Peter Day/Silent Poetry

Essay from the catalogue for beacheSANDeserts exhibition, written by Jeremy Eccles.

As we talk about his forthcoming exhibition in Lane Cove, Peter Day bowls me a googly. “Of course”, he marginally misquotes, “Thelonius Monk once said, ‘Writing about art is like tap-dancing about architecture”. In fact, the original quote concerned music not art, and Day himself has added the tap to the original’s limited notion of dancing – an undoubted improvement. But, who cares; many an artist, whatever their art form, has been reluctant to explain the complex blend of ideas, technique and aesthetics which produce the sound or sight that we are appreciating.
So Day is leaving it to me.

Well, not quite. For this man who first exhibited at the age of 16 – would you believe the irony, showing paintings of music and musicians, which he admits were “Stan Rapotec knock-offs”, has a 53-year career that he’s all too delighted to talk about. Most famously, it involves some 212 public artworks – such as creating the largest mural in the southern hemisphere in The Rocks and a 24 metre-wide laser-cut steel sculpture for Chester Hill Library – some of which required the management of $100,000 plus budgets, thus winning himself the 2009 Canterbury and Bankstown ‘Business Achiever Award’.

So perhaps it needs to be known that this life-long artist actually studied industrial design at the National Art School, which is why he can explain that his public art projects are “halfway between design and art, requiring the skills of both” – and requiring research into community views in advance as an essential part of the design side. “People are often astounded when I ask for their points of view, even more so when I actually take notice of their answers. But that way, relationships last – esteem for the work lasts too. And it can last generations”.
For the Rocks mural on the Harbour Bridge arches behind the KGV Activity Centre Peter Day held weekly meetings in the pub opposite. But it’s still not finished – he wants to add the story of the Green Bans that saved The Rocks from development. Currently, it starts with Aboriginal life in that area and moves on to show the beginnings of European settlement with the landing of the First Fleet taken from Arthur Murch’s mural ‘The Foundation of European Settlement’. That little-known work is located in the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay just down the hill.

The early-to-mid 20th Century artist Murch is one of Day’s heroes. For one thing, he covered Day’s three bases of painting, sculpture and public art. For another, he ventured out into the deserts in the 1930s and inspired Day to follow him to places like Gosse’s Bluff, which both have painted. Very differently – even though Day as a young man assisted the elder when he painted his version.

Coincidentally, Murch has made two rare appearances in the news recently with a show of his Northern Beaches works at the Manly Gallery, and the generous donation of eight of his sympathetic portraits of Aranda people from Hermannsburg – including Albert Namatjira’s widow – to the Namatjira Legacy Trust in Alice Springs by Murch’s daughter Michelle. Perhaps Murch’s portraiture also inspired Day?

But, whether it’s landscape or portraiture (which Peter’s not showing in this exhibition), the emphasis is on the kaleidoscopic possibilities of colour rather than Murch’s realism. For perhaps Day has imbued something of an Aboriginal view of Country – rising above it with a drone, rather than an Indigenous imagination, to capture the colours and textures of the land and then breaking them up with a skein of shape-shifting tonality. I have a landscape by Sondra Nampitjinpa that could easily have been conceived around a similar play of light.

But Day’s use of technology is intriguing. The original photo goes through Photoshop, where he takes control on the computer and begins the manipulation. A small watercolour or pastel further develops the aesthetic and his tendency to abstract, and the final canvas may be aided by a projection from the computer as he paints. In works like ‘West Macdonnell Ranges’, the small dotting of many colours takes on the dynamic of an explosion of rocky shards into the air. In ‘Kata Juta’ (The Olgas to many), the multifarious shades of rufous rock are given a solidity and variety of form that reflects of heaped-up nature of the original. A landscape of the mind.

In Day’s beach scenes such as ‘Drone Shot’, the sand is now seaside yellow, but it’s populated colourfully by an infinite dotting of figures, towels and umbrellas with pointillistic citation. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Espiritu Santo’ for its many levels of reference. I immediately sensed a tribute to the great Aussie tropical painter, Ray Crooke in its setting and brushwork; but the title also gives a clue to its post-Impressionist associations with Georges Seurat’s ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ in both technique and that feeling of waterside indolence.

