Theatre of the Ordinary

Performance of "Passing Leaves" 8-4-1990
Performance of “Passing Leaves” 8-4-1990

During the course of my parent’s marriage, my mother Cynthia seldom intruded on the private nature of my father’s art practice; at the very beginning, it was some time before she even knew he was an artist. The early years of their marriage had been almost entirely devoted to establishing a livelihood, a family and a nurturing environment. He had warned my mother that he could never earn his living as an artist – he had to divide his time between work and painting to maintain his sense of well-being. This was something he had conditioned himself to do at an early age. It was his great reverence for the artistic process, for the great works of art of the past and for a never-ending search for his own artistic expression in the future that became a way of life around which he derived his raison d’être and eventually around which our family ethos evolved. It was never an obtrusive aspect of family life, no ego trips or wild posturing; just a quiet pursuit often integrated into general family activities with doors wide open.

Cynthia Graham participating 11/7/1990
Cynthia Graham participating 11/7/1990

Despite having painstakingly interpreted my father’s rather enigmatic hand writing in typing out his manuscripts, it was only after he had died that the full meaning of the New Epoch ideas became clear to my mother. It was when the Tri-Easel was set up in the lounge room that she became involved in a more direct manner. Her initial diffidence soon blossomed into a great enthusiasm and pride in being able to create something beautiful on canvas. She said that the language provided the scaffolding for her not to be intimidated, despite a complete ignorance of an artist’s practice. She developed an appreciation of a skilfully drawn line and the juxtaposition of colour, and when the easels were turned, the marks others had made then added to the confidence of knowing that the paintings are continually growing, enriched by each person’s contribution. In this way, the work of a novice can be successfully integrated in the final result.

Ros Bandt, an internationally acclaimed sound artist and pioneer of interactive sound installations, came out to Canterbury for one of these lounge room performances. Ros appeared to me as an expansive character with flowing hair and eyes belonging somewhere between a teacher and a spiritual leader. Accompanied by a small band of enthusiastic colleagues, they attempted to create a sound sculpture directly interpreting the paintings we worked on. Ros had been developing a method of improvisation drawn from an intuitive response to a pictographic score. She was intrigued by our language for painting and found symmetry of purpose in its concept. After an hour or so of Zither improvisation, the music subsided in place of quiet observation as the paintings moved from raw thematic structure to contrapuntal development. I remember thinking that the music had started out too complicated and so had nowhere to go once the paintings evolved. But the seeds of the idea of creating a musical accompaniment to the score were sown.

Ros Bandt with her music group interpreting the paintings evolution. 10/6/1990
Ros Bandt with her music group interpreting the paintings evolution. 10/6/1990
10-6-1990 (2)
Charles Nodrum watches on as Philip performs “Passing Leaves” in our lounge room.

Set Day 91

Hartwell House, Public Performance (10 June 1990)

“Passing Leaves” (Performance No. 5) composed by Philip Graham.

Duration: 4.5 hours

Performed by: Euan Graham and Philip Graham

Acrylic on Canvas (99 x 129 cm).

Comment: My Mother Cynthia and I had returned from an impromptu visit to Phillip Island for a brief holiday just two hours before commencing this performance. This time the easel was set up in our living room where it was to stay for a good part of the year. At this time the separation between domestic space and studio space was completely blurred, our lives revolving around the act of creation.

Philip was extremely nervous before this performance, and last minute technical difficulties added further to the tension. Ros Bandt and a small group of musicians arrived at 2 pm to conduct an interpretive improvised musical performance responding to the procession of shapes and lines accumulating on the paintings surface.

Two friends of Andrew Angus’ then arrived for the purpose of writing an instructional essay on us. They spent several hours participating in the performance along with other visitors including Linton McFadzean and the Gallery director Charles Nodrum.

