Q&A: Graeme Peebles

From top:
Graeme Peebles, Time-tide (2012-13), mezzotint, 90 x 55 cms
Graeme Peebles, The Swimmers (2015-17), mezzotint, 60 x 90 cms
Graeme Peebles, Umbria (2017), mezzotint, 24 x 24 cms
Graeme Peebles, Cave of the Green Aurochs (2013-16), mezzotint, 30 x 50 cms

Graeme Peebles takes his new project A Moment of Time into a subterranean context.

IMPRINT: What are the foundation ideas for this body of work?

GP: It was a bit of a slow gestation. I spent my early childhood in southern Tasmania living near the beach. I can recall there seemed to be a lot of middens, not that I realised what they were at the time. On a few recent trips it struck me that I didn’t come across any, so I toyed around with the idea, which led to Time-Tide. Around the same time I was waiting for a dental appointment, flicking through the magazines, when I saw an article about some 10,000 year old abalone shells that had been found in a cave in Africa. They had been use to hold pigment for cave painting. That got me going, thinking about the rationale of art, why we create it. All the pictures have a starting point in actual archeological discoveries in recent years. for example, Big Midden refers to a cave complex in Spain that was completely filled with discarded food shells 25,000 years ago and had to be abandoned as a place to live. I still don’t know where this body of work is finally heading.

The show also includes a few treescapes/landscapes, which I commenced during a residency in Umbria last year. I was drawn to the shapes of the Roman pine trees, the weird shapes of the trunks and negative spaces round the branches. Turns out there is a park full of them very close to where I live; they did seem familiar.

IMPRINT: Do you find it a balancing act to divide your energy between a focus on content/ideas along with technical concerns?

GP: Not really; fundamentally I am an image-maker, so the visual image is paramount. Mezzotint artists tend to get labelled as technically obsessed, I’m not. It’s a means to an end and the end is the image. I have absolutely no interest in technical perfection, in fact I never change mistakes, I just try and work them in. I usually spend the first hour of a working day rocking plates, this gives me a lot of time to think about the image and how I should go about it. It often takes one or two years to finish the larger plates and I normally have four or five on the go at one time. Keeping the whole thing cohesive can be the biggest difficulty.

IMPRINT: What do you consider your most important innovations in your career?

GP: In a general sense, while I don’t claim to be the first to ever do this, exhibiting my work unframed at Australian Galleries was an innovation at the time. I think it was 2003, Murray White was works-on-paper manager at the time and he supported the concept. Initially it was met with a rather negative reaction by a lot of people, but it solved the problem of the black mirror effect of mezzotints under glass and made the work much more accessible. In personal terms the fog prints in the 1990s led me on to a different way of thinking about mezzotint. They were very abstract, virtually no image and no black background. This slowly led to my current practise of generally using a colour mixture for the base ink rather than black. It adds a lot more clarity to the image, but I have to credit Bill Young for coming up with that one. Combining mezzotint and lithography was intriguing, although so far we have only done a couple, there are a lot of possibilities, and I can see that mezzotint could easily be combined with some of the digital techniques.

IMPRINT: In what ways do you think printmaking can improve its visibility in the arts?

GP: What a question! I switched to printmaking from painting in second year art school, 1974, and within a couple of weeks people were telling me that printmaking had had its day. Its death has been pronounced many times since. Longevity is the greatest revenge in art.

In a creative sense I think printmaking is booming at the moment, the problems seem to be more related to marketing/exhibiting. It’s possibly useful to look at the differences between the 1970s/80s and now. Commercial galleries are far more specialised these days, in the past most galleries had a bit of everything so you always had a chance of getting a show with someone. On the other hand there are more lateral possibilities now with access spaces, pop ups etc. Still, it must be dreadfully difficult for young artists to get a start. Curated group shows and touring shows were more prevalent. Universities etc were often sending exhibitions of Australian prints to counterparts overseas and vice-versa. To get a commercial show outside Australia meant doing the gallery tramp with a folio under your arm (the mention of mezzotint generally closed the doors immediately). So, the internet has greatly improved things there. In a lot of ways there is a big divide at the moment, lots of opportunities for printmakers in the regional areas, not much in the capital cities.

Back to the origional question. I haven’t got a clue. I am personally more optimistic  about the future of Australian printmaking now than at any time in the past, simply because of the quality and diversity of the work being produced. The art world has always been cyclical, but I am still naive enough to think that eventually people will recognise how good Australian printmaking really is. Possibly not.

Graeme Peebles’ A Moment of Time is at The Art Vault, Mildura, 29 March-17 April