Which leaves only Peter Day’s sculptural work – showing alongside the serendipitous coincidence of the Duchamp show at the Art Gallery of NSW. For Day has taken the French/American artist’s revolutionary idea that his selection of a bicycle wheel or a urinal and its placement in a gallery ‘made’ it art, and made art of them. Not only does he ennoble these ‘ready-mades’ ranging from a tin mug to an axe by re-casting them in bronze, but he demands we see them as sculpture by his selection of acute angles and strange associations between objects. As he puts it in one piece’s title, that requires the perfect combination of ‘Engineering, art and philosophy’.And that blend was introduced to Peter Day by his school art teacher, the man once described as “Australian Pop Art’s first big blessing”, Ken Reinhard. Day recalls him bringing “the third dimension and particular painted sculpture” into the classroom, along with the philosophy that’s become a life-long ambition, “if you’re going to do something then do it well”. And there’s an undoubted ‘Popist’ dimension to Day’s sculpture today.

How could anyone deny the ‘Popist’ wit of ‘Myself as King Lear’, created out of the simplest of materials, coupling a fence post and barbed wire to conjure Lear’s fragile wits as the folly of his handing his kingdom over to unloving daughters becomes devastatingly clear.

Now we’re not just tap-dancing about architecture but capturing an essence that was spoken of by Simonides, the poet from ancient Greece who assessed that “Painting (or sculpture) is like a silent poem”.

Jeremy Eccles has been writing about the arts almost as long as Peter Day has been making them.
See him especially at aboriginalartdirectory.com

Peter Day – a creative chameleon with an activist heart

Not just one of Australia’s great public art practitioners, this ten year survey demonstrates that Day is right on point with one of the art world’s most pressing global concerns.

In March this year, tens of thousands of young Australians walked out of their classrooms demanding action on climate change. A few months later in Venice, the oldest biennale in the art world called the world to account through an overwhelming show of environmentally-themed artworks.

Sydney artist Peter Day is part of this global zeitgeist, however, he cottoned on to the problem 50 years ago, using his paintings, sculptures, and public artworks to communicate his concerns.

‘To be truthful, it is the act of making itself, rather than the political news feeds that directs the work,’ Day told ArtsHub. ‘But that love of making can’t exist without a reason to do it – so it’s twofold – the concern and the love of interpreting it.’

A survey exhibition of Day’s paintings and sculptures opens next month at Gallery Lane Cove, and loosely charts the past decade of his conversation with our beaches, waterways and central deserts.

PLENTY’S CHANGED BUT NOTHING HAS

In the 1960s, Pop Art star Ken Reinhard would take the young Peter Day to exhibition openings after school, before depositing him on the train back home. ‘It was the 60s, and galleries were everywhere and people were buying art. Anyone could get a show and artists were the thing! It was slightly post-Beat Generation, a bit hippy and culturally really alive. I don’t see that anymore,’ said Day.

He laments the fact that the gallery world has changed so dramatically, and that the challenge to find representation is one faced by many artists today in a world increasingly driven by market and marketing.

‘As an artist you need that community, you need that gallery support, and you need the space to work,’ Day said.

Reinhard was a big influence on Day’s early career, as was Arthur Murch, one of the earliest artists to venture into Australia’s deserts. Their legacy can be seen in Day’s survey exhibition, from his quirky post-readymade sculptures – assemblages of found objects that are then cast in bronze – and his insistent return to abstracted paintings of water and desert.

‘I have changed my style from that hard-edge, rhomboid-style painting with square brushes and a mahlstick, to slapping the paint on with a palette knife and being freer,’ Day explained.

‘Painting has always been very meditative for me; radio or music on, cup of coffee, the repetition, the exactitude, puddling in paint, the colour, Oh the colour!…great way to spend time,’ he continued.

Today Day works with computer-generated fractal shapes, which pushes forward from a more traditional, gestural, mark-making process. They are often expansive, at times visually dense and kaleidoscopic, while others have an aerial quality that references Aboriginal art.

His work displays a rich visual vocabulary, one fueled by time spent in the outback and wandering the nation’s foreshores, although he is perhaps better known for his prolific public art practice.

Day speaks with a raw honesty about the systemic need to pigeonhole artists today, and this survey exhibition fights back against such lazy practices.

The pairing of paintings with Day’s prolific assemblage-making – a hangover from being trained as an industrial designer, he laughs – is a profound expression of how artists today have the capacity to work in a multi-disciplinary manner.

‘My sculptural work tends to be less abstract, often referring to the ravages of time in harsh environments, rural paraphernalia or curious anomalies in historical or psychological contexts,’ Day explains.

Choosing bronze as his medium, he is attracted to its ‘credibility’.

‘You could be casting a cup of tea and a biscuit and it immediately becomes an object of desire; it’s an object that demands attention for its weighty history as a medium, and because it is expensive and complicated technically – it demands people to consider it.’

