I have grown up watching Asher Bilu paint. He is a close friend to my father, Ivan. I rode my bike over to his house when I was a young boy and explored his creations, his magical mystery tour of a home. I remember stepping deeply into his very private studios observing him touch, construct, paint and, when resting, play his sarod.

I remember well how its unusual sound resonated and how I felt safe in Asher’s world. I was privileged also to grow up sharing happy moments with a whole kindergarten of children who played in this large house and garden space that so invited exploration.

Asher’s art, I love it all; its creation tells a story of his strength and determination; it is his very true legacy. Asher is able to produce large walk-through pictures that make you feel glad to be alive. He uniquely studies the universe and observes the detail in small, tiny things: minuscule signs of life and the remnants of nature’s footsteps, hidden little gems. His art is magical and always beautiful. It connects with humanity, and it does much more than we often ever care to admit. Here I will attempt to shed some light.

Asher Bilu The Mystery of the Known (detail), 2000

Asher Bilu The Mystery of the Known (detail), 2000
resin and pigment on board, 244 x 366cm
photo: Mark Ashkanasy

It isn’t easy to fathom the scale of Asher’s work. I recall entering his groundbreaking Cosmotifs retrospective exhibition in Benalla in 2013; it presented a massive visual landscape of unusual wonder and complexity. The work in the room engulfed me. More than that, more kindly, it held me close, in a way. I remember the excitement I felt; it was like walking into a deeply hidden cave decorated with unfolding delights of rising stalagmites and hanging stalactites. With such a wealth of colour, depth and shape to marvel at, my first impression was of exceptional joy, freedom and human understanding.

Featured in the exhibition, the painting About Time, 1990, resin, pigments, cane and paper offcuts on board, hung almost 4 metres in height. Like many of Asher’s pieces, it is loudly three-dimensional, possessed of width and depth that draws the eye in, sending it travelling in spirals, traversing its black, white and coloured cane and resin paint segments with desire. This action is addictive viewing; it is like peering over the top of a gigantic maze that deconstructs the mind and frees one’s thoughts. From a distance, the painting appears almost entirely black and white, partly confused. As you step closer and closer, the 3D transmogrifying imagery pops out, and its twinkling coloured confetti of gemstone-like pieces announce themselves, becoming a wondrous sight, elevating the experience.

Introspection, 2011, enamel paint, mirror on board, is a challenging work. Within Cosmotifs, it hovered over the room and connected with every other piece on display, reflecting in the inky darkness of its central, deep black circular mirror many unexpected shapes and architectural aspects and views of both the room and the other paintings. This ‘Big Brother’ focal point felt like a dark menacing eye, polished to a silken perfection, waiting and watching, peering both at the universe and down upon this exhibition and its visitors, fear-inspiring, downright horrifying. The mirror presented itself like a black hole, threatening to absorb and compress the room into one central gravitational pinpoint, a singularity of inconceivable mass.

Asher’s son Luke explained that he saw something dark and sinister in the work Vis Viva, 2011, enamel on board, which appeared to me like a wall of glistening hanging icicles backlit with a colourfully life-giving tropical forest landscape beyond. Perhaps this wall of ice, or shapes of whatever they may be, as Asher said, appear ‘man-made’, not of the natural world, and therefore they conflict with our securities, our safety net. Asher said he was not surprised that Luke was almost afraid of the painting. I see a place beyond the ice wall, a landscape that we so desperately want to reach out to, to touch. Asher holds us back, forcing us to fall in love with the ice.