Jazz Day 040

Hartwell House, Public Performance (24 June 1990)

“VARIATIONS ON THE THEME OF THREE PRIMARY SQUARES”

Performed by: Euan Graham Juan Sanz and Philip Graham

Duration: 4 hours

Acrylic on Canvas

Comment: These works began as a performance of the score three primary squares. There were a number of participants, including Juan Sanz. And by the end of the scored turns, it was agreed that more work was needed. We continued working the paintings, effectively making this more akin to a visual jazz performance. It was Juan’s first time painting with us, and seemed to evoke a sparkle in his eyes which contributed to this being a memorable and exciting occasion. Juan would officially join “Extended Vision” later in the year.

 

 

Music had always been central to my education. I had begun with piano lessons with Harold Badger, a man reminiscent of his name sprouting crinkly sausages from generous and skilled hands that assumed a new life analogous with the keys. There were three of us in the lessons, and Mr. Badger would always allot time at the end for improvisation. One time I tried to evoke hot and cold, starting with icy tinkling at the high end then indulging in a cacophonous sprawl down the ebony to the point where notes were barely distinguishable, just the metallic pluck of thick strings. The abrupt contrast sent a burst of giggles around the room, my cousin Jane, and a Chinese girl whose name I have forgotten, though I noticed Mr. Badger appeared less enthusiastic. I then progressed to violin, and for ten years worked my way through an orthodox classical curriculum under the tutorage of Jean Lehmann. Jean would despair at my laziness when it came to practice, made all the more painful to her by her acknowledgement of my innate musicality. The rigidity of this program failed to engage my real passion for composition, which was to emerge later, after formal lessons had ceased. It took time to pick up the fiddle again, divorced from an exam agenda and embrace the freedom of making my own sounds. I guess the rigid nature of the curriculum geared toward preset stages of advancement provided something for me to react against at a later date. The real challenge for me was my reluctance to perform, and my disinterest in collaborative music making. The scope of my expression rarely ventured outside my bedroom after giving my final performance to fulfil year 12 assessment requirements.

These formative experiences coupled with my own exposure to experimental music via radio programs ‘Dream Time’, ‘The Listening Room’ and various encounters with ‘Music Concrete’ “the Kronos Quartet’ and John Cage helped to form my interest in alternative forms of musical expression. I began with simple tape loops played at different speeds to emulate windscreen wipers and indicators coming in and out of sync. My equipment was rudimentary, bouncing tracks from deck to deck, and then expanding marginally with two tracks of a reel to reel purchased from a junk store. I wanted to create an audio accompaniment to track the progression of a New Epoch score. I was seduced at times by the romantic expanses offered by multi track recording, though the deterioration in sound resembled more blitzkrieg above a murky avalanche than a distinct harmonic rhythmic evolving pattern. My ‘Sound Extensions’ were primitive excursions into sound, no way emulating the delicacy of Ros Bandt’s ethereal webs of Zither picking that probably reflected more accurately an impression of an extended theme. My best efforts came in later using the same double tape deck with worn heads, bouncing down to a third device, equally devoid of sound quality. ‘The Butterfly Effect’ and ‘Moments in Time” suites of 1994 come closest to realising thematic music, with a series of short pieces spliced together in emulation of the layers of a painting. With some of these pieces I went as far as drawing a theme across the musical staff, and in reverse connect the dots placed notes to track the shape of the theme.

Association with Ros Bandt introduced us to Al Wunder and his ‘theatre of the ordinary’. He was organising a bringing together of three decades of improvisational theatre in a large venue in Richmond for the Melbourne fringe festival in 1990. Although our performances were distinct from improvisation by means of a visual language, our act was embraced and promoted under this umbrella. Al Wunder’s belief that everyone should have the opportunity to perform and his interest in combining a professionals talents with the ‘unencumbered creative explorations of the raw beginner’, was a perfect fit with our own workshop style collaborations. His discrete stature was more than made up for by his theatrical demeanour, his enormous humanity and his ability to inspire. In his own contribution to the Fringe event ‘MIDI Wind Controller and Tapes’, he collaborated with Warren Burt, a composer of ‘new musical styles’ who lent us some tapes from his back catalogue. I remember listening to these sombre heavy dramatic chords, ten to fifteen seconds in duration, before ending abruptly, pausing in an uneasy silence, expectation increasing the jolt of their recommencement. After about 10 minutes of this pattern, it felt like my nerves had tangled themselves around live wires, and the room had shrunk to resemble a little Ease of anxiety in a Victorian Gaol House. But it was another influence thrown into my burgeoning appreciation of experimental music.

