the painters tongue cover2 

The following notes are toward 'The Painters Tongue - 1980 - 2000'

'The Painter's Tongue' is to be a more rigorous follow-up to my earlier book 'Diary of a Dead Beat Modern Art Type' (Gulag Publising, 2000), which covered the first ten years of my work as a post-medium conceptual artist.  

This page is where I post the drafts that I am working on at any one time.  At this point these pages are still very much a work in progress, and constantly being reworked.  My agenda is to interrogate the choices facing a painter, as my own practice had done during those years. From a conceptualist's perspective I would argue this interrogation represents the very raison d'etre of painting, however from a post-modern perspective such a narrative could never be inseperable from the specific experience of the individual artist.  In this respect 'The Painters Tongue' digresses into a memoir.  The scope of this narrative extends from 1980, when I first began to consider the implications of a fixed studio practice, to the year 2000. This delineates a period of twenty years during which, despite the ups and downs, I was enabled to maintain my interrogation, my rigorous commitment to my studio practice and an unflinching attention to the complex skill-sets and processes without which certain sorts of painting prove impossible.  In effect 'The Painter's Tongue' becomes a post-modern appreciation of the possibilities of painting from the perspective of its death - looking back across the entire history of the practice toward what could be salvaged beyond the genre wars of late-modernism toward painting as a poetic language system.  Despite the fact that this appreciation is embedded within the personal narrative of one specific post-modern Australian painter, working at the end of twentieth century, I would argue that this retogressive interrogation of the structural parameters of the most poetic of mediums was effected within the golden glow of painting's Indian Summer.  In this respect, despite its ever immanent collapse, this project was effected in the belief of the possibilty of its future.

The current draft concerns the year 1989.

I have posted some images if only to introduce of the specificiity of the cultural context. This project is stiil very much a 'work in progress' with so much work still to be done. Should anyone feel moved to critique, comment or communicate - my contact details are on the 'Contact' page.

 

                             The Painter’s Tongue - 1989

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‘Skull and Star map of the Southern Hemisphere’ – G.W. - Oil on canvas – 1989

Dragging duckweed

Hugh Ramage helped me pile my goods and chattels into the back of the biggest truck we could hire and we headed south - down the Princes Highway from Broadway to Bomaderry.   After a three-hour drive, it was late afternoon when we opened the gate at Bundanon.  By the time we had unpacked everything into Arthur’s barn it was dark and a torrid electrical storm had begun to unbuckle its fury across the Shoalhaven.  Rain bucketed down in great torrents; lightning rent the sky in sudden jolts, illuminating the sodden bush in brief snapshots.   Keen to get back on the road, Hugh passed up my offer of a quick bite to eat, but it wasn’t long before he was back in Arthur’s kitchen preparing to stay the night.  The storm had thrown down a tree blocking the track out of Bundanon.  This was my introduction to the violence of nature at Bundanon.

Originally Arthur arranged that I would be living in the Luthier’s cottage, what has since become known as ‘The Writer’s Cottage’.  Early 1989 it was still Robin Moyes’ residence; Robin and his wife were awaiting the completion of the new house in Nowra, meantime Robin was completing the violin that Arthur had commissioned.  In the interim I was to stay at Bundanon, where there was an array of rooms on offer.  Hugh had no option but to stay overnight.  The next day the rain cleared; the bush had been refreshed and now stood radiant, glistening in the morning light.  The birds heralded a new day with a fresh cantata and the frogs bought up the base.  After breakfast Rod, the farmer, took his chainsaw to the remaindered tree, opened a gap in the track and Hugh was soon headed back up to Sydney.  It was a few weeks before I saw another soul.

I remember it distinctly.  I’d committed myself to the agreed two days of work a week on the gardens.  Without anyone to negotiate my gardening responsibilities, I started the job of clearing the duckweed from the lake on the other side of the homestead.  This entailed taking the aluminum boat out onto the lake and a raking as much duckweed into the tinny as I could manage without capsizing it; unloading it into a pile on the side of the billabong before repeating the process over & over again.  During the next few weeks I managed to clear a significant gap in water table.   By that time I had worked out how to mute the constant screech of the cockatoos, such that my time on the lake was enveloped in relative silence.[1]  All that was left of the soundscape was the quiet dripping of duckweed and the sodden thud of the wooden handle of the rake, bumping against the side of the tinny. Otherwise I was lost in abstraction.

I first noticed the feint hum as if it might have been a plane on the distant horizon, but a blast from the horn suddenly awoke me from my trance.  It was Rod, checking in to see what I was up to.  Not one for small talk was our Rod; he shot me a couple basic questions from the window his Toyota Hi-Lux; such as ‘What do you think you are doing?’  Rod was not the conciliatory type.  Once he gathered the basic information – he was off again.  Like most of the wildlife at Bundanon, Rod and his wife Debbie were recessive.  Not that I minded; I had a lot on my mind and was happy to be left alone myself.  The first couple of months drifted by without any significant contact with anyone at Bundanon.

 

Boyd - not Boyd

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‘Narcissus’; proposal for bronze sculpture on the ornamental lake at Bundanon, GW –1989.

Although it would be few weeks before I could settle into Robin’s cottage, my stay at Bundanon gave me time to get my bearings.  I noted no less than four pianos, including three grand pianos; one in the living room at Bundanon, one the homestead at Riversdale and a brown baby grand in Arthur’s studio; then there was the upright at Eerie Park; technically Nolan’s contribution to the estate.

I particularly admired Arthur’s collection of Goya’s etchings (from the ‘Los Capricious’ suite), which lined the staircase.  I didn’t think to count them but I imagine he had fifteen to twenty of them.  At one point I came across a receipt for half a dozen of them; from memory - circa 1968 Arthur paid $ 200 (AUD) each for them.  Recent sales records from Sotherby’s London suggest just one of them could fetch £12,000 (GBP).[2]

The Boyds have historically been a close family, committed to support of their respective creative endeavors.  More than a just a platform for Arthur’s work, Bundanon functioned as a showcase and repository for the work of the extended Boyd clan, which included the Nolan & Perceval families; interlinked by marriage and friendship.  The genealogy of the family has been well documented so I won’t digress to detail.  The walls of Bundanon were lined with their paintings; the gardens were dotted with their sculpture, bookcases abounded with their books, whilst the entire back wall of the drawing room featured a glass cabinet, floor to ceiling, brimming with A.M.B. pottery and extended family ceramics.

Looking closely at the work dotted throughout the house I noted most of the Boyd clan seemed to paint in a similar style.  Of course the Boyd’s have always been a sophisticated lot.  Arthur had been a scion of a sturdy mix of social prowess and financial clout.  At origin the artistic lineage began with the marriage of Emma Minnie and Arthur Merric, both Royal Academicians, but from the next generation on, the Boyd’s have been largely self-taught; autodidacts learning from each other.  Boyd brushmanship was first inducted through working in the family business of decorating ceramics, then evolved through landscape painting - en plein-air.  The result has been a preference for a direct mode of painting and thick paint.

Despite my own post-modern forebodings about landscape, whilst waiting for the opportunity to unpack my studio, I took my portable Juilien paint-box out of storage and tried my hand at the Boyd method in the Bundanon landscape.  I quickly realized there wasn’t a view that hadn’t already been trademarked ‘Boyd’.   Purposefully avoiding any temptation to the grandiloquent, I explored Arthur’s techniques in miniature, surreptitiously charting the Boyd methodology; thick, fast painting, as much with my fingers and those long liner brushes as my traditional preference for hog’s hair filberts - and guess what?  My paintings quickly took on that familiar Boyd look. What was that quote of Oscar Wilde’s? 

'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.'

Although that there was much to be gleaned from understanding Arthur’s approach to the landscape, there was little future to be had in appropriating Boyd territory.  The simple fact of the matter was I was not a Boyd.

Several years later I met Anna Glynn, another of Arthur’s studio assistants.  Under Arthur’s guidance Anna had been inducted into painting with her palms.  She recounted a story, which seemed to illustrate the problem.  Arthur was hosting group of dignitaries at Bundanon.  As he would soon be busy entertaining his guests, Arthur asked Anna to guide his guests around the studio, should they venture prematurely out through the garden.  Anna had been Arthur’s assistant for some time and her work had begun to manifest his influence.  Before leaving her in charge of his studio, Arthur grabbed one of her paintings and put it proudly on the easel beside the studio door; such that it was set to be the first painting a visitor encountered when they entered Arthur’s studio.  Despite reservations Anna felt unable to intervene.  You might imagine what happened next.

