Peter D. Cole: Civilizing the Bush

Reeds, rocks and stars, 1998. Painted and patinated brass, aluminum, steel, and bronze, 273 x 117 x 55 cm.

It is unusual to find an artist who has the ability to combine opposites so that the spectator’s eye is seduced and the mind is unaware of the inherent contradictions. Yet this is what Peter D. Cole has done both in his work as a sculptor and draftsman and in the grounds of his country property at Langley in the state of Victoria, Australia.

The vast majority of Australians live along the relatively narrow strip of coastal land that runs from Adelaide up the eastern coast to Cairns, or more accurately in the major cities situated along this coastal belt. Marginal farming land and vast areas of desert fill a large proportion of the rest of the continent. As would be expected, most of Australia’s artists live in the cities, but Cole lives on a country property with not another house in sight, though it is only an hour-and-a-half drive from Melbourne.

White studio, 1998. Pastel on paper, 80 x 120 cm.

Using an abandoned shepherd’s stone hut built in the last century, he added living quarters, which consist of a basic rectangular prism and a separate studio that is just as severely modern in its form. In the midst of a harsh landscape of poor soil, contending with summer heat and drought and severe frosts in winter, he and his wife have established a very formal garden. In direct contrast to the twisted and gnarled eucalyptus trees that have struggled to survive, they planted a small forest of European plane trees in a pattern of straight lines. Even in the vegetable garden one feels that the plants have been chosen for shape, color, and texture. In opposition to the irregular growth that is so typical of the Australian bush, they have established a formal environment, a visual delight of their own making. Within the garden their world is planned and controlled, while outside the elemental forces of nature go unchallenged.

Yet nature outside the garden wall is the artist’s subject matter. Sun, moon, and stars, trees, rocks, and water, the brilliant blue of a summer sky and the intense dark blue of the night, these are the basic elements that he uses in his sculpture and his large pastel drawings. A rectangle of aluminum with gloss paint suggests the infinite space of a mid-night sky, a circle of brilliant yellow the sun, a silver crescent the moon, and real twigs and rocks are cast in bronze. He uses these symbols again and again in an infinite number of combinations. The spectator reads the symbols and puts together the abstract forms to gain a unified vision of the landscape, but perhaps fails to notice that nature has been scrubbed clean. There is never any mud or dust in Cole’s work and certainly no sweat. But there is poetry.

Landscape-sound, 1997. Painted and patinated bronze and brass, 127 x 60 x 30 cm.

One of his large pastels, About the movement of birds, 2, shows a vast flat expanse of mustard-yellow dry soil, a sky colored a translucent yellow with an overlay of blue-green, a row of stylized rocks, an elementary tree on the left, and a diagrammatic tree trunk on the right. A simple line links the three elements and shows the flight path of the birds. There are no birds in sight, yet one hears them sing.

The works, in a sense, are distillations of the bush without the direct depiction of birds, animals, or human beings, yet in works such as Landscape—procession the forms acquire an almost human presence. Although no human beings are evident in Two moons—two rooms, it is as though two people, in two separate rooms, are both sitting at tables, looking through windows—at the same moon. Two human beings make contact by moon-watching. Two people who may have been unaware of each other have made a mystical contact, which has a subtle, subliminal impact upon them. In one way very literal, Cole’s work also contains a poetic element that removes it from the mundane. An empty chair in front of a window becomes a quietly moving symbol of human isolation and restriction, while the window presents a glimpse of freedom and a means of escape to the infinite world outside.

About the movement of birds 2, 1998. Pastel on paper, 120 x 160 cm.

Reeds, rocks and stars is a particularly imaginative three-dimensional work that clearly shows Cole’s ability to transform the ordinary into the poetic. One rectangular prism sitting on the floor suggests earth, from which spring two ordered ranks of identical bulrushes. On the wall is another rectangular prism, its bottom half painted yellow to represent earth and the top half a pale blue for sky. A series of rocks cast in bronze hangs down from the horizontal box on fine stainless steel wires, and soaring above, a cluster of stainless steel circles on rods of wire suggests stars. The slightest movement sets up a small vibration, which causes the stars to oscillate and twinkle, the rocks to gently swing, and the bulrushes to sway as though in the breeze. Very simple, yet serenely satisfying.

