The Inside Place

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!

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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.

STUDY ON A GREY GROUND
Study on a grey ground

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"Car Alarm" Duet Composition performed in February 1994
“Car Alarm” A composition from February 1994 which specifies an improvised final turn joining both basic planes together and creating a shape across both canvases reminiscent of the subject – either through restatement plane work or the introduction of new themes.

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.

Non Objective Self Portrait

“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.

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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.

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“Change of Scene” Single B.P composition from June 1994 based on the view from my window in Newstead.
A River So Deep
“A River So Deep” was not intended as a completed score, more as a sketch for a proposed composition, as were many of the “short hand” scores written at this time.

A RIver So deep

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.

IMPROMPTU SUITE
“The Impromptu Suite” 9 separate compositions composed in November and December 1994, this performance also being completed at that time.

Impromptu !

Impromptu 2

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In this performance of a single part of “the Impromptu Suite” I show the painting at each stage of its progress.

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“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.

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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

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“Rhythmic Variations” Performance 1 1995
Rhythmic Variations
“Rhythmic Variations” 1995 Mixed media on paper. A second performance of these four compositions.

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“The Gift” was the last composed work in this set of exercises completed in August 1995.

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.

THE COUNTING HOUSE
“The Counting House” Acrylic on canvas 1996 140 x 120 cm
ALARM CLOCK RESCUE
“Alarm Clock Rescue” 1996 Acrylic on canvas 120 x 150 cm
LITTLE EASE OF ANXIETY
The Little Ease of Anxiety 1996 Acrylic on canvas 180 x 210 cm

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.

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INSIDE PLACE NOTATION
“The Inside Place Notation” 1996 Acrylic on canvas

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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.

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score design notation

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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.

UNKNOWN B RITUAL
“Unknown Bush Ritual” 2000 Mixed media on paper 70 x 80 cm private collection Castlemaine.
PRIMITIVE BUSH FEELINGS
“Primitive Bush Feelings” 2000 Acrylic on canvas 60 x 50 cm

 

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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.

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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.

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“The Bird” Peter Graham 1985 Water colour on paper 90 x 110 cm
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“Birds Eye View” Peter Graham Oil on Canvas 1985 160 x 150 cm

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.

 

 

 

FOUNDATION

I often longed to return to my bedroom to draw, sometimes paint, because the artificial light could further my real illusions. All students harbour the glamour of potential success and make light of it in conversations concluding with ‘when I am famous’. It is only after time and much waiting that the expectation of success becomes changed into something more modest and the caprice revealed as a false motivation. The real virtue lies in the pursuit of excellence, the acknowledgement of which belongs with those unconnected to the life of the art’s invention; this is in turn a subjective judgement with a whole raft of contributing influences. At this point, you realise that art is not about something you do, it’s about something you are, and that if you want to be an artist, then you must work with all your strength earnestly and without pause, so that in time you may achieve a proficiency and skill sufficient to enable you to render your impressions in a heartfelt and fervent manner.

This duet composition was  written mid way through 1993 intended as a contribution to developing simple scores for workshop situations. This remains its only solo performance, painted on the floor of my Canterbury bedroom. My main preoccupation was a total absorption with my studies in 1993, and determined to make my final year a success I approached the task with determination and vigour. As a result I made significant advancements in my technique and understanding of aesthetics, and found a new maturity in my ability to investigate a subject through paint. My subject became my immediate environment and I immersed myself in the streets and front yard facades that had been all I had known as home. My first task was to become an observer of, rather than a participant in suburban life. This strange self-conscious appraisal engenders new perspectives, and greater insight into things previously taken for granted. The process of stepping outside had a more literal connotation as well. Beginning with pen and paper, then drawing pad, I began to walk the streets of Canterbury and beyond, and build up a considerable body of sketches, notes and ideas that were to form a foundation from which art works were derived. These ‘Working Walks’ were crucial as a study technique, and method in which to imbue art works with real experience and the authenticity that comes with painting about the things you know. I instinctively chose to walk at night when a transformation occurred under the glow of streetlights. There existed wildness at this time, energy divorced from functionality, almost as if nature had crept back in under cover of darkness to reclaim lost territory. A tree becomes a dark sentinel, a car a formation sprouting from the nature strip like a boulder on an outcrop; gates and fences a playground for the creatures of the night and suburban Denison’s. In the following year I became increasingly aware of ornamental ironwork, which seemed to be like a secret language, speaking of the underlying motivations and social aspirations of those who lived behind the walls. The spiral emblems and decorative motifs are one of the few structural elements, which are not defined by functionality. I liked to use them as a lineal overlay, much like a theme, which bound everything together in a neat and rhythmical manner.