The first visitor stepped into the studio, took one look at this first painting so proudly presented before her and went into reverie, waxing poetic about the mark of the master – clearly mistaking Anna’s painting as one of Arthur’s. Anna thanked the woman for her compliments, but the woman was outraged - indignant.  When Anna explained the painting was actually one of hers that Arthur insisted on placing so prominently, the woman was mortified for her faux pas and immediately turned left the studio.  Anna was one of Arthur’s favorites, but she was not Arthur and would never be a Boyd.

Stealing gifts

pulpit rock gw 1989

‘Pulpit Rock’ – G.W. Oil on board - 1989

Perhaps unlike some of Arthur’s apprentices, I had come to Bundanon deeply steeped in the extended histories of art, from post-modernism all the way back to before pre-modernism.  I was familiar with the broadest spectrum of art practices from the nihilist strategies of Dada and Duchamp to the appropriation tactics Imants Tillers and Juan Davila.

Mike Bidlo, for example, the American appropriation artist who referred to Marcel Duchamp as ‘Saint Duchamp’, was famous for his ‘Not Warhol’, ‘Not Pollock’, ‘Not Picasso’, ‘Not Cezanne’, ‘Not Modigliani’ etc. series, where Bidlo not only copied the paintings of his nominated masters, he appropriated their entire lifestyle for the duration of the time he was reworking their paintings; in some cases these appropriations went on for years.

Perhaps the most honest approach to the Bundanon problem might have been the most ingenuous - a wholesale appropriation of the Boyd oeuvre.  I was perfectly positioned to turn on the ‘Not Boyd’ performance álá Bidlo, I had access to his paints , his hats and felt quite capable of taking on the Boyd oeuvre.  However, aside from minor issue of morals and the major issue of the betrayal of Arthur’s trust, there was a more fundamental problem with the appropriation of an artist such as Arthur Boyd.

Arthur was one artist I deeply admired, not for what I could easily emulate but for that which I could never touch: his innate poetic gifts.  Of course there are certain artists whose work one can easily knock off.  Lets begin with some of the formalists, whose conceptual processes have already been set in train.  How many black canvases have we seen since Malevich offered the first over a hundred years ago, in 1915?  However there are a few artists whose work is invulnerable to appropriation.  These are what I might call ‘painter’s painters’ whose painting is not driven by conceptual strategy much less political advocacy.  Rather their work develops intuitively within the haptic engagement with the materiality of their media.  In this realm there are few painters whose work evidences real gift, these are the only painters who interest me as a post-conceptual painter.

It is all very well to copy a painting that you might admire. Historically that’s how the apprentice learnt their master’s craft; by painstakingly emulating their technique.  This formed the heart of the medieval ‘atelier method’ of art education.  To this day, it remains the most effective method of learning certain techniques; however the act of copying another’s work will only get you so far as a painter.   No matter how accurately you copy, there is no guarantee you will ever inherit your master’s gifts, much less their fate.  But this has nothing to do with appropriation tactics in the post-modern sense.

Within the genre of appropriation the artist’s intentions shift gears, appropriation offers itself as a series of reference points, which serve to open another sort of discourse.  Imants Tillers appropriations of Eugene Von Gerard, for example, make no attempt to engage Von Gerard’s technical mastery.   Rather Tillers’ Von Gerard is painted with his fingers, evoking Julian Schnabel’s concept of the urban Aboriginal.  Tillers offers only the most superficial image of Von Gerard as a point of reference.  His appropriations are to be understood in terms of a tactical ploy, that signifying his place within the canon of Australian art somewhere between the European and the Aboriginal.

It is easy enough to copy an image but it is another matter to aspire to the spirit that drives certain artists.  I have always admired Jean Michel Basquiat’s work.   Of course Basquiat usually painted stoned; his marks, images, words, over-crossings and colors were produced in intuitive state and came at you like bebop and jazz masters he admired; Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk.  Many have attempted to appropriate Basquiat but few manage to achieve the dyslectic and arrhythmic poetics self-evident in Basquiat’s painting.  Most Basquiat appropriations come across as wooden misappropriations - lacking the fluid relation to the medium that was innate with Basquiat and bereft of his muse.

As far as I was concerned Arthur Boyd was another painter in this league of poetically gifted painters.  As such, appropriation of Arthur’s images will only get you so far, what is intrinsic to Arthur is not delimited by the image.  Something else gets into the mix in Arthur’s studio, something more insistent and at times unsettling.  It is this ‘something else’ that separates Boyd and Basquiat from their plagiarists.   Of course you can easily copy Arthur‘s images, simulate his style even; but that will not get you any closer to the poetic instincts that drove his work.

Consider for a moment the difference between the work of Arthur and his brother David Boyd - both signatories to the ‘Antipodean Manifesto’ (1959).  At times the brothers painted in very similar ways, worked with similar themes, colors and techniques, to the extent that those unfamiliar with the differences, often confuse their work.  However there remain profound differences between the work of these brothers.  Without digressing to the detail, these differences are self-evident in the public standing of their respective reputations.

When I first arrived at Bundanon I noted Arthur’s junior apprentice, Laith Wark had already picked up Arthur’s sensual methodology; painting thick and fast, with the palm of the hands and the tips of his fingers to lay down color and nuance tone; delineating line with those whippy little liner brushes.  Arthur’s son Jamie was similarly extending the Boyd production line in Bundanon landscapes, taking on his father’s style and subject, gently smudging the line between generations.

Arthur’s ‘bread and butter’ line may well have been his landscapes but what makes Arthur’s work exceptional is not defined by his landscapes or even his technique.  It is the visceral immediacy of his poetic subjectivity that he infused into his paintings.  That’s what wakes me up front of his paintings and often plagues me late at night.  The heart of Arthur’s poiêsis cannot be approached through appropriation.  Here is the fault line with appropriation.

In the late 1980s, a time when painting had been pronounced dead for a second time, the days when an artist learnt their craft from their master were long gone.  Contemporary art is defined by its politics and its a preference for spectacle.  Contemporary has little truck with media-specific practices such as painting.  Artists such as Fiona Hall, Dale Franks and Brooke Alexander represent the next generation of Australian artists.  The Boyd legacy in painting appears to have ended with Arthur.  If the medium of painting was to have any hope of a resurrection, it is unlikely that it would return as a consequence of an Arthur acolyte capitalizing on his oeuvre.

Cedar Lining

singlemans hut - bundanon 3

Single Man’s Hut – Bundanon 

Arthur’s enormous generosity and the luxurious conditions at Bundanon left me feeling haunted by great expectations I could never fulfill.  The whole situation was overwhelming.  I am no Boyd; I am a deadbeat modern art type; little more than a thorn in the side of the art world.  What the hell was I supposed to do at this point in my life when everything I have done as an artist had failed?  I had absolutely no idea.  Now installed at Bundanon on the basis of my status as an artist - it seemed I had no option but fail – fail again and fail harder

My first real decision was to decamp from Bundanon and set-up in the abandoned single man’s hut on the other side of the lake.  At least there on fringe of the bush I felt free from my own cloying need to do the right thing.  Often there is an uneasy feeling when city slickers encounter the bush - especially at night.  There are so many unfamiliar sounds and uncanny silences that can give pause for the consideration of the omniscient unknown.  Who knows what unrequited spirits could be haunting a convict-built mansion house such as Bundanon.  Then there is the dreaded bunyip of Aboriginal legend; reputedly a pernicious creature believed to haunt waterholes and billabongs.  I had already asked Arthur about the possibility of a malign presence at Bundanon.  He explained that the only thing he ever worried about was other people.

Of course I didn’t believe any of that stuff ether, but on my nightly trek across the swampy end of the lake I had other things to consider.  For a start the swamp was full of frogs and the long grass provided an ideal cover for the snakes that fed on them.  That nightly trek through the swamp was most unsettling.  I took to stomping my way through the long grass in gumboots with a false sense of bravado - often singing loudly to stave off fear.  Eventually I became quite cavalier in my nightly march to the other side of the billabong and the relative comfort of the warm glow of the kerosene lamp.

The single man’s hut consisted of just one small room with a disproportionally large stone fireplace, and a modest table where I spent nights drawing and writing.  A sturdy ladder led to a sleeping platform, big enough for a double mattress under the steep tin roof, which offered the rustic comforts of acoustic isolation when it rained, which was quite often.  The inside of the hut had been lined with cedar, such that it exuded an extraordinary aroma and afforded a comforting sense of luxury, which was especially welcome out there on the edge of the deep forest.

The onset of autumn drizzle made for miserable nights, although I felt safe cocooned in my cedar bunker and soon drifted into a deep sleep.  I have no idea what time it was when I was woken by a terrible thumping, as if someone or thing had broken into the hut and was now rummaging through the hut below me.  Paralyzed by fear, I was just hoping that whatever it was down below hadn’t twigged I was in bed directly above it.

