Jan Martins Old Briquette Shop

Out the front of Jan Martin's Gallery in North Melbourne. She continued to use the name The Lyttleton Gallery after the street in Castlemaine.
Out the front of Jan Martin’s Gallery in North Melbourne. She continued to use the name The Lyttleton Gallery after the street in Castlemaine.

During this time Jan Martin had relocated to a small home gallery in Curran Street North Melbourne, which rested on an awkward corner block bordering a blue stone laneway. The attached cottage backed against an old Ferrier’s shop and upon its weathered façade above the gallery entrance ‘Briquettes’ could still be read in faded lettering. In May 1989, this became the new venue for our performances, our stated purpose being to make friends and establish a permanent group of interested supporters who may then form a class, or audience for ongoing performances. The venue was acutely intimate and made some visitors feel like they were entering a living room rather than an exhibition space. Just as our efforts to attract an audience at Mondo had lost traction, the new venue failed to provide any significant advantage. At one performance when no audience arrived, confidence hit a new low, and even taking a large ‘Jazz’ piece down to theatre place only served to highlight our growing despondency and lack of direction.

"Pathetique" 20.5.1989
“Pathetique” 20.5.1989

After art training in Sydney, Jan Martin had worked in London for Sotherby’s, after which she joined Joseph Brown in Melbourne remaining with him for ten years. During this time she worked extensively on acquiring cataloguing and valuing skills that were to underpin her own business practice as an art consultant. Jan held four Peter Graham exhibitions at her gallery in North Melbourne despite a significant hiatus and loss of momentum after ‘Roar’, in part attributable to an economic down turn. When the idea of putting on a show was again proposed in 1992, Jan was still thinking in terms of an across-the-board approach in a hired venue. Our resources were significantly tighter and we just could not afford the costs. However, taking into account the smaller area of wall space available in Jan’s new gallery, I proposed a different approach – a set of exhibitions based around specific periods and themes, drawn from the many folders of works on paper that remained largely unseen. I imagined the shows representing the exhibitions my father would have constructed if he had been given the opportunity. ‘Aspect one’ covered the ‘Early figurative’ work 1945-53; ‘Aspect two’, the central Australian years 1954-56; ‘Aspect three’ the move towards abstraction 1951-1960. In time my involvement in these shows increased, still deferring to Jan’s experience, but contributing insight and aesthetic guidance. She became increasingly confident in my council, though always reserved the right to make executive decisions. In this way the exhibitions were co-curated, leaving me open to shared responsibility for their diminishing effectiveness.

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Neil Chenery; Euan Graham and Juan Sanz “Aspect 1” Opening April 1992

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Jan always held an opening specifically for her clients, a time where business could transpire free of family involvement and the emotions surrounding that. For the first of the new shows, I was coincidentally minding a house for two weeks for a work colleague of my mother’s in the same street as The lyttleton Gallery. The evening of the preview, I lolled on the adjacent street corner in a moon shadow prickling with a strange anxiety. Not the shadow of a conscience for downing a six pack, and watching visitors come and go, trying to interpret the shape of their reaction. To have gone in would have broken the spell, though I longed to mingle. Jan would have smiled at my entrance and offered the approval she couldn’t very well withhold. I imagined myself dancing the salesman and recapturing to some small degree the feelings and excitement of that first exhibition in Castlemaine. But the chill eventually awoke my dulled senses and martyred to the night, I made my way back to the conundrum of the cats sharing occupancy in that North Melbourne terrace.

Philip and I performing at Wesley College 22.10.1989
Philip and I performing at Wesley College 22.10.1989

Set Day 81

Wesley Collage, Public Performance (22 October 1989)

“Landscape and Still Life, Still Life and landscape” (performance 10) composed by Peter Graham

Performed by: Euan Graham and Philip Graham

Duration: 6 hours

A breakthrough came in the form of our first paid performance, conjured out of Jan’s involvement in the ‘Arts in The Round’ festival at Wesley College in Prahran. Jan was assembling an exhibition of traditional Australian paintings by Aboriginal artists from North East Arnhemland, to complement the Alec Cato Collection of early European Australian landscapes gifted to the college in 1981. We set up our performance in the senior college courtyard, dusting off the score for ‘Landscape and Still Life’, which remained our premier duet performance set at that time. The day was a resounding success, though our personal reflection was tainted by a repeating fragment of muzak in a nearby information tent that burrowed deep down becoming a loop of unprecedented annoyance.

Wesley College
Wesley College

22-10-1989 (3)

Jan continued her association with the Marika family from Arnhemland exhibiting their barks in her new gallery, which retained the name Lyttleton. Our most successful day at the Old Briquette Shop came when the widow of Wandjuk Marika, the ritual leader of the Rirratjingu people was visiting and had brought her daughter Mayatili with her. Mayatili soon popped her head around the corner only to discover Philip and I working our way through a new composition ‘The Necklace’, a score that Philip had been trying to perfect for some time. She ended up painting with us for some hours, her enjoyment of the experience evident in the wide grin captured in the photos taken.

