PETER GRAHAM EXHIBITION AT ROAR 2 STUDIOS

9-4-1988

The exhibition at Roar 2 studios was an ambitious attempt to capitalise on the success and interest shown in the earlier memorial exhibition. The venue was chosen carefully to allow for expansion and Jan again returned to Canterbury to select new works to add to those already shown in Castlemaine. The across the board approach was extended to incorporate major canvases from each distinct time frame. ‘The Convicts’ now the centre piece of the early figurative years; ‘Waters of Lethe’ and ‘The Clouds’ giving substance to the later abstract work.

"THE CONVICTS" PETER GRAHAM 1946 OIL ON CANVAS 240 X 190 CM
“THE CONVICTS” PETER GRAHAM 1946 OIL ON CANVAS 240 X 190 CM
"WATERS OF LETHE" PETER GRAHAM 1964 OIL ON CANVAS 210 X 250 CM
“WATERS OF LETHE” PETER GRAHAM 1964 OIL ON CANVAS 210 X 250 CM
"THE CLOUDS" PETER GRAHAM 1974 ACRYLIC ON CANVAS 210 X 240 CM
“THE CLOUDS” PETER GRAHAM 1974 ACRYLIC ON CANVAS 210 X 240 CM

In the middle of it all stood our Tri-Easel, and we came in each weekend to demonstrate New Epoch Art – Joyce, Philip and myself aided by Peter Bradley, an old school friend of Philip’s acting as craft assistant. The logistics presented a first hurdle, with the tri-easel requiring the back seat of our Ford station wagon to be lowered. I found an uncomfortable niche in which to insert by slight body, wedged between wooden easel uprights and a variety of painting accessories, my head resting on an old kit bag perilously close to a protruding 12 inch bolt. The journey was as much an adventure as the entire four weeks of the exhibition, propelled along, my eyes on the cars ceiling rather than back seat driving, mapping our position according to the number and frequency of turns, speed bumps and stops.

Philip and I performed ‘Dance of life’ on the opening night. It was a brief butterfly of fear like an extended squeal of tyres that held me up right. My imaginings collected around me projected in the paintings on the wall. So I pretended to be ‘Skinning the Kill’ rather than a lad on the precipice of the ‘big event’. Feeling nervous was a familiar experience. There were the stage appearances with violin tucked tightly between locked shoulder, red jaw and sweat – the latter helping my fingers glide to positions along the metal wound strings. In class also, I was tormented by a lack of participation, and I would crimson and boil when put on the spot. I was not designed for public speaking, yet here I was, at fifteen fielding the questions and interest of a ravenous audience coming to grips with something strange, something new. I guess it was the solitary aspect of painting that so appealed, time outside of judgement where I could find ways of navigating my inadequacies. So it was a strange choice, against my nature, that I became a performance artist. It was feelings, more than anything that drew me toward this creative agenda. Feelings and a calmness induced by quiet reflection. In the schoolyard I had a vision of Philip rolling his arm and calling out, ‘Come on, let’s do some painting’. I held this tight, it was something sacred, not to be bragged about for fear of having to prove myself. I could curl up in that idea place, inhabit it like a secret corner of the garden, where leaves strangled by wisteria threatened to torpedo and join lily pilly seeds in their helicopter descent. Where Cherished blue carved out the shape of clouds and the fern fronds unfurled with the drench of summer watering; everything existing for me to believe in and wonder, a private, parallel life in the garden where my imaginings were safely exposed.

23-3-1988 (1)23-3-1988 (3)

The exhibition was officially opened by Beatrice faust, an old friend of my mothers, their connection having recently been rekindled. On the first weekend performance at Roar, we performed the score for Leavings, wearing our ‘monoforms’, tabards painted with designs using the primary colours distinguishing each canvas; all except Peter Bradley, whose garment remained unpainted, resembling an enormous bib running the full length of his lanky body. At certain angles and in certain lights it was hard to determine where the floor ended and the person began, draped in the plain calico encumbrance appearing as if an absurd monolith, (in time we managed to modify the design of these, making them more elegant and functional). We proceeded with great confidence, our audience appearing in dribs and drabs, creeping around the walls with a squeak of sneakers, or the clump of hard heals and the sound of denim on denim rubbing then pausing as people took in the exhibition. I can still hear the under breath murmurs of people passively engaging with eyes moving around our substantial obstacle as if changing seats in the front row of a theatre in session – a very different reaction to what we were use to receiving in Theatre place where street traffic had begun to intrude with nonchalance.

On the final turn, where white paint is used to carve out and redefine the shapes and lines, I began bottom right corner moving up then across the painting’s surface. This was an opportunity to stamp your own style on the performance and could vary according to mood, approach and environment. This performance was distinguished by a particularly sensitive and impressive interpretation by Philip, who adopted a rather organic approach in shaping his lines and plains of colour. The dominant white planes and over theme are crucial to the final structural appearance of the paintings. Treated both rhythmically and in context with the colour, the fragmented non-geometric shapes represent the state of leaves in decay, but not in the figurative sense. In my father’s words taken from the original notes that accompanied the score,

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“Leavings is about what is left. Derived from linear studies of foliage pattern, the actual themes are restructured in what could loosely be termed poetic association with the subject…The planes are colour corded by using a dominant instrument (colour) for each invention. The structure of the final shapes are secondary to the dominant white plane.”