Al Wonder and performing at The People's Improvisational Theatre  in Richmond Melbourne 25/8/1990
Al Wonder and Warren Burt performing at The People’s Improvisational Theatre in Richmond Melbourne 25/8/1990

On route to our first meeting to discuss the Fringe festival event, Philip and I became hopelessly lost, deep in the inner Melbourne suburbs around Richmond. This was not a new phenomenon in our family. Our father was legendary for his poor sense of direction, a trait beyond doubt passed down, and Philip not being knowledgeable of cars and navigation very much, preferred a back seat role even when sitting beside the driver. This was a significant disadvantage as there was much too-ing and fro-ing and upside down map reading to be done. After an exhaustive search through back streets which probably had names like Burke and Leichhardt we finally arrived, not at our intended destination, but an eerie cull de sac on the boarder of which lay what could only be described as a billabong – a tiny patch of wilderness that had miraculously escaped development, with majestic red gums and the sound of nature in its million warbling voices. For a moment it felt like I was gazing at a Hans Heyson in a gallery, after lock up and the lights had been turned off.

9/9/1990
9/9/1990
Performance at the "P.I.T" in conjunction with the Melbourne fringe festival 9/9/1990
Performance at the “P.I.T” in conjunction with the Melbourne fringe festival 9/9/1990
Our Spontaneuos Generation banner in the Melbourne fringe festival parade 8/9/1990
Our Spontaneuos Generation banner in the Melbourne fringe festival parade 8/9/1990

Our contribution to ‘The Spontaneous Generation’ was a set of three weekend performances coupled with a significant showing of our own paintings and drawings. For the event we decided to show case a major visual jazz performance ‘The Two Towers’ in keeping with the prevailing spirit of improvisation. It was also Philip’s first opportunity to hang a number of his yellow canvases, the largest of which had to be brought in through the fire escape, the narrow stairwell hardly leaving room for two bodies in passing. At the end of each day we took all the pictures down, including a vast display at the foot of the walls, and took it all home, only to be returned and set up again the next day, a process that took around 2 hours. At the end of one long session, when the shadows encroached on the painting surface, and the lights took effect, a lady approached me and handed me a poem she had written, having gazed intently for half an hour at my large pastel drawing ‘The Total Perspective Vortex’. On the paper was written:

 

A blaze of colour blends into the empty space

Consuming, searching, reaching for the joy in our souls.

Bouncing around, teasing the yolk of its crevices

Trying to find its centre.

Will it? The never ending maze of confusion

With the essence of delight being its master.

Robust but deceitful like any fun fare.

Or the hedonistic nightclub lights

Rolling one into oblivion.

Psychedelic tones from yesteryear

And out emerges a market full of paraphernalia

One would clutch and feel.

Uncompromisingly it sits hypnotising

Hovering and waiting for a victim.

Desiree Milaonas September 1990

"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 next spring was particularly wet, and with year 12 exams menacingly close, performance activity became for the first time an unwelcome distraction. Being disposed to an opaque introversion, I often wanted to simply merge with the canvas, be indistinguishable from the texture of its busy surface and out of reach of the disruption of conversation. I would prefer to maintain a quizzical silence when such feelings emerged, faced with a difference that was less hostility, more the boundless limitations of the natural world against a pre-fabricated white laminate vanity. All the real inhibitions surfaced in this way, as difference, as a perceived need for separateness in order to maintain a dignity of identity. Just running after a client and making these small connections caused wild rapids of torment that hit at the heart of my desire to remain anonymous. Letting in imagination like a sunray shot from a burning heart, I could grow immune to the awkwardness of the situation, even with the exposing of art – a soft pink bit usually covered up by the polish of completion. Being able to enter a mode immune to the distractions was like wearing a studio mask as if a ham in a space suit.