OK – come to think of it, there had been a few suggestions of untoward goings on at Bundanon, but nothing specific.  Perhaps the hut had been home to a feral bushman who had returned to find his home had been taken over by some blow-in?  Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum.  By now crazy thoughts were running through my mind so I fumbled about for my micro-torch and discreetly scoured the room hoping to put an end to the fantasy.  Nope – I could not see anything inside the hut.  But still the banging and thumping continued.  I was not dreaming - there had to be someone out there.  Who knew that I was living in the single mans hut?   Only Rod and Debbie.   Perhaps it was them banging on the walls?  What could they possibly want? Perhpas it was a bid to get rid of me.  What on earth had I done to offend them?  More soul-searching ensued.

By then had I tentatively crawled out of bed and was half way down the ladder.  No – there was nothing inside the hut.  I surreptitiously peered through the windows in my bid to catch a glimpse of who or what might be out there and things went quiet again.  I dared not flash my torch through the window.  Then suddenly the thumping and banging started up again, I almost had a heart attack.  I grabbed an iron from the fireplace and prepared to defend or even attack as needs be.  The next option was to open the front door – there had to be someone out there on the verandah.  I eased open the lock and kicked open the front door, startling a pair of kangaroos that had been sheltering from the drizzle on the timber porch.  They disappeared into the night like a pair of sprites.

Bruegel and Co.

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‘One and three musicians’ – G.W. Oil on canvas - 1989.

That March, Arthur’s attempts to give Bundanon to the people of Australia had been featured on the cover of ‘The Good Weekend’ under the headline; ’The $20 million dollar haven Arthur Boyd is trying to give away - and how the government is trying to stop him’.  It was followed by an eight-page color spread dotted with alluring photographs of the estate and Arthur in his studio.  The plan was simple; given Arthur & Yvonne egalitarian predilections they had not wanted to simply pass the estate on to the family, but give it to the people of Australia as a site for the development of a broader spectrum of Australian culture.  It wasn’t a tax doge nor a money laundering exercise, however, ever since Neville Wrann had declined the project on behalf of the people of N.S.W. and Bob Hawke had cancelled their proposed meeting on behalf of the Feral Government of Australia, Arthur was left to wonder if the gift might be just a bit ‘too big for them to cope with’.[3]   It would be another four years before Paul Keating officially received Arthur’s gift on behalf of the people of Australia, in 1993.  Meantime it was empty.

Eventually permissions were arranged for me to use Arthur’s studio, whilst awaiting the Luthier’s cottage.   When I was finally able to spread out in Arthur’s studio I resisted any temptation to take up Arthur’s mode of painting, willfully avoiding thick, fast, Neo Ex. painting, ‘Bad Painting’ or even Pop painting.  I wanted to set a classical tone and began to experiment with soft wax glazes.  My first project was a modestly scaled series of three small nature-morte paintings, using a skull from a human skeleton I’d had traded from Bronwyn Bassett.  

  1. Skull with Rembrandt’s velvet bonnet and violin - the one Robyn Moyes had just completed for Arthur.
  2. Skull and map of the stars of southern hemisphere - a gift from Simon Penny.
  3. Skull and piano  -Arthur’s brown baby grand. 

I had been given a book, Cezanne - The early years,[4] for my birthday that year and noted Cezanne’s skull paintings, which had me thinking about Warhol’s skulls, reproduced in Peter Fuller’s Modern Painter’s magazine that year.  I had aspired to the humble presence of a Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin still life.  These paintings were deliberately slow and set to resist the Vox Pop that defined painting’s public profile earlier in the decade.  I might have done more but it was soon time to pack up and move again.

By this time many of my Sydney friends and associates had begun to find their way down to Bundanon.  My most loyal visitor was Bronwyn Bassett, would arrive, a basket of fresh bounty brimming with goodwill.  I had become intimate with Bronwyn toward the end of my time in Stanley St.  On New Years morning 1989 I awoke beside her; she languidly rolled over and recounted a fragment of her dream.  She had awoken in bed with a man with an arm of shattered glass – evoking Frank Sinatra’s 1955 film; The Man with the Golden Arm.  I read it in terms of my inability to offer any real commitment.  Bronwyn didn’t seem to mind.  She had a liberal understanding of humanity and came without great expectations.  

Bronwyn was a painter and quite a formal one at that.  She had spent some time in Italy studying the 16th century mannerist painter Jacomo da Pontormo, famous for his elongated bodies and fine boned hands.  Bronwyn had an innate sense of draughtsmanship.  I did a painting of her, using my fingers, pinching away at details with my fingernails.  Bronwyn countered with a drawing of me - painting her.  Such are the self-reflexive preoccupations of painters.

My old friend Simon Penny found his way down for a few days; I think it rained every day whilst he was there; we spent most of our time in the kitchen - stoned.  I painted a full-length portrait of him over the days we had together.  Simon was always playful.  Exacerbated by the tedium of standing, late into the second day he stepped over to my easel and tearing the brush out of my hand, he ferociously scrutinized it before indignantly exclaiming;

 ‘Oh for Christ’s sake Gary – just as I had suspected - that’s a worn out No.1 mongoose.’

In all fairness the canvas was long and narrow, in keeping with Simon’s proportions, but small.  After laying in the basic building blocks with my usual hogs hair filberts, I had no option but to resort to the finest brush in my box to control the details that define character.  By the time we were finished, the brush too was exhausted.

Richard McMillan and Jon Plapp arrived with great aplomb & sensitivity.  After lunch we ritually explored the estate and Arthur’s studio.  Richard showed great patience in reviewing my drawings whilst Jon admired the Skull with Grand Piano painting.  Eventually they left a couple of hundred dollars on the piano and returned to Sydney with the painting and a drawing.

Larry Buttrose and his new partner Kathryn Ryding came down for a short stay, radiant in the glow of their newfound love.  Kathryn had decided to change her surname to Ryding, in honor of Robert Graves’ muse - Laura Ryding, the American poet.    Over dinner Larry recounted the 1926 tale of the Graves/Ryding romantic tryst and double suicide attempt. 

In the context of crossed love affairs and complex family relations, Laura impetuously threw herself out of the fourth floor window of Graves’ flat, onto the stone pavement below with no expectation of ever returning.   Graves, in love, immediately rushed down the stairs, as if to catch or attend to her or whatever when he realized his folly – she would be dead by the time he got there.  As he passed the third story window he dived out in a bid to join her and came crashing to the stone court beside her.  Although Riding was crippled thereafter, they both recovered and went on to spend the next fourteen years together.[5]  

The tale seemed to exemplify the poet’s ideal of a pure love, at risk of life or limb, which opened a conversation about Tempe.  Larry confessed he was at a loss to understand what had happened.   He had paid Tempe a courtesy visit some time after we had broken-up, but found her politely self-contained.  Recognizing Tempe had since stripped the house of any sign of our past life, Larry filed his story under The Mouse that Roared.

After dinner Kathryn recited Edith Sitwell’s poems,  ‘When Sir Beelzebub called for his syllabub …’, with such precision I gave her Rembrandt’s velvet bonnet, (the one featured in the ‘Skull with Violin’ painting) in tribute.  Larry and Kathryn went on to write their hit West-End musical The Hot Shoe Shuffle together.   Larry was perhaps the most vocal, but he wasn’t alone in his encouraging me to take on the landscape ‘I think you would be mad to have left here without having produced a body of Bundanon landscapes.’  He did have a point. 

By this time I had begun to get to know the locals.  The property manager of Bundanon, Chris Monagan and his wife Christine, were in residence at Riversdale.  The Monagan’s were very kind and generous people we became good friends.  Chris was a sturdy Australian cattleman, responsible for the major property issues such as buying and selling livestock, muster and crops and their seasonal harvest, whilst his wife, Christine was an upright English woman with equestrian interests.

Come autumn, I followed the harvest and considered the idea of doing painting inspired by Arthur’s Bruegel paintings of the mid-forties.   I did some sketches in the field and took a few photographs, but to complete such a painting requires a serious commitment.  For some reason I hesitated.

It is easy to outline such a project, but it is another to commit to the challenge of completing it.  For a post-modern painter such as myself there is the question of objectives and methodology.  I considered taking on a Bruegel-esque methodology, but it could require months to complete such a painting.  I wasn’t ready to make that commitment.  There was a range of local references also; Arthur might have spent a month or two on some of his Bruegel inspired paintings, such as ‘Christ driving the Money Lenders from the Temple’(1948-49).  Had Nolan taken on such a project he might have first developed a schematic process, then painted a couple of paintings a day on the theme, over the next few months.  John Perceval might just head out into the field with his paint box and start his intoxicated mode of scribbling, returning to the site until he had exhausted the subject or himself.  In my case I still had not stabilized my commitments, there were too many options, competing ideas, none of which seemed quite right for me at the time.

