From Velvety Depths
‘For forty years Graeme Peebles has drawn out imagery from the velvety depths of the mezzotints he so richly renders, and from the recesses of his fertile imagination. In doing so he has developed an aesthetic and conceptual approach to art making that stands alone in the spectrum of contemporary Australian art. This is founded upon his unique combination of exquisite detail and technical refinement, with a powerful, at times playful visual vocabulary of natural and manmade elements.’ – Marguerite Brown (MAArtCur)
For forty years Graeme Peebles has drawn out imagery from the velvety depths of the mezzotints he so richly renders, and from the recesses of his fertile imagination. In doing so he has developed an aesthetic and conceptual approach to art making that stands alone in the spectrum of contemporary Australian art. This is founded upon his unique combination of exquisite detail and technical refinement, with a powerful, at times playful visual vocabulary of natural and manmade elements.
This exhibition presents recent works alongside a selection of important earlier pieces, which traverse themes that have long pervaded his practice. Namely, notions that relate to time, nature, human existence, and the development of art.1 These ideas are expressed through a distinctive symbolic language he has developed over his career, with certain subject matter repeatedly represented in various arrangements via mezzotint printmaking – a technique that is mastered by only a handful of Australian artists.
While dialogue about printmaking as an art form can become overly focused on an explanation of process over content, the medium of mezzotint warrants some discussion here for those who may be unfamiliar with it. It is technique not widely practiced, yet one that has been mastered by Peebles to the extent that he is regarded as Australia’s pre- eminent senior artist in this field. The fact of mezzotint’s underutilization is possibly due to its rigorous, time-consuming and exacting nature. For example Peebles takes between 1-1.5 years to create each print.
The first step involves roughening the surface of a copper or steel printing plate through rocking a toothed metal tool over it repeatedly, until a consistent texture is created. Each of the innumerable tiny indentations holds ink when printed, so if the plate was inked and printed at this point a solid even tone would be created. The artist then burnishes or rubs down the roughened surface to varying degrees of smoothness to reduce the ink-holding capacity of these areas, thus creating tonal variation between light and dark to make an image. Peebles heavily rocks his plates to allow for greater variation of tone to be achieved when burnishing, extracting images from the plate in a process that is almost sculptural in its physicality. The plates are then expertly printed by Master Printer Bill Young, who has been working with Peebles for over 30 years.
Peebles harnesses the visually seductive qualities of the medium to great effect. One of the subjects that best expresses this and which features in the current exhibition, is his phantasmagorical depiction of jellyfish. Peebles has created numerous works that explore the translucent, aqueous forms of these creatures, which float through the infinite black of their surrounding negative space. The jellyfish are often printed in pale blues and greens, so that they bear an almost phosphorescent glow. The variations in tone that form their quasi-transparent bodies are perfectly suited to the visual qualities afforded by the mezzotint medium, where Peebles creates subtle tonal shifts with infinite skill and control.
Various other sea-life such as fish, abalones and oysters also frequent his works, sometimes arranged in witty formations. Works of this ilk feature in the current exhibition, alongside a series of large format prints created over recent years that depict ancient shell middens. Middens are accumulations of shells and other detritus such as bones and tools that are formed over time, and appear along Australia’s coastline in places where Aboriginal people would leave the remnants of shellfish that were hunted and eaten. Peebles’ series of midden prints progress his study of aquatic forms into space where the interaction between nature and humankind is explored.
In his most recent work in this series, Drinking Straw Midden (2018), Peebles replaces the beautiful organic shapes of shells seen in prints such as Perriwinkle Midden (2015), Time – Tide (2012- 13), with the angular sharpness of plastic drinking straws en masse. The dissonance this creates contains a prescient environmental message. Whereas shell middens reflect Aboriginal people’s care for their environment and speak of a time when prized foods such as abalone and oysters were plentiful, the rising tide of plastic in our seas alluded to in Drinking Straw Midden highlights a very different, frightening impact of humanity on the environment.
These works relate to another group of prints that were inspired by the discovery of 10,000 year old abalone shells in a cave in South Africa, which contained pigment for cave painting.2 Peebles has created works such as Cave of the Red Deer (2017) and Cave of the Green Aurochs (2017) that feature the interiors of caves, adorned with pictographic representations of animals on the walls, and large abalone shells containing mounds of pigment. These haunting, atmospheric images speak of the origins of art, and human being’s ever-present urge to make sense of the world through making pictures – an impulse that in its essence remains unchanged.
In The Swimmers (2016-17), tiny human figures swirl within the shape of two large pearl oyster shells. These figures are inspired by the ancient rock art site in Egypt near the Libyan border known as the Cave of Swimmers, which houses Neolithic pictographs of human forms that appear to be swimming. In this piece Peebles reimagines them swimming through the rhythmic, circular undulations of two large pearl oyster shells. While in the centre of each, the artist places symbols taken from ‘No Swimming’ signs one might see at the beach, introducing a contemporary pictograph inspired by the beachside location of Queenscliff where he lives and works. The resulting image is a surreal fusion of past and present that is profound in its reference to the mysteries of ancient human existence, with a hint of modern irony.
Early landscape inspired prints that feature in this exhibition depict dramatic weather events that the artist has recorded on Lake Eucumbene in the Snowy Mountains region of NSW. Works such as Thunderhead at Eucumbene (1997) Storm Over Lake Eucumbene (1999) and Sky Hook (2003) present almost cataclysmic images of nature’s awesome power through their towering cloud formations and stormy skies that appear laced imminent danger. These works reveal the influence of British Romantic artist John Martin (1789-1854), who created epic, fantastical scenes where mythological and biblical human drama was accompanied by wild natural disasters. Martin was a renown mezzotint artist as well as a painter, and his name remains synonymous with the medium.
Peebles was first introduced to Martin’s mezzotints in the Print Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, back in 1977 when he was travelling on a Churchill Fellowship. While the themes explored by Peebles vary significantly to that of John Martin, both touch on concepts of the sublime in art, namely the beauty and terror of the natural world. In Peebles we see it expressed overtly in his landscape works of Lake Eucumbene, but also more subtly in his works that depict the majesty and mystery of our aquatic environments and their spectacular inhabitants.
Evoking an intersection between time, humanity, art and nature, Peebles does not shy away from vast themes. Tempered with a hint of playfulness, these profound notions are expressed with supreme technical prowess that encourages a sustained engagement with his work. This exhibition provides the opportunity for a renewed focus on the work of a contemporary Australian master.
- Graeme Peebles quoted in ‘Raymond Arnold & Graeme Peebles’ Imprint (Vol 50. No.1), Autumn 2016, p. 34
2. Ibid p. 34