The final stage of this study then revealed a new emphasis on fragmentation and symbolic abstraction, using a bolder line and a more frenetic approach to mark making and paint application. These works tried to show the suburban environment as confronting, powerful and emblematic; an absolute show of strength, wealth and permanence. My houses became monolithic chambers; their ornamentation like aggressive grills to guard against trespasser’s and protect against intrusion in the safety house zone. The transformed appearance of these works both intrigues me and disturbs me, for they are definitely not pretty pictures. I wanted these paintings to be rather sardonic, sometimes witty and reminiscent of the paradox of the everyday human ritual. They formed the basis for my first one man show held at Tog’s Other Place Gallery in April 1995, coincidentally, in the same space that had been Jan’s Lyttleton Gallery back in 1987 in Castlemaine.

While I received my first distinctions from my lecturers during my final year at Caulfield, Philip continued to hold sporadic workshops in the back yard, involving children. But Extended Vision had effectively lapsed into a dormant state that was to last a further sixteen years. This was cemented by the decision by my mother to sell up our Canterbury home, leave her job, and escape the pressures of city life. It was a desperate attempt to hold the family together, and gain the momentum of a fresh start. Spending time together was only causing rifts to deepen, and much growing, independently, needed to take place.

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Newstead Hungry Country 1997 Acrylic on canvas 190 x 160 cm

The move to Newstead, a small township cradled between Ballarat and Bendigo in the central Victorian gold fields in September 1993 was to have an immense impact on my life as an artist. The journey began following stoically the removalist van deep into the country side. The old Ford station wagon that had lugged our performance gear for so long now carrying an assortment of carry-alls full of our most precious possessions – including two rather bewildered dogs, unsure as to where the trip would lead to and the life that was to unfold, a little at a time amidst the flurry of moving and camping in our as yet unfitted house. It was really just a weekender, with windows dulled by continuous smoke puffed from previous owners and the residue of kerosene lanterns. Without grid electricity and mains water, it felt like more of a home for the mice, in plague proportions that first season, than for its new and confused residents, colloquially known by the local community as “blow ins”. With just an existing rickety solar set-up that failed in the first weeks, and an old generator that nearly caused me to pull my arm out of its socket trying to start it, tribulations abounded. We quickly realised the impressive collection of kerosene lights the previous owners had gathered were not just for show as they had intimated! I spent many evenings drawing by flickering light pretending to emulate the feats of artists from a previous era. Initially, all the notions we brought with us, dreamily espoused, found a niche along-side the wrens in the eaves laying tiny blue eggs and pig face clinging to the gardens edges thriving on the dryness. I was still full of first urges, and the excitement of discovery and could not imagine ever losing those feelings and in many ways, I never did. The discovery became more internalised in time, and less connected to the physical reality of the environment.

The enormity of the task ahead was all-consuming and coupled with the sense of loss and separation, especially for my Mother who had retired from her job as a permissions editor at Longman Cheshire upon moving, it took time to regain a sense of belonging. Many trips back and forth from Canterbury which had been bought by my sister Micheala and her husband Mark Cannon continued, as much for solace as for practical tying up of loose ends. I was yet to complete my studies and so had established my studio/ bedroom in the workshop at Canterbury, just as Philip had done years earlier, where I continued to primarily reside in between visits to the new home. Sensing prudence in keeping separation for a time, Philip and I took turns to play a support role and pioneer in darkest Newstead, helping my mother establish the place.

