1973. His typical flat shapes burst forth from their backgrounds, with masterfully tuned colours, daringly bright, bouncing off each other. They seem to project energies evoking the mystique of the sun and moon. These massive curtains were put into storage a few years after installation but were recently restored and rehung. A series of tapestries titled The Seven Days of Creation, a gift from the Australian Government to the USA hangs permanently in the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

All these works were executed as huge tapestries by the famous, historical Aubusson weaving workshops in France. Consequently, he and his family moved to Paris for several years. He exhibited there and in New York with increasing success. Influenced by his European experience he sought to find a style that brought together European traditions and religion, Aboriginal spirituality and the mystery of nature.

Curtain of the Moon, artist proof. From Kolenberg, J. (2000). John Coburn: Prints 1959 - 2000. Collingwood, Australia: Australian Galleries. Page 10. Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture, JCU Library Special Collections.

John Coburn’s connections with north Queensland are strong and north Queensland is proud of him as ‘a local boy come good’. His first set of oil paints was bought in Townsville, when working at a bank in Ingham, his art making then still a part time venture. He graduated from the National Art School in 1952. After his art career took him to Sydney, he regularly came north officially, or to visit family. Many of us met John and knew him as a quietly spoken, thoughtful and enchanting person. When art first started to flourish in Townsville in the 1970s, he exhibited at the small, but vital Martin Gallery.

The Perc Tucker Regional Gallery hosted the exhibition Four Seasons: tapestries and their designs commissioned by the Christensen Fund in 1987. It gave Townsville a taste of the quality of those tapestries at the Opera house, as well as insights into the connection between design and realization.

Image from Dance North programme for the 1990 season, Cross Countries. NQBC/2/7, North Queensland Ballet and Dance Company Archive, JCU Library Special Collections. Photographer unknown.

A major interaction with the Townsville arts community came when Cheryl Stock, Director of contemporary dance company Dance North, invited John Coburn to design sets and costumes for her performance piece Desert Magic (1990). It was a wonderfully exciting collaboration. His costumes of, for instance, Frill-neck Lizard, the Sun God as well as sets of moving rocks (realised locally by clever backstage crew) were spectacular. John was delighted by the whole process, commenting that it made his paintings come to life. The hugely successful show was filmed by the ABC and toured the world with great acclaim. Excerpts of the performance were shown at the opening of Living Symbols, an exhibition of John’s work curated by Ross Searle at the Perc Tucker Gallery.

Flyers for Desert Magic in both English and Chinese. NQBC/2/7, North Queensland Ballet and Dance Company Archive, JCU Library Special Collections.

John was a profoundly spiritual person who converted to Catholicism when he met Barbara. Her death in 1985 affected him greatly. Consequently, he travelled widely in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley, further developing his interest in Aboriginal culture. He identified strongly with the indigenous people’s spiritual connection with the land, evident in his later work’s increased use of earth colours, and many of the titles he chose for works.

A retrospective exhibition, Five Decades, was held at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney in 2004. He passed away in 2006.

His enormous output remained focused on developing an ever more idiosyncratic and recognisable approach. It has remained fresh and does not seem to belong to any era or art movement. It is always typically Coburn. It is classical in the true sense of the word.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Author Biography
Dr. Anneke Silver - professional artist and art educator for over 60 years, trained in the Netherlands and gained her PhD at JCU, where she was Associate Professor and Program Leader of Visual Art until 2006. With over 40 solo exhibitions and 70 group shows to her name, she has won numerous art prizes and created many public art works. Silver’s work is represented in public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Qld Art Gallery and Qld Parliament House. Craftsman house and Perc Tucker Regional Gallery have published books on her. She has done residencies in France, Netherlands, USA and Hill End, Australia.


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