I feel like a bit of a fraud opening Peter Powditch’s memoral show, when so many other people in this room knew him a lot better than I did. – I didn’t ‘get’ Peter’s work at all when I first encountered it and didn’t meet him until some time after I’d first written – rather disparagingly – about it.
I’m often asked, does it make a difference if you know the artist? Or do you even want to meet the artist? If I were coldly theoretical about this, I’d say: “No. The work is the work, and knowing the artist is not going to change my judgements.” But this is simply not true. One’s judgements are changing all the time, whether you’re friendly with the artist or not. There are some instances when you know – with absolute certainty – that you’ll never be able to revise your opinion and wouldn’t get on with the person behind the work. There are other cases when you simply don’t know for sure, when you think: “Maybe I’m missing something?”
With Peter, I could see there was a kind of purity and integrity to the work, but almost a wilful reluctance to make large, assertive statements. Could this be called a fault when it was also a deliberate decision? I’ve had the same discussion with other artists, who prefer to work on a small scale and then wonder why people don’t buy their work. One answer is: everybody already has one or two of about that scale. Another is that lack of size is often equated with lack of ambition, or creative timidity.
With Peter this was decidedly NOT the case. he had made plenty of large-scale works, including a mural for Sydney Airport. He had made plenty of works featuring bikini girls and nudes in dazzlingly bright colours, (works that would now be too Politically Incorrect for our puritanical age). He wasn’t shy when it came to scale or subject. His introverted turn was not a failure of nerve, it was a stubborn refusal to play the art game, to live up to anyone else’s expectations.
It would be foolish to imagine Peter didn’t give a damn about what people felt about his work, but more than any other artist I’ve known, he had a fearless determination to pursue his own path, even if opposed by the entire world. His motto, in later life, might have been: “Why can’t I?” or “Who says so?” He set out to make complex, satisfying works – paintings, drawings, sculptures, assemblages – using the most unspectacular materials such as ice-block sticks, old cigarette packets, off-cut pieces of wood, and various other bits and pieces. Whether it was a torso or a landscape, he’d include only enough to convey the general idea, then leave the viewer to add the rest – which didn’t mean that these things came quickly and easily to him. Seemingly every work required hours, days, weeks in the studio. He agonised over small aesthetic decisions that others might have assigned to assistants. But when he was finished, he would quickly lose interest in each hard-won creation.
Art, to Peter, wasn’t a business or a vocation, or even a hobby. It was more like a pathology, an itch that had to be scratched, and scratched again, even when you’d already drawn blood. The struggle in the studio was a struggle between his good and bad angels, between his altruism and his selfishness, between the man he was, and the man he’d like to be. It was a battle conducted in private, in which friends and family could not intervene.
Peter was famously stubborn, to the point where stubbornness could almost be seen as an existential condition. That is, it was a precondition of his very existence. If he gave way on decisions small and large, it would be like giving away part of his Being. If he stopped to worry about whether such intransigence was really in his best interests, this would be tantamount to surrendering everything; to “selling out” – not just to the market, but to life itself. I’ve written that he was like a character in a Samuel Beckett play, and upon reflection, that analogy seems more and more precise. He was a person – an artist (and perhaps in his case the two are inseparable) – whose very immobility was experienced as a kind of grace. The more he resisted the world, the more free he became in himself.
In Peter’s late, small sculptures we get a remarkable self-portrait of an artist who delighted in piling complexity upon complexity, until forms became densely compacted. In these works we see a mind turning back in upon itself, over and over. One feels that every one of these diminutive pieces contains a multitude of large works, folded and squeezed into an impossible space. If we could unwrap one of them there would be enough to fill an entire room. They are like seeds that only require water to begin sprouting.
With the earlier torsos, they are recognisably women and undeniably sexy, but it’s the curves and angles that capture our attention, the reduction of flesh to precise, formal details. They are anonymous bodies, free from the anxieties that spring from all human relationships. Once again, one recognises that ideal objectivity Peter would pursue so relentlessly, as if he might somehow break through to a plane in which his own thoughts and ideas were subsumed by the internal logic of the work. In all his œuvre one sees his devotion to process rather than product, a conviction that the artist’s raison d’être lies in the act of making art, not the finished object that may be bought and sold.
Having said that, we are obliged to remember Peter through his works: through the quick sketches, the schematic torsos, the pale landscapes, the paddle pop assemblages, the small, eccentric sculptures that add up to a portrait of a unique artistic sensibility. Will people ‘get’ him in the future? Will they understand the monumental effort that lay behind works that appear, at first glance, so unassuming? I doubt that it would have worried Peter had he been cursed to be misunderstood forever. He would probably have seen this as an entirely natural state for most artists. At least today, surrounded by his work, by friends, family, and admirers, we can celebrate the man and the artist, while our own memories remain so fresh.
Peter Powditch Memorial Exhibition
Defiance Gallery, 7-28 May 2022
Not previously published