Last Turns

Philip painting at the Canterbury Jazz Festival 1993
Philip painting at the Canterbury Jazz Festival 1993

That July, Philip noticed a promo in the front window display at the Regent Theatre for an exhibition at ‘The Hutt Gallery’ by Baden Johnson. The concept of ‘Reversal Art’, was in part inspired by the idea of revealing the process of the painting and making that the subject. Philip sensing a kindred spirit rang the gallery that afternoon and spoke to Baden who remembered us from our brief encounter at ‘The Hut’ Gallery performance back in 1988. Baden felt that he instantly knew, this was something he wanted to learn more about and become involved in. Baden’s presence injected a new energy into Extended Vision that saw us refine our performance technique and expand into a more diverse and professional arena. We donned white one piece suits that reflected a more workman like approach and embarked on a series of public performances that were to represent the pinnacle of Extended Vision’s achievement in visual presentation. Baden felt that we were like a rock band doing it tough, hard work rewarded by the sense of being part of something significant. We were a group, but not in the way that a rock band sets out to conquer the charts. There was no precedent for what we were trying to achieve, no established audience, just the shock of the new, time and time again on a grass roots community level. Unlike mainstream street art forms, where stencils and spray cans are employed to transfer traditional imagery to a new surface, New Epoch art was entirely original, in its concept and in its presentation. As a result of this we were received in every possible manner conceivable, from wide-eyed amazement, to a blink of dismissal.

Baden had developed an association with Margaret Stewart, the well-known collector and benefactor for acquisitions for the NGV. His Mother provided her with a house cleaning service, and Baden would help out on weekends and during school holidays. Margaret Stewart had taken Baden under her wing because he wanted to be an artist, and had showed him her vast collection including all the ‘big’ names, and introduced him to leading Gallery directors. She gave him art books, catalogues and financial support to purchase materials. When Baden had completed his first duet with Philip, ‘summer Blaze’, the tradition was always to give the finished works to the debutant. Baden took the works straight to show Margaret Stewart as she had promised to buy a painting from his first show. As Baden recounted, she loved the works and immediately agreed to buy them producing the money from an ample leather satchel. However the notes were soon put away again upon learning how the paintings had been created. She warned him to stay away from the Graham’s and told him that Peter Graham had a bad reputation in the art industry, as someone set on assailing the status of the individual, and that he was trying to destroy gallery art.

 

The first public outing with our new line up was as part of the Melbourne Fringe festival parade, which was to be followed by a performance, cancelled due to persistent drizzle. We had draped all our freshly painted drop sheets over the old blue station wagon, and with the easel secured to the roof racks we took our place meandering down Brunswick Street to the cry of ‘here come the artists’. Baden, embracing the moment, then jumped up on the car, and proceeded to rotate the canvases set up on the easel. This spontaneous act showed the very spirit we had been lacking, and was an unequivocal affirmation of Baden’s whole hearted engagement in the project. From the corner of my eye I could see faces change, and dressed in a power that arose out of the expectation of a colourful story to tell, I could hold my head up and fully embrace the moment. With the gentle mocking voices quietened, and strangers finding pleasing snapshots in our display, the day found new strength in pride, and we excitedly caught our selves fleetingly on the 6:30 news, as if we needed to see that to be sure we were really there.

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In the Great Hall at The National Gallery of Victoria as part of the ‘Hidden Imagination’ festival of performing arts, we then unveiled our full regalia with drop sheets, table skirts and score stands built by Philip replacing the old metal music stands that blew over too easily in the wind. The auditorium was crowded that day, with stalls and presentations lining the grey walls beneath the enormous Roger Kemp tapestries. We ran through in good time ‘Life in The Garden’, its seventh performance, which was well-received and provided an interesting juxtaposition against the geometric stained glass ceiling. It should have been more intimidating, but the comfort of the cultured, air-conditioned venue was a reward after many seasons braving the elements. At the conclusion, we spun the tri-easel around in continuous motion, a gesture that came to signal performance end.

Our set up in the Gret Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria
Our set up in the Gret Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria

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There were numerous performance artists roving around the grounds of the gallery. A group dressed in hospital blue adorned with shower caps, each one clutching a brick. Periodically they would cry out ‘BRICK!’ which made more than one visitor jump for their life, and created a disturbing tension in the room. Other acts roamed around dressed in outfits and stilts resembling characters from the ‘Dark Crystal’ and I gained a heightened consciousness of our own manner of performance. I was aware that the range of movements behind gestural marks contributed to the character and inventiveness of those marks. I noticed Philip adopting a bird like jerkiness in approaching the canvas, almost in emulation of the theme. The body conducts these movements that are swift, rhythmical and accurate, a dance at the easel in unison to the evolving nexus of lines enlivening structure on the picture plane. In a different setting the wind can cut right through you tearing into streamers your resolve, and then your snowman limbs might make spiky, clumsy marks hastened by the promise of a safe return to comfort. It could be argued that nothing exquisite can be created in a hurry. But freed from the rigours of perpetual invention, the artist can move with confidence from step to step, channelling facility in brush work and gaining this rhythmical approach to the easel.

At Baden’s urging we then moved into a different scene, with two performances for ‘The Lounge’ nightclub in Swanston Street which had an arty flavour and some exhibiting space. Both Baden and Philip were veterans of this world, intoxicated by the pumping beat and pulsing lights and offered me, a nightclub virgin, a parody of concern for my stoic nonchalance. We trialled a set of single easels created for linear performance designed and constructed by Philip to enable greater flexibility, and painted deep into the night finishing up with the rising of the sun. I held a conversation with one reveller, capturing an occasional syllable between sub-harmonic base licks and techno machine guns. His eyes seemed to express some sought of admiration though separated from his mouth illuminated in five second intervals by a strobe. The rest of the evening was spent struggling with a head full of noise, and eyes straining to comprehend the canvas in front of me which was pulsing in and out of darkness. The paintings were surprisingly competent, yet more evidence of the resilience of the ‘Life in the Garden’ score, and we ended the evening improvising additional turns as we had again made good time. Baden later felt disappointed that we didn’t explore this scene further, and I guess the side show amidst a sea of flailing arms was one pursuit that could have captured cult status in time.

On Stage at the Lounge Nightclub
On Stage at the Lounge Nightclub

THE LOUNGE 4.11.1992

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Our next outing was at the prestigious Mornington Peninsular Art Centre, originally established by Alan McCulloch who had followed the career of my father in printed review, starting from his first one man show at ‘Gallery A’ in Melbourne in 1960. A large drawing of ‘roo skinners’ had been donated to the art centre in 1987, in keeping with my father’s wishes. The night of the performance was filled with ominous cloud formations herded by a racing windy sky. My stomach was threatened by a hastily consumed burger and I had lavishly applied deodorant in preparation. Packing the equipment was never a smooth process, often left to hurried minutes, invariably missing something important. The boot of the station wagon was laid with the easel uprights, tables and paint pots. The large circular particleboard base, strapped to the roof racks. Philip would often fly into a panic, hair hanging down giving the appearance of a grizzled monkey. I would hold my anxiety differently, letting it tense my face into a granite like grimace. Civilities would often dissolve in the bustle and allow rodent voices to take over. There was time fortunately to patch up the damage, an hour and a half drive, time also for other fears to be uncovered. The performance outing was becoming increasingly toxic, stirring up the same dark feelings that my last stage concert with violin had induced. In its aftermath, I sat smouldering; my fingers buried deeply in the marzipan flesh of my palms, leaving deep red imprints where the ghosts of nails may continue to grow. I could have melted the ice on the surrounding branches with my radiant heat, and caused the audience to peel layers and fan themselves with self conscious vigour. I felt immobile bearing the monolithic calm of a Rodin catching sunlight in my bronzed creases.

With only an a.m. radio challenged for reception as a distraction and the shock jocks gloating over the latest political misdemeanour, it was a long journey serving only to heighten a sense of foreboding. I was glad of ‘Life in The Garden’ as a score, it was easy to talk about leaves in their million shapely postures and hues, although my mind dwelled on a Caulfield conversation, in which Andrew Sibly had talked about the stylised shapes created by the extended leaf theme with a sour expression, as if overcome by a disagreeable odour. In defence I conjured the kinds of brush marks that can only add interest and promote inventiveness. With paint the texture of pan cake mix, and a neatly kept water colour brush, lines could be delicate and flowing, thin to thick in a single motion, evoking branches shattering the sky into a mosaic of shapes each one perfectly related to the idea of foliage.

As it turned out, it was an ill conceived plan as we had brought the carousel easel in anticipation of setting up in an open space. We were relocated to make way for the hoards and a parade and so the new lineal set up would have been more appropriate, braced against the glass walls as if the port hole of a goldfish bowl. The heavens then opened with precision timing while I watched helplessly, the car keys dangling in the ignition behind locked doors. Coming to my senses, recriminations resurfaced and a total melt down was only narrowly avoided by some friendly assistance by an astute bystander, possibly basking in the unlikely appreciation of his much-maligned skills. The venue was filled to capacity that evening, the audience jovial in their cups and their sincere interest hardly left us to complete a turn without enthusiastic question and answer. The lady folk all dressed up for the occasion, hanging with silver bling, the waft of perfume corralled by silk wings and filigree lace only slightly tainted by red wine and nibbles. The men were adorned in dinner wear, with an artistic swagger and an occasional peroxide mane and orange birds nest sprouting above a chic leather jacket.

Working on the Canterbury Mural
Working on the Canterbury Mural

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Baden Johnson - "The Canterbury Mural" 1992
Baden Johnson – “The Canterbury Mural” 1992

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The Canterbury mural had evolved out of a sign-writing job Philip had secured with the local ‘Maling Pharmacy’. A younger generation had taken the reigns and wanted to ‘funk up’ the joint, despite the strict style codes enforced by the Camberwell council. We took down our weird music and our overalls and ruled the side walk for a weekend, just a block on from Theatre Place where it had all begun. We promoted the mural as a homage to local artist Peter Graham, a sentiment that held little significance to others it seemed. The painting seemed to attract a great deal of interest from residents and some small degree of acceptance from the neighbourhood graffiti writers. The only incursion on its immense surface was in the form of a neatly penned quip in a bubble of ochre ‘John Howard’s brain scan’. Shortly after, it was scraped away by disgruntled council officials, indignant at the perplexing intrusion on the precious heritage aesthetics of the shopping precinct. It was a shame because the painting was probably the finest example of jazz composition and collaboration. But in keeping with a true performance spirit, the significance resided in the process, rather than the finished work with all its semi ritualistic devices employed to gain a confidence of surface that matched an idea of completeness. The same arguments surfaced when I added my sombre washes to nullify the sunniness of earlier passages, much to Philip’s annoyance. Spectrum hues greyed off to resemble a sun shadow or backyard burn off. All those little joy-notes like birdsongs on north wind were in my mind a necessary sacrifice, subject to the transformative process, through which the method becomes buried in successive layers. In losing and finding a painting, you can be certain of some shapes, like familiar furniture owning the corner of a room, largely invisible but none the less necessary. Change, then, is a necessary embellishment for the evolution and nourishment of art ideas.

Baden and Philip with newly constructed easel for linear performance.
Baden and Philip with newly constructed easel for linear performance.

Around this time, Philip was asked to judge the Warrandyte youth Arts award, by the Warrandyte Arts and Education Trust. He awarded the prize to peter Daverington, an emerging star on the graffiti scene, who also displayed considerable accomplishment in more traditional forms of painting. A friendship emerged and Peter came out to our home in Canterbury before long, to find out what New Epoch Art was all about. Despite Peter’s interest, he did not pursue performances with us, but this occasion did give us the opportunity to stage the first quartet performance in the workshop, using an adapted score of ‘Portrait of a Square Split’. Philip, now with the assistance of Baden had continued constructing easels, the ‘quad’ being the latest edition utilising the base from the original tri-easel. Three new Tri-easels with a more compact circumference had also been completed in anticipation of future group workshops. We were poised ready to expand our operation, and ideas of developing a new performance group with a more upbeat focus were kicked about. Its name was to be ‘Diamond Plus X’ in reference to the notation symbols, and all we needed was the right personnel or at least the right alter-egos clad in suitably provocative dress to take to the streets.

 

 

Author: crowcries

Euan Benjamin Graham I decided to become an artist when I was 14 years old in 1987. I have pursued my vocation with dedication and a complete single mindedness. Pictures are like people, they have their own life. I have embraced the streets recently as a venue because pictures need a lover, and artists become intolerably frustrated without an audience.

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