Sydney-born painter Keith Looby won major prizes at home and abroad. Today his name and works are scrubbed from history.

Editing: Angelica von Helle
Joseph Littlefield, Ines Vaz de Sousa

Cast: Keith Looby

Directors: Nick Garner, Iain Knight
Writers: Nick Garner, Iain Knight
Cinematography: Mark Revello

I’d never heard of Keith Looby before watching Looby. I had, however, seen his Archibald Prize-winning portrait of satirist Max Gillies in character as Bob Hawke. Watching the documentary, I was pulled into the world of Keith Looby and wondered how a man that was such a figment and high-player in the Australian art scene could disappear and fade into the wind? Which is entirely the point of the documentary.

Keith Looby was brought up in the Sydney suburb of Bondi; he struggled in school and fell to drawing cartoons of his teachers, but his love for drawing led him to attend East Sydney Technical College (which now goes as The National Art School). Around this time, Keith became a member of the Sydney Push, a subculture within Sydney that pushed left-wing libertarianism politics. The Sydney Push is a subject I’d watch an entirely different movie on, and probably for the best, Looby doesn’t spend much time on the subject. Instead, the film moves rather swiftly through to the successful years of Keith Looby’s life and examines the high’s he reaches before the sharp fall.

Although Looby’s opening minutes set a tone that has you expecting a significant twist or some crazy criminal activity from Keith Looby, the man was, as far as the documentary showcases, simply a bit of a dick. His years of success and living in the high life are shared with his curator Ray Hughes, a man Keith himself describes as having a 28-year marriage. Their relationship was close, and when it came to a crashing finish in the early 2000s, it seems that it also did a big of Keith Looby.

If there’s a shared view of Keith Looby from all of the film subjects, the man’s a brilliant artist, but he’s a horrible person. In his earlier years, a drunkard who never bit his tongue and had a very heavy opinion on the art world’s direction in Australia. Keith himself speaks of the modern art world with a sensation of spurn. The film closes on Keith, a man who knows deep down he should more fondly remember than he is, but I’m not sure if Keith realises or not he’s the one who burnt all of his bridges.

In a combination of well-edited interviews and lovely moments where the filmmakers let Keith’s artwork speak for itself, I grew to understand and appreciate Keith Looby as an artist and person of intense political and passionate beliefs. A highly controversial figure in the art world of Australia, but still one that should be remembered and whose work will stand the test of time.

Melbourne Documentary Film Festival Online is running until October 31st