An aborted performance 26/10/1990
An aborted performance 26/10/1990

These things are made easier with camaraderie and it was its increasing absence that contributed to an inner smile when rain stopped play. However for one performance, employed by the Malvern city council, such a smile was conspicuous in its absence. We didn’t even begin to set up when a deluge sent us scampering back to the car and we watched in amazement as a torrent of water engulfed us. With the easel on the roof the water pooled, then resembling the heart of a waterfall cascaded down the sides leaving the world a distant smudge from behind the foggy glass. Later that day we set up the bi-easel under the covered walkway of the town hall. It was a busy thoroughfare, providing a pause for pedestrians as the rain continued to tumble. Our clothes were damp, and an icy breeze channelled through the Palladian corridor with vengeance. We were kept company for some time by a local Hare Krishna enthusiast who looked better dressed for a concept album shoot or Mardi-Gras. He kept up his hard sell despite our overt absorption in the paintings, and eventually just blended into the traffic noise and incessant pitter patter. Then a large pale-faced young man with the stature of a mediaeval warrior gone soft approached us from across the street. His eyes were fixed on our paintings and he was conspicuous due to his apparent disregard for cars, and roads alike. He sauntered up to the face of the canvas Philip was working on, and with a long slow deliberate motion, dragged his hand across the surface leaving a myriad of small lines where the paint was yet to dry. I could see Philip’s eyes widen in the expectation of violence, as he remarked in a somewhat fragile manner ‘do you like painting?” The young man just smouldered silently, and our Hare Krishna friend spontaneously broke into dance and chant, his tambourine punctuating the sombre intrusion. He was as much a part of the environmental conditions that day as a gust of wind off to blow an umbrella back to front or baby bird out of its nest.

Extended Vision

25-11-1989 (1)
Set Day 83
Surrey Day, Public Performance (25 November1989)
“Landscape and Still Life, Still Life and landscape” (performance 11) composed by Peter Graham
Performed by: Euan Graham and Philip Graham
Duration: 7 hours
Acrylic on Canvas (85 x 111 cm).

Our first regular paid performances, employed by the Camberwell city Council commenced in November 1989, set in Parks and Gardens in the South Eastern suburbs where a series of community festivals were held annually during the warmer months. Summer would cram the public places with noise and colourful fashions on festival day, food vendors adding the reek of hot oil to grass clippings and asphalt turning soft under the sun. Children gravitated toward soft drinks and ice blocks, and performers on stilts would create interest with face paint and lollies, weaving in and out of the crowds and catching the leaping light in the sequins of their costume. When they were close, their silhouette would suddenly be divided between land and sky, and perspiration could then be detected, for even holding a smile can be taxing on muscles only intended to be used some of the time.

We achieved a significant advancement in our interaction with an audience at these performances, and they established a new benchmark for us to aspire to. Doors were opening by degrees each performance. Martin Foote the Council Arts officer sporting a distinctive Karl Marx beard became both a supporter and mentor in a professional sense. He wanted a name for advertisements, prompting renewed discussions as to what we should call ourselves. Philip had coined the name ‘The Originals’ in 1987, something I always felt uncomfortable with due to my perception that it sounded a bit juvenile and pretentious. After a think tank of around 30 minutes, ‘Extended Vision’ was officially adopted, and a new era had begun.

Scan 14

Set Day 86

Canterbury gardens, Public Performance (25 February 1990)

“Portrait of a Square Split” (Performance No. 10) composed by Peter Graham.

Performed by: Euan Graham and Philip Graham

Duration: 5.5 hours

Acrylic on Canvas (103 x 103 cm).

Comment: A very successful day with great audience response. The weather was perfect and we were situated on an ideal patch of lawn close to the car park, over looked by the Canterbury station. We brought down Philip’s large yellow canvas ‘Gloriana’ and the recently completed Jazz painting ‘The Red Crescent’, to supplement the information on display boards. These served to create a lot of interest throughout the day. Philip had spent a marathon 11 hours the previous day preparing for this performance.