Local Wildlife

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‘Straight from the horses Ass’ – G.W. - Oil on canvas – 1989. 

Rod and Debbie had the responsibility for the house and gardens at Bundanon and any immediate problems around the estate.  They lived in what has since become known as ‘The Musician’s Cottage’.  They seemed to have been at Bundanon for many years and were devoted to Arthur and Yvonne.  They invited me to join them for a meal at one point.   Before dinner we threw down a couple of beers and after an honest meal of meat and two vegs, it was Bundie & coke and weed.   Perhaps it was because we were stoned and had nothing in common, but a cultural abyss soon opened up.  It is hard to tell if it was the subject or the style of conversation that made communication awkward.  As the guest I felt obliged to engage, entertain even, but the more I spoke the deeper the divide threatened.  Perhaps my tales of Darlinghurst were self-indulgent.  Perhaps my cultural tolerances placed me on the wrong side of metro-sexual spectrum for these country folk; it was as if we spoke different dialects.  I confess the cut-down check shirt and Ugg boots was not a look that I had ever admired, but at least I was tolerant; which was more than I could say for my hosts.

More sophisticated responses seemed to provoke an indeterminate homophobic jibing. I felt decidedly uncomfortable when my host pulled out an oversized hunting knife and start stabbing away at a cutting board whilst talking dirty about ‘city people’ – as if they are all one and the same.  Welcome to the other Australia - Bogan Australia.  Long ago I picked up an automatic response to danger – I switch the system to ‘silent alert’ and never show fear.  I took it all in my stride.  

By this time I was beginning to develop some idea of where Rod and Debbie were coming from.  I imagined they had been unsettled by some of my visitors, unfamiliar with the complex sub-cultures of inner urban life.  On my way out Debbie handed me a copy of The Watchtower the Jehovah’s Witness leaflet.   I paused for a brief chat about God and Yahweh, before heading back to the single man’s hut on the other side of the swamp.

Lefty got his name following a motorcycle accident, which crushed his left leg.  Lefty was Aboriginal, most likely a Jerringa person from the Dharawal group.  Rod would occasionally call Lefty in for help around Bundanon.  I’d always enjoyed Lefty’s company, but I soon learnt that he lived too fast and died too young.  Like most Aboriginal people Lefty professed a special bond to the land, and offered to introduce me to it one Saturday afternoon.

Apparently Lefty’s country was on the other side of the Shoalhaven, over the back of Burrier road; country I’d been curious about.  Given Bundanon had already been branded Boyd and pretty much exhausted as a subject for painting, I had wondered if Lefty’s country might open some subject worthy of research and representation.

We met at Rod’s place, had a few throwdowns.[6]  I counted six before he lined-up a couple of bongs and then packing a few joints and some more throwdowns for the road, we jumped into Lefty’s ute and headed off.  I was way out of my comfort zone, but any words of moderation, reserve or caution left me feeling like a wowser, so not wishing to offend, I tightened my seatbelt and kept my opinions to myself. 

First we paid a visit to Lefty’s mother and sister in the Aboriginal shanty town in the Culburra area on the coastal side of Nowra, before heading back out along the Burrier Road.  I was expecting a trek into ‘country’ but Lefty had no interest in leaving the vehicle.  Later, I suggested a portrait of Lefty, but he wasn’t one to settle.  I imagined I was getting to understand the local wildlife.

Eerie Park

bundanon drawing 3

 Cliff - G.W. - Drawing 1989

Sure - I was keen to settle into the Moyes’ cottage but I could wait.  I knew they had been desperate to move into their new house, but the builders were holding us all up.  Eventually they did move, but it did seem somewhat sudden.  Later the Moyes invited me to admire the new house, and over a cup of tea, Robin told me a story.

Late one night they heard a knock at the door of their cottage.  Opening it Robin found Rod on his doorstep; he was drunk and carrying one of his guns.  Robin asked him if everything was OK?  It seemed that it was time for the Moyes to go, Rod pushed his gun under Robin’s chin to emphasize his point.  No doubt Arthur would have been horrified had he known about the rough justice being exercised in his name.  Fortunately Robin understood – all’s well that ends well.  I might have imagined it was my turn to move in, but Rod explained the cottage needed a total makeover, which could take some time.  Rod decided that I would be best if I was resettled at Eerie Park, which was three kilometers back up the track. 

Technically Eerie Park was Nolan’s property although Nolan invariably stayed at Bundanon.  Eerie Park had a three-bedroom weatherboard house, with a great view of the cliff on the other side of the Shoalhaven.  It came with a little 4WD Suzuki Sierra runabout.  Perfect.   I converted the biggest bedroom to a studio and set up camp in the living room using the other bedrooms to store paintings.  I was more than happy keeping my distance from Rod’s precinct.

Exploring the bush around Eerie Park I came across, what seemed to be the entire contents of a house dumped into a soil erosion gully below the house; fridge, washing-machine, tables, chairs, cupboards, curtains, clothes, children’s toys etc. and an old saddle and a rusty gun, which I salvaged and stored them under the house.  The Monagan’s explained the house had been home to Rod and Debbie’s unnamed best friends, who they had imported to help with the work at Bundanon.  There must have been some altercation, because they suddenly disappeared.  Next their goods and chattels were found dumped in the gully.  I imagined they received the same notice that Rod had given the Moyes.

Friends & Visitors

martin portus - riley st - 87

‘Martin Portus’ – G.W. photograph – Sydney 1987

Although Arthur and Yvonne were in London, their spirit of good will and generosity was all pervasive and deeply infectious.  My time at Bundanon witnessed the return of my self-respect.  I remain deeply grateful to them both for that.  In retrospect all of my visitors at Bundanon arrived with such generosity of spirit and goodwill, the unbearable weight of that last tragic year in Sydney began to lift.

Simon Hopkinson, the playwright and dramaturge, came down for a visit.  He brought a gift of a recently released collection of Roy Orbison tracks ‘For the Lonely’.  We larked about a bit, I gave him the usual tour of the estate and we discussed the political complexities of my situation.  Simon suggested it might be good to just lie low and get on with my work, ‘Don’t even think about exhibiting; give it a few years - maybe five or ten?  Just get on with your work’, he encouraged.  He had a point, which served to underline the political complexities of my predicament.  I gave him a little painting of ‘Pulpit Rock’ painted plein-air in the Boyd mode.  Before leaving he asked for my bank details; the following week a thousand dollars turned up in my account.  I am always surprised by Simon’s generosity and discretion.

Hugh Ramage returned with Katarina, his partner, for a proper visit - it was a delight to see them.  Martin Portus arrived with his friend Helen Zilko.  We did the usual tour of the estate followed by a somewhat boozy and congenial dinner they stayed over before disappeared back to the city the following day.

I can’t remember it if was Siobhan Ryan or Tempe’s sister, Anna who returned Tempe’s engagement ring.  Siobhan’s visit was a brief deviation from her trip back to Melbourne.  Anna arrived with great warmth and stayed over night.  Over breakfast, I couldn’t help but notice how she kept crossing and un-crossing her legs, which served to bring my attention to her unusually bright sox with the word SEX prominently embroidered into them.  Under the circumstances I dared not inquire into their significance, for fear of opening Pandora’s box, causing further family scandal.  

Jane McGowan had maintained she would like to visit at some point – I certainly owed her that.  In fact I owed Jane everything, but having finally escaped the nightmare of divorce, I just couldn’t bring myself to make that call.  I felt I had nothing to offer my old life; I’d changed - I couldn’t go back.  Although I have no doubt, that had Jane come down to Bundanon, my life might have taken a different turn.

Sid Nolan’s grandson[7] Jock Langslow turned up at Bundanon for a spell.   Jock brought with him a liberating spirit, introduced me to The Cowboy Junkies and regaled our nights with stories of selling flowers in Fitzroy; one pre-Christmas week he made enough to cover a brief trip to London.  Before leaving Bundanon Jock turned up at Eerie Park with a set of four magnificent cedar canvases – 5ft x 6ft.   He explained that Arthur given them to him, but given Jock was a sculptor, and not a painter, the canvasses had been left sitting in the shed ever since; I noted the rats had been gnawing at the cedar across the bottom.  Jock ritually bequeathed them to me - with Arthur’s blessing.  Thus, I began my first proper painting. 

It started as a post-modern joke.  As if - for the front cover of Australia’s most illustrious post-modern journal.  As much as I might have dreamt of being on the cover of ART & TEXT, it was the least likely art magazine to show interest in my work.  I subverted its title to ART & TEX, perhaps under the influence of The Cowboy Junkies, with a self-referential play on my own predicament at Bundanon I set about doing a relatively detailed study of the cliff face on the other side of the Shoalhaven River from the verandah at Eerie Park.  After completing the painting, I cut a hole in the canvas and, retrieving the abandoned saddle from under the house, I folded it inside-out and jammed into the painting such that my Ready-made object-trouvée protruded - straight from the horse’s arse - so to speak.