Melbourne artist Asher Bilu

Multiverse, 2010, painted plywood, remains one of my favourite Asher Bilu works. It comprises eight 1.5m x 3m panels that hang together as room-long seamless stitching of layered circular shapes; all positioned and painted with exacting critical detail and beauty. Multiverse and its 3D components seem to float and move as the eye studies it. It moves, ebbing and flowing like oceans of ripples and waves, peaks and troughs that comfort the viewer with a new visual representation of infinity. Infinity as a universal reality concept now becomes something to be loved and embraced, no longer incomprehensible. In our deepest night’s sky, there is delight and wonder as we gaze out into the cosmos, looking through our Milky Way. Man’s spirit compels him to venture forth and beyond bravely, just as our forebears travelled Earth’s vast oceans in search of the unknown – driven to conquer and make new discoveries. With Asher’s teaching, his profound and powerful sentiments, we can finally learn to simply be – to experience, to explore, to feel the true meaning of life and love, and that is to accept and connect. Asher makes us do this, and it is a beautiful feeling.

In many ways, the Cosmotives exhibition in Benalla affirmed Asher as a mind, a creator, of the highest calibre, as good as Australia and perhaps the world ever would see. I am not surprised it has taken Asher more than two-thirds of a lifetime to be discovered and celebrated. His genius is far ahead of what any average gallery curator could begin to comprehend: no pigeonholing, easy descriptor, or category if you prefer. If anything, Asher Bilu is a category in himself, demanding recognition.

Asher is a beautiful man. I know that he moves through life with an appreciation of all around him and of every life. Often, he talks of the little joys, the happy faces on his grandchildren, and how they too discover new visions of light and expression in their youthful worlds. Asher also never stops searching, admiring and discovering detail in his world. I was fortunate enough to sit with him at the Benalla Art Gallery and witness the joy of expression on his face as he exploded in verse, pointing to the water fountain on Lake Benalla. ‘All of these tiny water droplets are moving to the east, then to the west, dancing in the wind; they are ballerinas,’ he said. ‘Isn’t life just so amazing, beautiful?’

This is an artist’s gift: to see what others cannot, to explore detail in the macro and the miniature. Asher’s world of vision can extend past the greatest depths of our solar system and then fall quietly, internally, softly down to perhaps just one single grain of sand, sitting silently and perfectly, centred on a polished sheet of glass. The glass admires its one vital ingredient, and Asher admires how the winds of Time have withered the sandstone down to this tiny speck.

Asher Bilu M-Theory (detail), 2010-2011

Asher Bilu M-Theory (detail), 2010-2011
acrylic on plywood, string, masonite floor,
(2,000 components), 1200 x 550cm
Photo: Jamie Durrant

Cosmotifs, in many ways, created a journey into the unknown and a journey that took us through a warm, comforting world. As I considered leaving the exhibition space, I stopped to view the central, major installation: M Theory, 2010-2011, acrylic on plywood, string (2,000 components). It inspired me to ask one final question of myself and of my world. That is, quite simply, ‘Why?’ I noticed that I was absolutely alone in the gallery at that moment, just before closing time, on a quiet, wintery Sunday afternoon, several weeks after the hugely attended celebratory exhibition opening.

All the happy and excited faces were gone; the spirit, love of connecting with people, had eroded me. I was alone with the work, sitting on the floor right next to it. I recall how I then felt more connected to it; I felt its vastness. I wanted to step right into its three-dimensional picture and lie inside its boundaries, like lying in summer’s long grass. But at that moment, I just sat with it, as one might sit silently beside a well-respected friend.

I imagine that one day the people of the future, with their digital archeology, will rediscover this work and the accompanying photographic images of it. I hope that, as Asher Bilu did, they will painstakingly piece it back together for all to admire. Truly great art commands respect and is not forgotten. It is one of man’s great inventions. Looking at M Theory, there can be no better feeling. Asher, again, I thank you.

Asher Bilu M-Theory, 2010-2011

Asher Bilu M-Theory, 2010-2011
acrylic on plywood, string, masonite floor,
(2,000 components), 1200 x 550cm
Photo: Jamie Durrant

Also pictured clockwise, from left:
Multiverse, 2010, enamel on board, 244 x 976cm
Vis Viva, 2011, enamel on board, 244 x 488cm
The Column, 1978, resin and pigment on board, 244 x 183cm

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