14 PAINTINGS ABOUT PHYSICAL FITNESS PLUS 14 PRELIMINARY WORKS
The start of my wild and crazy years! In retrospect, it might look like that, but actually there was always quite a bit of method to the madness.
This series was shown from the 9th to 21st of August, 1988 at The Roar 2 Studios, an artist-run space in Melbourne. They had been rejected by my previous gallery, Girgis & Klym. The show comprised fifteen paintings from a series of twenty-one. I regard them as the cornerstone of my mature work and although flawed, they hold a special place for me. They marked a radical break with preceding work but were an uneven, unfocussed foray and following the show many of them were destroyed or reworked. But I also knew I was onto something and there was no going back. I’ll say quite a bit more about the stylistic departure below the images.
Basically, Workouts uses the theme of physical fitness programmes as a metaphor for pictorial or stylistic construction. The paintings ‘workout’ on the theme of fitness workouts. They stretch and test the way we recognise figures and activities in pictures, the way we discern form from content, assess painterliness and iconography. Some of the exercises used special equipment but others were designed to do as everyday tasks around the home or office. Some of them used striking slogans. Captions arose as part of the form, but also helped to decipher the pictures.
Exercise Bicycle 1988 168 X 137cm acrylic/canvas
Aerobics 1988 120 X 168cm acrylic/canvas
Vacuuming 1988 168 X 137cm acrylic/canvas
Watching Television 1988 137 X 168cm acrylic/canvas
Answering the Telephone 1988 168 X 137cm acrylic/canvas
I Am Seeing A Specialist 1988 137 X 168cm acrylic/canvas
No Pain No Gain 1988 106 X 83cm acrylic/canvas
Bullworker 1988 83 X 106cm acrylic/canvas
Startling Results 1988 106 X 83cm acrylic/canvas
Aerobics 2 (In A Glade) 1988 83 X 106cm acrylic/canvas
I Lost Weight Because of You 1988 83 X 106cm acrylic/canvas
To Smooth The Corners of Your Mouth 1988 83 X 106cm acrylic/canvas
At The Office 1988 83 X 106cm acrylic/canvas
Content was derived from books on physical fitness (the catalogue to the show even had a bibliography for these) but there is little that directly pointed to print sources for the content. Imagery of fitness workouts is pervasive in the mass media of course, as advertising and instruction, yet actually quite rare in painting. One has to go back to classical Greek and Roman examples I suppose, where athleticism has a slightly different emphasis. But in the wake of Pop Art and print sourced painting, such content inherits a mass media legacy to some degree, gently echoes the appeal to print norms for iconography or genre. I was only vaguely aware of this at the time, attracted by the marginal or latent populism and the potential for more adventurous treatment.
But while the paintings do not conspicuously flag print sources for their content, parts nevertheless allude to photographic soft focus and blurred depth of fields, distinctive tonal treatments of microscopic or technical materials (such as plastics or novel fabrics, mechanical or organic parts) captions or subtitles, graphic or diagrammatic elements, as well as freer or more painterly treatments, more ambiguous passages. In other words, treatment now draws on a wide array of sources, emphasises a diversity of construction, a spectrum from the print-based to painterly. This broadening of the repertoire of forms comes after a stern investigation into the role of line and the nature of resemblance in pictures (see Waldeinsamkeit and Redheads). Rather than start from the fundamentals in this way, I had come to realise you could not re-invent the wheel, in any case. There was no point asking line to refresh subject matter; it could only get at the linear parts of it anyway. There was no point trying to redirect reference to a standard category or genre; it could only align with compatible categories by this route. The traditional tools were either too broad or too narrow. Neither genres nor analytical basics held the full answer. My pictures had to be constructed across the array of options in between in order to give pictures a proper workout. In more cautious hands, this might have been a recipe for compromise, but I was in no mood for compromise.
What follows is that form expands to include bigger building blocks for a picture, from line, plane and basic volumes, to more complex or readymade components that may be recycled or re-configured. At the same time content contracts to smaller parts of a subject, to keys or cues to salient features. The overlap or intersection between the two directions all but dissolves a standard or stable resemblance for the picture. People sometimes remarked that the pictures simply explode, leaving only grotesque or comic fragments of a figure. This is partly true. But the disintegration is never total. How much we can construct or discern there depends upon the latitude granted subject and its style or treatment. It is a two-way adjustment. The figures may be extreme, but equally they are figures pictured in an extreme way. So, does the extremity lie with the figures or their pictorial treatment? Which is form and which is content? Hopefully, the viewer pauses to make this adjustment with some exertion, if not adventure.
The result is really that some content becomes form for bigger content or, to paraphrase Nelson Goodman, a big form is content, a small content is form. And here no content retains a stable or singular appearance; no form serves only one content for long or far. My studio mantra at that time was ‘Some things are more like brushstrokes than others; some brushstrokes are more like things than others’ – meaning, again, that there was a two-way adjustment at play and that no one kind of ‘brushstroke’ handled all ‘things’ or content, not all ‘things’ sat comfortably with one another in the one kind of picture. Partly this is only to acknowledge the verity that there is no content free of pictorial form, no pictorial form free of content (this point goes back to Gombrich, at least). But partly it’s also a growing awareness that realism proceeds by versions that are not always consistent, not always easily accepted. This is where I bid farewell to classical foundations.