Our standard fee was $80 later adjusted to $100; a token amount prompting repeated apology by Martin for what usually represented 6 hours on the job not inclusive of preparation and disassembly. Our exposure to a broader audience base was of more significance and created new opportunities to engage with people and bring them into the performance. At the Canterbury Jazz festival, the lawns became a patchwork of picnic rugs and Tupper ware, and people ensconced for a good long while, settled in for an afternoon of repose and listening enjoyment. The paintings we worked on became part of that environment, and part of the experience of the day. Ownership of that experience was evident in people’s willingness to engage us, to participate in the performance and acknowledge the gradual and persistent evolution of the art works before them. We found a niche that was not jarring but remained unique in its quiet participation in the day’s events. A performance at a private party around this time, also served to illustrate the benefits of an act unfolding over many hours unobtrusively. People came and went between glasses and conversation. They had a go, only to return half an hour later to find a whole new prospect before them. The potential in performing in this type of situation remains largely unexplored, though always featured highly on our literature concerning ‘Extended Visions’ professional engagements.

At the Markham Avenue Reserve in Ashburton, we were swamped at times by children as young as five who could barely contain their excitement when offered a paint brush. One young boy working with Philip on his canvas spent four hours totally engrossed in his careful instruction and painstaking brushwork. His father later remarked that he had never seen him so determined and so focused. He was reportedly a ‘difficult child’ whose concentration span generally did not exceed a Looney tunes skit. Philip was a patient and kindly teacher whom children liked, and he would generously share his time and knowledge with anyone willing to participate. In comparison, I felt a little awkward, but I did develop techniques to handle the situation with time and experience. These performances became impromptu workshops where tutoring in painting technique and explanation of the notation became of equal importance to the quality of the final result. It was the process of the performance that held attention and engaged the imagination of our audience. Yet as testament to the strength of the compositions, rarely did we end up with a disaster that couldn’t be resolved with some careful handling and deft touches. The score represented a set of rules that could be taught quickly, demonstrated easily, and effectively reined in those who had a tendency to participle with a little too much enthusiasm.

Philip at Markam  avenue 08/04/1990
Philip at Markham avenue 08/04/1990

Scan 11

Set Day 89

Markham Avenue Reserve, Public Performance (8 April 1990)

“Passing Leaves” (Performance No. 3) composed by Philip Graham.

Performed by: Euan Graham and Philip Graham

Duration: 5 hours

Acrylic on Canvas (99 x 129 cm).

Comment: Excellent audience response throughout the day. Two ten year old boys, Damian and Matthew painted with us for the better part of 4 hours, much to the astonishment of their parents. There was a huge rush of kids toward the end wanting to paint, the net result being the near obliteration of the canvas I had spent most time on during the day. It took all our effort to keep the situation under control, and it was hard not to see the funny side of things. The attention we received again did not go unnoticed by Martin Foote, and he expressed his pleasure at our contribution to his festivals, referring to us as his ‘star attraction’. Before the kids stole the performance, Jan Martin had turned up with Campbell Robertson Swan, who was extremely impressed with us, hinting at future job prospects.

 

 

1990 was my final year at high school, and as a result, a desire for isolation, late night radio and dream canvases preyed on me to the extent that my feelings grew out of a dichotomy of purpose. Achieving at school was so very important, and though New Epoch Art was at times distracting, it also existed as a source of hope and a place to indulge my passion. Painting had become an integral part of my life, a challenge, a joy and a source of personal growth. The works I painted that year were largely about feelings. Their subject, born of an evocative title, and encompassing the evolution of the painting and then its final appearance. In works such as ‘Midnight Bloom’, ‘Flight of Fancy’ and ‘Summer Lightning’, I tried to evoke an almost childlike response to natural phenomena, a subject that was to continue to sustain my interest; a bolt from the dark that delivers an instinctive shiver of excitement, as if experienced for the first time. Painting offered the opportunity to sink into myself and search for these joy moments, easing the pressure of pending exams. Like the music of light uncovering a vista, only of the mind with all its dark spirals and fluttering language.

