All that I thought I knew about painting again came under scrutiny with my return to Monash University to commence 2nd year studies in 1992. The sense of achievement, which came with the garden series, could not hold forever; it had to burst open from all that had collected inside and pour out like swill on the stained tiles at Caulfield. But the colours that represented life now were plunged into disrepute as one lecturer after another analysed to death my inability to recognise colour in a tonal sense. I abandoned my theme, and embarked on a set of works that bounced around wildly until I settled on the topic of inhibition, isolation, the private body and self-defence mechanisms, overwhelming feelings abounding at this time. I rebuilt my method, my brush strokes, and my subject matter and embraced more keenly, influences at the insistence of Paul Partos. He had wanted me to abandon original composition altogether, repeatedly telling me to find a good art book and just copy the pictures, but this went against everything I believed. The conceptual side of painting had to be developed in line with technique; I felt that one without the other was an empty exercise. The denial of habit in painting can be as much about style as the elimination of undesirable elements, and my repertoire in technique was sadly exposed as a series of bad habits. I reduced my palette substantially, preferring earth tones, mixing a set of blues or a set of reds but using yellow ochre or raw sienna as a base pigment. I used these tones to depict abstract thought or a soliloquy surrounding figures, like an aura ranging through burnt orange to terra-cotta and beyond to a murky purple describing a bruised ego. The full spectrum could be explored this way, though muted, without once exposing raw pigments to clatter against the eye. The vibrant clashing colours of earlier pictures soon became hard to live with as my sensibilities moved toward a more controlled understanding of tonal relationships.
This process was facilitated by criticisms. During one class when paintings were displayed in the atrium of a neighbouring building containing the lecture theatres and cafeteria, I waited for a verdict as my class was invited to make comment, one work at a time. As the lecturer moved ever closer to my small depiction of inhibition with a languid determination, I could see the whole scene played out in slow motion in fear of the disaster I anticipated. The line of my mouth must have been a give away, and I felt a heat pouring down my neck into my melting feet. Finally in front of my small canvas with its inner glow caged and surrounded by an olive gloom, one of the group laughingly described ‘a football in space’, provoking hearty laughter amongst the others. The words were achingly carved into my skin and having drifted instinctively toward the outer, my feet now took me away with a shoplifters reverence for timing. What made the situation more embarrassing was attempting to leave through a solid glass panel adjoining the true exit pausing briefly urging it to open as if in sympathy. Then, wanting all my parts to disassemble to make me less noticeable, I piggy backed on a small meandering group who had the right location to part the glass and I did not look back. In the hideous aftermath, I hardened my resolve to fight back, and the next time I faced a similar situation I became assertive to the point of appearing aggressive thus earning my label afforded by Wendy Stavrianos, as the most intense student she had encountered. In a performance situation, snide remarks are blunted by the sense of being part of a group. It didn’t have to be so personal and fragile. Theoretical explanation is a useful medium to erect as a guard, and answers to questions were well rehearsed which made one less vulnerable.
Like wanting or needing to let down a Veil, I drove myself further inward. On the train I became strangely addicted to the odd non-personal relationship commuters share by force of their proximity. Passing the time, following parallel lines and casting assuming glances, fancy looks, eyes in windows always ready to shift looking for brief recognition. Hurtling through the darkness, then the city lights explode before you as the train emerges from a tunnel each carriage, segments of a great metal beast; brief cases, crime novels, shaggy newspapers flicked erect with little regard to neighbours, a school bag in the walkway, and a walkman loud enough to almost distinguish the tune resembling a gramophone or early crystal set. A million shades of body language thrown together at random in a game of wink murder, compelled to spy, but comfortable in the privacy behind their eyes peeping at next door’s headlines – in your face. For me it is often these little observations of seemingly obscure or insignificant events that lead to the best ideas being formulated and expressed. I realised that being an artist is a lifetime’s work, not something that can really ever be finished. It is as much about growing as a person as about making progress on canvas. It requires a complete dedication, obsession even and I embraced this and learnt to appreciate being a student and all the agonies of failure laid bare.