Shortly after Jock left, I got a call from his friend Margret Wertheim, who just happed to be in the neighborhood.  I’d met Margret and her twin sister Christine, in Sydney.  Margret had written an article on the contemporary Australian collections for the opening of the National Gallery of Australia, which featured in POL Magazine.  She’d honored my work with a full-page color reproduction.  A little later I was commissioned to do an illustration for an article Margret had written for ‘Follow Me’ A glossy gentlemen’s magazine in the mode of GQ.   Margaret and I spent a day driving around the country up through Kangaroo Valley to Fitzroy Falls; in every respect the trip was breathtaking.

The grandeur and generosity of Bundanon seem to act as some sort of aphrodisiac on my social life, but material circumstances of my life could not have been be further from Arthur’s.  I was an unsuccessful post-conceptual painter and as much as I might have wished my life were different, I was grateful that I was at least, still able to paint.

Modern Painters

graham paton 1988 with john waller

Graham Paton – with Johathan Waller Painting -  Paton Gallery - London - 1986 

Ever since I left the Australia Council London Studio at Air & Space in 1984, Graham Paton, the director of the Paton Gallery, religiously send a Christmas card and each year I would reciprocate; often with an invitation of one of my shows.  Christmas 1988, I a responded with a brief note thanking him for his card and explaining that Tempe and I, were no longer an item and I'd changed address.  I was delighted to receive a prompt reply suggesting it might be interesting to consider returning to London at this juncture in my career.  The fact that a number of Graham’s artists had been mentioned in the new British quarterly, Modern Painters, hadn’t gone unnoticed; Nicholas Jolly whose ‘technical virtuosity is in advance of his years’, Jonathan Waller’s work had been included in the London/Glasgow/New York exhibition at the Metropolitan Gallery in New York, whilst John Monks and Lisa Milroy’s work had been included in The New British Painting show touring a number of the public galleries of America.

The first issue Modern Painters was published the previous year, 1988.  Its editor, Peter Fuller named his journal in honor of John Ruskin’s late 19th century, five volume treatise on painting which went under the same name – Modern Painters.[8]  Originally Fuller had identified as a Marxist, a disciple of John Berger, working under the sway of conceptual art and the Art & Language collective.  However, recognizing that Berger’s ideas had formed the foundation of the Thatcher Government’s arts policy in early 80s, a disillusioned Fuller began a search for more exacting theoretical model for the arts.  

Eventually Fuller became a fierce advocate for a qualitative approach to figurative painting.[9]  Disillusioned with the American line in flacid abstraction Fuller began promoting the British lineage in figurative painting, arguing the very concept of art is intimately bound to the body.  Fuller’s favorites included, Stanley Spencer, John Bellany, Maggie Hambling, Ken Kiff and most of the School of London painters; R.B. Kitaj, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucien Freud, Michael Andrews with the possible exception of Francis Bacon, who Fuller rejected with ‘a sense of moral disgust’, despite Bacon’s substantial achievements. Fuller was famously critical of a whole raft of artists, including Bacon, Malcolm Morely, Andy Warhol, Richard Long, for range of reasons; from the inconsequentiality of their processes, the predominance of the commercial imperative, to moral turpitude.  Fuller had also expressed a keen interest in the Antipodean painters Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams. 

Bernard Smith honored Fuller as the only international art critic to have expressed any genuine interest in Australian art.  Smith drew up a short list; Clement Greenberg, Lord (Sir Kenneth) Clark, Herbert Read, adding that they took precisely ‘no interest in Australian art as a tradition’.[10]   However, Fuller seemed circumspect when it came to most contemporary Australian painters ending his critique of the Suzanne Page’s ‘L’Australie; le Rêve et le Réel’;

So long as Australians continue to look to Europe and America for confirmation of their own identity they are forever condemned to be an exotic and alien people.  As Juan Davila suggests “they will only achieve identity through the assertion of their ‘otherness’, not through their insistence on difference”.[11]

Whilst Fuller seemed comfortable with the aesthetics of an earlier Antipodean generation of Australian painters, what he calls the ‘painter’s of caliber’, Blackman, the Boyds, Brack, Dobell, Drysdale, Fairweather, Godfery Miller, Nolan, Pugh, Tucker and Fred Williams, he seemed decidedly uncomfortable with most of my contemporaries.  Davila’s work for example, with its borrowings from advertisements, Pop Art, movies, traffic signs and trashy pornographic magazines, like the work of Ken Unsworth and Mike Parr, Fuller found ‘too unpleasant to describe in any detail’.  Despite our parallel interests in the rigors of figurative painting, this sense of generational divide left me feeling suspicious of Fuller’s traditionalism; thinking of him more as some sort of cultural throwback.

I am not an art critic but a post-conceptual Australian painter coming out of the post-punk culture.  Fuller was an academic, a Cambridge scholar, I imagine he aspired to joining the pantheon of art historians such as John Ruskin, Ernst Gombrich, T.J. Clark, John Richardson, John Berger and Bernard Smith.  Fuller’s universe was 10,000 light years from the art life I inhabited, and the world I aspired to.  I had noticed Fuller’s lecture being promoted in Sydney the previous year, but felt no compunction to see him speak.  I had read a few of his books, Art and Psychoanalysis, Seeing through Berger, Beyond the Crisis in Art, The Australian Scapegoat with interest, but I felt ambivalent about his broader culture; perhaps I hadn’t quite digested the implications of what he was trying to say, but within the critical context of the Sydney art world I felt reluctant to be perceived as partisan.  As far as I was concerned Fuller was irrelevant and I had no desire to be aligned with his deeply conservative ethos.

His artistic preferences were too narrow for my catholic tastes.  It was as if he had missed the significance of a generational revolution, perhaps even two.  However when it came to the issues intrinsic to painting, I found the perspectives represented in the pages of Modern Painters both challenging and enriching.   I quickly became a keen reader, finding it more pertinent than many of the art journals of the day.  As Bernard Smith aptly pointed out;

‘You may disagree with Fuller, but you would have to be a nong not to know where he stood; whereas it would take more of a genius than Jean Francois Champollian to decipher the meanings of most of those who write for, say, Art & Text’. [12]   

I felt Fuller had a point when he critiqued what he called BICCA, the Biennale International Culture Club of Art, believing it had been corrupted by the political interests of government, corporate financing and hedge-fund investment schemes, to the extent that it threatened to displace the aesthetic values intrinsic to the art of painting.[13]  

Not that I knew anything about the financial interests of banks and hedge fund investments that Fuller claimed were determining the who’s who on the global Biennale circuits of the day, much less their influence on the world of contemporary art.  As far as I was concerned the economy, which had kept me afloat, collapsed in the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash in late 1987 and that was that.

But there is another side to ‘art and money’ story.  When stocks and bonds prove unstable, some buy lithium and gold bullion while others stockpile blue chip art.  However given the increasingly limited stock of old masters, the bankers were moving into high-end contemporary art with a view to influencing its value.  It seemed that whilst the economy had taken a hit, the top-end of the global art world was in the midst of a boom.  I read Fuller’s editorial on ‘Art & Money’ that year with interest.  

He described a situation where Swiss banking consortiums had been buying up art as if it had been going out of style; warehousing their acquisitions in remote vaults in preparation to re-launch them back onto the market as soon as they could leverage the prices to the predetermined profit ratio.  Fuller quoted an unnamed London dealer, who was concerned for the old fashioned values of connoisseurship, which had been eclipsed by the hysterics of hype at the time; ‘what can you say to someone looking for a 50% return on their investment within a year?’  He concluded ‘it quickly becomes the blind leading the blind’. Fuller detailed his concerns around art as investment, where ‘faceless consortiums of gold-diggers’ with budgets up to a billion dollars were making ‘multi-million dollar investments in art as a hedge against inflation … without any aesthetic motive whatsoever’.[14] In advocating the rigors of British figurative traditions against the triviality of so much American Abstraction and Pop Art, Fuller seemed to be trying to re-establish a qualitative platform for contemporary painting.  Although the world of art that Fuller inhabited could not be further from any art world that I knew, his crusade for the fine art of painting spoke to some aspect of my appreciation of the challenges facing painting in the late 20th century. 