All the same, there were transitional works, which I’ve included below under Extras.
The initial weakness was that content within content resembled familiar collage techniques and as painting, recalled Surrealist ambiguities. I thought a more technological or science fictional spin might save them from this, but soon realised it did not. I needed to be stricter with my construction. That’s why I culled and amended the series subsequently. An ignored and marginalised artist can do this with alacrity, of course. Response to the show was actually not too bad given it was such a change in direction, although I did lose a few admirers and colleagues. Advice tended to be along the lines of “You need to be showing in somewhere like New York to get anywhere with this stuff”. I thought all I needed was someone with a bit of attitude to collect or appreciate them; someone prepared to go out on a limb or be seen to. I didn’t think the paintings were any harder to live with than say a Warhol or Bacon. But I guess it depends how you want to live.
To explain why I was attracted to such a theme and treatment, I need to say a little bit about the preceding series, Redheads, from 1987, for those that have not looked at that page. Redheads were large-scale coloured pencil drawings on paper that adopted a strong and sinuous linear style that intersected realistic forms to build figures through steady fragmentation, ranging from small differences in colour to some parts, or costume in others, to larger, spatial differences usually experienced as collage and including text or captions. In Redheads the idea was parts of the picture may make the person to varying degrees or build a context for them. Some attributes would seem natural or realistic, others imposed or artificial but the line literally would be continuous between differences. A ‘Redhead’ was a role and yet a disposition, superficial and yet a verity, whimsical yet deliberate. But as a style, Redheads was a little too elegant and illustrational. I was doing some commercial illustration at the time and conscious how safe and acceptable the work seemed, for all my probing. Finally I reached a point where coloured pencils, while intensely linear, nevertheless restricted how I could make a line, what I could make it do. I needed the greater flexibility of painting. At the same time I realised that line was never going to be enough for the kind of pictorial explorations I envisaged. Even as I pursued my approach, the break in technique utterly transformed it.
What is retained of course is a theme of the figure establishing an identity, operating under it. With Workouts the person is actively engaged in transformation, with shaping their appearance and abilities, usually alone, while Redheads had merely toyed with opportunities mostly amid their own kind. No-one could accuse Workouts of being too elegant or illustrational. On the contrary, people often failed to find the figures or exercises in the jumble of forms or foiled content, were left baffled or disappointed. I accept some workouts are too strenuous for the picture. The person fails there just as fitness programmes sometimes do.
Does the work have some autobiographical aspect? Was I on a fitness programme at the time? At the time I did a lot of swimming so I was certainly conscious of bodily discipline but I think my situation more generally finds a better parallel. Having relocated from a promising career in British television to find no comparable niche in Melbourne, cut off from all friends and having to start again in the art world (12 years after art school) tests one’s resources and identity to the utmost. Workouts mirror my determination to reinvent myself at that stage, to use painting to do it.
EXTRAS – 14 preliminary works
Most, if not all, of these were destroyed a year or less after being made. The reason I include them here is to show how much of a struggle it was to move on from coloured pencils and Redheads. It’s ugly, it’s messy but it’s interesting – for me at least – to see the options available, what goes into the mix. At times the work veers toward science fiction, then to Surrealism, to more painterly and abstract treatments, to layers or superimpositions, captions, at times verging on David Salle territory, at other points more cartoon-like illustration. The mix gets richer, more inclusive even if physical fitness gets more abstract and metaphorical. It had to be.
Unlike the Car People Extras, I don’t miss any of these works, or regret their destruction. These ones served their purpose, they moved me on to the next step. All the same, having a record of that crucial murky period does remind me just how hard I pushed, how restless and ruthless I had to make myself.
Workoutstudy1 1987 150 X 100cm coloured pencil/paper
Workoutstudy7 1987 100 X 150cm coloured pencil/paper
Workoutstudy6 1987 150 X 100cm coloured pencil/paper
Workoutstudy4 1987 150 X 100cm coloured pencil/paper
Workoutstudy2 1987 75 X 55 cm acrylic/paper
WorkoutsStudy10 1988 75 X 55 cm acrylic-paper
Workoutstudy3 1987 75 X55cm acrylic/paper
Workoutstudy5 1987 75 X55cm acrylic/paper
Workoutstudy8 1987 75 X55cm acrylic/paper
Workoutstudy9 1987 75 X55cm acrylic/paper
Yoga 1989 168 X 120cm coloured pencil/paper
Driving-Lesson 1988 150 X 100cm coloured pencil/paper
Yoga2 1987 150 X 100cm coloured pencil/paper
Lotus 1988 107X 83cm acrylic/canvas
Couple Stretching 1988 168 X 214cm acrylic/canvas