First Public Performance

21/11/1987 First public performance at Theatre Place in Canterbury Melbourne.
21/11/1987 First public performance at Theatre Place in Canterbury Melbourne.

We only had a few compositions in our repertoire to begin with. ‘Dance of Life’, Leavings’ and ‘Landscape and Still Life’ all worked on by my father the previous year. Despite having only a few rehearsals under my belt, conducted in the privacy of the Workshop, I promoted the idea of getting out there, going public, of testing ourselves in a true performance environment. This decision to take to the streets can be in part attributed to youthful bravado; however, in hindsight, the notion that the evolution of a performance art should rely on studio practice alone seems ill-conceived. It is all the factors of painting in public, the environment, time constraints, the speed at which paint dries and of course, the reaction of the transitory audience that need to be accounted for. Incidental learning occurs through planned and repeated exposure to those environments open to public view, and this became a significant shaping force on the type of compositions we resolved to favour. This agenda to realise public performances, was established much earlier by my father, when in an interview recorded in 1977 he stated:

“My ambition is to see notation performed – the first public performance or perhaps a number of performances if possible. I think that will be the quickest way to push the notation forward, to find out its inadequacies by performing it in front of people and find its audience…I suppose the first principle of any innovative idea is to believe in it as an idea first and second is to put it to every test that it is possible to conceive. Finally the idea must be cultivated and given depth and substance.”

21-11-1987L&S 1

So we took our miss matched easels down to Maling road, the local shopping precinct, over- looked by the platform of Canterbury station and the commuters on the Belgrave and Lilydale lines. Theatre Place was still a sleepy bastion of entrenched proprietors and heritage listed shop fronts. We made a quiet entrance into the world of performance art there, and given my somewhat shy disposition, I couldn’t have imagined it any other way. The street simply became an extension of our studio environment, though the first performances were not without their dramatic moments – a sudden gush of wind that sent our papers flying down the street and an easel like a sodden drunk, toppling, catching Philip square in the cheekbone. At the cost of time and patience, an image emerges; the artist’s growing increasingly preoccupied with internal workings. This was a process Philip often related to the notion of time travel, in as much as the passage of time seems temporarily suspended in its consequence, subordinate to the necessity of the act of creation.

The local shop keepers were slightly bewildered by our presence at first, and pedestrians were slow to intrude, but warmed to our low-key intrusion in time. I wrote the score for ‘Fan Fare’ the night before our third public outing; a simple exercise that at least moved away from the hammer and sickle connotation of ‘Dance of Life’, which did not go unnoticed by the Canterbury natives. The day was very hot, and we had our first ‘big crowd’. Some took shelter under the eaves and watched intently these strange abstract apparitions take shape, all the more unusual set amongst Christmas tinsel and young pines strapped to posts. I remember the paint almost drying on my brush in the time it took to reach the canvas. These first public outings were significant in that they gave us an important boost to our confidence – we now knew that we could do it.

Performance of "Dance of Life" 12/12/1987
Performance of “Dance of Life” 12/12/1987
"Dance of Life" pastel on Paper
“Dance of Life” pastel on Paper
"Fanfare" 19/12/1987 Theatre Place
“Fanfare” 19/12/1987 Theatre Place

FAN FARE 1FAN FARE 2

“Fanfare” 1987

My first attempts at "Thematic" composition with a theme derived from a light bulb. November 1987
My first attempts at “Thematic” composition with a theme derived from a light bulb. November 1987

Another new Peter Graham score came to life that December, ‘Self Portrait – Portrait of a Square Split’, orchestrated for performance by Philip, the original notation having been written in 1976 by my father, but never painted. This was significant in that it became a key focus of my later notation exercises, to interpret the disparate collection of prototype scores left by my father. Philip also made numerous attempts to create workable scores out of the paintings and notations on scraps of paper, ‘Sun Hi Midday’, ‘Flower Piece’ and ‘Square Primary Exercise’ to name a few.