Though balance and tranquillity may not be characteristics of our troubled times, Cole’s version of the Australian bush is nevertheless emphatically of the 20th century. It is markedly different from the vision of 19th-century Australian impressionist painters who viewed it with a nationalistic pride. It is different also from the work of mythmakers such as the painters Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Arthur Boyd, who depicted the harsh and terrifying beauty of the inland. Cole views the Australian landscape through the eyes of a civilized, urban man who knows his art history. He may live in the country (and is certainly sensitive to the magic of the stars and the joys of the seasons), but he puts nature on a stage to be viewed by a well-read, sophisticated audience.

Campsage River on the artist’s property.

In this respect his sculptures and drawings have a link with the frescoes of Giotto (whose work Cole greatly admires) since both artists organize their compositions within the limits of a very shallow picture plane, placing their symbolic rocks and trees within a stagelike landscape. But the main influences on the artist are 20th-century moderns such as Klee, Miró, and Giacometti. Cole combines an interest in child art with a discriminating intellect, a love of brilliant color with simple symbols, and the Australian bush with a touch of Surrealism. Landscape—sound, with its representations of mountain and rock, rectangular patch of blue sky and instruments of sound (organ pipe and loud speaker) and its disregard for scale pays homage to that seminal Surrealist work by Giacometti, The Palace at 4 am.

And though the influence of child art may not be obvious in the finished works, it is more Cole’s method of working and his basic choice of forms that have links with his own childhood. With a series of prepared objects such as rocks, trees, symbols of sun and moon, river and bridge Cole begins to arrange and construct—as indeed he did as a child with his building blocks. And many of his basic forms hark back to his early experience living in Gawler, a country town in South Australia. Yet he brings to his work a sharp intellect and a sophisticated mind. The “River series” of sculptures illustrates this approach. A sweeping curve of mild steel plate establishes the river, along which are precisely placed elements of the landscape (tree, hill, sun, stars) all crafted with impeccable skill. Circles, squares, and rectangles are cut in aluminum or copper plate with careful exactitude, joints are accurately fitted, nuts and bolts are used honestly but with a deft hand and painted surfaces are as flawless as the duco on a new automobile.

Garden at Peter and Helen Cole’s home, Langley, Victoria.

In a written description the works may sound a little too immaculate and soulless, but the first impression on viewing the sculpture is of joyous color—particularly primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, with additional touches of orange, black, and white. The predominantly dull gray-green of the eucalyptus trees outside his studio is seldom seen in his sculptures or pastels. Again the artist has combined apparent opposites, a diversity of brilliant colors with the forms of the Australian landscape, which is known for its monochromatic vegetation and sun-bleached earth.

Outside the studio, nature is raw and harsh; inside the studio, nature is civilized and controlled. In a drawing such as White studio we can view both the subject matter and witness the processes of construction. Along the white wall are three equi-spaced identical doorways, one giving a glimpse of an intense blue night sky, another of a sun drenched landscape, and the third has the curtain pulled. To the left on the concrete floor are some basic materials and on the right a sculpture is in progress. Again, in a sculpture entitled Room to think there are four windows and a door giving views of typical motifs. Even though the artist does innumerable sketches on his property, drawing the Campaspe River, the wind-blown trees, and the rough hewn rocks, he is not a plein-air painter. The doors and windows of his studio frequently frame his views of nature and certainly it is in his studio that the thought processes occur.

Two moons-two rooms, 1996. Painted and patinated brass, aluminum and copper, 242 x 120 x 10 cm.

When the vast majority of contemporary sculptors live in large urban cities one wonders if the Australian bush will continue to be a source of inspiration and subject matter. Peter D. Cole is an artist living in the country, but with an urban point of view. From within the confines of his studio he has looked at the raw Australian bush and produced a series of works in which nature is tamed and civilized. No other Australian sculptor has been able to transform the untidy bush into such pure visual poetry.

Ken Scarlett has written extensively on contemporary sculpture. His works include Australian Sculptors, and he is a frequent contributor to Sculpture.