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					The College Voice - Archive: Volume 3 Issue 3

 Volume 3, Issue 3

 Sounding: An Artist's Talk
 October 30 2005




 SOUNDING is the second of two shows by Peter Sharp on the subject

 of whales (the first was WHALE, in 2004). It is more sombre than the first, relying on large

 areas of deep black to create the experience of the fathomless ocean as the setting for the

 engaging mystery of the huge mammals that inhabit it.


 At once powerful and lyrical, these drawings, paintings, woodcuts, and objects communicate in

 sweeping, minimalist gestures. Sharp manages to avoid the usual clichés by retaining his sense

 of awe in the presence of majesty. We are presented with the artist's ingenuous response to the

 humbling beauty of Nature, a response unspoilt by intellectual irony or

 artistic pretensions.


 The following is an edited transcript of an informal talk the artist gave at his recent show at the

 Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney, before a responsive audience of about sixty people, on

 Saturday 13th August, 2005. This is a shorter version of the taped talk, minus comments and

 laughter. Sharp was joined by master printmaker Brenda Tye, who has collaborated with him on

 all of the Whale prints to date. JL.


 (Peter Sharp is a Teacher of Painting in the School of Fine Arts, COFA.

 Brenda Tye is Technical Assistant in the Printmaking Department at COFA)

 (Recorded and Edited by Janis Lander.)

 WHALENESS


 "I'll start with the painting Scrimshaw,

 because I've had a lot of questions about

 it.


 I had my first Whale show last July, and

 it came about because of living as

 fisherman/surfer/coastboy guy from

 Cronulla. Throughout my life, whales

 have popped up at different times. When

 I was fifteen I actually swam with a whale off Cronulla. And about four years ago I was fishing

 with a friend on a flat day in Cronulla Bay, and this Humpback came right up next to the boat –

 because they're inquisitive animals - and he eyeballed us in the boat. You can imagine this




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thirty-foot long thing next to this little skiff looking at us. Then he put his fin up out of the water

and kind of waved to us.


Everyone has stories about whales. So I started mucking about with ideas

of how to make pictures about whales. Whaleness. People's involvement with whales. But not in

a literal, representative way, because I'm more an abstract painter.

THE DRAWINGS


"The drawings are the key to everything in this show. I went down to Alban where my father

lives and where there is a whaling station. There was a shed full of whale bones near the whale

museum. Also we found a dead whale on the beach. So I made a whole series of drawings. So

those drawings are bits of bone or whale teeth, just charcoal on paper.


I start a process where I actually try and abstract the drawings while I'm directly looking at the

thing: rub them out, turn them over, redraw them, looking for some kind of otherness, some

kind of abstraction that can

give me ideas for the painting. So for example, that form is the end of a jawbone, and that form

ends up in that painting there and that painting there, and in that print. So even though the

works look highly abstracted, they come from me really looking at things. The little one is

actually a

whale's tooth, which is this painting (indicates it).


For me, it has to be about a story, or a feeling, or an engagement with something that's real.

Then I put all these drawings up on the wall in the studio, and they become a visual

encyclopedia for everything else. That drawing is the rib-bone from a humpbacked whale. I was

staying down in Eden to do research: get a flavour and a feel for places and people, and the

whales themselves. I stayed in the local pub which was full of old people with stories about

whaling, or their uncle or grandfather who had a connection with it. I was talking to the guy

                                                                            behind the bar who

                                                                            owned the pub and he

                                                                            said he had two

                                                                            whalebones in the shed

                                                                            out the back. A guy put

                                                                            them up to pay his bar

                                                                            tab. So I paid the guy's

                                                                            bar tab which was two

                                                                            hundred and fifty bucks,

and that's how I ended up with these two rib bones.




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That's the only way you can get this stuff now. It has to be from people's collections. Whales

are protected, so it's rare. I brought (the rib bone) in on purpose because it's got a chop mark

on the top. It's probably over a hundred years old.


So the question is: how do you make work from the experience of these relics, the whaling

industry, and the empathy that we have with whales?

THE SHELF WORKS


"I also make shelf works. The shelf works came out of a conversation with the artist Lynn

Eastaway from the National Art School. A friend cut up some pieces of timber and gave them to

me and I started making little forms on these panels. Then I built some shelves to put them on,

not wanting them to make sense, but more for the purpose of storage, a place to put them on.

And then there was this connection. People put things on the mantle piece because they're

precious. They're the easiest things to make. I make the panels separately and then I spend

hours making a visual arrangement. They're like visual poems. But that (object) is actually the

vertebral disc from a humpbacked whale. And it gives the whole show currency because it's

real; it is from something real.