Thus when the Graham Paton Gallery began a volley of enthusiastic correspondence I paid very careful attention.  Eventually Graham began to ring me at Bundanon from London, to check, what he called ‘the pulse of my interior life’.  Paton candidly expressed his concern that ‘Australians just don’t have a rich enough inner lives to maintain a career in art’.  His line struck me as a load of old cods wallop, but eventually we shifted the subject and suggested that if I could get to London … he might be able to help.  Unfortunately I was in no position to dream up a new future for myself.  Financially speaking I remained deeply compromised and grateful to Jane & Arthur that I was able to paint at all.  There was no way I could get to London.

The Big Smoke

 studio fire sml

'Studio Fire' – G.W. Oil on Canvas - with found object – 1989

I took some opportunity to venture back up to Sydney; I needed to buy some art supplies and so did the rounds of the galleries whilst I was up there.  I noted my inability to engage any conversation about my work.  I couldn’t even discuss the fact that I was now living at Bundanon.  Socially, I had fallen from grace and become persona non grata.  There no point in reaching out to Tempe, there were no grounds for reconciliation and besides by then we had both moved on; although her memory continued to haunt my dreams.  One of the last came shortly after that first and final trip to Sydney. 

My notebook locates me back in Sydney with friends; Mandy Salomon and Rob Meldrum are mentioned.  A carnival atmosphere was coming to an end and we were all left looking for somewhere to stay.  We tried an old friend, who was welcoming but her place was full.   Then I remembered I still had the keys to Tempe’s flat, which was empty.  Mandy and Rob seemed dubious but as it was just around the corner so we ventured forth in through a tiny courtyard, thick with plants.  This was nothing like the house in Riley Street; it small was damp, fetid and grimy.  As I opened the front door I noticed the room was a full of snakes, laid out on shelves.  A lizard scuttled across my path and seeing me at the door, quickly transformed into a mouse and disappeared – clearly a chameleon.  By this time the snakes had begun to stir.  Although they were not aggressive, they exuded an ominous – foreboding presence.  Looking through the notes in my diary on this dream, I notice that I had crossed out Tempe’s on the bottom of that page.

‘Finally the divorce is through, all readings are clear – c’est finis.  I am clean - perhaps a little shop soiled but still - relatively clean - Tempe.’

Spot the dog – Turd

bundanon yahwey sml

YAHWEY – G.W. Oil on Canvas  -1989

By this time the duckweed compost was piled high and, with the onset of winter, was beginning to mulch down.  My gardening duties had shifted to weeding, pruning and fine-tuning the edges around Arthur’s mini-Monet.  Now that I was working in Arthur’s garden, Rod kept a keen eye on my activities.  At one point he turned up with a puppy and left it in my charge for the day whilst he attended other responsibilities.  It was a blue healer cattle dog, very smart and insufferably cute, with a blue spot over one eye.   Without any clue to his real name, I called him ‘Spot’.  I later realized Rod had begun to leave him in my charge on a regular basis.  I didn’t mind.   Spot was no trouble, he would just follow me around as I clipped and snipped my way about the garden.  One afternoon I returned to the Suzuki to find his lead tangled around my bumper bar, without thinking too much I untangled him and sent him back up the hill toward Rod and Debbie’s house, before heading down the track to Eerie Park.

Getting out of the car at home I was surprised to find Spot had followed me.  In what must have been either a desperate or a devotional act; he had literally run three kilometers, as fast as his little legs could carry him, in the dust of the Suzuki.  I immediately gave him some water and a bite to eat before putting him in the car and returning him to Rod and Debbie.

When we got back to Bundanon, Rod insisted he was mine now; ‘a dog choses his own master’.  I explained there was no way I could take responsibility for a dog; ‘a dog is for life’.  After a bit of wrangling Rod went inside and came out with a gun, put to the dogs head and said if I didn’t take him he would have to shoot him.  I was left in no doubt that he would have taken great delight in pulling the trigger right there in his front yard.  Damned if the dog didn’t let out a little whimper.  I yielded.

I soon came to understand why dogs have earned the reputation as man’s best friend.  Rod had named him ‘Turd’, because he had a bad habit in rolling in the stuff whenever he came across it.  I adjusted his name to ‘Spot the dog Turd’.  Spot was smart, loyal, loving and very well behaved.  I could sit him on a mat in the midst of a firestorm and he wouldn’t move a muscle until given the magic word.  Spot herded cattle instinctively; without any training he’d be nipping away at their heals.  But there were two matters in which his master’s voice had no effect.   The first was in pursuit of kangaroos.  Kangaroos would drive him crazy because they wouldn’t herd; they just bounded off in full flight there was no way he could catch them; not that it stopped him trying.  The second was his compulsion to roll in any rich smelling muck, such as shit or rotting animal flesh.  No amount of dog whispering, whistling or yelling had any effect on him when in pursuit of kangaroos or rotting flesh.

Otherwise Spot was loving and loyal.  Each morning I would open my eyes to find him waiting patiently beside my bed.  As soon as he saw the whites of my eyes he would lick me on the face, as if to welcome me back into his world.  As disgusting as his breath could be, he quickly installed himself as my best friend and as if by some natural law, Rod came to counterpoint the upshot of Spot.

The fact that we might have had very different personality types was only the tip of the iceberg.  Rod was capable of resentments reserved for bigots.  Familiarity only served to deepen my concerns.  I had already noted the number of rumors concerning Rod and his guns. Rod introduced me his gun collection at one point; I noted he had five, with another on mail order.  The new one was a Kalashnikov, an AK-47 automatic assault rifle.  I realized it had arrived when I heard it erupting in short bursts across the landscape, ‘budder … budder … budder’, closely followed by the sound of cattle stampeding. This was not long after the Hoddle Street Massacre where a young man gunned down twenty-six innocent people, leaving seven dead for no obvious reason; followed shortly by the Queen Street Massacre of the same year where another young man gunned down fourteen innocent people, leaving nine dead for a similar set of reasons.

It must have been around this time that the Eerie Park ran out of water.  I’d presumed it would have been on the mains system - but I presumed wrong.  No one thought to mention it and it just never occurred to me that the place was on tank water, despite the hulking tanks around the back of the house. I immediately called Rod, since such matters seemed to be in his domain.  Rod just offered a vague clue about stringing some irrigation pipes together and ended with the comforting thought that it was my problem.   Fortunately, when I mentioned it to the property manager, Chris immediately called up the Grady’s, the neighbors on the other side of the river.  It seemed to be a common problem, with a common solution.  The next day the neighbor from over the back of Burrier, forded the Shoalhaven in an ancient water truck and refilled my tanks.  No problem.  The truck itself was a rusty old WW2 Blitz with a massive water tank, a rare sight and something of a collector’s item.  I asked the neighbor if he could leave it for while, whilst I painted it?  Sure thing.  So it sat on the rise below my verandah for the next few weeks.

During the time I was painting the truck, I found myself haunted by tales of Rod, his guns and his religious ideas.  Eventually these concerns found their way into my working process.  Looking for a break from the literalness of the realism entailed in painting the Blitz, I found myself inscribing a reference to the holy name of Jehovah, Yahwey into the canvas, perhaps in gratitude to my neighbor, I poured white paint through the image, before strapping the broken rusty gun I had found in the gully across the canvas.

By that stage I had no relationship with any art world and had given up on the possibility that any gallery might show interest in my work.  I painted these four big canvasses to plot the curious relationship between my inner and outer worlds.

 It was a couple of months later and well after dark when I heard a vehicle pushing down the track to Eerie Park.  In my bid to get back to my work I had stopped hosting friends at Eerie Park, I knew nobody in the district and at that hour a visitor was inconceivable.  Next - my living room lit up as the vehicle crossed the yard and positioned itself such that the headlights were directed straight into the front room.  Clearly - I had a visitor.  Tentatively opening the front door I faced a bank hunting lights in full blaze from the front of a 4WD.  Suddenly they shut down, everything went black.  The car door opened and the cabin light briefly illuminated the driver.  It was Rod of course.  As he jumped from the cabin I noted he had his Kalashnikov in his left hand – Action Man.  In the darkness immediately shifted gear into ‘silent alert’, quashing any sign of concern.

Lumbering toward the front door he raised the bottle of rum in his right hand, and boldly pronounced he had come over for a drink.  O.K.   He muttered something about Debbie having thrown him out of home, so he had decided to pay me a visit.   Like a good host, I busied myself organizing a couple of glasses in the kitchen, leaving Rod at the dinning room table, where I noted he carefully laid out his Kalashnikov, pulled a pair of magazines, one from each of the pockets of his coat.  ‘Fifteen rounds in each magazine’, he announced, ‘Total - thirty rounds’.  ‘That should do it’, I replied, and as I apportioned his rum, I noted he had pushed one of them into the breech of his weapon; then some extra clicks.  ‘Good to go’, he concluded.