The paintings evoke changes in the natural world at autumn time, with the wind picking up twigs and leaves and tossing them mercilessly in a rhythmical dance; and the way their skeleton is revealed as if a spindly fishbone, rummaged by bird tracks and the forces of nature. The performance begins with the themes starkly presented against a white ground, with a spidery creeping of blue, black and green forming the shapes of the paintings detail. A gradual crescendo of colour develops, with cording increasing the thickness of the lineal clumps and planes of colour that sing with harmony and dissonance until the white ground asserts itself once more, devouring and further fragmenting the shapes.

Peter Graham painting "Leavings" in the study at home in Canterbury April 1986
Peter Graham painting “Leavings” in the study at home in Canterbury April 1986

Leavings or Leafings as it is alternately called, came into existence at a time of great turmoil in my family in June 1986. My father’s illness although misdiagnosed at that stage was taking a toll and caused him enormous pain. This was not something that could be ignored and a serious pall of uncertainty hovered above our suburban shelter. My understanding of broader concepts and the fragility of existence was still forming, but at the same time as my own voice broke, so too did the illusion of unending boyhood. An important teacher at school at this time John McMillan, described to me the process as like gradually removing fence palings to reveal the great world. This image although evoking a peeping Tom has remained with me and to this day I still imagine splinters in my cheeks as I strain to bring a grand panorama into focus. I was indeed ‘leaving’ something behind, a part of myself that now belonged in photo albums and with pocket book memories.

Peter Graham's score for "Leavings 1986
Peter Graham’s score for “Leavings 1986

With the Leavings composition, my father had established the fundamental lay out of the score, but the language still lacked the ability to record complicated instructions. Most importantly, it was the vehicle through which he had finally resolved the basis of the colour language as it stands today, using simple geometric shapes to represent the main colour families. It was also around this time that the term ‘New Epoch Art’ came to be favoured over the earlier ‘Notation Painting’. For these reasons, the Leavings paintings represent a significant step forward from the experimental scores and pieces that came before. Although in his paintings, my father still relied on improvisation to construct detail to a degree, and so it was not a legitimate performance as such, it was the first serious piece where he tried to realise the separation of composer and performer using a score as mediator. All of his ‘Notation’ paintings can now be scored in retrospect, but Leavings was the first ‘composition’ specifically designed for performance. It was to this foundation that Philip added symbols that described what had taken place in the original paintings by my father. In reflection he wrote:

“The problems were daunting. He had been dead for six months, and the language at my disposal was largely the product of my own work. Would it meet the needs of this composition? I had to trust the paintings and my own judgement alone. After months of trial and error, I produced a draft score in about thirty hours over two days. At the end of it, I could not see straight, but it was worth it. Somehow the score works, and produces a performance that is very close to the original conception I was privileged to witness and participate in”.

The exhibition at Roar 2 Studios was again well received, though our perceptions were dampened by the weight of expectation. This time the press honed in on the idea of Notation Painting and ‘The Australian’ published an article announcing ‘Beyond the grave – a Painting Performed’.

Scan 1

A film crew headed by Sally Neighbour then came out to shoot a short piece for ‘Good Morning Australia”. Firstly Philip cast against a delicate leaf like pastel drawing in the workshop, then the Tri-easel in Theatre place as the crew moved around us with an efficiency born of the need to meet another, possibly more important commitment. It was an unusually cold May afternoon, threatened by the heavens, and we struggled on with our performance after the excitement had left by means of panel van. My painting of the final white cutting away in the last turn of Leavings was particularly severe that day, perhaps an omen, for we never got to see the segment aired on T.V. I set up our VCR every morning for months and recorded the show, and home from school, I would roll through the footage, always expecting to see ourselves in the grainy glory of a 22 inch screen. The disappointment cast a pall that shed the whole exhibition at Roar 2 Studios in dimmer light. Though sales were less than the exhibition at Castlemaine, they were still solid, but the decision not to drop the price of ‘The Clouds’ for a buyer was a blow to Jan Martin who remarked, ‘don’t ever do that again’. It was becoming harder to part with the paintings.

Jan Martin with my mother Cynthia Graham
Jan Martin with my mother Cynthia Graham

Jan also felt disappointed and a little disillusioned by the exhibition. She had expected a better turn out and exclaimed ‘where are all the Canterbury people?’ The hoards that had over run her little gallery in Castlemaine were now dwarfed by the large rooms of ‘Roar’, and those individuals of importance in the art world seemed to be conspicuous by their absence. Although she never fully disclosed the goings on behind the office door, it was clear that the first flush of excitement had somewhat mysteriously dissipated and her frustration was evident. When Philip was being overly dramatic during one performance where a score was misread and a structural error occurred, Jan, immersed in delicate dealings with a client, was prompted to contribute ‘shut up and paint’ in a martini-like hiss.

Author: crowcries

Euan Benjamin Graham I decided to become an artist when I was 14 years old in 1987. I have pursued my vocation with dedication and a complete single mindedness. Pictures are like people, they have their own life. I have embraced the streets recently as a venue because pictures need a lover, and artists become intolerably frustrated without an audience.

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