I got it from a girl sitting next to me at a dinner. She was a pastry chef, and her great

grandfather was a whaler in Bunbury, off the Western Australian coast. It cost me two etchings

and a drawing to get three of those discs. She came in on opening night and she got really

upset in a good way, because it brought up memories of her family and her great grandfather.


So they're not direct representations. It's more about poetry or an evocation of whales and the

whaling industry. If you look at the paintings - you can see (in Scrimshaw), there's (an image

of) a whale's tooth, part of a jawbone with a tooth socket in it.

THE PAINTINGS


"The linen I use has a connection with the natural rustic order of things. It has a certain patina

and history. I seal the linen so it's impervious to the oil and acrylic. The acrylic shapes go on

white, because most of the stuff I draw upon is white. And then it has an oil glaze on the top.

And it's all made on the floor, quite quickly. A lot of the time it either works or it doesn't. I get

about a one in three hit ratio. I put the glaze over the top. I really like this indigo, warm, denim

look, because it has historical working associations with people and labour.


Then I spend months driving myself mad deciding the next stage. Often on the paintings you'll

see chalk marks where I'm moving cardboard forms, like Matisse did, collage forms, to get it

right. Because if I don't get it right, it's done. A lot of other painters can scrape off paint, but I




                                                                                               Page 3 of 7
can't do that. They're very lean, like watercolours. So: raw linen, sealed; then acrylic forms;

then I put the glaze over and it acts like a resist.


The acrylic forms actually stop the glaze from dropping in

and then it sets up a spatial effect. People talk about it

like constellations, water space, and I really like that. Like

flying over the land looking down. I'm very interested in

the aboriginal way of looking at the world. So I'm trying to

break with the idea of the Renaissance perspective: the

foreground, mid-ground, background way of seeing the

world. I want you to be immersed in this, like swimming around in it.


Question: This area here, (in Whale 3), did you have the blue and then the white?


Peter Sharp: The white acrylic forms came first, then the blue glaze, then another white glaze

over the top. When I put the last shapes on, I'm trying to bring some form of order to it; so

pictorially it makes sense; so it fits together and it has a kind of tension. The black forms, the

constructive wooden forms, or whale fins, they come last, and they're nailing down the image.

SOUNDING


"'Sounding' is the newest painting, the last painting I made in this show.

Most painters know that when you're painting a body of work, the last paintings are outside the

inaugural experience. And I'm intrigued to think about this painting for the next six months and

figure out where else I can go.


'Sounding' was made in the same way as (Whale 3), except I covered the white acrylic forms

with this really bright ultramarine blue glaze, and it was too bright, too synthetic, it was too

unnatural. So there was a bit of a breakthrough. I started knocking back the blue by putting

black glazes around it so all the black is hand painted. It's got blue-black, blue-red, blue-brown,

all these different blues, trying to get a kind of space but flatness at the same time. Then I sat

with for probably three months, moving these forms around and you can see the final decision

where I've drawn the chalk marks in – probably because the delivery truck was coming and I

had to get it in the back of the truck.


I like the placement of those forms. It's like an underwater still life. I'm a fan of people like

Georgio Morandi and Phillip Guston. I like the wobbleness of this picture. Like it's down deep

somewhere and you're not sure of what is down there. So that's the title picture of the show,

Sounding.


Question: What are the thin lines?




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Peter Sharp: The thin lines are from where the paint dribbles. Everything is made on the floor,

so it's actually painting the acrylic forms in really quickly, and they are dribble marks which I

really like, the paint dribbling from one shape to another.


Brenda Tye: There's a bit of preparation to get the plates ready, but after that the image-

making can be quite quick. Whereas, the Head and Tail print was a lot more involved because it

involved double plates. There is the carbarundum underneath, and then the woodcut on top, (or

the reverse?). But that sense of whether something sits on top or sits underneath

becomes crucial in creating a sense of space in the prints.


In the same way Pete was talking about the layering of colour in the paintings, there is layering

in printmaking as well. If you get the viscosity of the ink correct, so that the tackiness,

stickiness and transparency are right, and you print on wet paper, (wet on wet), the inks blend

together really well and sit differently. If you print wet ink onto a dry paper, then you get an

opaque effect. The ink sits off the image, and the sense of depth is changed completely.


If you look at Scrimshaw over here, it's printed in the same way as Head and Tail, except that

the woodblock is printed on the same layer as the carbarundum, wet on wet, so that the wood

grain is still noticeable but subtle. The black is richer.


Peter Sharp: The lovely thing about printing on panels is that you can re-orientate the panels.

The right hand piece in the corner has been switched around because we preferred the sense of

balance in the re-configuration. You can muck about with the arrangements of prints because

I'm not that much of formalist that I can't reconfigure something.


That's what we did with this one (Whaling Station). We were talking about the language of this

with the flatness of that. And when we put it together it's got this lovely telescopic thing looking

out over the ocean, so that's when we decided to do an edition like that. So it's basically playing

around with stuff.


Brenda Tye: It's an interesting, ambiguous space as well, because you can be either

underwater looking up, or in the dark area looking through peepholes at the view. Even the

marks that Pete made into the wood with an electrical drill, have a beautiful relationship to the

theme in the whale print, because those electrical drill marks have that resistance, since, in a

woodblock, you're often going against the grain. So there is a violence to it that's goes well with

Head and Tail print, because the lines that go through the wood indicate the Flensing Diagram,

which is about the skinning of the whale in old days.


Peter Sharp: This is the drawing that gave us the idea for the Whale print. It's one of the most

literal drawings I've made and it came from reading Moby Dick. I've tried to avoid Moby Dick




                                                                                              Page 5 of 7
because of the narrative. I didn't want to impose too much of an obvious story line. I wanted

the work to be ambiguous, because then you (the viewers) get to impose your life onto it as

well.


We actually printed the carbarundum black and white. And I've found it was just flat. So Brenda

came out to the studio, looking through Moby Dick, talking, and we found this Flensing diagram.

So the woodcut that's over the top is actually about how to cut whales up and unwind them like

an orange next to the sailing ships. The whale is upside down because they belly up when they

die. I really like the kind of beauty that's sinister at the same time.




Head and Tail is to do with the idea of flipping a coin, which comes from Whaling. The heads

were the most valuable, the tails were the least valuable, because the head contained

ambergris, the lightest, most fragrant, best quality oil. So they used to fight over it. The captain

got first dibs. I prefer the other print because it's more abstracted, more distant from the

original idea, and the viewer has to do more work. But this has been a crowd-pleaser. Maybe it's

the blue.


Brenda Tye: Well the blue works on many levels. Obviously it represents the water, especially

in the smaller Scrimshaw print. But the blue can also represent the willow pattern on fine bone

china; old style blueprints that people used to make for plans. Even on a spiritual side, Mary's

dress colour is blue. Has the literalness of the language of whaling, and also the seductiveness

of the forces in nature and the tidal theme. It gives a different glimpse of the world.


Peter Sharp: Even the letters refer to the diagrammatic schemata of how to chop something

up, like in the old butchers' shops: this is a rump steak bit.


Question: Do you mean this is made of wood?


Brenda Tye: No, this is a print from a really rough-grained wood plate, with knots; and a rough

grain which makes it difficult to cut. So Peter has used an electrical drill to cut it. Which gives

the line work a lyrical beauty, but keeps the jaggedness that imparts the sense of violence. So it

works really well with the content.




                                                                                             Page 6 of 7
Question: So the whole thing was black and white?


Brenda Tye: Black and white, yes, then we printed the blue woodgrain over the top.


Peter Sharp: I can't roll up the wood cut that big, and that's where Brenda's the expert master

printmaker. Brenda's a much better colourist. I'm more of a tonal guy. That's where the

collaborating happens. She rolls up the woodcuts, I normally do the carbarundum. And it's really

hard yakka. Two o'clock in the morning we're still there going, "Yeah, this doesn't work, let's go

have a beer".


Brenda Tye: Well it's like now, you're just talking about it the whole time and bouncing ideas

off each other.


Question: Was the blue printed over the solid black area?


Brenda Tye: Yes, the carbarundum was printed first. It's exactly the same blue as the other

print, but in the other print the paper was wet, so the wet ink sinks right into the black.


Peter Sharp: the show has some connection to nature, some connection to water and some

connection to how we are in the world. I don't mind if the work doesn't end up looking like

whales, I just want it to be about an engagement with the world, and about the poetry of the

world.


Images courtesy of the artist:


         1.   Making Scrimshaw. 2004, oil and acrylic on linen, 150 x 200 cm.

         2.   Shelf Work. 2005, 8 panels, 3 found objects, sizes variable, shelf length 210 cm.

         3.   Harpoon. 2005, oil and acrylic on linen, 150 x 200 cm.

         4.   Heads or Tails. 2005, woodcut on carbarundum print, on 6 sheets,

              edition of three, 134 x 267 cm overall.


Interview by Peter Sharp and Brenda Tye




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