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“Self Portrait – Portrait of a Square split” Acrylic on canvas

I continued making my own drawings enjoying the silky glide of oil pastels in particular. Sticking to the guide lines of ‘taking a line for a walk’, my own ‘Linear Extensions’ quickly became more inventive and more confident in there execution. However, confidence was never an abundant trait and I remained shackled by a sense of doubt as to my own ability. My father always said that he was never the most talented student, but made up for this by working hard. This assertion belies that of one of his fellow students at the National Gallery Art School in the 1940’s, Helen Brack who recently said “we all thought he was the one to watch”. In comparison I guess I felt I needed to work doubly hard. When Philip referred to me as someone who could create accomplished works of art using the Notation and yet couldn’t draw a tree to save myself, I felt embarrassed and incensed. I wanted to be a visual artist, and for me that meant embracing and with practise, mastering different aspects of visual expression. In time I gradually introduced more conventional approaches to observing and drawing from life, but I began with the drawing of a line, imbuing it with character, and using that line to build a composition in conjunction with shape and colour. These simple principles formed the core of my first years of picture making. In this way, my learning to draw was back to front. Instead of starting with a representation and moving away from that with time and experience, I started with a purely non-representational form and slowly introduced a subject. Because of this, I’ve always felt more at ease working with flat spaces, forming depth by use of layering rather than perspective. Even my most stridently figurative works have this connection to abstract shape and line.

A selection of my oil pastel drawings from 1987
A selection of my oil pastel drawings from 1987

 

More important at this time was the embedding of arts practice in my daily routine. Picture making subdued the roar of the playground, the rowdy classroom and basketball court. Everything else imposed itself on my senses, but drawing in the privacy of my bedroom restored me to my own being. It was there that the intensity of feelings could find an outlet and I would screw myself up, spring loaded, to start a new work. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t draw. The practice had attached itself to my spirit, as necessary as food and drink, and a continuity of ideas began to emerge, each new picture containing the seed of the next. At school I was becoming known for my strange drawings, not always receiving favourable attention. Then I would give a nervous laugh to disguise my disdain, which served to prompt me to bury my interest further. When I was much younger, I drew a colourful creature on a piece of card, inscribed “Duck by Euan”. When my mother saw the picture, she exclaimed with delight at my creation, and I promptly tore it into pieces. My reaction in 1988, when a friend nominated me as suitable to participate in the creation of stage set for a school play, because I was ‘someone who can draw’, I felt a similar reaction over whelm me revealed in my stark denial of ability. I was so under confident and sure that it needed to stay in a safe place shielded from judgement for a while longer. At the end of the school day, the journey home was always a welcomed relief from my peopled life, and I would be careful to keep good distance between others on route to Auburn train station. With the afternoon light beginning to deepen, I enjoyed kicking my way through the spiky seedpods of London plane trees and then deciphering graffiti along the miles of shunting line. Sometimes the tangled words seemed reminiscent of the extended themes of a New Epoch set.

Still Life and Landscape

Philip and I at the easel in 1987 painting "Dance of Life"
Philip and I at the easel in 1987 painting “Dance of Life”

The concept of New Epoch Art had been worked on by my father for 30 years, but with a sense of his own mortality came an appreciation that it would take the work of others to bridge the gap between the theory and the practice. Philip had worked with him closely for some years, and I was aware of their master / apprentice union, and found myself making the odd painting in a fashion. The full meaning behind the pictures was not important then, but the distinctive calligraphic appearance of New Epoch Art had made an impact. Upon my father’s death, Philip took on the mantel of custodian of the project, and threw himself into the task of adding the necessary grammar to the New Epoch language in order for it to be used by others. He had to feel his way, immersed in another’s vision and making it his own, leading to the creation of a handbook for New Epoch Art which was a massive feat, and one that ensured the teachings and theories of my father were preserved. This process involved a careful piecing together of notes and information gleaned through long discussions, some of which were recorded on tape cassette. Philip assisted him in the workshop regularly, and the intense conversations about New Epoch Art had a very profound and permanent effect on him. In this way my father’s belief and joy for the project was passed on – generation to generation and in a way that went beyond words, but was connected at the very heart of kinship. It was also a time when Philip sensing the need for urgency took on a role approaching more that of a journeyman than an apprentice to the New Epoch project and my father’s teachings. In an introductory pamphlet compiled by Philip later in 1988 he wrote:

“Knowing how little I knew and how delicate the situation, I tried my best to encourage, even persuade him to continue his enthusiasm for “Notation”, often failing miserably. But he began to read again about the physical nature of the universe and philosophy – a heartening sign of new growth. My father had always equated the scientist’s understanding of the universe with the artist’s. The one gathers facts and tests theories and arrives at a perspective; while the other has a more intuitive approach to awareness of his environment as he fine-tunes his senses. He read Fromm’s “The Anotomy of Human Destructiveness” and re-read Koestler’s “Act of Creation” with a child-like eagerness, calling me in to listen to passages and to hear him talk his way through problems. Sadly, he would reflect on how little I could understand of what he was saying. Sadly, I reflected on how true this was”.

