Looby was seen as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival
Keith Looby is one of those artists that did a ton of great work, some winning major awards, who has been almost completely forgotten by the masses. He won the Archibald Prize in 1984, was named Canberra artist of the year in 1992 and has had a series of exhibitions all over the world and yet it feels like his name is not as well known as it should be considering his impact. Part of this could be due to his relationship with the art world in general which we can politely call “Troubled”… and this relationship is the main focus of the documentary about Looby’s life.
Looby, as a documentary, has two main things it’s trying to do. The first is to give a grand overview of the artwork and career of Keith Looby, starting with his early paintings up to as close to the present day as possible. The second is detailing the assorted controversies, including Looby’s adamant belief that he had the votes to win the Archibald prize back in 1979. As the two stories intertwine, we start to see what elements of Looby’s personality have made him somewhat of an outcast in the art world.
Looby really doesn’t seem like a film that’s interested in rehabilitating the image of its subject, but it also doesn’t seem to want to demonise him either. It just lays out whatever it can before an eager audience who are there to hear what drama might have caused one of the interviewees to describe their relationship with Looby as “Terminated” and doesn’t pass judgement either way. The subjects also seem to be playing both sides of the fence, going between calling Looby an asshole and then praising his work.
The moments when the film stops to just show off the work in question are wonderful, everything goes silent and it’s like you’re in the gallery just engulfed in the majesty of Looby’s work. It’s easy to see why his work is so heavily praised and throwing on top of that, the brief view of his process of making art is just fascinating. He’s one of those artists who should probably have at least one painting in every major gallery in Australia based on the quality of his work, but because of his personality that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.
Indeed, it’s when Looby tries to explain the actual controversies that cause him to be something of an outcast that it kind of fumbles, but only a little. The opening of the film really plays up that Looby is trouble, that he’s done things that burned so many bridges and maybe something didn’t come across but by the end it just seems like he was a bit of a drunken butthead which feels like what one expects out of an Australian artist. You end up waiting to hear some horror story of how he burned someone’s cat alive or something but in the end it’s just a personality clash… in the art world, a world where everyone knows at least a half dozen people who don’t exactly like to be social animals.
This doesn’t really hurt the film that much, the education on Looby as an artist is more than enough to carry it, but by the end of the film you do kind of have to wonder if maybe there’s some over reacting to these slights. It’s certainly shocking to see a man’s career completely destroyed just because he had a few arguments with his art dealer and didn’t have the most perfect social graces. There’s no inkling of anything that’s truly heinous, he just had a few spats with a few people and in return his incredible art gets put in storage forever. Maybe there’s more, maybe the fights were more intense than it seemed and they are good reasons to cut him out… but it just didn’t feel like that all the time. Not a big thing, but still a thing.
With any luck, Looby will get people interested in the work of Keith Looby again and maybe see a resurgence for an artist who clearly has a unique style and a fair bit of energy and life left in him. It might not deliver on the drama you might expect given how the film opens, but anyone interested in forgotten underground artists should definitely give this one a go. Maybe make it a double feature with the documentary on Marcel Duchamp, just drown yourself in stories about incredible artists fighting against the system.