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.