Peter Atkins


EP Project, 2015-2016, mixed media, 18 pieces 17.8 x 17.8 cm panel. Courtesy the artist and Torlano Gallery, Melbourne

TO: Who were the most important of your teachers?

PA: Roy Jackson and Michael Johnson were the two teachers that had the most impact. Both taught me throughout third year of painting at the National Art School. I would consider them more as mentors at the time than teachers, as they helped guide me through my early, tentative years as an artist. Roy was very generous with his time, gently guiding, suggesting particular books to read, movies to watch and other artist’s work to look at. It was Roy who introduced me to the work of Tuckson, Fairweather, Dubuffet and the Cobra group, all becoming major influences throughout my early career. Roy also helped nurture my career by introducing me to Garry Anderson who had a gallery in Darlinghurst. This is where I had my first exhibition in 1987. Michael Johnson was, and still is, a force of nature within the Australian art world. His gift was the ability to extract me (literally) from the confines of the ‘art school’ and out into the world – long lunches and great conversations around Chinatown and later, excursions out into the surrounding national parks, always pointing out beautiful forms or colour relationships. His stories of living and working in London and New York, some now legendary, were amazing. On a few occasions I helped him move and pack work in his studio, a huge space with arched windows above the Capitol theatre in Chinatown. It had an enormous impact on me. It was the first time I had ever entered an artist’s studio…a real working studio, with paintings both complete and in progress. Those massive, beautiful paintings from the mid 80s, the point where he was transitioning from hard edge into fluid, painterly fields of colour. It was at that moment standing in his studio that convinced me I was in the right place. Michael showed me the possibilities of what could lay ahead as a painter and more importantly how to look at and absorb the landscape.
How do objects or found material influence your approach to making art?
I have always been a collector of things. Anyone who visits my home/studio becomes aware of this very quickly. It is in my nature to collate and organise objects into groupings. e.g. paper forms found on the street, minerals and shells, textiles, wooden objects, plates with patterns, cups with patterns , utensils with striped handles etc. There is no hierarchy to the collections; everything is treated and displayed/stored equally, from things considered by most to be useless, to objects that could be considered important, (including major collections of tribal textiles, Australian mid century furniture/industrial design and Oceanic objects). Found material is central to my practice, though it manifests in different ways. My Journal works for example often incorporate found material directly into the work, material usually found and collected while walking around my neighbourhood; empty drug bags, discarded photographs, empty condom packets, glass from accident sites, chroming bags etc. These works tend to be very tactile, often gritty representations of urban life as evidenced through my relationship with the landscape, a sense of mapping my locations through found material. The strength of these works lies in the dirt, tears and marks contained within the material, the anonymous narratives of lives lived but through which we are all somehow connected – a tideline of peoples lives. My paintings however reference collected and collated material. I am fundamentally interested in abstract forms collected from the real world. I’m interested in the way formal design languages exist in the urban environment e.g. Highway signage, medicine boxes, Polaroid packaging, Aerogram letters, paint store colour cards and various other colour charts etc. I am a project-based artist, and often paint in serial format, groups of 9 or 12 in a series. I move through these projects over a series of months, then move on to the next project. This way of working helps keep my interest in the act of painting. I am totally directed by found material and I am constantly surprised by the possibilities they present.
Who in your estimation are the great abstract artists?

Too many to list though a few favourites are Turner’s late seascapes and Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’ – two greats who prefaced impressionism and paved the way for abstraction. Rothko for his ability to eliminate everything except colour, yet still magically reference or evoke sensations of the landscape. William Scott’s unrivalled ability to exquisitely place form perfectly within a picture plane. Tuckson’s late double panelled Masonite works for their sheer mark making audacity…his final FU against the world. McCahon’s Angels and Bed series, sensitive explorations of death and mortality. Dubuffet’s endless exploration of material (from concrete to butterfly wings), Albers’ Bauhaus colour studies, a master class in colour relationships. Andy Warhol for presenting the world back to us and both Gascoigne and Macpherson for their unique interpretations of the great Australian highway vernacular.
Where do you find the objects that inform your artwork? Do you collect other objects that sit outside of your art practice?