Rod did have a Nolan Ned Kelly poster pasted up at home, but aside from his devotion to Arthur, I never noticed any interest in art.  I imagined, like most people, Rod responded to the social cues of the power of money, and of course Arthur’s disarming humility.  I felt sure my work would have represented a blind spot for Rod.  I had come to Bundanon without any evidence of resource or means and soon managed to get my self on the dole.  As far as I knew Rod had never seen a painting of mine.  I did not leave my work lying around; they were either in storage or in the studio.  Thus he began to challenge my status as an artist, and somewhat belligerently, to question if I was really an artist at all?  Clearly I was not an artist of the Boyd/Nolan ilk.  ‘Perhaps you’re just a wanker’, he grunted and there was that overtone of homophobia again.  I asked him if he would like to see one of my paintings.  Almost contemptuously he condescended to take a look.  So as he fondled his Kalashnikov, I dragged out the big ‘YAHWEY’ painting from the back room; the one with the rusted water truck and the broken gun strapped to the front of it.  I hung it on the wall behind me, sat down and raised my glass - almost provocatively - cheers. 

I noticed his eyes scanning and re-scanning the affront of imagery presented by the canvas - checking and rechecking to understand exactly how it was getting at him.  Clearly - Rod was riveted.  I imagine he was inured against most of the art produced at Bundanon; largely landscape painting, with different degrees of realism, different levels of imaginative license, different stages of technical competence, but clearly this was painting of a very different order.  For a start it had been produced in direct response to his presence in my world.  It was as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing, he didn’t know how to respond and seemed to be embarrassed that a painting could have such power over him.

He mumbled something about not knowing anything about my work, but being a bit surprised.  He went on to say he could see I was a painter alright but a very different painter to Sid’n’Arthur.  He then began to open up.  How he had been in town drinking in town all day and had come home late and drunk.  When Debbie threw him out, he grabbed his Kalashnikov and decided to come around and kill me.

I felt slightly relieved that he was at least talking about such matters, rather than stewing over them or acting them out.  Soon he was rambling.  His stories became more like confessions as he began to revisit a seriously violent past.  He described an incident at a football match where he took pleasure in knifing someone in a crowd, feeling the blade twist against his victim’s ribs.

I asked him about what would he and Debbie might do if the government ever took up Arthur’s offer … you know … if Bundanon ever became National Trust.  Clearly he had no intention of leaving.  As the conversation ensued he began to envision a stand-off, which quickly turned into some sort of thriller-horror movie.   Choppers were wheeling across the paddocks in a final show down around his cottage.   That’s where the arsenal came in – that’s why he needed his Kalashnikov.  OK - I get it.  And that’s where Debbie and the Jehovah’s Witness came in.  He like us all had been hoping for some sort of salvation.  In face of my painting he began to revisit his ideas of Yahweh.  

Eventually he became incoherent and it was time to send him home.   I was grateful to be escorting him to his vehicle.  I poured him in and pointed him back up the track toward Bundanon.  At least there was no traffic on the Bundanon track, except perhaps an unsuspecting wombat.  As I closed the front door behind me, I heard my own confession.  

‘I don’t know much about art but that’s what I consider a good painting - one that can save your life’.

Brutal Secret

studio dwarf with hidden noise detail sml

‘Studio Dwarf – with Hidden Noise’ - detail – G.W. Oil on canvas with found object - 1989

At Eerie Park I went onto complete the last two canvasses in this suite of four canvasses that Jack and Arthur had given me.  Although my work was very different to Arthur’s, I took a heart from the strident expressionism of Arthur’s Nebuchadnezzar series and pressed on to confront my real concern; the death sentence my work seemed to be facing.

The third painting was based on a prophetic dream of a studio fire.  Despite my best intentions, a niggling black spot in my studio had generated a fire whilst I was painting.  My frantic efforts to quell the blaze only served to make matters worse.  Without anything to contain the fire, I’d grabbed a clutch of painting rags to smother the fire, but the oily rags served only to spread it.  The more I struggled the faster it spread.  I woke from the flames, in a sweat - hyperventilating.  The dream seemed to summarize my predicament.

Sometimes reality can be stranger than fiction.  I was in the midst of painting the image from this dream when I was distracted by Spot, barking for my attention.   As I turned around I was astounded to find the living room was actually on fire.   It was winter by then, cold and damp.  I’d left my sheets drying over a bar radiator.  I imagine Spot must have knocked over the precarious drying system I had rigged up and the sheet had collapsed into the heater.  From where I was standing it looked like the entire living room as ablaze.   Having put the fire out, I discovered it had burnt only a relatively small hole in the carpet.  After some discussion, Rod concluded, the carpet was old and due to be replaced; meantime we would hide the burn under a rug that had been lying about.  Again, in keeping with the series, I found a collapsed fire extinguisher abandoned in the dump and fixed it to the front of the canvas.

The final painting in this suite featured a scene in an opera house.  An opera dwarf is pictured trapped backstage by a fire in the wings.  The auditorium had become an impenetrable wall of fire and stone.  This painting comes with a broken wheel from a toy plane I’d found in that gully below the house.  I attached the wheel to the canvas, and set it hovering above the dwarf, as if in a thought bubble.  

What you can’t see sits on the other side of the canvas; painting with hidden clue.  The wheel of this toy plane is nailed to the back of the canvas using a block of wood from a mousetrap in fact.  The trap is set.  Thus in homage to Duchamp the work becomes ‘Studio Dwarf - with hidden noise’ after Duchamp’s, Object with Hidden Noise - A Bruit Secret (1916).   I could only imagine such work was as doomed as I felt at the time.  However, the triumph was that I managed to complete the suite at all.  But not content to leave it at that, I went on to do one more painting at this scale.

This time I adjusted my methodology and, letting go of the more conceptual approach, I ventured into the painterly methodologies that demarcated Arthur’s domain.  In this last big painting I made no effort to conceal its rabidly expressionistic fervor; forged in the heat of the painterly process.  Although clearly a projection of my own creative crisis, Bundanon ablaze, owes a nod of respect to Arthur’s Nebuchadnezzar paintings with their reference to the self-immolating monks Arthur had witnessed on Hampstead Heath in the late 1960s, in protest to the Vietnam War.

From that moment it seemed clear; if there was to be a productive outcome from my time at Bundanon, it could not come from raiding Arthur’s oeuvre much less indulging a Neo-Ex mode of painting.   The problem wasn’t with the process but the question regarding exhibition, which is inevitably dependent upon curatorial and market interests.  Eventually I took a more modest approach to the opportunity and the challenge that Bundanon had posed for my work and myself.

Poacher on the Estate

bundanon ablaze sml

‘Bundanon ablaze’ – G.W. Oil on canvas – 1989 

Thus I returned somewhat reluctantly to question of the landscape.  To be honest it seemed like an abuse of my privilege to poach the Bundanon estate using a mode of landscape lifted from Arthur; besides his son Jamie had already laid claim to his father’s legacy.  Whether I could paint like Arthur or not, was beside the point.  

In taking on the challenge of landscape I would have to develop my own approach.  Of course there are hundreds of approaches to landscape painting, the most notable being; impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, fauvism.  To develop your own, you have to start at ground zero.  I took a more rigorous approach at first; no short cuts and no causal approximations.  Technically, an artist evolves their own approach to painting; slowly.  In this spirit I began working on a small scale not wishing to go too big until I was sure about my choices.  I managed two small landscapes a day most days, and instituted a supplementary drawing program during the nights.

However, as I had originally feared, I was a long way from an authentic approach to the serious challenge of contemporary art.  By now I felt I had no other option but to kept to my discipline.  During this time I devoured the short history of landscape painting available from Arthur’s concise library, taking particular note of an uncanny alignment of two Arthur’s - Arthur Boyd and Arthur Streeton.  Equally - I kept to my discipline working in Arthur’s garden, two-days a week.  Months drifted by.

The next guests at Bundanon were Arthur’s; the opera director Bernd Benthaak and his partner, Barbara Beckett.  They said they were just taking a break, but I noted mention of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which I remembered from Arthur’s green vortex ‘The Queen of the Night’.  In my humble role of the gardener I made a point of keeping out of their way, although they were quite friendly and I would run into them most days I was in the garden.  They had already been given to understand I was a painter and eventually they asked if they could see my work.  We made an arrangement for a trip to Eerie Park for the following week.

Rod’s son was in the garden that day, and asked if he could join us.  I suggested he check for permission, but Bernd suggested the visit would only be a brief, so he jumped in the back of the Suzuki with Spot and off we all went.   Bernd and Barbara seemed to be excited by my painting; conversation began to flow and thus the visit took a little longer than we had imagined.  But soon we were all back in the Suzuki and headed down the track back to Bundanon.   I was just closing the gate to Eerie Park, when over the rise came Rod in his Hi-Lux.  Oblivious to the fact that Bernd and Barbara were in the Suzuki, Rod broadsided his Hi-Lux in front of the Suzuki blocking any possibility of us driving on, and grabbing his Kalashnikov for protection, began a tirade, accusing me of stealing his son for purposes of pedophilia; pretty serious accusations.