He uses that weight and attention to throw consideration back on environmental and social concerns; issues which are central to many of his sculptures, and yet they remain playful and skirt the scourge of elitism.

‘It is really important that work has to grab people; to be interesting, to entertain. The grey stuff just doesn’t cut it for me,’ said Day.

A suite of three mounted, cast bronze cups, Insolution, Hermannsburg and Helensburgh are a great example.

‘How do you drink out of cup with a barbed wire lip or holes in it? Use a straw. It is these kinds of inventive solutions that we need to explore. The straw symbolically speaks to the need for more desalination plants to suck up sea water and take it where it is needed,’ explained Day.

BeachSANDeserts is a dynamic exhibition showcasing a prolific career. It speaks of a full experience – of viewing and thinking as an audience; of making and sustaining a career as an artist; and as a reminder to us as members of a global community that our environment is one to be celebrated, not destroyed.

BeachSANDeserts is showing at Gallery Lane Cove, 3 – 27 July 2019. Learn more about the artist at www.PeterDay.com.au

The Valley & Tableaux Exhibition – 11-23 October 2016

Paintings of the Capertee Valley from the air and small bronze sculptures of psychological associations and anomalies.

“It is with much pleasure that we have the privilege to exhibit these recent paintings and sculptures by Peter Day. Significantly known for his large public installations, these smaller works exemplify the wide range of ideas and understanding of execution that he has applied to his lengthy established professional practice.”

Maureen Cahill AM

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The Three Amigos – 5 October 2007

Waterholes, Dams, Banks & Shores

New pictures which inhabit the plight of the waterless west -Marianne Newman Gallery 2007

This new crop of work, heralded in the DAY-Survey show at Marianne Newman Gallery October 2006, grew out of the arid outback landscapes of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Peter’s preoccupation with waterless and peopleless spaces was conceived in his ‘long country’ driving between community art projects and gestated for many years in the fertile soil of suburbia. The trips to India brought on the birth of these dry (and some not so dry) pictures.

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Day Survey – 2006

Surveying Peter Day

Thirty something works from 30 something exhibitions, over 30 something years.

Surveying Peter Day’s prolific career, one is immediately struck by the distinction he makes between the two aspects of his practice: the public and the private – the work for the client (Day says this is half way between design and art) and the work he creates for himself.

Of the public work, he has completed approximately 170 public commissions in 26 years – making him one of Australia’s most publicly commissioned artists, working from east coast Australia to New York and Mexico in painted murals, ceramics, mosaics, steel, mudbricks, frescos and digital prints.

Of Peter Day’s private works, ‘Day:Survey’ attempts an overview of works created using various media on paper: there are thirty something works from thirty something exhibitions over thirty something years.

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Museings Exhibition – Gallery East – Clovelly Feb 2003

The Landscape of Isolation

These works by Peter Day are landscape based and conceived. Pressing Peter further about the landscape one learns of extended trips through Lightning Ridge, Brewarrina, Broken Hill and the Hay Plains. That vast hinterland of metropolitan Sydney, the outback desert country of New South Wales is the key landscape that he is referring to in this exhibition. What fascinates the painter in Peter about this landscape is its minimalism. There is an apparent absence of topographical variety as the flat plains, which are vegetated with low-level scrub that continues to the horizon and infinity, inculcating a feeling of isolation. Off the ribbon of bitumen road nothing stirs. Only the fences and a dried cowpat suggest the presence of unseen others. In this landscape the vestiges and traces of activity are minimal and the present moment is devoid of any activity outside one’s own movements. The harshness alienates one, the primordial age makes one feel superfluous and the vastness enhances the isolation. On a visit to India Peter found that not surprisingly the landscape of Rajasthan, although very different, evoked the same intense feelings.

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A Long Stick Exhibition – UTS Gallery, University of Technology Sydney, July 28 – August 28 1998

A Tribute to Three Arthurs

An exhibition about balance and influence in the paintings, prints and installations by Peter Day

“Painters are not neccessarily in revolt against the methods of previous masters, as critics would have us believe; the differences are often a shift of emphasis.”

John Olsen; Drawing from Life, 1997

It is not unusual to find developments and new directions in artist’s work coinciding with changes in the fabric and experience of their personal and professional life and this has undoubtedly been the case with Day’s latest body of work. A Long Stick has developed from two previous exhibitions by Peter Day shown earlier this year at BDAS Gallery, Bowral and the Project Centre for Contemporary Art in Wollongong.

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