Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Peter Powditch, The big towel (1969). Col­lec­tion Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne. Sa­muel E. Wills Be­quest, 1979. On dis­play in Coast: A Peter Powditch: Ret­ro­spec­tive, 1961-2015, SH Irvin Gallery, Syd­ney, un­til May 21. In the late 1960s, Peter Powditch was liv­ing in a top-floor stu­dio apart­ment in Padding­ton in Syd­ney’s eastern sub­urbs, and throw­ing him­self into his paint­ing to cope with a re­la­tion­ship break-up. He didn’t re­alise it at the time but he was on the verge of find­ing fame, and he wasn’t even 30.

“I’d just sep­a­rated from my first wife so I was not in a good headspace,” Powditch says when he speaks to me from his home in north­ern NSW. “Max Hutchin­son [the di­rec­tor of Gallery A] of­fered me the stu­dio and an in­come to paint. It was sort of, you know, ‘if I am no good at mar­riage I will throw my­self into my paint­ing’.”

Be­sides help­ing him cope, the stu­dio also had sig­nif­i­cant reper­cus­sions on his paint­ing. “I found the space lib­er­at­ing as I was not con­fined by a smaller stu­dio,” he says. “I was do­ing a lot of big works be­cause I had space and I wanted to paint some­thing that was big­ger than life.”

One of those “big­ger than life” paint­ings he pro­duced in 1969 while liv­ing in Padding­ton was The big towel, one of Powditch’s most rec- og­nis­able images. It is now in the col­lec­tion of the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria but is cur­rently on dis­play in a ret­ro­spec­tive of Powditch’s work from 1961 to 2015 at Syd­ney’s SH Irvin Gallery.

The big towel is dom­i­nated by the colour green — a colour Powditch says he is “not fond of” — but, he says, the legs are the best bit of the paint­ing. “The legs are the bit I en­joyed paint­ing. The rest is all a bit me­chan­i­cal but I some­how like the idea of mak­ing the legs more im­por­tant than any­thing else. Legs are stupid things but I wanted to give them weight.

“I think also be­cause this paint­ing is very big, it is big­ger than life and I think that is im­por­tant. I was very aware of scale back then. I went big­ger than hu­man just to make it more ab­stract but peo­ple will ac­cept it more be­cause it is big­ger than them.”

Be­sides The big towel, Powditch is best known for his images of beach cul­ture, fea­tur­ing sun-kissed navels, cropped tor­sos and breasts of volup­tuous bikini-clad women. One such paint­ing from his Sun Torso se­ries won the Sul­man Prize in 1973.

When I ask Powditch why he chose to fo­cus on beach cul­ture, he says “it was my world”. “The bikini as far as I was con­cerned was one of the things that I knew was Aus­tralian. I also like the ge­om­e­try of the bikini, where the bikini was painted flat and the fig­ure was painted solidly. I like the or­ganic thing, the hu­man body against the flat thing of clothes.”

Campbell Robert­son-Swann, di­rec­tor of Syd­ney’s De­fi­ance Gallery, has known Powditch for more than 60 years, since they grew up to­gether. To co­in­cide with the ret­ro­spec­tive, he has or­gan­ised two ad­di­tional ex­hi­bi­tions: Life Draw­ings and Lith­o­graphs at De­fi­ance Gallery, New­town (April 5 to 29), and Paint­ing and Sculp­ture, Yel­low House, Potts Point (May 6 to June 4). Robert­son-Swann says Powditch has al­ways been grounded and un­af­fected. “Peter paints the world he sees around him, his world, which when he started paint­ing was 1960s Syd­ney, just as a wave of free­dom and lib­er­a­tion hit.

“There is a cu­rios­ity and an ad­ven­tur­ous spirit ev­i­dent in Peter’s work. He’s not pre­cious about it. His orig­i­nal­ity, his par­tic­u­lar cre­ativ­ity is a plea­sure to wit­ness. I en­joy the dry hu­mour … and find there is al­ways a twist, an el­e­ment of sur­prise. His long over­due ret­ro­spec­tive will show Peter as the un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated mas­ter that he is. I think the ex­hi­bi­tion will shock even him.” Clar­i­fi­ca­tion: In Pub­lic Works on March 18, artist Anne Noble’s name was in­cor­rectly re­peated in the text as Anne Nolan.

Oil on com­po­si­tion board, 183.6cm x 122.4cm

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