Mayatili Marika painting with us at Jan's Gallery 30.7.1989
Mayatili Marika painting with us at Jan’s Gallery 30.7.1989

The ‘Necklace” score was a reworking of an idea initiated by my father in 1986, based on the South African struggle for democracy – the necklace is a notorious assassination method in which the victim is placed inside car tyres and then set alight. My father had commenced a project entitled ‘fugues for peace’ in the early months of 1986, completing the canvases ‘Black Piece’ and ‘White Piece’ before shifting his attention to the trio performance set ‘Leavings’.

Studio working of the score 'The Neclace" by Philip.
Studio working of the score ‘The Neclace” by Philip.

THE NECLACE 2

‘Fugues for peace’, was originally intended as a larger set of canvases each exploring in depth the spectral range of its particular hue.’ Black Piece’ was to be followed by Blue, Red and Green, however only Yellow was attempted, given the title ‘Fantasy Impromptu’, a bold canvas projecting into the future which he had symbolically put up on his easel, as a final work in progress in the months before his death. These works were intended to be the vehicle through which he would explore and find some degree of resolution in his theories about colour, in particular his concept of colour as an instrument. Philip took up the idea, and began working on a series exploring yellow, beginning with large pastel drawings resembling the landscape effect of broad colour field expressions, but utilising the intricacies of thematic structure to create a highly patterned surface. These were followed by a set of large canvases, begun in 1990, which remained his primary focus for some years and awarded him the title Mr. Yellow by at least one close friend.

Abstracting the abstract by Peter Graham showing the derivation of the theme
Abstracting the abstract by Peter Graham showing the derivation of the theme
White Piece sketches Peter Graham January 1986
White Piece sketches Peter Graham January 1986
"White Piece" 1986 Peter Graham oil on canvas 60 x 60 cm
“White Piece” 1986 Peter Graham oil on canvas 60 x 60 cm
"Black Piece 1" 1986 Peter Graham oil on canvas 60 x 40 cm
“Black Piece 1” 1986 Peter Graham oil on canvas 60 x 40 cm
"Black Piece 2" Peter Graham 1986 oil on canvas  100 x 80 cm
“Black Piece 2” Peter Graham 1986 oil on canvas 100 x 80 cm
"Black Piece 3" Peter Graham 1986 oil on canvas 50 x 50 cm
“Black Piece 3” Peter Graham 1986 oil on canvas 50 x 50 cm
"Fantasy Impromptu" 1986 Peter Graham oil on canvas 180 x 120 cm
“Fantasy Impromptu” 1986 Peter Graham oil on canvas 180 x 120 cm

It was around this time that the ‘workshop’ was adapted to serve a new purpose, that being as a venue for life drawing sessions. Philip had taken me to a few Life classes in the winter of 1988 that had been organised by his friend Simon Jackson, a portly sculptor with a passion for Rodin who had originally befriended Philip during his two years spent at R.M.I.T. On that first occasion, it was an hour past dinner time, and a fine rain was falling that scattered the few people left on the streets. I was enjoying that walk, wishing it longer as apprehension flooded through me. Upon reaching the venue, a church hall attached to the prayer room, we entered to find around a dozen artists busy at work, my eyes naturally drawn to the subject of their attention. Very nervous, I concentrated on breathing and letting my blood irrigate my body calmly, rather like the rain outside. To my surprise, my focus soon fell from the female model, settling on the angles and curves, shapes and implied lines that were her construction. Embarrassment then became associated with my rather disappointing drawings, more so than being in the presence of such nakedness.

The next year 1989, the ‘workshop’ was identified as a cheaper and cosier alternative to the church hall, and Simon urged us to reconvene the activity at our place. Soon we had collected a small group that arrived each Thursday evening, my ears straining to here the click of the gate whilst hurriedly finishing dinner. Then a solid three hours of drawing figure from life would begin, and so to the colourful anecdotes that instinctively attach themselves to such occasions. Our regular group included friends of Simon’s, Michael Grey and Greg Orr, and a small band of part timers who would arrive as the desire took their fancy. We alternated between two life models for the most part, Lois, who had been working that first evening the previous September, and Neil, who presented as almost a stereotype of the great unwashed hippy. Another model/artist who came only the once remains vivid for his anecdote recounting a solution for those who dared criticise his craft- he would simply stretch out his hand when striking a new pose and point it directly at the offending individual, giving them the most difficult exercise in foreshortening conceivable.

Philip gave me a great deal of tutorage and encouragement through these sessions, though everyone in the room, models included became teachers by default. I was slow to develop hand eye coordination, and acquire the skills for rendering accurate anatomical proportions. The night would unfold as an obstinate struggle to see the shapes surrounding the body as vividly as the body parts themselves. Images constituting the whole tonality of my mind would emerge in their ugly awkwardness, to be unfolded later to the tune of sympathetic appraisal, ‘at least the head looks like it connects to the shoulders’. However these evenings were an invaluable experience base to draw from when I commenced my official studies at university level following high school. In that setting, drawing was all about energy and vigour in one’s mark making. Everything else was subservient to the expression of the form. It took a while for me to meld the two approaches, and success was always measured in terms of competition in a room full of life drawings.Ja

Mondo Showrooms – A new venue

First performance at Mondo Showrooms 4/6/1988
First performance at Mondo Showrooms 4/6/1988

In June 1988 we adopted a new venue for our performances. ‘Mondo Showrooms’ was owned by Bridget and Ian Sutherland, who had been long time family friends and used the place to promote their pre-fabricated furniture retail business. A space in the main room was partially cleared and our easel and drop sheets erected over the expanse of pristine flooring. It was a white, light and airy room with the sterile odour of plastic and new carpet that seemed more suited to a salesman’s pitch and glossy brochure than an art happening. With Joyce now replaced briefly by her cousin Betty, then by Andrew Angus, we commenced a series of demonstrations culminating in an exhibition in March 1989.

