Surveying Peter Day – 2006


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.

As with his public work, Peter Day’s private or personal media is diverse, ranging from timber, steel, wool and vinyl assemblages/installations, (some with electronics) in his ‘Works for Fame and Fortune’ exhibition at Bonython Gallery 1975, to delicate small etchings created during a residency in Arthur Boyd’s Studios at Riversdale in 1996.

In his works on paper, Peter Day uses an array of media including impasto acrylic; liquid acrylics; oriental inks; pastels and coloured pencil; photography; various etching and digital printing techniques and through his mural painting experience introduced an obscure German paint into Australia and has modified it to create his unique frescos on paper. All these are in evidence in the ‘Day: Survey’ exhibition.

If the media is diverse the imagery is even more so, ranging from abstract gestural marks, nudes, animals, fruit, the sky, lettering and words, and diverse patterns. His real subject matter, however, has remained almost exclusively landscape.

Peter Day is strongly influenced by his physical environment and renders the essence or spirit of a place in relation to his own sense of being. This is evident from the earliest of works represented here by Bondi Landscape (1968) and The Lemon Goes to Paris (1978) depicting Surry Hills where Peter Day lived at the time.

During the 1980s Peter Day was obsessed with tree barks and combined these with related shapes and seemingly unrelated imagery, recalling and depicting aspects of childhood and the influence of humanistic psychology, contrasting his adamant statement when at high school that he did not want to become a gum tree painter.

So many of the works in this survey exhibition are bursting with colour, texture and rhythm. Tony Geddes, Director Mosman Art Gallery, said of the works from the ‘Spirit of Place’ exhibition 1990 “A sustained process of building, layer upon layer, generates vigorous surfaces of pulsating rhythms that seem to tap the fundamental energies of life itself. In this way Peter’s images can be likened to those of Ralph Balson, who, thirty years ago, was concerned with representing the condition of flux of the universe. However, in contrast to Balson, Peter’s modus operandi is far more methodical and calculating, leaving little to chance”.

It is the emotional feel of a place that Peter Day explores and the landscape, even when depicted as populated, is still the dominant theme. The human condition is also often depicted, even if subordinately, and often relates to micro events in his life. The manually enhanced digital print works in ‘Museings’ exhibition, Eastside Gallery 2003, are an example. In the catalogue essay Dr Barry Gazzard says, “These micro events include personal experiences, accurate and vague recollections, people’s actions, places of some understanding, disclosure and some fantasy…..These are the stimulus and starting point for his activity as a painter. They are the crucial interaction between the painter and the world that involves the way he understands reality and are probably the reason that he paints or creates at all.”

This understanding is evident in Mud Mime Nataraj (1992) which was inspired by his work with abused children, a piece which demonstrates how Peter Day’s style and use of colour varies from work to work but the importance of mark making and the clean use of colour is always present, even where he uses more subtle tertiary and earthy colours as he does here and in The 1000th Crucible (1993).

Some images such as tartan swatches and the lemon appear with regularity in Peter Day’s work and others such as the mortar style vessel in The 1000th Crucible appear rarely. The source for this work are highlights in and treasured memories of Peter Day’s life and reflections on reincarnation, art subjects and human lives portrayed as a still life, ‘Nature Morte’, signified by the red and white gingham tablecloth.

When viewing this body of work one sees the development of an inveterate mark maker, there are many and hugely diverse marks. They are reminiscent of the calligraphic marks made by the abstract expressionists of the late 50s/eary 60s who were an influence on the young Peter Day. In these marks there is a sense of a search for identity and identification through the mark making activity. The process of the activity is shown, the individual works are like a documentation of the process and one senses that the process is sometimes almost paramount to the product. In some cases there is a sense of a scratching away to uncover something rather than a sense of laying on marks to build something. But Peter Day values his ‘products of process’ and shows them enthusiastically, having no concern about acceptance as he knows that the works are carefully crafted and unique. This of course is the influence of Peter Day’s life long mentor, Ken Reinhard who in his catalogue essay for the exhibition ‘Mixed Metaphors’ 1993 described Peter’s “ ‘marks’ and squiggles as a personal calligraphy of power and grace” whereas Peter Pinson in his essay for the ‘Harmonics of the Dark exhibition’ 1996 sees them as “taut and suave” and says: “For Day, his sense of tone and his instinct for design ensured that whatever diverse ingredients he would cast into pictorial space, including his arabesques, there would remain an overwhelming vestige of unity and coherence.”

There have been three Arthurs in Peter Day’s life: his father, Noel Arthur Day; Arthur Murch, Peter Day’s painting master of the 1970s and Arthur Boyd whose spontaneous approach to painting and his use of colour and light in the Australian landscape have had a great influence on Peter’s practice.

During his residency at Riversdale, Peter Day produced some “Boydian landscapes” in various media and magnitude. From small etchings to larger works using mineral silicate fresco paint with which he began to experiment here – Upper Storey, (1998) was the first fresco on paper and Fantasia, Xan-an-du-Shoalhaven River and Pulpit Rock (1998) is an emotive response to the landscape at Riversdale and Bundanon.

Peter Day’s work over the last decade has been greatly influenced by technology…. using the computer to enlarge his images by a superscan process and later incorporating digitally manipulated images into the work, hand enhancing them till he achieved the desired effect.

Peter’s more recent exhibitions ‘Museings’ and ‘Hard Country-Museings II’, 2003 deal with horizons, the minimalism and isolation of the outback country and in contrast the light and movement of the seaside.

The ‘preview’ pictures to Peter’s next show (at Marianne Newman Gallery October 2007) are frescos on paper, continuing his outback theme but distilling his experience of specific sites and occurrences into very formal, designed and slightly Rothko-esque sermons on water conservation and lamentations for the outback and semi-outback communities. The marks are often rhythmic, beating time, like hour chimes, like years being ticked off in a lifetime and heralding the slow demise of a continent. The large fresco on paper from 2003, deals with the outback of India and Australia, Siren Country, aptly named as Peter feels the outback can ‘sing’ you into oblivion.

The last word goes to Ken Reinhard who wrote in 1993 “…. Peter is a force to be encountered and impressed by … an artist of distinction”.
As one who has personally seen Peter Day’s artistic career develop over the last forty years it gives me great pleasure to present ‘Day:Survey’ and I thank him for this opportunity.

Marianne Newman, October 2006