Harmonics of the Dark – Atrium Gallery ABC Ultimo 1995


Robert Louis Stevenson’s aphorism that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” was reflected in much art practice of the 1970s, which viewed an artwork’s process as being more engrossing than the resulting product. Process represented an arena of creative decision making, and artists would often document the artwork’s narrative—its false starts, its second thoughts, its evolutionary renegotiations.

Peter Day’s background left him too committed to pictorial resolution and a boisterous elegance to similarly abandon product for the enticing if sometimes incestuous preoccupation with process. After all, he had studied art at Granville Boys’ High School under Ken Reinhard—a pop artist whose immaculately finished work revealed a poetry in gleaming industrial materials and engineered exactitude— and Day’s first academic qualification was a Diploma in Industrial Design.

But still, the issue of process has always interested him. His King George V Recreational Centre Mural in Cumberland Street, the Rocks—said to be the largest painted mural in Australia and unquestionably a significant piece of Australian public art—was preceded by complex and delicate discussions with the Rocks residents about the content of the mural. Day documented these deliberations, and viewed this consultative process as a vital democratic exercise that was decisive in determining the work’s final subject matter and form.

The matter of process is also an issue in Day’s present work. Here, he takes a theme and then develops it in a sequence of sizes, and different media. In effect, he explores the question “how is the meaning of an image or theme modified when its scale or medium is changed?” Day adopted “Superscan” which mechanically inflates his paintings to at least twenty times their original size of 38 x 55 cm. He became enthralled to observe the way this procedure changed a gestural flourish, which had been light and fleeting in its original small size into a form that is more measured, or more convulsive, and more epic. Day then reanimates the image by painting over the superscan, overlaying the monumental marks with the impulsive and nimble strokes that had begun the process.

These floating, undulating strokes have been a recurrent motif of Peter Day. They are something of an admiring quotation from the calligraphic “mark-making” of abstract expressionism, which had dominated Sydney painting between 1956 and 1964. Day had begun visiting the Contemporary Art Society exhibitions in 1964, and had been attracted there to the spirit of abstract expressionism with its leitmotifs of intuition, speed, process and spontaneity. He was especially admiring of the paintings of Stan Rapotec, with their bold colliding circles, bars and beams.

Day’s gestural marks (he has called them, tongue in-cheek, “wiggles”) are taut and suave. They have a sense of speed, but not violence. By contrast, the marks of Rapotec and others of his circle including Frank Hodgkinson are ragged and ruptured, with intimations of desperation, pain and peril. 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.

Peter Day’s involvement in Public Art embraces the creative (as a leading Australian public art practitioner for a decade and a half), the professional (as Coordinator of Cultural Development for Wollongong City Council), and the academic domains (he is currently undertaking a PhD at Griffith University which examines the effect of public art projects on the planning of urban societies and environments). His recent paintings reflect that deep involvement.

The relationship between humanity—man as explorer, farmer, industrialist, or engaged in recreation—and the landscape, has been a central theme in Australian painting. Humanity may be portrayed as victim or intruder or dominator or despoiler of that landscape.

In his recent work, Day explores not the place of man in the landscape, but man’s cultural artefacts—in theform of public works. Some of the artefacts Dayalluded to—mainly sculptures—are recognisable: RonRobertson-Swann’s Vault (whose siting was theepicentre of protracted and bitter controversy in Melbourne); Paris’s Arc de Triomphe (through which Hitler pointedly marched his troops in June 1940); Alexander Lieberman’s tubular steel sculpture Covenant which he saw at the University of Philadelphia (which Day employs to lend some privacy to the amorous pursuits of a Rubenesque Leda and the swan, discreetly shielding them from the inquisitive woods beyond); a Henry Lawson monument (dark, dour and dated against a theatrical sky); and a broadcasting tower (which was not initially conceived as a work of public art, but then neither was the Eiffel Tower, which it resembles).

Other sculptural forms in Day’s paintings are less recognisable or even fictitious. Most are assertively shaped and crisply edged (as in Sculpture Park II), and are placed with deliberation within a fluid and shimmering landscape of foliage and field. Even his “Confetti” paintings of fallen mauve Jacaranda flowers punctuating a billowing passage of grass recall the public art form of the Japanese Zen garden, where an apparently natural (but actually delicately calculated) relationship is set up between rock and plant, between form and void.

In the largest work in the exhibition Harmonics of the Dark, Day suggests that radio (especially, onesuspects, ABC radio) is also a form of public art.Day had himself presented programs at 2JJ in the1970s. He became fascinated by the way radiocombines the art forms of Literature and Music,which are directed towards having the listenerconstruct mental visualisations. If this combining ofart forms makes radio an artistic hybrid, so too is this painting which involved manipulating photographs through the computer software Photoshop, enlarging the result by a variation of the superscan process, and then animating the surface with vigorous and calligraphic marks.

In his PhD thesis, Peter Day teases out questions like: What is the fascination, or need, we have for making marks on walls and placing sculptures in community spaces? Is it to condition our environment, to take possession of it, or to humanise the space? Why do we decorate and why are the various forms of decoration as they are, especially those in a public space? Using visual quotations from various cultures and periods, these are questions Peter Day poses in his paintings, too.

Peter Pinson