Peter Cole

Born in Bairnsdale, East Gippsland, and now resident for many years in the small Gippsland coastal town of Venus Bay, with its thriving artists’ colony, Peter Cole in many ways is a regional artist – albeit one who adopts a universal perspective in his art.

Cole is not particularly well-known in his native Victoria, having largely exhibited for most of his life with Ray Hughes, initially in Brisbane and subsequently in Sydney. Nor has he ever been an ‘art market darling’, one who has chased publicity or framed his art within popular collectability criteria amongst investor collectors. In 1975, when Cole was twenty-nine, the National Gallery of Victoria included him in their ‘Artist’s Artists’ show, along with Paul Partos, Robert Rooney and Asher Bilu. Thus it has remained – Cole is an artist revered by his peers and the art cognoscenti – but hardly a household name.

Cole originally trained as a painter at the Prahran College of Technology in its newly erected five-storey building with Lenton Parr at its helm. He painted in a hyper-realist style fragments of an urban environment in what proved to be a short-lived cul-de-sac in his artistic development. An invitation to participate in the Mildura Sculpture Triennial in ‘Sculpturescape ‘73’ persuaded him that three-dimensional work was his preferred mode of expression, while a trip to Mexico and South America convinced him that art had to be more than the pleasing arrangement of formal properties, but required socially relevant content.

Cole’s preferred material in his assemblage sculptures is wood and frequently wood that has a history and carries the scars of its journey through time. Reflecting on his choice of materials, Cole notes, ‘My father was a boat builder, I’d seen him shaping timber. He would talk to me about qualities of various types of wood. That’s how I became interested in using wood as a material.’ Cole would frequently add to his store of source materials, driftwood and flotsam that he would find on the seashore as well as treasured discoveries
at the tip and in junkshops.

When Cole emerged as a sculptor on the national stage in the earlier 1980s, the fashion for angst-ridden abstraction or cool geometric formalism had well and truly passed. A new wave of figurative expressionism was in the air with a revival of interest in the Angry Penguins, primitivism and the European CoBrA painters. Roar Studios emerged as a dynamic and fashionable hub in Melbourne for gutsy expressionism and contemporary Aboriginal art grew dramatically in popularity. The enterprising curator from the National Gallery of Victoria, Robert Lindsay, curated his influential ‘Relics and Rituals’ exhibition in late 1981 that brought together artists such as John Davis, Mike Parr and Hossein Valamanesh and included Cole in their midst.

Whereas for many of his peers, emblematic expressionist totems marked a passing episode in their art, for Cole it became the focus of his life’s practice and this is particularly apparent in the densely hung survey exhibition of his work at the Gippsland Art Gallery. Titled, ‘Peter Cole: The circus of life’, the exhibition – in forty mainly monumental assemblage pieces – examines the progression of his art from the 1980s through to the present. It is a singular vision that unfolds with a majestic grandeur from some whimsical pieces, such as the Director’s chair (1984), to the more epic and dramatic social statements including Song for Somalia (2018) and Endless winter (2014).

In Cole’s art there is a curious blend of the deliberate and bricolage – on one hand, he works from small drawings that come to him almost like an intuitive revelation in the surrealist sense of art making – on the other hand, the materials that surround him have their own voice and may suggest certain developments. Cole explains, ‘I have no idea what I am going to build or what I am developing till I start drawing. The drawing comes as a flash, I can push pencil lines round for weeks and there’s nothing there. Then, suddenly, there’s a flash. They really are hard to come by and I still don’t know quite where they come from. It’s very difficult making a sculpture from a small drawing. Once you start making it, you have to look at its actual structure.’

The sculptural objects themselves are exquisitely crafted, the surfaces are carefully balanced – some materials are allowed to retain their own voice, others are completely transformed with layers of paint. The titles for the pieces are very deliberate, but nevertheless enigmatic clues, such as The Viper’s Nest (2016), Luck of the dancing bear (2003) or Song for the Kimberley (2009). However, it remains the task of the beholder to enter the piece, consummate the encounter with their gaze and intellect, and to come to a personal understanding of the work. The artist has done his job and pushed the image as far as he can, and now it is up to the viewer to resolve it for themselves. The titles are omnipresent and almost always literally memorialised into the work, usually as a carefully articulated inscription.

More than anything else, Cole is an artist who adopts in his art an ethical stance – increasingly quite an explicit political stance – whether it be concerning the plight of peoples in Africa, the genocide inflicted on the Indigenous peoples of Australia, global conflict as a result of American foreign policy, or the environmental catastrophe that the world is facing. They are bold and defiant assemblage pieces, self-conscious of their importance. In the same way as an artist like Bea Maddock may be described as in each of her works revealing a little bit more of herself, Cole’s art is self-referential; each piece is both a billboard and a soapbox. The sculptures are deliberate disguises that the artist adopts through which to make profound comments on the state of the world and a plea to halt this insanity.

In a world that is out of joint and submerged in a tide of stupidity, avarice and violence, Peter Cole’s beautifully constructed sculptures are full of wit and wisdom, appearing like floating islands or beacons of sanity and hope.    

Peter Cole: The circus of life
Until 26 July 2020
Gippsland Art Gallery, Vic

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