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The upheaval was quite exhilarating, and I carried around for the longest time a sense of freedom that being on extended holiday might evoke. But also there was great confusion and disorientation, strange feelings lingering in the silence of the night before being shattered by an anxious dog screaming off down the drive way after the shadow of a rabbit. Six acres of hungry country adjacent to an enormous sheep run, still owned by the relatives of the original squattocracy. My mother would walk around the fence line marking the border of our block in what she referred to as ‘the park’, just to get a sense of the place. It took her several weeks to become acquainted with the nearest neighbours buried behind bushland. Everyone along Pound Lane knew all about the new arrivals of course, shyly refraining from pushy inquiries, waiting for the right moment for greetings. Having taken a tiny offering of fruit cake, the only suitable thing she had and returned from a warm reception with arms full of organically grown fruit and veggies, a feeling of welcome had at last emerged. The New Year was heralded in by the crow of our rather scruffy rooster and other unfamiliar bird songs, along with the beep of a new solar system and the comforting crackle of the chip heater at dawn. Newstead in time became a place of healing and of enterprise for my family, and it was here that I commenced a new body of work based around the landscape and its casualties as well as continuing to pursue an experimental agenda with my Notation exercises.

NEWSTEAD WOODLANDS RYHTHM
Newstead Woodlands Rhythm 2000 Acrylic on canvas 160 x 180 cm

In time I formed a deep affinity with the central Victorian landscape as both a subject to paint and a place to belong. Beginning with a set of black and white ink drawings, and then gradually introducing colour and methods to depict the complex tangle of twigs and leaf litter, wallaby grass and the patterned yellow box trunks and stumps that dominate the landscape, art works emerged, and again I found myself walking with a sketch pad and camera. With each step deeper into the paddocks, a certain strangeness creeps in, a sense that the world remains foreign and irreducible in its complexity – a rock; a branch, a collection of wool and bones. The dead sheep came to represent the fragility of our relationship with the land, a powerful symbol for just how it resists the changes we bring to it. I found many stopping places in my wanderings. Dam’s, reflecting the skyline in upside down darkness boarded by the fire of sunset where I could sit for an eternity listening to the persistent music of insects, like metal on metal and one call reminiscent of Aboriginal rhythm sticks. I would return my akubra bearing a sweat ring and my eyes shining out from beneath its brim like sparks in a 5 day growth. On one side the straggly remnant box iron bark forest bordering a vast paddock dotted with tree stumps, sweeping up toward a hill peaked with sheep silhouettes in convoy. On the other, tufts of wallaby grass springing out of the green aches and spinney’s of saplings crowned with the pale blue grey gum tips that had emerged in the absence of live stock. One evening I returned having walked straight through a muddy dam, an intoxicated Bunyip, now resembling the colour of the place. I had hoped to be absorbed, to become indistinguishable from, the yellow curtain of summer grasses and the blue grey hair do’s of the tall gums. Philip turned to me and said, ‘What the bloody hell happened to you?” I just shrugged and grinned in a way that alluded to the ridiculous.

BIRD IN THE BUSH
“Bird in the Bush” 2001 Acrylic on canvas 140 x 180 cm

It is hungry country, dead trees reaching skyward as if begging for moisture. When the rains do arrive, the banks of the Loddon River would be breached and low-lying roads washed away. The water would run off the surface, headed for troughs and valleys scarcely seeping two inches into the hard crust of the ground. In the wooded areas a poppet head might loom out of the scraggly wilderness, the ghost of a thing of beauty, no tree older than the last great clearing. My father’s ancestors had lived in Redcastle, a small township north of Heathcote, also a mining area associated with the Costerfield district that had been settled in the 1860’s. A whole host of reefs were opened up in with names like Mary Jane, Guiding Star and Beautiful Venus, formed along fault lines. It was a time when populations rapidly swelled and alluvial minors made a good living. Stephen Mitchell my great great grandfather had opened up reefs in 1859 that by the early 20th century saw Cyanide works set up to extract gold from tailings. As a family we had under taken a pilgrimage of sorts to what was left of the town in the early 1980’s, just the occasional scattering of handmade bricks, and iron work around the quartz in the cemetery. It was little more than a dot on the map, still listed in homage to its earlier significance. Away from the main site of the graveyard was a fence line along which some 50 Chinamen were reportedly buried. This link to the area gave credence to our decision to shift and make it our home.

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Newstead Summer Idyll 2000 Mixed media on paper 30 x 40 cm

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.