Philip working on the hand book in 1987
Philip working on the hand book in 1987

Philip described the creation of the handbook as an exhausting project with the feeling of being swamped by the responsibility constantly hanging over him. The manuscript that emerged was as faithful to my father’s ideas as humanly possible. To achieve this Philip had to interpret his manuscripts, often written in a poetic and cryptic fashion, and fill in missing pieces that had been suggested in his teachings. By August 1987, a first draft of the handbook was complete and the language sufficiently developed to begin practical trials. Philip initially gathered a small group of friends from his time spent at R.M.I.T. and by the end of an evening of explanation and dreaming with a cask of red wine, a commitment had been made to commence practice sessions. Everyone at that meeting was generous enough to give Philip the support he required to make a start. My curiosity had also been peaked, and it was not long before I wanted a piece of the action as well. My enthusiasm for the project was perfectly timed, as the original group fell away and new personnel were needed to fill the breach.

23 - Extended Vision 15:8:87

The first performance I witnessed was in September 1987, “Landscape and Still Life” with Philip and Neil Chenery at the easel. My own new epoch commenced that day in our back garden, the sun filtering through the oak leaves mottling the lawn and covering everything in the warmth of the new season. The experience was something of a revelation and for a wide-eyed fourteen year old, a seminal moment in my movement toward maturing sensibilities, a sense of purpose and to some degree, the realisation of destiny. “Still Life and Landscape” was originally written by my father late in 1986. Philip had his canvases set up on the veranda and kept returning to the workshop at the bottom of our back yard to receive the next sheet of notation, written out between continuing his commercial photolithographic work. The paintings came together first using the act of composition as distinct from its performance; from composition to notation, from notation to performance, from performance to observation – a complete cycle. The painting’s details are made up of two elements, firstly the jugs, cups and bottles set out on a two toned grey picnic rug in contrast to the surrounding foliage representing the landscape. This was made clearer in subsequent performances that perfectly illustrate the interpretive nature of the language.

Philip and our father in front of the newly completed 'Landscape and Still Life" November 1986
Philip and our father in front of the newly completed ‘Landscape and Still Life” November 1986

L & S 1L & S 2

September 20 1987
September 20 1987

As I watched this first performance with Philip and Neil, I felt simultaneously in awe and yet completely comfortable and flooded with a mysterious harmony which matched the gestures of brush to canvas. Neil was a very astute and mature individual who lent credibility to the day’s proceedings and this impressed me greatly. The performance held at its heart all the seriousness and endeavour I had always associated with my father’s creative pursuit, and it was right here, right in front of me for the offering. Not a memory or a feeling that diminishes with every repeated conjuring. Although it was the last time Neil participated in a New Epoch rehearsal, I was certain that it marked my beginning, and I couldn’t wait to take my turn in front of the easel. Later I reconstructed the day’s events in the silence of the night, twinkling stars leaving the same play of light that tears can bring, and in tender anticipation, I contemplated a new idea of the life I intended to lead. For a long while I liked to revisit that night, neither remembering the detail, nor plotting the future, simply being; flooded with the secret joy of the feeling and its restorative power.

My first time painting was distinguished by a memorable atmosphere, which set my passion further ablaze. Using our colour man Jeff Purer’s, Hydrocryl brand, which had a tendency to leave smooth, bumps in place of the sharp peaks of oil paint impasto I found so appealing, my brushwork was clumsy resembling the stridencies of an angry signature. The brush was too thick and the paint too claggy to assert sensitivity over my lines, but it is a bad craftsman who blames his tools as Philip recounted the adage passed on by our grandfather amidst the wood shavings and half-completed violins of his own workshop in Hartwell. My enthusiasm at least accounted for my lack of finesse and I began to learn as much as my natural awkwardness would allow. That evening the Webber charcoaled snags on two sides and the blue bars of the newly acquired zapper executed mosquitoes under the canopy of the old oak that overhung the backyard. The feelings associated with these first performances remain very special. They permeated my imagination and forged my resolve to become a visual artist. The decision had been made earlier, but these events elevated my experience from drawing in a child’s sketchpad, to using the materials of an artist.

