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Les Kossatz (1943–2011)

by John Noack

Leslie George Kossatz, died 15 February 2011.

Wendish Artist and Sculptor and “The Art of Existence”

Les Kossatz was a widely-acclaimed artist and sculptor who was well know for his sculptured sheep. He was a descendant of the Wendish Kossatz family from Lusatia in Germany and he died from cancer on 15 February 2011.

Les grew up at St Andrews, which is north of Melbourne. He spent some of his life as a lecturer at the RMIT School of Art and at the Monash Uni School of Art. Back in the 1960s, Les experimented with different sorts of materials and techniques for creating art-works and behind his creations was a deep “interest in the tensions between the natural world and the conventions of society”.

During the 1970s, this tension developed into a deep concern over the “human desecration of the Australian landscape”. His painting “Opening Ground Country Grass 1970” contained a deep crack in the land and his “Forgotten Landscape 1972” sadly included just the decapitated heads of some native animals, reminding viewers that Australia’s unspoiled nature is now mythical.

By 1972, he was also sculpting sheep from cast components and wool. His interest in sheep was inspired by his experience of nursing an injured sheep at his farm at St Andrews. The sheep for Les operated at two levels or extremes: a sheep was representative of the passive, animistic spirit of the land but it also stood for the “squattocracy” and conquest of the land, so clearly depicted by Les in his “Squatter: Ram in a Chair 1983”. With head back and feet up, the ram clearly depicted the squatter’s tempting of fate with its arrogant behavior towards man, animal and authority.

His “Am Zoo Berlin” series in the 1990s clearly depicted the quest by the “East Germans” for consumer goods, as a consequence of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Les displayed some of these at a German Celebration at Tarrington/Hochkirch near Hamilton back in the early 1990s, some of his back-packs were featured in the Tarrington Lutheran Hall. These were loaded with luxuries from West Berlin, which, in the artist’s mind, were being transported back to Eastern Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

His Kakadu paintings took up again the tension between the landscape and the human compulsion to control natural resources. Les depicted this by including technical charts and computer diagrams on his landscapes.

His Postcards on Religion presented some thoughts from world religions and challenges to the exclusive claims made by some of these. He observed that “Christianity became implicated in the world which it sought to save” and that it continually changes. He informed us that “in Palestine its concern was Fellowship; in Greece it was Philosophy; in Italy it was Institutions and in Europe it became the culture. In America it became an Enterprise”.

His Exhibition “The Art of Existence” in 2008 displayed about 100 items and was held at the Heide Museum of Modern Art at Bulleen. The accompanying book, “Les Kossatz: The Art of Existence” included on page 179 an exploration of the issue: “Is art reality? Is reality art?” Perhaps the Exhibition’s title “The Art of Existence” says it all. You can’t have one without the other!

This large book and colourful book titled “Les Kossatz: The Art of Existence” and available for $120, presented his gradual developing stages of artistic achievement since the early 1960s. Diana Gribbles the book’s publisher and partner of Les, who died on 4 October in the same year 2011, provided a useful chronology. Various eminent artists and scholars like Patrick McCaughey contributed sections to this book.

A lasting memory for some admirers of the art-works of Les was the visit on 1 March 2010 to his studio in Carlton, where Les had worked for the past 30 years in the old “Golden Glory Clothing Company” building. Les conducted a very informative tour of his studio.

Fortunately, Melbourne has reminders of the artistic creations of Les, one such sheep-based installation being located to the west of Melbourne’s State Theatre.