Of course Rod’s son was by now trying to intervene; explaining to his Dad that he had made a mistake, but Rod wasn’t having a bar of it.  Fortunately for me, Bernd and Barbara had witnessed to the entire saga, and also jumped to my defense, explaining that I had suggested his son check first, but it was they who had suggested it would be just a quick trip and that it would all be fine.  They apologized and eventually Rod grabbed his son by the scruff of his neck and threw him into his truck.   As if it was Rod who had been humiliated by this outrage, he drove off in a huff.

By now, the cat was out of the bag.  Despite being a god-fearing Jehovah’s Witness, Rod was a homophobic psychopath with a Kalashnikov with a bad habit for bullying.  Thus far, he had driven everyone out of Bundanon at the end of his gun; including his best friend and his wife, Robin Moyes and his wife, and next I imagine would be me.  

Years later I asked Arthur about Rod.  Arthur suspected Rod could be dangerous, which made him a good guard but a bad enemy, thus Arthur made a point of treating him respectfully, with kindness and generosity.  As far as Rod and Debbie were concerned Arthur was a saint.

Parents Day at Bundanon

 

Eventually my parents came down from Canberra for a visit.  It was nice to see them under more relaxed circumstances.  Dad was a business man, who had always been very proud of his own properties.  Knowing nothing of Bundanon and little of Arthur Boyd, Mum and Dad were surprised by what they discovered.  Dad’s properties were all functional working farms, run by his property manager for sheep and cattle; without much attention to life’s little luxuries.  Dad’s properties were up behind the Tinderry Ranges; riddled with little creeks and tributaries to the Quenbeyan River.  Incomparable to a property like Bundanon, with its 12 kilometers of river frontage on the wide Shoalhaven.  Nevertheless they were of a comparable size:  Bundanon’s three estates ran to 1,100 hectares, whilst Dad’s totalled 1,200 hectares.

Dad was a bastard, an illegitimate son, born into a quick succession of step-fathers; each one more cruel than the last.  He grew up fast, in the school of hard knocks and eventually became what you call ‘a self-made man’.  Like Mum, Dad left school without an education in the midst of the great depression.  He was grateful for the most meanial work; a lackey in a slaughter house.   Shortly after signing-on he was laid-off.  As I said, Dad came from dirt, but he’d survived by greeting life with a twinkle in his eye and soon developed a keen instinct for opportunity.

I was a baby boomer.  I grew up in a caravan with Dad selling vacuum cleaners door to door around Northern NSW.  For a time he was Australia’s top-selling vacuum salesman.  He had come a long way working hard, making tough choices and fortuitous moves.  As far as Dad was concerned I was pointed in the wrong direction and beyond help; so he never offered any.  In fact, he said, every move I made in life, went in exactly the oppositie direction to any way he had ever understood.  To give me any support would be just throwing money away as far as he was concerned, so he didn’t. 

He had come across a couple of artists in his time, said he had no interest in their work but was always curious about their motives.  He claimed that none of the artists he had ever come across, ever bore any resemblance to the artist he’d glimpsed in me.   Now living at Bundanon, I was beginning to become a figure of some intrigue for him, since my life defied any logic he understood.  Despite the incomparable differences between Arthur’s trajectory and my own, for a brief moment I sensed he began to review his idea of the artist.

In a concillitory moment he said he had been watching what I was doing and confessed that although he never understood my work, he had begun to appreciate what I was up against.  I was an artist alright, but as far as he could see there was no win to be had in the game I was playing, besides it appeared to be rigged anyway.  He drew an analogy with the game of poker.  Sometimes the dealer will hand you a ‘High-Card Hand’, a ‘No Pair’, where not a single card in your hand has any value.  His advice - toss in your hand and try a fresh deal.  ‘Its worth a try’, he added, ‘what have you got to lose?’  Dad admitted his only lament was that I had not gone into business, acknowledging that I certainly had the determination.  Business unlike art, he explained, is a game, which will sometimes pay dividends.

Final offer

turners building and joiners supplies

Builders and Joiners Supply

 

It was some time later, when Dad called me up at Eerie Park.  He explained he had a rare opportunity, which might interest me.  Since the 1960s Dad had been the silent partner in a Building and Joinery Supply business.   During school holdays I occassionally worked there myself.  It turned out that his long term partner, the operational manager of the business, wanted to retire.  Dad had just bought him out and now owned the business and the buildings outright, but he needed a new manager.  He suggested we could share the business with my younger brother, Brett, in a three way split.  If we could make it work for us, we could buy the business from him with the profits.  At the time it was turning over about $160,000 a month.

Brett had been a surveyor and could see no real future for himself, working in a family business not his own.  Brett was definitely ready for it.   But in my case Dad had a concern and imposed one condition.  I had to swear that I would give up art and swear never ever have anything more to do with it again.  As far as Dad was concerned the only way to do business is as if your life depended on it. There could be no compromises.

Under the circumstances it was a deal that I had to take seriously.  After 12 months at Bundanon, with absolutely no interest in my work, I was deeply confused about my role as an artist.  None of the options before me seemed to suit. My reputation as an artist had been submerged in a morass of misunderstandings.  And now, I had some god-fearing homophobic psychopath obsessed with a dream of killing me.  No - I had to confess I was lost.  I would be mad not to consider Dad’s once in a lifetime offer very seriously. All in all I was done - clearly it was time to move on.

I wrote a brief letter to Arthur and Yvonne, summarizing the state of the garden, thanking them for their generosity and apologizing for having to leave. Next my brother Dale arrived with a truck to collect my goods and chattels.  Spot the dog Turd jumped up into the cabin with us, and off we went.  Thus my time at Bundanon ended – much as it began.

However, still somewhat unsure about Dad’s terms, I asked for a couple of months to decide.  Meantime, without taking on the benefits or responsibilities of partnership, I took up the job of the truck driver and received a modest wage.  This put me at the center of the business, where I could get to know its staff, its clients and its suppliers from a distance.



[1]                    The name Nowra, is derived from the Aboriginal word for the area; Nowra Nowra  (nou-woo-ro nou-woo-ro) which means many cockatoos.  Not dissimilar to Wagga Wagga – meaning many crows.

[3]                    Janet Hawley, ‘Estate of the Nation?’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4th March 1989. Good Weekend supplement, Pp 36-49.

[4]                     Lawrence Gowing, ‘Cezanne: The early Years 1859-1872’ (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988)  - Inscribed ‘Gary Your Early years - 1949-1989  – Love Liz (Bassett), All our love Eloise Lindsay & Grant Rickey.

[5]                    Richard Perceval Graves; ‘Robert Graves – The Years with Laura 1926–40’ (London, PAPERMAC, McMillan, 1990).  P 85.

[6]                    A throwdown is colloquial for a stubbie, which is colloquial for the 200ml bottles of beer – usually Victoria Bitter V.B.  The advantage of the throwdown is they are small, you drink them fast and they stay cold till you finish them- quickly.

[7]                    Sidney Nolan was married three times.   His first marriage was to Elizabeth Paterson, a fellow art student at the National Gallery School, Melbourne.  In the midst of Nolan’s affair with Sunday Reid, his marriage failed and John Reed paid Elizabeth Paterson £1000 to enable their divorce.

[8]                    John Ruskin, ‘Modern Painters’ Ed. David Barrie – Vol. I (1893), Vol II (1846), Vol III – IV (1856), Vol V (1860). Abridged Edition  (London, Andre Deutsche, 1987)

[9]                    Peter Fuller, ‘Seeing Through Berger’, (London, The Claridge Press, 1988) P 8.

[10]                  Peter Fuller, ‘The Australian Scapegoat – Towards an Antipodean Aesthetic’, (Perth, University of Western Australia Press, 1986,) P xi.

[11]                  Peter Fuller. ‘Australian – The French Discovery of 1983’ in ‘The Australian Scapegoat – Towards an Antipodean Aesthetic’ ,(Perth, University of Western Australia Press, 1986,). P 68.

[12]                  Peter Fuller, ‘The Australian Scapegoat – Towards an Antipodean Aesthetic’, (Perth, University of Western Australia Press, 1986,) P xii.

[13]                  Peter Fuller, ‘Art and Post Industrialism’ in ‘The Australian Scapegoat’ (Perth, University of Western Australia Press, 1986). P33

[14]                  Peter Fuller, Editorial ‘Art & Money’, Modern Painters, Volume 2, Number 4, London 1989. P 5-8.