28-9-1987 (1)Scan

Preparation for a second retrospective exhibition of my father’s work, early in 1988, which was to feature New Epoch performances helped focus our efforts and hone our skills and the ‘Workshop’ soon became the scene of many hours learning to paint. The workshop was against the back fence line of our home in Canterbury. It had been where my father set up his lithographic business Photocraft Services, when he vacated the Queensbury Street premises in the late 70’s. In 1987 it still had the enormous camera, enlarger, arc light and light tables that had been the tools of his profession. The place had a pungent chemical aroma, the acidity of photographic developer, the damp earth of the burnt sienna opaque and the residue from the arc light after its blinding ultraviolet display. But gradually the environment was transformed. The intense plastic bouquet of artist quality acrylic colours and the odours of habitation – dirty linen and plates not returned to the kitchen, replaced these smells. Philip set up camp in the area that had been a make shift office, and the walls that had separated the darkroom came down to reveal a jigsaw of machinery and quickly accumulating paintings. Most of the large equipment was sold off and the transformation from ‘Workshop’ to ‘Studio” was complete. This was very much the engine room for New Epoch Art and our burgeoning performance art group.

First Lessons

"Tree Forms" 1987 - Some of my first pictures inspired by The Cockatoo Tree painting by my father
“Tree Forms” 1987 – Some of my first pictures inspired by The Cockatoo Tree painting by my father

My desire to pursue visual art having taken hold, I asked my brother Philip to teach me everything our father had taught him about art. He began by instilling in me the great wonder of New Epoch Art. In a motel room in Castlemaine while visiting the memorial exhibition, Philip brought to life in conversation our father’s ideas and dreams and in this way became my tutor. He had this knack of talking big, of making the world seem obtainable and the highest aspiration a natural pursuit. I was immersed in creating a set of pen drawings influenced by ‘The Cockatoo Tree’, a painting I had watched taking shape two years earlier. I would come home from school and have a look at what had changed that day: a turquoise sky over fiery mountains; the posture of the birds and personality in their eyes; the characteristic scrolls for roots that now appeared in my own strange interpretations. Showing the roots of the tree was a device he had learnt from his friend and mentor, Irish artist Gerard Dillon when living in England in the 1940’s. I developed my own story surrounding the groupings of birds, the lovers; master and apprentice; wide eyed youth; first flight and reverie; each representing different stages of life and the diversity of relationships. The pen drawings I made also came to represent life force in transition, the curling forms indicative of the passage of time that I equated with the growth rings visible on a salami cut tree stump.

"The Cockatoo Tree" 1985 oil on canvas 120 x 110 cm
“The Cockatoo Tree” 1985 oil on canvas 120 x 110 cm

One day Philip observed me starting a new drawing, using a series of filled in shapes sprouting from the centre of the page. As I joined these shapes together creating a web like effect, Philip stopped me and sensing my readiness to explore the drawn line further, introduced me to the concept of ‘Linear Extension’. This had been where my father had begun his journey as an experimentalist on the path to creating a new form of art. By drawing a line in a rhythmic manner with peaks and troughs made with angles and curves, then interlocking a second lineal sequence, a whole series of non-geometric shapes are created, all related to each other, but unique at the same time. I then began new works that delved further into the imagery that had surrounded me all my life, beginning with two drawings named after the piece I was learning on the violin at the time, “Preludio and Capriccio” by Vivaldi. It was like discovering an old friend, only this time, I was its master. This was the first practical lesson I received, and Philip despite his at times, didactic delivery was by no means over-bearing or intrusive. He left me to my own devices for the most part, to make my own discoveries in learning about New Epoch Art and image making in general.

"The Growing" 1987 drawings hinting at the direction to follow.
“The Growing” 1987 drawings hinting at the direction to follow.
"Linear Extensions" compressed charcoal o paper 1987. earning to embue the line with character - to draw the line.
“Linear Extensions” compressed charcoal o paper 1987. Learning to embue the line with character – to draw the line.

The pursuit of this form of painting has come to hold a deep significance for me. It represents a link with my father, my family and the values and aspirations that guided his life and shaped my formative years. It also fulfils in me the urge to investigate new realms of creative endeavour. My father’s aspiration to contribute to the idea of art itself, left an indelible mark. The concept of Notation Painting was his greatest achievement in terms of originality and remains the foundation of my own visual expression and a wellspring of inspiration pricking up the ever-young spirit of creation. But the thing that shaped my feelings at this time was the connection between those drawings and the paintings on the walls, and a sense of belonging and of home. That feeling has outlasted any four walls I’ve called home since. Though I carry those rooms around with me, they would simply be anonymous real estate without the art work. When an old friend is hung to cover a blank wall, something magical occurs, the transformation is instant and a sense of home pervades the empty space. As my Mother once said, ‘We furnished the place with paintings’.