 Philip constructed a new "bi-easil" to cater for duet performances.
Philip constructed a new “bi-easil” to cater for duet performances.

Having put signage up at Theatre Place, we managed to attract a modest audience on a few occasions that supplemented our more reliable visitors. As a venue, Mondo provided an air of formality, which enhanced our performances at a time when studio rehearsal did not appeal. Upon the conclusion of the demonstrations and exhibition at Roar 2 Studios, there was a feeling of ‘what shall we do now?’. However at no point did we entertain the idea of stopping the performances, on the contrary we often indulged in the dream of making it ‘big!, and taking it further, but there was no specific plan, no systematic set of goals underpinning our progress. We just seemed to lurch from one project to the next when outside commitments did not clutter the schedule.

Performance of "landscape and still Life" at Mondo 19/6/1988.
Performance of “landscape and still Life” at Mondo 19/6/1988.

Andrew Angus who joined us at this time was befriended by my sister Michaela as a fellow student at the Victorian College of The Arts. His instrument being Oboe, he also harboured a passion for electronic composition and new age experimentation. He injected a greatly appreciated light heartedness into the room, which served as an arbitrator and inhibitor to domestic tensions. Andrew had no formal experience in painting, but his sensitivity was apparent, and the ensuing performances were memorable for their happiness and vigour. Andrew would then don his riding gear and take off into the night on his bicycle, as if the day’s painting were respite between legs of the Tour De France. One performance conducted at ‘The Hut Gallery’ in Ferntree Gully, saw a thin young man with dark mullet and pale complexion linger curiously for a considerable time. Baden Johnson was one of the first members of the audience to participate in a performance, and later became a member and devotee of our performance art group. Baden later commented that the experience had left a lasting impression, well beyond a handout eagerly taken to school to show his teachers.

the hut

With the new-year, colour returned to my own palette, and I embraced the medium of dry pastel, first introduced to me through the Jazz collaborations. Drawings of a more lyrical nature with titles suggestive of theatre and magic came to life. ‘Tiger Tiger Burning Bright’ with its plumes of brilliant red held in pause by a strong black presence of line was the first of a set of larger works. Philip later commented that he developed the symbol for diamond plain work based on observations of these drawings. ‘Wind shear’ with its visual rendering of dangerous wind currents, as if the breath of a higher being, and ‘Crystal Light’, a blue monument in motion hurtling through space with an intense inner burn ‘, were among these pastel drawings and I was ready for my first showing.

"Tiger Tiger Burning Bright" 1989 pastel on paper 75 x 90 cm
“Tiger Tiger Burning Bright” 1989 pastel on paper 75 x 90 cm
'wind Sheer" 1989 Pastel on paper 80 x 60 cm
‘wind Sheer” 1989 Pastel on paper 80 x 60 cm
"Crystal Light" 1989 80 x 60 cm Pastel on paper
“Crystal Light” 1989 80 x 60 cm Pastel on paper
"The Total Perspective Vortex" 1989 Pastel on paper 90 x 90 cm
“The Total Perspective Vortex” 1989 Pastel on paper 90 x 90 cm

The pictures arrived, each with a unique personality capturing my mood for that time. Jan Martin often referred to pictures in this fashion. To her they were like people, requiring sensitive attention in order for their true character to be revealed. With encouragement and an expert eye, Jan helped us select the works for the ‘Mondo’ show, on an afternoon that seemed reminiscent of the day she selected the works for my father’s Castlemaine exhibition.

19-3-1989 (4)

19-3-1989 (1)

19-3-1989 (2)

It was a low-key event, up for the day then packed away before nightfall. We struggled through ‘Prelude to Westernport’ a new score Philip had based on the large heroic canvases my father had executed as part of his ‘Westernport Garden’ series in the 1970’s. The composition required a crisp methodical elegance of line and gesture that was beyond our inexperienced unit, especially under scrutiny from a captive audience. Jan Martin also helped out by bringing some new clients to buy, one of whom was Biggibilla, a man who had apparently only recently discovered and embraced his Aboriginal heritage. Biggibilla, a large hirsute individual, purchased two of my pencil drawings for his children, the proceeds from which accounted for my first sable brush. A short time later he reciprocated the invitation, and we walked through an inner city mansion converted into a gallery (for this occasion), lined with his rather brash and expensive oils on linen. We lost contact shortly after and Jan turned her attention to representing indigenous artists from the North East Arnhem Land region, working in a more traditional manner.