"Flight of Fancy" 1990 pastel on paper 90 x 70 cm
“Flight of Fancy” 1990 pastel on paper 90 x 70 cm
"Midnight Bloom" 1990 Acrylic on canvas 70 x 90 cm
“Midnight Bloom” 1990 Acrylic on canvas 70 x 90 cm
"Summer Lightening" 1990 Acrylic on canvas 160 x 100 cm
“Summer Lightening” 1990 Acrylic on canvas 160 x 100 cm

The final work for my year 12 portfolio demanded a larger canvas which I approached with some degree of trepidation. Philip helped me build the stretcher, designed to last a thousand years as was his pen-chant for engineering. ‘Monument’ as it became known was a strange hybrid, favouring a predetermined shape containing the paintings detail. This was also true for the ‘Flight of Fancy’ drawing with its colourful ascendance skyward. I was interested in portraying a static rendition of movement and I identified the large shape as a theme in itself. My school ‘Preshil, The Margaret Little Memorial School’ was interested in purchasing the work for display in the old peeling white hallways of ‘Black Hall’. I asked $1000 for the canvas, a price too steep that was indicative my reluctance to part with it, more than my interest in making money. This tendency still plagues me today, though now having accumulated so many pictures, the challenge of storing them gives greater credence to the idea that the pictures are better off out there, hopefully being enjoyed by someone. During the year I had let my hair grow, it was my way of asserting my personality as finally separate from my school peer group from who I felt increasingly isolated. It was as if the more I exposed myself in pictures, the more I felt the urge to cover up my person and a beard was soon to follow.

Preshil played a valued role in my art education, in that my teachers were happy to leave me to my own devices; an approach that would not and did not work for everyone, but seemed to be perfectly suited to my temperament. It was a time during the 1980’s where curriculum leant toward encouraging freedom of expression, uncluttered by pedagogical bias, in contrast to the rather mannered and utilitarian approach of the current era. To this day the school still places great emphasis on traditional alternative learning practices, through which children are encouraged to explore and experiment to find their own meaning and to develop an independent voice.

It would appear that not a whole lot has changed since I last attended this school in 1990. Information and Communication Technology is mentioned in the website only once in comparison to its nearest neighbour Carey Baptist Grammar School, where ICT is promoted as being fully integrated into the classroom environment, and all the latest technological advances are readily available. There was always a kind of uneasy relationship and rivalry between the two schools. ‘Carey’ being the prim and proper institute with dress code and state of the art resources tailored to crafting our ‘future elite’, and Preshil supposedly being the bunch of wild things devoid of discipline and coherent structure. Well that was the reputation anyway, the reality was quite different. We didn’t have ‘organised sport’ for example. The school placed great attention on the fact that everyone develops at a different rate and was reticent to place artificial measures on performance. However, I remember being one of a group of students who approached the sports-master at Carey, in order to arrange basketball matches with our esteemed rivals. Our ragtag team took great pride in the fact that we creamed them on their own grounds, despite their ‘discipline’, smart team uniforms and immaculate facilities! It was this kind of initiative that was encouraged and promoted.

These first paintings were a mystery to me, pieced together using the knowledge gleaned from performances and my own bedroom meanderings. I was left to my own devices at school, my teacher not wishing to intrude and so these pre-apprentice visions escaped meaningful dissection. They were unlike anything else that was being produced in the art room, and so were awarded the distinction of being unique and original. I new they belonged to a broader continuum, a method that I was yet to emerge from – the thought of which existed as proof of limits. I understood that painting was a process, not something so predetermined. It had to be brought forward from a meaningful place, even if that meaning becomes obscured in the layers and devices of picture making. I worked on ‘Monument’ over a period of two months and the sight of the workshop was welcome relief from the bustle of the school art room. I could recognise the need to create heroic occasions, and the painting took shape segment by segment, sometimes intoxicated by the moment, springing into existence by force of will and at other times just happening as naturally as grasping for a new tub of phthalo blue. Imagination and pluck were needed in equal quantity, and all this existed in my most secret life.

"monument" 1990 Acrylic on canvas 130 x 160 cm
“monument” 1990 Acrylic on canvas 130 x 160 cm