I was attracted to the semi figurative imagery of Jackson Pollock, and its sense of turmoil, introverted energy and violence. My paintings remained primarily abstract, preferring a shallow space created through layering, rather than illusionistic description. I became conscious of the strength in painting across the surface rather than departmentalising and working within the shape; and trying to work out the composition with thin layers before progressing to thicker paint – against my instinct. These influences flowed into the collaborative New Epoch paintings coming out of ‘The workshop’ at that time. Our efforts turned to adding large jazz ‘drop sheets’ to be placed between the star bursts on the ground surrounding the tri-easel. For these works we enlisted a new recruit Torqual Neilson, who in turn brought friends to the day long sessions, where paintings emerged out of a haze of hair and progressive rock ambience. Torqual promised much but never advanced to perform with us publically. He opted to pursue a career in the dramatic arts and has accumulated an impressive list of acting credits. In these paintings there is a distinct shift in the hue and composition of the paintings. The principles of the colour mixing I was employing at Caulfield had gradually infiltrated the Extended Vision palette, and my preoccupation with resolving compositions by use of diagonal tensions led to paintings with a new dynamism encouraged by a more inventive approach to mark making.
The Soliloquy pictures were an attempt to merge a delineated figure with an abstract ground. I took this one step further with the’ water spirit’ images, starting with a definite realisation of figure, then taking the essential lines to build a thematic interpretation. Eventually the subject was lost altogether in a watery flow of lines. An imagined goddess fashioned from a photo glimpsed briefly and floating in a sea of unrealised emotion, sometimes Ophelia, sometimes the lady of the lake. Andrew Sibly labelled my first canvas on this theme ‘slippery’, a term not intended as a compliment, but not entirely received as a criticism. Indeed I was aiming at depicting that which is tantalisingly beyond reach. I had intended to create a trio score based on these images, but only a single B.P score was completed. The depiction of a figure had been tackled by Philip and my father in 1985 with the seminal ‘Reclining Nude’ composition exercise. These works show an effective marrying of a subject in what remains an essentially abstract formation.
Our first project following Juan’s departure came as a surprise. I had the idea of a score that through the course of its performance gradually shifted from being predominantly yellow to becoming saturated in hues belonging to the red end of the spectrum and vice verse. The paintings were not complicated and we wrote out the notation as we went. It was a productive session yielding a new score, ‘Summer Blaze’ that was to foreshadow my later preoccupation with the nature of the transitions within a performance set. It also affirmed once again the belief that Philip and I could still collaborate effectively. In these moments we were in sync, sharing a passion for the project and celebrating on canvas, our shared artistic heritage.
That November having met with Maudie Palmer the then director of Heide Park and Gallery earlier in the year, we began preparation for a performance at their 50th birthday celebrations held in the spring of 1991. For the event Philip and I had retrospectively scored ‘Grainger Country’ a large bold New Epoch work painted in 1979 by my father. Its sweeping forms were intended to be reminiscent of the maypole dance, and the painting pays tribute to the uniquely innovative nature of the work of Australian composer Percy Grainger, who’s ‘Mock Morris’ and ‘Country Gardens’ provided inspiration for the paintings lyrical intensions. Granger’s ideas about ‘Free Music’, through which he sought to create a sound incapable of being scored using conventional means of notation, shares the same pioneering spirit that my father had cultivated through his Notation painting. The early format score created for the Grainger Country painting is not dissimilar to the graph like scores Percy Grainger developed to notate the pitch and dynamic changes in his experimental music. ‘Grainger Country’ had hung in a prominent place in the study of our Canterbury home for many years until it had become as familiar as the walls themselves, but through the process of determining the chronology of its stages, I gained new insights and appreciation for its poetry of the eye.
Philip and I reconstructed the ‘Grainger Country’ painting using the New Epoch language, and then extrapolated 2 other basic planes to create a trio composition, derived from the spaces and shapes and quantity of thematic content in the original painting. The new composition was titled ‘A Maypole for Heide’. My mother Cynthia stepped up for the occasion and completed the trio of performers and we were placed on a rise at the rear of the placid acres of parklands broken by an occasional sculpture and an expanse of water. My sister Michaela and her husband to be, Mark Cannon provided logistical and comforting support that afternoon, as they had done before, always with willingness and a generosity of spirit. It was a strange day, periodic rain showers sending us scuttling for shelter under the voluminous gums as if stolen from Stringy Bark Creek. These then also provided welcome respite from the drilling sunshine when it returned with vengeance. On the banks below us human cattle accumulated and meandered toward our easel with peaked curiosity. But acceptance was dispersed by those slightly offended by our intrusion on the scenery. One bystander let out a satirical whoop, when the canvases were turned, as if we had reached an impasse that could only be navigated by a fresh start in a different direction. Once this insight has been given, it is harder to maintain a pride that keeps the back straight and head raised. To the unresponsive, the marks and washes become identified by their inability to communicate the obvious, and a shaky hand delivers an unconvincing message.
