With the tagline ‘Celebrate Our Heroes’, acclaimed artist Ross Watson’s latest exhibition, Classic De Novo II, is a diverse collection of portraits of gay icons and role models from all walks of life — from beefy Kylie Minogue tour dancer Marco Da Silva to elfin Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears.

The collection continues the theme of Watson’s previous exhibition, Classic De Novo, placing contemporary, often instantly recognisable, figures in front of stunning recreations of classic works by the likes of Caravaggio and Vermeer.

The works were all created in Watson’s Carlton North gallery, which also serves as his work studio and living space (alongside gallery director, practising osteopath and Watson’s partner of four years, Stephen Morgan). The day Sydney Star Observer visited, Watson was busily putting the final touches to the exhibition as his two hyperactive terriers yapped happily at his feet.

“It’s definitely important to me that the public get to see the originals of these works. That’s why we’ve made sure, for instance, that Melbourne and Sydney audiences can see the painting of Matthew Mitcham before it goes to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra,” Watson told SSO.

While the exhibition ran in Melbourne as part of the Midsumma festival, in Sydney it will not be included as part of Mardi Gras, despite showing while the festival is on. Watson submitted Classic De Novo II for consideration by the New Mardi Gras board but was rejected without explanation, which he admitted had stung.

“They denied our application and they’ve not provided a credible reason. I don’t know how much I want to say about it all, other than that it was disappointing.”

The newest gay ‘hero’ featured in the exhibition is Matthew Mitcham, whose near-naked frame takes pride of place in a large, vibrant work based on a 1700 painting by Ricci.

“We approached him a while ago and for various reasons we weren’t able to find the time to meet up until relatively recently. When he arrived at the studio, he was so excited about it all, just bursting with enthusiasm.

“It’s the first painting he’s ever been involved with: he’s been photographed 100 times, but he found this really special. And he was just wonderful, throwing all sorts of different poses and giving me a lot to work with. He’s so fit and flexible, so he was really a natural model.”

So too was Da Silva, whose brief sitting gave Watson a deep insight into the dancer’s personality.

“When we met, he spoke quite candidly about the loneliness of the touring lifestyle. The loneliness and isolation of endless hotel rooms, of being away from your friends and family. I turned around to load up my camera, and when I turned back, he’d stripped off and was sitting there on the bed, all wrapped up in a doona. He was so open about his vulnerability; I felt quite lucky to be able to see that.”

Standing out alongside these paintings of buff, bronzed young men is the portrait of Michael Kirby, which captures the former High Court judge deep in concentration as he helps a young student.

Alongside the big names featured in the exhibition are some striking portraits of unknown models, including a gorgeous young Melbourne man named Andrew who, “apart from being excruciatingly handsome, is also extremely intelligent,” said Watson.
info: Classic De Novo II shows at the Depot Gallery, Waterloo, from February 23-March 6. info: www.rosswatson.com

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