I go to flea markets every week. Many of the records for the EP Project were found there. Also, two hand written ledgers (one, a captains log from 1883), which were used in another project titled Obsolete Logo’s were found there discarded at the bottom of an old suitcase. A lot of material from deceased estates seems to turn up every week and it can be quite confronting. Entire wedding albums, boxes of family photo’s etc. completely tossed away. I’ve always been drawn to much of this discarded ephemera – photographs, notebooks, letters/notes, drawings and small collections of things, buttons, buckles, jars of marbles, old Cuisenaire rods etc…it’s endless really. I’m constantly surprised by what I find. This all leads into my work on some level. It is a great exercise in ‘looking’. My recent projects have focused on ideas around entropy, memory, nostalgia and obsolescence.
And of course I am always on the lookout for pieces to add to our collection of industrial design and furniture, particularly objects designed by Clement Meadmore, which we have been collecting now for almost 20 years. We were major lenders to the recent Mid Century Modern exhibition at the NGV in Melbourne (curated by Kirsty Grant) and I also contributed two catalogue essays on Meadmore and Michael Hirst, another interesting Melbourne designer and early collaborator with Meadmore. Quite a few pieces were found at flea markets, which goes to prove that you don’t need vast sums of money to build significant collections, just time, patience, a good knowledge of your subject and a bit of luck…

Who are/were the writers who have been most important to you during your lifetime?
The two writers I return to again and again are Raymond Carver and Paul Theroux. Both completely different in subject matter, but they share an extraordinary descriptive ability to evoke locations and observe the human condition. They also use words economically, to describe ordinary, everyday events – from intimate moments of solitude to bustling crowded market scenes. This ability to convey or evoke an emotion through the use of such sparse, often stark means attracts me because it mirrors my own way of approaching my subject matter. I was fortunate enough to meet Theroux in London years ago just after I had been living in New Delhi. I gave him one of my catalogues from the Indian Triennial exhibition, which included World Journal, a work made up of small paintings and collages of things collected and found while travelling around the world. He later wrote me a note saying he often thought when he was travelling throughout the world that he would like to take an entire market stall from some far flung land and erect it in a gallery in London.
I’m currently re-reading his book The Great Railway Bazaar after many years. It interests me again, because, even though it was written a relatively short time ago in the mid 70s, it seems to hark back to a much earlier time, when traveling required more effort. Almost every interaction of his trip through the Middle East is done face to face. Bartering, haggling and paying baksheesh to secure better train seats or hotel rooms. Real, tangible experiences. Remember, this is before computers when travelling was that much harder. Things were unknown, foreign places were difficult to navigate and language often impossible to translate. Even the simplest transactions were difficult and time consuming. Describing trying to buy a train ticket in Peshawar he says ‘This is a mornings work and leaves you exhausted’. In the 21st century this would simply be a matter of clicking on a website. Many of those forced, human interactions are now relegated to history and have become obsolete experiences. I consider myself fortunate to have experienced many things first hand, especially when I travelled in the 1980s and 90s.
What are the most inspiring books about art and artists that you have ever read?

I have a dog-eared Faber and Faber copy of Klee’s On Modern Art which has travelled from studio to studio. Originally written by Klee as a lecture in his native German, it was translated into English by Herbert Reed and published in 1966. In it Klee writes mostly about artistic process rather than the conclusion or finished work. It is interesting because it is from an artist’s perspective and, like all good writing, still relevant: “Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.”

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Peter Atkins is a leading Australian contemporary artist. He was born in 1963 in the Hunter Valley town of Murrurundi, New South Wales. Atkins studied painting, printmaking, sculpture, life drawing, art history and colour theory at the Newcastle Art School in the 1980s, and pursued further studies in painting at The National Art School, Sydney. Over the years, he has received numerous awards and international residencies including the Cite International des Arts in Paris, The British School in Rome and Green Park in New Delhi. For the past three decades, he has been exhibiting across Asia Pacific, Europe and North America with more than fifty solo exhibitions. His latest exhibition Obsolete Logos was held at Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney in 2015. His work is widely represented, in the collections of most major Australian State Gallery including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Gallery of Victoria, as well as prominent Institutional, Corporate and Private collections both nationally and internationally.

Atkins’ practice centres around the appropriation and re-interpretation of readymade objects that he documents within the urban environment. His collected materials become the direct source for his work, providing tangible evidence of his relationship and experience within the landscape. Atkins uses the term ‘readymade abstraction’ to describe his own practice. It is a term he coined to define the space between non-objective abstraction and representation.

Peter Atkins is represented by Tolarno Gallery, Melbourne.

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