John Foubister

Australian visual artist John Foubister was Rimbun Dahan’s first Australian artist-in-residence in 1994. From September to November 2011 he undertook a three-month residency along with his artist partner Melanie Fulton at Hotel Penaga in Georgetown, Penang.


johnJohn Foubister studied a BA in Visual Arts at the South Australian School of Art from 1980-1983. From 1984-1995 he maintained a consistent art practice alongside paid employment. During these years John held five solo exhibitions, and participated in twelve group shows in Adelaide, and one at the National Gallery, Canberra. He was a founding member of three artist run studio spaces in Adelaide. In the years 2005 to 2011 John participated in group exhibitions in South Australia, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. In 1994 he was recipient of the Rimbun Dahan Residency which provided studio space for one year in Malaysia, with an exhibition at the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur on completion.

From 1992 until 2007 John worked as a recreation provider for people with disabilities. His joint roles included Coordinator and Arts Worker in Art Programs for people with disabilities. John project managed six major disability arts exhibitions in South Australia.

John produces medium to large scale oil paintings which reflect his interest in environment, philosophy and the role of the imagination in creating realities. Most recently his work has been concerned with the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

John has work in the National Gallery, Canberra, and private collections in Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, England and the USA. In 2011 the Adelaide City Council Public Art Program featured a selection of John’s paintings, reformatted into large light boxes and positioned externally in the CBD area.



Catalogue notes to John’s December 1994 exhibition at Rimbun Dahan by Julian Bowron, Director, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia.

‘If infinity can be grasped and manipulated using rational thought, does this open the way to an understanding of the ultimate explanation of things without the need for mysticism?  No, it doesn’t.’[1]

The ineffable, the intensely personal and the perverseness of things are the subject matter of John Foubister’s paintings. While this is by no means new territory, the pervasive inclination to rationality, expertise, and the systematic will to a taxonomy of the metaphysical. along with the material which pertains in the current era, makes it a hard road. Much contemporary art practice prospects rich veins of current theoretical discourse and mines them with alacrity and diligence. Particular attention is paid to ensuring that the appropriate commentators are on hand to endorse the process.  Consequently, artists’ and writers’ endeavours are contained within the current orthodoxy.  The bigger picture is less frequently attempted.

Foubister’s interest in quantum physics reflects the ‘preoccupations’ driving his work ‘the big view from the room’.[2]  The artist’s recurrent visual language also grapples with the dilemma of reconciling personal and wider relevance.  At first an exhibition of his work can appear disparate, disconcertingly so, but this has to do with an unwillingness to adopt the convenient package of a suite of work systematically or didactically promoting a neat set of ideas, or forming a too-tidy aesthetic hanging.  In his determination, this strategy of discomfort, Foubister aligns with much current installation practice in insisting that the viewers begin to look beyond ‘familiar’ vocabularies and bring to the work readings of their own informed by various permutations of private, collective and cultural experience.

Adelaide poet and writer Ken Bolton has referred to Foubister’s work as ‘paintings for people who are no longer enchanted with painting’[3].  Greenberg’s dogma continues to haunt painting, obstructing its ready acceptance as a site of intellectual engagement, despite an irrefutable catalogue of intelligent contemporary work.  The primary obstacle is however not the monolith of modernist notions but the obsessive drive to exorcise the modernist ghost which too often results in a denial of the continuity or histories of practice.    Contemporary conceptual practices and the theoretical concerns which commonly inform them are consequently presented as having somehow spontaneously arrived fully formed and unencumbered by a history of ideas.  Painting site most uncomfortably with this persistent if untenable position because its formalist concerns especially, persistently evidence a long history.  The cult of the curator/specialist has been particularly unhelpful in this respect, focusing opportunistically as it does on the apparently new in order to promote the discovery of ‘innovation’.  Edward Said has encapsulated this pervasive dilemma particularly well.

‘Specialization means losing sight of the raw effort of constructing either art or knowledge;  as a result you cannot view knowledge and art as choices and decisions, commitments and alignments, but only in terms of impersonal theories or methodologies.’[4]

In these new works, enhanced by a year’s consolidated work away from familiar spheres, a definite narrative emerges from familiar imagery and concerns.  A vivid internal world apears in haunting primordial pictures dominated by dark seas and dense jungles overlaid and intertwined with labial whirlpools and sucking vortexes of swirling paint.  Alternatively grids of flatter colour are a field or a blind for an amorphous figure and the letters ‘I f if?’  Or perhaps “JF” the artists self mocking  grandiose signature.  Certainly Foubister teases the seriousness of  the gaze and disarmingly parodies his own self-consciousness.  Often floating in the foreground of the picture plane is a grinning smiley face, the artist returning the viewers’ gaze with a wry and at times slightly frightened assurance.

Foubister knows what can be done with paint, knows well the seductive and lyrical qualities which can so effectively promote sensuality and aesthetic bravado.  Critically he knows also how to withhold the medium from the surface and manipulate by means of latency,, banality and deliberate unpaintedness.  It is by these means, as well as his deliberate jerky narrative, that he invokes a journey which is strange and at times uneasily familiar.  Wider concerns such as the way in which individual subjective reality is ‘constructed through the processing of sensory stimuli’[5] consideration of the infinite which ‘can be contemplated and symbolised but not known’[6] are intermingle with the obsessively personal, the palpably erotic and a sense of absurdity and pervading doubt.

These are not the ubiquitous media or technologically generated images though which many painters have sought to transcend the ‘inescapably precious materials of painting’[7].  These are overtly painted and drawn images consisting of particular and downright expressive marks and technique.  They draw upon Hodgkin, Guston, McCahon and Magritte at least.  Painting unrepentant:  this work demonstrates a thriving practice.

In the work of Australian contemporary visual arts a sustained commitment to making work and maintaining articulate ideas is too often rewarded by a highly marginal existence.  In a recent conversation with an Adelaide artist I found myself all but asserting that this endemic situation somehow works to maintain the urgency and edge necessary for a vital visual culture and was rightly taken to task.  The equation of poverty of means with creative energy as co-dependent factors in sustaining ideas is a sentimental and insidious notion.  Opportunities for artists to concentrate on their work relatively free from financial pressures are all too few.  Foubister’s generous residency in Malaysia has been one such opportunity and is reward for great persistence and determination against the odds.

[1]Davies, Paul.  The Mind of God  London, Penguin 1992

[2] Foubister, John,  letter to the author 14 November 1994

[3] Bolton, Ken.  John Foubister-the resent work: some notes towards a reading of his work  Broadsheet Vol        23 No 1 Autumn 1994   p. 25

[4] Said, Edward.  Representations of the Intellectual: the 1993 Reith LecturesLondon Vintage 1994 P. 57

[5] Foubister, John letter to the author 14 November 1994

[6] ibid

[7] Bowron, Julian. Mark Wingrave, Crossing (exhibition catalogue) Adelaide The Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia June 1994