At the completion of my first year at university, I embarked on an ambitious set of thematic paintings, intended to integrate newly learnt painting techniques into the New Epoch genre, but also as a way of restoring confidence following modest grades for my studies. At home I was more relaxed, less preoccupied with opinions and a peer group grappling with set topics and visual assignments. Still life and nude studies were once again replaced with webs of lines intended to capture meaning. The garden was in full bloom, lush and brimming with new season’s life. I longed to be amongst it as relief from the slightly dilapidated walls, halls and corridors at Caulfield that had the feeling of having been beaten into submission through years of stolid enterprise. These paintings were about the garden, a celebration of nature and of personal growth. They were in part derived from emotions aroused by the wind through the trees at night, gentle night rain and fragrant blossom, trying to capture something of the innocence of youth, flush with the expectation of cicada songs; daylight saving; holidays; cricket and mosquitoes. They can also be seen as a kind of garden of the mind where everything is in striving motion, leaning against memory and at dusk when resentments scuttle under the cracks of dark cupboards and I could embrace a simpler experience of life.
In the spring, our Canterbury garden was at its most intoxicating, wisteria with its feather boa train of flowers poking out from behind a hedge of poison ivy. Necklaces of forget – me – knots skirted the veranda, its lattice-work knotted with a wild potato vine forming a lush barrier. Against this a banana plant flourished, freed from a stifling pot and the expectation of fruit. A mature photinia tree bordered a tardy lawn, its sap green leaves dispersed here and there with the striking cardinal red opulence of those ready to fall. These leaves had served as pretend currency as a child, a time when money really did grow on trees. And presiding over the whole enclosure was the stately oak with a gathering of ferns at its enormous foot to earth. With branches neatly spaced for ease of climbing and cicada hunting, this tree was the corner-stone of the garden, a grand matriarch that shed hundreds of acorns every year, many of which took root in the top soil and leaf mould of the surrounding gardens. The leaves too would fall in their thousands and create oceans one could dive into, their dampness transformed into thick plumes of grey smoke when dumped in the flickering incinerator, gradually diminishing as the flames reasserted themselves. The place was forever linked to Sunday afternoons when private adventures had time to unfold and I was sure that there were things that I had discovered and knew about our bit of land that no one else did.
Most of all I liked the music of the place, largely shielded from street traffic, and only the proximity of neighbours and the regular distant squeal of metal on metal coming from the railway infringing on its sanctuary. Summer days were drenched in the periodic rattle of Cicada’s, and the sun would rise to an orchestra of magpie warbles and currawongs in the high branches. Indian Minors skipped along the top fence line and wattle birds pounced on the slightest movement, their eyes catching the light like liquid diamonds, gleaming until blinked. By night, other voices of owls and crickets could be heard kept company by hissing possums negotiating territorial rights. I was terrified of the dark and often found the short trek to the workshop a harrowing experience if its lights were off. It was a different place then full of that which cannot be seen and so takes form in wild imaginings. But it was this dichotomy that also endeared it to me, full of the richness of the great world and never becoming so familiar that mystery be tarnished.
I locked myself away for a few weeks, alone with the largest canvas I had worked on at that time, beyond my powers of composition. The small room I painted in was adjoining my bedroom and had been my brother’s room until his fateful migration to the workshop. A cupboard had been removed to create a passage way, and the canvas seemed to fill the space back lit by windows overlooking the front ti-tree fence. It was an added delight to escape here, open to the flow of things and away from people and the intrusion of conversation. Relishing the challenge and channelling all the techniques ingrained during the year, I began mapping out its construction, the smell of turps filling the room with its harsh aroma. My first themes appeared, taken from the swirl of branches streaming beyond possibility and the thickness of trunks belying the extent of their twist. Colours not belonging to the night emerged to assist the fracturing of the surface. I was interested in the rhythm of form rather than its illusionistic rendering. I wanted something believable in its feeling and vigour aside from achieving any kind of reality. The forces of nature exposed in the split second of a lightning bolt. Listening to a wild night I imagined the rattle of letter boxes; the bang of an unhinged gate, and the leaves like great dark mops flopping about. The paintings detail was less related to observations than to the emotional response evoked in the music of a wild night. Through the window, the street may appear quite still despite the howl of the elements, full of drama if you understand how to read it. Even after eyes have adjusted to the dark, hundreds of events are happening that cannot be seen, and by the time you acknowledge their existence they have already come to pass.
