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