Encountering Pat Larter for the first time, people often said: “I’m sure I’ve met you before somewhere.” Most probably it was in one of the many versions of Pat painted by her husband, Richard Larter. Once seen these pictures were hard to forget.
It’s not unusual for an artist to take his wife as muse and model. Edward Hopper’s spouse, Jo, appears in numerous paintings, Bonnard is famous for his portraits of Marthe, who never seemed to age. But I can’t think of an artist any time, anywhere, that could rival Richard Larter for the sheer quantity of images of his wife. Neither has there ever been a wife willing to adopt so many lewd, erotic and downright kinky poses.
For many years Pat was a cheerful collaborator in Dick’s antics. When she eventually extricated herself from his shadow and began to attract attention for her own projects, the works were no less sexually explicit. Dick portrayed Pat in fishnets and garter belts, dressed as a nurse, a French maid or a schoolgirl, with legs akimbo or bottom thrust toward the viewer. In her own works, as seen in Pat Larter: Get Arted, at the Art Gallery of NSW, she was just as happy to bare it all for the camera.
The weak, sensitive woman oppressed by her brutal perv of a husband is a dramatic stereotype but this did not apply to Pat and Dick. The Larters were pervs together who would descend on Sydney from their home in Yass and make an enthusiastic sweep of the porno shops, seeking rare gems to add to their magazine collection.
And yet, for all their kinkiness, there is something strangely innocent about the sexuality that percolates through Dick and Pat’s work. It’s a vision rooted (if you’ll pardon the expression) in the page three girls of the English tabloids, the double entendres of Carry On movies, vintage soft-core photos, Soho strip clubs, and an abiding belief that sexual liberation was also a way of liberating the mind and the soul. Nowadays, when all forms of dark and deviant behaviour have colonised the Internet, the Larters’ lewdness seems quaint and old-fashioned – more like slapstick comedy than pornography.
Dick and Pat were products of a post-war world that was just beginning to enjoy a taste of freedom in the years leading up to the 1960s. Both were natives of Essex: Dick was born in Horrnchurch in 1929, Pat in Leytonstone in 1936. They met while working in the same London insurance office and would marry when Pat was only 16. By the time they migrated to Australia in 1962 they already had three children, and two more were to follow.
At no stage did the Larters see any contradiction between their roles as Mum and Dad, and the perpetual sexual pantomime of their art which was only interrupted by suites of hyper-decorative abstract paintings. In the language of the sixties they ‘did their own thing’. They were non-conformists who played by their own set of rules, but largely in a spirit of fun.
When I think of the Larters I remember how Playboy Magazine was once widely viewed as a socially progressive force. It took a few years of feminist agitation before it was acknowledged that women were not exactly raised up by being centrefolds or bunny girls.
In the spirit of the counterculture the Larters saw sexuality as a political force. Along with all the naughty bits, their pictures include images of war, poverty, American imperialism, religious hypocrisy and other forms of injustice. One of the things that riled Pat was Dick’s unconscious male chauvinism. She expressed her resentment in the mixed media work, Pat’s Anger (1992), which features ten luridly coloured photos of her face in ‘primal scream’ mode. It was shown in her first ever solo exhibition at the Legge Gallery. Dick got the message.
Prior to that Pat had made an underground reputation for herself as an exponent of International Mail Art. From 1974-88 she produced small works in the form of letters and postcards and dispatched them to artists around the world, who would reply in kind, or add something to the piece and forward it to another artist. The medium allowed Pat to be as inventive and risqué as she liked, connecting her to a network that extended as far as the reach of the postal service.
This represented a sustained feat of creativity but it doesn’t translate well into a single-room show jam-packed with Pat’s photos, drawings, word-games (“femail art”) and other stuff. It’s not easy to assimilate this visual archive, which resembles the kind of exhibition one might expect to see in a library. Amid the small, grainy black-and-white photos, home-made films and items of documentation, there are few examples of Pat’s abstract paintings or her late photo-portraits of male and female models on glittery, psychedelic backgrounds.
This may be a result of consigning the show to the confines of the Lowy, Gonski Gallery, which is often overlooked by visitors. To give an accurate account of Pat’s busy, messy career in art it may have been necessary to include a lot of minor work, but this is guaranteed to test the patience of many viewers. Like too many shows at the AGNSW there has been a failure to commit adequate space and resources.
Having decided to give Pat Larter a survey the gallery should have borrowed more work instead of relying so heavily on the collection. They needed to provide a better setting and some sort of catalogue. Instead there is only a takeaway information sheet which doesn’t even mention the names of the curators, Lisa Catt and Claire Eggleston. This is a strange omission because any museum exhibition is more-or-less authored by those who select the works, hang the show and write the labels.
One wonders if the slightly cloistered nature of this event is partly due to the material on display. Although Pat may be celebrated for her joyous, uninhibited approach to female sexuality and her own body; although she may be configured as a feminist icon who showed no respect for repressive social norms… the work is undeniably, deliberately smutty. I accept that it took a lot of bravura for a middle-aged woman to have herself constantly painted and photographed with legs spread wide, but where some will discern a heroic dimension in this ribald exhibitionism others will simply find themselves wondering where to look.
Pat Larter: Get Arted
Art Gallery of NSW, 14 November, 2020 – 21 March, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 January, 2021