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Q and A: Artist Peter Daverington on painting for the National Apology

New York-based Australian artist Peter Daverington is back in Australia for his exhibition Surface Zero at Arc One Gallery in Melbourne following his recent success in NY, where his painting Bald Eagle was featured on the front page of The New York Times.

His epic painting Raft of the Clan, (pictured above) commissioned by Care Leavers Australia member Robert House, was unveiled at Parliament House last week by former prime minister Julia Gillard to mark the National Apology to victims and survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. Daverington was in Canberra for the event. 

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How did this commission come about and how did Robert House discover your work?

Robert discovered my work when he was doing a roofing job on my mother’s house in the bush. There is a little mud hut I built years ago on the property and he looked inside to see artworks of mine from the past. He liked what he saw and started to follow my work.Years later he asked me to do this, as the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse had come about and he thought my style and technique would suit the project.

Can you describe the inspiration for Raft of the Clan and the process behind its creation?

It was a very hard brief to be given. How do you represent institutional child sexual abuse? It’s really an impossible task. It took me a long time to reflect upon before I came up with a suitable approach. I focused on the idea of survival and chose the metaphor of a raft at sea to represent that. I wanted to make a painting that was victorious over the predators, an image of strength, pride, activism and defiance.

A big part of my work is to look through art history and engage with the lineage of traditional masters in the craft of painting. So I went in search of raft paintings. I settled on Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, which portrayed French sailors abandoned by the government as they cling to life on a makeshift raft at sea. I saw a strong connection there. Our countries children were abandoned by the very government that was entrusted with their care, left to fend for themselves against predators who hide beneath the cover of religion and state.

The portraits around the border show a mixture of survivors, royal commissioners and politicians who were involved in the Royal Commission and bringing this darkness of Australian history to the light of day.

What did you take away from being part of the apology event at Parliament House?

I was deeply moved by the experience being in the Great Hall during the apology. The atmosphere was intensely emotional and at times heated and at other times ecstatic. It made me proud to be Australian. My wife from New York was sitting next to me and she was very moved also noting how this could not happen anywhere else but Australia. I had the opportunity to meet several of the survivors, which was special to me as I learn so much from them about life and dealing with hardships. I met several MP’s and royal commissioners, so overall it was an amazing experience. It felt historic.

What attracted you to large scale mural painting?

I paint large because I’m comfortable in this format. I started out as a graffiti artist doing New York style tagging and piecing with spray paint. I soon began to realise I was more interested in the pictorial and began doing lots of landscape elements in my graffiti work until the letters disappeared and it was all landscape and figures. Oil painting has largely taken over my practice but I still do public mural work each year.

How do you think attitudes towards mural painting have changed since you began?

It’s funny because the public hated us when we were young in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s definitely changed a lot. Youth culture became corporatised and sold back to us…street art came along and got all mainstream and now its a valuable tourist attraction in cities like Melbourne. I’m pleased overall about it becoming popular though. Getting chased and beaten up is not much fun.

What was it like to see your mural Bald Eagle featured on the front page of The New York Times, and to be mentioned as one of the world’s great mural artists by Artnet News Journal?

Being on the front cover of The New York Times was a trip. It was surreal actually and very random. Pretty cool experience though. The Artnet article listing me as one of the world’s leading street artists was random also. I don’t position myself within that genre anymore…its been a long time since I did. The thing is that its been difficult for people to pin me down and categorise me because not many artists have moved between classical oil painting and spray can art like I have. Neither side of the art world know what to think of me, and that’s what I like.

In your current exhibition Surface Zero, you’ve so meticulously appropriated the works of Bierstadt and Peter Paul Rubens, and then overlaid them with bright geometric lines. How did the concept evolve, and how does your approach differ when re-creating vs. conceptualising?

Looking through art history and referencing certain works has been my thing for many years now. Rather than look at the outside world or using photography as a source, I’ve been looking at historical art in museums. It’s a very conceptual approach and I’m interested in the landscape and how it’s evolved as an idea within western aesthetics. For my current show, I also wanted to include figurative works, so I turned to the style machine Rubens. The geometry covering these classical paintings represents the collision of time, ideals, modernity and attitudes in art.

The current work is the result of a long series where I combine representational art with hard-edge abstraction. In my previous works, the geometry existed within the three dimensional space of the painting, and now its independent and covering the image. It’s a separate space that is preventing access to the images behind it like a no-go zone. A danger zone.

I guess I’m searching for a way to express the passage of time. Simultaneity. The eternal present.

What are the major differences between the Australian and NY art scenes?

There are so many differences. The NYC art scene is like a labyrinth compared to Australia. NYC has a love affair with its own unique history of grungy abstraction and this dominates painting there. In Australia, the audience is different than in New York. Less concerned with the fashions. Australians are kind of free to do whatever. You are less bound here than in Europe and America. I’m really excited about Australia now, we have so much vitality and everything is possible. Our sense of colour and vibrancy of light and lack of cultural baggage from the art of the past, our privilege of knowing and interacting with indigenous art all conspire to make it a great place of new beginnings I feel. NYC puts a fire-cracker up my ass but Australia gives me space to think.

Surface Zero is at Arc One Gallery 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne until November 10

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One response to “Q and A: Artist Peter Daverington on painting for the National Apology

  1. “The portraits around the border show a mixture of survivors, royal commissioners and politicians who were involved…” I might be wrong, but it appears the portrait of Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy is not included. An unfortunate omission. And her collaborator, Peter Fox, hounded out of the NSW Police Force for having too much honesty and integrity, an equally worthy, but missing, portrait.

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