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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
‘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.
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