By my bedside was a post card of ‘The Tower of Blue Horses’ by Franz Marc. I found it amongst a shoe box of old cards my father had received at various times during his life. This image was intriguing and I felt a great affinity with this artist’s sense of design, and his melding of realism with imaginative colour and form. His works had this lyrical appeal parcelled in the structural certainty of cubist form and put vision to the concept that the task of the observer was to gain an understanding of the feeling out of which the painting had been crafted. A large exhibition of German Expressionist works that came to the National Gallery of Victoria early in 1990 further cemented this movement as my first major influence aside from the paintings I had lived with.
‘Life in the Garden’ was a score I wrote born out of that summer of painting. It depicts the leaves and flowers of my childhood playground drenched in the remembered light of early summer. Inspired by the last great New Epoch work my father completed in June 1986, but replacing the decay of the final white turn in ‘Leavings’, with washes and a two-toned blue sky peeking through the lush foliage which gives the work a more celebratory atmosphere. We ran through 4 complete rehearsals in the workshop that summer, and then featured the new score in our season of council run festival performances. This score represented a breakthrough for ‘Extended Vision’ and became the main stay of our performance repertoire for the remainder of the year. Its strength lay in the colours and thematic structure, which was easily associated with the complicated tangle of leaves and branches, allowing for an easy keyhole for audience interpretation and stylistic idiosyncrasy. For members of the public invited to participate, the score proved to be easy to follow, and a good vehicle through which to explain the basic components of the language. The paintings were capable of retaining structural integrity despite numerous participants ‘having a go’; it could all be pulled together in the final turn. Having tested numerous scores, there was a great reassurance to be felt when finally a prototype could be used with confidence to identify its kind. Trial and error can become habit in time, and measures of success can be derived in the understanding that all these small tributaries finally mingle with the great sea.
Scores should be subject to evolution. In the future with greater means at my disposal I may choose to expand the subject, and adopt a more holistic approach. Winter branches may fracture a white sky, sprouting from a formidable trunk. Observed through a window, the branches may seem to curl around the aura of a great presence. There may be stains on the glass like dried grief. The branches may yield the promise of sparkling fruit, or a collection of perfectly formed leaves. Water droplets may cling to the rough skin of the great tree and shake their spill in the face of an icy blow. Behind, the sky moves through shades of grey, bruised where the rain got out. Removed from the physical presence of the season, beauty becomes abstract and in some ways more desirable for those with an appetite for art.
The first performances of ‘Life in the Garden’ were rather tentative and tight, in comparison to later versions more given to the feeling and passions aroused by the circumstances we found ourselves in – a busy street corner; a pulsing night club; and the hallowed chamber of the National Gallery of Victoria’s great hall. The leap from nature depiction to symbolic expression is mirrored in this transition and highlights the importance of exploring a composition and of choosing a variety of approaches in which to bring it to life.
Set Day 146
Studio Rehearsal (19 December 1991)
“Life in the Garden” (Performance No. 1) composed by Euan Graham
Performed by: Euan Graham, Cynthia Graham and Philip Graham
Set Day 147
Studio Rehearsal (21 December 1991)
“Life in the Garden” (Performance No. 2) composed by Euan Graham
Performed by: Euan Graham, Cynthia Graham and Philip Graham
Set Day 152
Studio Rehearsal (10 February 1992)
“Life in the Garden” (Performance No. 3) composed by Euan Graham
Performed by: Euan Graham, Cynthia Graham and Philip Graham
Set Day 156
Alamein Festival, public performance (4 May 1992)
“Life in the Garden” (Performance No. 4) composed by Euan Graham
Performed by: Euan Graham, Cynthia Graham and Philip Graham
Again Cynthia filled the breach of third “Paintist” and we set about a series of Canterbury rehearsals in preparation for the seasons community festivals.
Set Day 159
Studio Rehearsal (2 August 1992)
“Life in the Garden” (Performance No. 5) composed by Euan Graham
Performed by: Baden Johnson Cynthia Graham and Philip Graham
Duration: 6.5 Hours.
Set Day 161
Studio Rehearsal (9 August 1992)
“Life in the Garden” (Performance No. 6) composed by Euan Graham
Performed by: Baden Johnson Euan Graham and Cynthia Graham
Duration: 4.5 Hours.