27 June 2002



June 27, 2002
Australian Primitive Finds an Unforgettable Signature
By JOHN SHAW The New York Times

SYDNEY, Australia, June 26 — Pro Hart, an artful primitive, is Australia's most popular painter: think, perhaps, Grandma Moses on walkabout or L. S. Lowry with sunshine.

Art critics wince, condemning his works as slick and shallow, but Mr. Hart evidently touches many Australians, who are sentimental about their country's great open spaces and its pioneer past.

Mr. Hart's simple — or simplistic — style in depicting outback scenes in gaudy colors is so easy to imitate that he is a favorite of forgers here and as far away as Hong Kong.

His Sydney dealer says that $5,000 (United States) is now an average price for a Hart, with large new works bringing more than $10,000. At a recent charity auction a generous bidder paid about $100,000 for a Hart landscape.

Mr. Hart, 74, whose given names are Kevin Charles, avoids modernism in the carefully naïve landscapes and rural vignettes he churns out at Broken Hill, a mining town in the arid inland about 900 miles west of Sydney.

"The art mafia doesn't like me," he said of those who charge that he is a formula painter with a repertory of clichés.

But Mr. Hart is more concerned with copyists than with critics. He has vigorously embraced modernity to defend his substantial income by using invisible identification labels based on his personal DNA code as guarantees of authenticity.

At recent exhibitions and sales in Sydney, and in Canberra, the national capital, the artist offered 40 new oils and acrylics on canvas or board with DNA tags, and inspected 200 earlier works, approving most of them for the addition of this high-tech means of certification.

In all about 1,500 of his paintings — some say that Pro, a grade-school nickname, could well be short for prolific — now have a DNA signature readable by hand-held electronic scanners. This precaution is also a useful sales promotion point.

Several thousand genuine Harts, and an unknown number of fakes and pirate prints, are scattered across Australian living rooms, corporate offices, doctors' waiting rooms, golf club lounges, airport corridors, shopping malls and real estate offices, bringing a glimpse of the bush to the city.

DNA Technologies, a Sydney company using technology originated in the United States, devised the process of recording Mr. Hart's DNA identity from mouth swabs. It extracts a series of chemical markers from the samples, then mixes them into inks, resins or paints that are applied to a small area on the back of the painting. It costs $70 each to mark works in this way.

The company, established in 1996 by a Sydney engineer, Ron Taylor, and his brother Dr. Paul Taylor, a physicist living in California, first sold the DNA encryption technique to merchants of licensed souvenirs at the Summer Olympic Games in Sydney in September 2000. There the DNA was based on that of a former Australian Olympian, an athlete whose identity the International Olympic Committee is still keeping secret.

Dr. Taylor said he was not aware of DNA-based marking being used on artworks elsewhere, although some Australian wine makers are applying it to the labels of their premium vintages. In Canada, he said, dealers in valuable sports memorabilia have used it as an authentication device.

Some artists and art dealers in the United States and Europe have used microchips, bar codes and fingerprints to register authenticity, but these are vulnerable to copying and tampering.

Dealers and gallery owners here estimate that millions of dollars are spent each year in Australia and elsewhere on paintings, prints and other art works that later prove to be bogus or have doubtful attribution.

Mr. Hart admits that he was caught in a fraud, having once paid $35,000 for a landscape attributed to Sir Arthur Streeton, an accomplished Australian impressionist; it later proved to be a fake.

He said he has suffered from forgers since he began selling, in the 1960's. Nevertheless, since then he has converted a hobby into a cottage industry and has promoted that into a family business involving four franchise galleries and his five children.

He said he took up painting untutored, sketching from memories of boyhood on a family sheep ranch, to "save myself from going mad in the mines." He worked underground in the lead and zinc mines of Broken Hill for 15 years before he was discovered by a city gallery looking for outback images to offer city buyers who rarely venture beyond their coastal suburbs.

For 40 years he has been selling all he can paint despite the snubs of critics. But he was nowhere to be found in the National Gallery of Australia's 200-piece touring show last year to celebrate a century of national independence. When asked why he did not include the work of Pro Hart, the country's most recognizable image-maker, the curator, John McDonald, said that Mr. Hart had made "no distinctive contribution to Australian art."

And the fact that a major new anthology of postwar Australian art criticism contains no mention of Mr. Hart after 1982 indicates that reviewers gave up on him 20 years ago, something that apparently endears him to his audience.

John Robinson, a retired farmer living near Sydney, has a Hart landscape of gray trees in red earth along a blue creek for which he paid about $350 about 20 years ago. At a recent gallery sale he pointed excitedly to a similar canvas priced at $5,000. "That's just like mine," he said. "You can always tell a Hart. I love his work. You can almost smell the dust and the gum trees.`

George Kayaba, a Canberra architect, said: "The paintings grab you. The colors are bright, but that's how the outback is." But the veteran critic Giles Auty, who now writes for The Brisbane Courier Mail, said: "Some primitives and naïves are very good. Hart is not of them. His paintings are illiterate, vulgar. And he has not improved over the years."

Michael Reid, a Sydney art lecturer and art market columnist, is no admirer of Hart, but still he admitted: "A Pro Hart is the first painting most Australians see or buy. His images are very accessible and can lead people into the wider art world."

In one area, at least, this primitive painter has entered the ranks of the avant-garde: his signature.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy