To start a painting is rather like trying to remember how to feel normal after a prolonged convalescence – you can easily get lost in the change to routine. To approach it with false confidence can lead to action before thought, but a timid approach can be an equally troublesome impediment. Forgetting, or failing to remember how you have done it previously, was an entanglement I found myself in regularly. It is quite exciting; in the way the idea of the finished work shimmers before you in its incorporeal luminescence, tempting and drawing out a hunger to make it real. Slumped in my painting chair, I would entertain these machinations surrounded by the confusion that was the rest of the studio; buckets, rags, paint pots, bottles and brushes. A dry pastel trodden into powder, everything left where it was last needed, like a collection of idle thoughts or misplaced ideas. The floor becomes a landscape of haphazard activity, as big a mystery as an impenetrable forest or the feelings of another person. Sometimes the most perfect idea can be better preserved as a dream canvas, not polluted by the disappointment of having become real and falling short of expectations. The act of painting then is best realised as a semi dream state, the finished work relating to private explorations styled to protect the vulnerability of the creators dream.
To begin with, the first marks are often possessed with violence, destroying the perfect white surface by shattering its quiet possibilities with a slosh of colour, every action correcting its predecessor and adding substance to the emerging image. Black lines follow shortly as if being traced, creating new spaces bleeding outward where wet on wet. A heavy impasto is next, scraped on with broad and determined gestures wielding a palette knife. All the other things belonging to the outside environment are taken in, absorbed by the dream and reconfigured to meet the needs of this new reality. Gentle night rain taking me back to an earlier time, a vision of myself as a boy, sitting by a window watching rain drops accumulate, puddle then spill to form broken necklaces of the sky’s tears. Other memories of creeping around corners into the dark unknown, fumbling for a light switch whilst bringing to life foul images dredged up by creep shows and a zealous imagination. Remembering my father, in jest, being dragged away by the neck, ‘no bogey men in here son’ – an unconvincing remedy; and the long haul to my upstairs bedroom nervously whistling to quell the growing sense of panic – the dark room, fear of the unknown, of the rupture of illusion. The canvas also needed the lights turned on, and a real connection to be made between dream and solid matter. Not in the way that a telephoto lens captures the minutiae of a scene, but by way of feelings that quiver at the touch of a foreign object, take it in then lay out in some altered fashion, the life I experience. It is through this searching that one learns to paint again, divorced from boundaries and rigid conceptions to the cry of the painting is dead, long live the painting!
Throughout 1994, a new interest in composition emerged, emancipated from the language as prescribed and explained by my brother Philip. I say this not in disrespect, for without Philip’s enormous efforts, there would be no New Epoch Art. I began looking at the numerous prototype scores left by my father and in some cases tried to interpret them using my knowledge of his work as a guide. ‘Childs Play’ was based on a pictographic fragment which simply indicated themes and basic divisions on the canvas. I chose colours reminiscent of the Children’s Corner suite, and crafted a sequence of turns that also owed much to the scores we had been performing over the years. Other attempts to spontaneously interpret my father’s scores included ‘Gardens of Eros’ 1977; Square Exercise in 3 primaries; Flower Piece and ‘4 quarters of the moon’.
The most successful of these was ‘Study on a Grey Ground’, a piece contemporary with and closely related to ‘Portrait of a Square Split’. I arranged it as a companion piece to the latter, a tangle of themes reminiscent of a graffiti wall contained within darkly glazed borders. In revisiting these early developmental scores, I was attempting to recapture the spirit of investigation concerning the form of the language and its short-hand.
left “watching Rainbows” a simple thematic exercise for beginners and right “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” a rough idea for a duet composition based on an non objective self portrait completed in 1993.
“Oranges and Lemons” was the first time I had tried to create a composition with a musical accompaniment. The idea was that the turns would be roughly timed to the duration of each segment of music. My recording equipment was primitive and so the project remained in a state of semi completion but working drawings, strange recordings and a complete duet score exist. I was in a state of flux living between my new home in Newstead, and the old workshop at Canterbury. I took some work as a store-man and packer at my brother in laws workplace owned by his father so as to contribute to paying my way, affording cask wine and rudimentary materials to spend all-nighters painting and recording in a dim attempt to emulate former triumphs.
Baden and I had met up on a few occasions in 1994 searching for a suitable venue to hold a show. This involved gallery crawls across the Melbourne CBD into every artist run space, cafe and “wanna be” commercial prospect. Nothing seemed to be suitable or we were met with a luke warm reception. Out of this new initiative grew my first ideas around how we could continue to collaborate in a meaningful way moving forward. I envisioned a series of projects, where set topics were established and each artist in turn responding with a composition high lighting the difference in each of our approaches. I saw value even in our time of hiatus to continue to develop new scores in accordance with our separate studio practice.
The first major New Epoch work I completed post Extended Vision was ‘The Impromptu Suite’ in the Christmas of 1994. This was a set of 9 separate single basic plain compositions that mark a shift in my interest in the process of composition. Each score was entirely composed before a single sketch was made, only a quick extension of the theme to ensure its viability. The scores were conceived without preconceptions of subject or appearance using only imagination to grow the works with my knowledge of the effects of paint as a guide. In performing the scores, I then remained strictly faithful to the original notation, but acknowledge that adjustments at this stage may be necessary to ensure a working composition. I wanted to establish different modes of composition that shaped and influenced the way a score comes together. Earlier methods I referred to as ‘Study Composition’, where a performance is conducted simultaneous to the notation being written, a score as you go approach. The ‘Impromptu composition’ being an immediate expression of an idea, directly notated excluding formative performance. I saw this as being akin to plene air painting. ‘Analytical composition’ I thought of as being the most advanced form, incorporating representational studies of a subject, and synthesising themes and structures via a detailed process of analysis and evolution, in much the same way as my father derived themes from clouds, banksia and she oak for his ‘Westernport Garden’ series. Other ideas included the ‘Homage composition’, where a score may be derived from existing art works, a reinvention of an old master.
The Impromptu mode of composition was of most interest to me. The idea that a painting, completely written may utilise an aspect of imagination not always brought to the fore in conventional methods of visual art so reliant on a process of trial and error. The image one starts out with when preparing a fresh canvas, is rarely accurately realised by painting’s completion. It is subject to the complexities and vagaries of execution. A pristine score can capture that first vision, making the notating of an idea a complete act in itself. The ‘Impromptu Suite’ falls short of being a pure original glimpse, the works remaining heavily influenced by established practices and conventions. The scores arrived like guilty pleasures, sneaking past the guard of my current preoccupation which remained the suburban environment, now viewed at a distance from a studio in paddock. They became a touch stone to return a sense of lineal progression and add to a concerto with notes remembered from notation unheard. However I felt they represented an uneasy groping back to an earlier, more familiar manner. This made me uncomfortable, and it became a mission to produce a fully composed image that bore no resemblance to the works we created in the early years of Extended Vision. This was important to me, as I saw it as true testament to the viability of this form of art; to be able to out-grow the vision and aesthetic values of its creator. It was not enough to remain ‘in the manner of’, because this was only ever going to have a limited appeal. While Extended Vision was moving toward the educational prospects of the language, I was more interested in what it had to offer to other artists.
“Windows” is another fully realised composition at this time completed and performed in November 1994. Although still in an impromptu mode, the main difference between the two parts is colour variations in keeping with earlier methods of scoring. In this way, this could be expanded to become a trio or quartet quite easily, or to have an unending set with subtle variations, all intended to make up a single work in completion.
In my attempt to uncover a New Epoch art work that could live in its own fashion separate from the influence of earlier expressions, I looked at the role of themes and plains that define so much of the appearance of previous compositions. I developed the idea of ‘Rhythmic Variations’, which involved the placement of a new symbol either in the restatement section on the staff or to the right of the basic plane indicator to augment the statement of themes. When observing my father’s thematic artworks, subtle variations of the themes emerge to varying degrees. This might be due to the learnt traditions of improvisation. His New Epoch works are in many ways an impression of what he imagined notation paintings to look like. Variations in the statement of themes may also be attributed to human error, but it is these aspects of performance that preserve the performers right to impart personal style, to add a personal aspect to the interpretation of a score. My idea of Rhythmic Variations was to allow the stated theme to provide the basic components, which would then be reconfigured upon each statement, creating a more literal and radical approach to variations on a theme. They can be used to emphasise certain shapes that may be evocative of subject matter, or be purely non-objective i.e. all curves or all angles. It is the rhythm inherent in the performance of those components that remains a constant rather than precision and consistency in their configuration. I perceived that my approach to manipulating the traditional theme and plain work relationships had become calcified, locked into a set of prescribed aesthetic judgements. In the four part composition ‘Abstract Rhythmic Variations’, thematic components have been reduced in complexity, replace by these Rhythmic variations, in this case presenting as plains that seek to find certain repetitive formations created by the initial thematic statement in a way that compliments and builds on the thematic structure. This composition, also falling into the impromptu category started its life intended as an evocative expression depicting bird songs. This was a subject featured in my father’s first tentative movement toward an abstract idiom in the early 1950’s. It again found expression in the large canvases ‘Wild Flight Call’ and ‘Crow Cries’ for his first one man show at Gallery A in 1960, and again in a lyrical water colour which formed the basis for the composition ‘Sun Hi Midday’ in 1982. I came to see the depiction of bird song as filling the same niche in New Epoch Art as the still life and nude study do in traditional forms of painting.
Ten non thematic sketches completed as a lead in to the “Rhythmic Variations” composition
At the conclusion of the ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ series in April 1995 I commenced work on a large number of drawings and paintings based around interior settings and still life arrangements. These gradually evolved into a new series entitled “The inside Place’. In these paintings, I was exploring the interior environment in terms of both physical and psychological space. I invented a kind of hieroglyphic language (related to thematic structure but not adhering to its parameters), that sought to illustrate life style systems and daily routines – aspects of living in and around things, places and various states of being; a cosy framework and habitat to eat, think and dream in. A house needs keeping like a dark pet, taking on the feelings of its inhabitancy. Dark corners glow fiercely in imagination, leaving one frightened by the last thoughts before sleep. Having indulged in the experience, and of course remembering vividly, childhood insecurities, the aim was to capture the mood and to delve beneath the surface appearance of the utilitarian object to discover some deeper significance. To achieve this I tried to create images that could be read like a book with layers of meaning imbued with subliminal content. I was influenced by the opaque prose of Patrick White that seemed to suggest fathomless depths of human perception and the exquisite pain of existence; also the music of Joy Division, a seminal rock band of the post punk era that pulses and taps into a subliminal consciousness, evocative of the emotions that swell against the structures of a controlled environment. ‘The Counting House’ is a good example of how I employed the use of different windows to indicate various states of thought and insight.
In March 1996 I picked up the threads of my composition experiments again, preoccupied with the idea of trying to bridge the gap between “The inside Place“paintings and my new epoch work. To achieve this I decided to create new symbols and experiment with the format of the score. Again, I had no intention of dismissing the language as it stood; I just needed to satisfy my curiosity, it was necessary, for me to take ownership of my work in this field. My intention was not to create a new system for others to use, but to throw open the language and examine its components for myself in order to determine what may need to be adjusted or added – the process leading to my most radical departure from conventional thematic imagery. The “Inside Place” Notation was a score using these new symbols that indicated different modes of thematic derivation and subject observation. It includes direct analysis of the subject made as an integral act of interpreting the score – some themes and motifs were created during the performance. It was not my aim to create a score suitable for public performance. It is a studio study into the nature of the language and its effect on the process of composition and interpretation of the score. The Inside Place Notation involved the cognitive and physical statement of primary and secondary themes, with restatement in the form of Rhythmic Variations that were derived from direct observation of the raw subject matter, the interior/ still life arrangement.
Creating a work of art involves making a connection between the past and the present and the manipulation of this information to construct a new event. Tradition and the physical influence of the present effects the decisions we make, but with notation, a third element enters the equation and we are free to place greater emphasis on that aspect conscious of an audience. Because of this element, that to a degree anticipates the future, freedom of artistic expression can be given a new autonomy but without having the weight of tradition defining its purpose. A performer may choose to adopt an approach for a performance like an actor takes on the idiosyncrasies of the character portrayed. It is not necessary then to continue to stretch the boundaries of what is perceived as art in order to be accepted as new and challenging. Great performances of the future may be distinguished by their spontaneity and inventiveness whilst remaining within the parameters of the notation. Much the same way as Shakespeare is reinterpreted from generation to generation adopting the lens of the prevailing social discourse of the times whilst remaining faithful to the original intensions of the author. I believe this says as much about the period we live in as does the passing fads and fashions and sometimes more, for it remains central to the cultural traditions of the community. My father made the distinction between composed art by gaining and understanding of the nature and function of existing visual art practice. He wrote:
“the act of painting has constantly been seen as visually complete in itself and the ‘subject’ of the visual arts were always derived from the dominant cultural beliefs of their contemporary period, it became a historical artefact in the process of its completion.”
The act of public performance takes on additional significance when we consider that it is the best way to enable the audience to experience the physical manifestation of the creative process. To see the craft skills of the artist shape the art works before them holds a certain fascination and enhances the communicative power of the experience of engaging with a visual image. The audience are left with the memory of the stages of the performance as well as its conclusion. Music, despite recording technologies transforming the nature of its exposure, still attracts a ‘live audience’ to experience the warmth and energy of a performance. There is also this interplay between artist and audience the one feeding off the other and acting as a catalyst for interpretive acts sympathetic to the immediate environment. All of this plays a part in the shaping of the art work and in the formation of a special empathy that has always been treasured by artists and audience alike.
I feel that it is important that a composer not become trapped within the conventions of the language, as if shut inside a solid slab of sleep. It is the ability to reinvent one’s self and transcend the obvious that expresses best the full potential of any language. This again places the stress on New Epoch Notation as a tool to help facilitate greater inventiveness utilising the scope of all the performers who bring their unique knowledge and skills to an interpretation. This truly enables the creation of paintings no one single person could possibly execute. A painter often feels that completion is never achieved by the last stroke. Seen through eyes picking and probing for fault, art works remain in a perpetual state of reassessment. What seemed great at the time may become drab and insufficient with the accumulation of knowledge and skills. For the notation painter, this dilemma finds its expression in more concrete terms as in the act of performance and reinterpretation. A theme or subject may be subject to countless variations and modifications in time, and a score to ongoing editions.
In 1998, I experimented with batik techniques, wax-resist dyeing applied to cloth using thematic form. I was desperately searching for a sustainable means of income and it seemed sensible to consider the design potential of New Epoch Art as one course to pursue.
To judge the merits of a New Epoch composition, a new set of criteria needs to be employed, a distinct act separate to the assessment of the completed paintings. Even a simple and unremarkable composition may engender a performance of outstanding finesse and virtuosity, just as a brilliant score may be performed badly. The ability for a composition to be accommodating of the various painterly idiosyncrasies of the performer is one factor. This involves getting the balance right between interpretive notation and prescribed acts. Consideration of how the paintings look at the end of each turn became the key ingredient for me in realising a successful performance set. It was this idea that first stimulated my awareness of the difference of composed art. Where my father spent much time considering the theory of a composed art, I went on to look at the way composition relates to performance, especially in a public setting, because this allowed me to reflect on my experience base. It is of great interest to me to gain some understanding of just how a language for painting may influence the nature of the art works created, remaining mindful that it is most importantly a tool, not just a gimmick. As my father wrote sometime late in 1986…
“A new instrument will not necessarily make better art of greater value than an old one. New means, new language, methods are tools of the mind. What is achieved with tools is entirely the prerogative of humanity. So when we talk of ‘Notation Painting’ I prefer to describe it as a mode of thought rather than a mechanical method of application”.
“What was not wanted was a mechanistic method, or a highly structured system that impinged upon the long-practiced values of the visual artist. The freedoms and skills of visual artists are unique to their studies. The many years of practice that may or may not enable them to develop a personal style are not to be treated lightly or discarded, nor the individual’s sensitive visual approach to the poetry of the eye. It is not the intention to substitute some magic touchstone or golden pathway that all may tread, but to present a useful tool that will free the artist even more, to compose, to paint, and to enjoy the pleasures of visual art…”
I keeping with these sentiments, my paintings of the central Victorian landscape surrounding me gradually moved further and further away from a graphic depiction toward capturing something more essential finding simplistic themes derived from old iron wheels and barbed wire.
Following a very vivid dream I had in November 2000, I composed a duet composition “Dream Canvas” The paintings belonged to a new version of “Extended Vision”, maybe a future version, and were being painted amidst spotlights and curtains on a grand scale with a seated audience holding their program score and talking quietly amongst themselves.
This collection of visual ideas may be a decorative abbreviation of an important body of work, but it is what I managed at there time, and it will always remain a work in progress. Just as my father picked up and put down again and again his work on New Epoch Art theory, and the challenges involved in devising a new system of notation, I have periods where it becomes my most important focus for a while, juggled with my broader preoccupations as a visual artist. I can imagine a future where we open the first school for New Epoch Art and form a broader collective in the international arts community; where scores may be shared and interpreted by people of different cultures, as a means of forming partnerships and communicating in the spirit of artistic pursuit. The arts in all their forms have an immeasurably humanising effect on people and they play an indispensable role in the life and evolution of a culture. It is for this reason that New Epoch art has much to contribute, as a method and a tool designed to promote inclusion, understanding and appreciation of visual art in the wider community.
This is a young society still. In a thousand years time, the 1980’s may be barely distinguishable from the whole of the 20th century and that from first settlement. We are still making our myths and it is through mythology that societies form a sense of collective identity. Artists play a pivotal role in this process, as story tellers, mirrors and visionaries projecting toward a future where values are merged with progressive aspirations. The way societies imbue myths with feelings and attitudes in turn becomes one of the deepest sources for creative expression.
My father perceived the role of artists in the future to be that of champions of sensitivity, charged with the responsibility of extending the sensibilities of the willing audience. He believed that it was art forms with a live performance aspect that managed to engage the audience in a most lively fashion, and lamented the many miscommunications and misconceptions society held of the isolated artist toiling in the seclusion of a private studio. With the assertion that art is in fact a cognitive process, not an object to be bought and sold, he recognised the potential for New Epoch Art to navigate around the distortions of commodity-based values, and allow a direct and immediate communication between artist and audience. He believed that a language for painting could provide people with terms of reference and help educate them to the intricacies and skills involved in the creation of non-figurative art works. A way to combat the ‘my 5 year old could have painted that’ attitude used to so easily dismiss that which is misunderstood and to bring people closer to the experience and intensions of the visual artist.
Although I had an intuitive understanding of New Epoch philosophy stemming from the life and culture of my family, I am not confident in explaining in detail the broader concepts of my father’s theories on art. I new something of their implications, and had accumulated my own body of knowledge surrounding the practical application of the New Epoch language, but in many ways I had allowed myself to be guided by the concepts without dwelling on their full profundity. This was a position I held because I believed that my best art was going to come from an intuitive place, unshackled by the chains of theoretical argument. One does have to come up with succinct answers of course – why, how and what is it all about? Questions I answered to the best of my ability when performing in public. It is hard to counter a negative view with just a paint brush and canvas to illustrate your arguments, and there were times when I felt undermined by the absurdity of the situation. The additional reality that many of our performances and scores were probably not the best ambassadors, but were the best we could conceive at the time made the challenge greater again. It is for this reason that I believe it is important to make a clear distinction between a ‘workshop rehearsal’ and a ‘formal performance’. The former will always seek to involve the audience in the performance, which is largely what ‘Extended Vision’ was doing during this its first phase.
I remember fierce arguments at art school defending a position against ‘art for art’s sake’ and the notion that nothing is new, only a rehash of that which has come before. I had difficulty in articulating my arguments, because they were so complex and hinted at a profoundly different idea about the role of artists in our society than was being presented to me. This was perhaps my reason for holding the secret of my involvement in NEA so carefully through my years at art school. To disclose it would only open myself to ridicule I did not feel confident in defending against. But in the exclusion of Newstead, and separate from Philip, I felt confident to undertake my own investigations coming from the perspective of a studio artist divorced from the pressures of having to perform.
Although I could not appreciate it at the time, I realise now that it was a very rare set of circumstances that gave us the motivation and the time to form Extended Vision and conduct performances with such intensity, originality and passion. Our youth, our family bond and our dedication to the project were of equal significance. We had no business plan as such and we had no clear objective, other than to further the cause, to learn through experience and to ensure that New Epoch Art did not die with its inventor but continue to grow toward the realisation of its full potential.
Jan martin held one more exhibition of my father’s drawings and paintings aside from including works in the occasional group show, and displaying the collection she had in house. This final exhibition was on the theme of the bird and the bird watcher, mounted in 2000, six years after Aspect 3. The show was eclectic, gathering works from the 1950’s and placing them along side his late imagery, a time when he equated the symbol of the bird with the fragility of the natural world. This idea was most poignantly expressed in the image ‘Little dead bird under the sun’ and reiterated in the important late drawing ‘Still Life with Dead bird and tree felled landscape’, a precursor to the frightening paradise destroyed series that depicted a post nuclear apocalypse. My father was fascinated by the idea of the bird’s eye view, and some of his most exquisite water colours again took up the theme of bird songs, only now they seemed to resinate with a sense of foreboding with an awareness of his own mortality.
The show received little attention from critics and the public alike, and Jan was forced again to refocus her energy. She set about the task of selling a significant early oil, ‘Peter Lalor Addressing The Minors’ to the Ballarat Regional Gallery, already steeped in the history of the Eureka Stockade and boasting the original flag of the southern Cross. Finally a success, and with the sale, and a new director Gordon Morrison pursuing a progressive agenda, came the promise of a regional gallery retrospective that had been first mooted so many years earlier. Jan always insisted that it would take 20 years of persistence to gain acceptance for the art of Peter Graham. Sadly, it was shortly after this milestone had been reached that Jan herself died of cancer, excitedly pondering which pictures might be chosen for the Ballarat show. In her final conversation with my Mother, she reaffirmed her belief in the work saying ‘It stands up, it’s so good’. Without Jan’s credibility to back us up, enthusiasm for the Ballarat retrospective dwindled until Gordon Morrison finally pulled the plug on the project, citing a lack of resources as a reason. This is funny, because few artists could boast the wealth of human resources that my family has invested in the preservation of my father’s legacy. It may have been circumstance, or an innate reluctance to self-promote that held my father back in his life time. The disappointment, despite his lofty ambition, became ingrained in him and in turn shaped my families concept of such things as recognition and success. It has established an us versus them discourse which is neither helpful nor healthy. While my father’s works largely remain in storage, their presence in my heart, and the potential they hold resinate deeply within me, like an unwritten book, or a symphony yet to be heard by the audience it deserves. If success be measured by how popular, or how widely known ones art work is, than I wonder if there isn’t some nobility in being a failed artist. Jan Martin often asserted that Peter Graham was a pure artist, following the path of his innate creative urges. This meant that he produced an enormous variety of art works spanning several genres. In an age where artists gravitate toward a stylistic fix, a mode they become identified by and which is seen as strength, my father’s career unfolded in an unorthodox fashion, and one that was endlessly in pursuit of invention and discovery.