Drawing on Perspectives - Art from the Backyard

Len Breen, 2008

My very first drawings, thoughtfully determined drawings that is, were of air battles reproduced and embellished from war comic books of the fifties. As a child, my reading was almost entirely from comics/comicbooks (I was made to feel guilty for that), but even then it was less of the reading more of the visuals as I was absorbed by the images - the words seemed redundant to me. But when some forgotten illness left me bedridden for a few months, a large wodge of journalist's copy paper (newsprint, I remember it well) given to me by a sympathetic neighbour, Mr Stringer, who worked for the Herald-Sun (colourful reference, more later) in Melbourne, along with a bundle of comics and a pencil, got me drawing. I must have been quite sick to be so cared for by my mother - I never felt safe anywhere really. Aircraft battle scenes were the main subjects: jet fighters and explosions - and Aussi-rules football action too. I suppose that had I had any intelligence or wits at all I could have been the original Liechtenstein. At least the drawings were well received by members of my neighbourhood gang (read, a largely disloyal and suspicious bunch).

I was beginning my teens when I started to (try to) paint. I had always been fascinated by two or three full colour images from the single volume Chambers' Encyclopaedia that was in the house. It was the only real book that we had and was my treasured reference for nearly everything for years (and gave me a lifelong love and respect for good dictionaries and encyclopedias); it must have dated from the 'fifties I guess and surprisingly it covered the subject of fine art. A picture by Picasso, 'The Fish', and another, 'Sunflowers' by Van Gogh, were two of the paintings illustrated. I copied the Picasso very carefully using some kid's paints ('poster paints' - gouache probably).

An early school experience (St Coleman's - year 8) involved a year the intensive studying of a very narrow band of subjects that were to be examined for a scholarship to secondary school. One of these involved intelligence tests. So, in one year we practiced and perfected the 'skills of intelligence' through the completing of hundreds of tests. These I enjoyed and I seemed to have a significant aptitude and flair for them - which would probably be not too difficult considering the intensive cramming. As a result of this I believe, my ability to translate and resolve visual images was highly sharpened. On moving on to secondary school - I did 'win' the scholarship - I found mathematics effortless, particularly anything to do with spacial geometry. My ability to solve dimensional problems, I can boast, was exceptional, and was certainly encouraged by the earlier experience. By contrast I was hopeless at anything requiring a memory for lists: Latin and French vocabularies, for example; I seemed to have and an aptitude for process over data.

While comic books remained the visual inspiration my imagination was at the same time enhanced by the discovery of crime stories. My cousin, the lovely and much remembered Elva (reference later), really got me going. Starting with every 'green penguin', she got me reading every crime and detective novel she could get for me - insatiable I was. I graduated under her guidance to literature that I had no idea existed. Incidentally, and unusual for a working class kid, she also introduced me to classical music at that time. But book covers were then the next images I copied. Later, the mentoring of Frank McCarthy, a memorable, much loved teacher, drew me to the Victorian poets and it was one of these, Matthew Arnold I remember, who inspired my very first original painting, 'Vision of the Future', I called it; used house paints and anything similar that I could find; the tiny laundry at the house was the studio. Still have it (the painting that is, not the laundry). The school art show, organised by McCarthy, was my first show, but I was simply too shy to show my new original. My mentor was wildly complimentary and supportive of my paintings, albeit the copies, and I felt flattered and very proud.

I was also very attracted to an advertisement in the weekly magazine, the Australian Post, which advertised a course in 'commercial art' by correspondence. I contacted them and completed their drawing test. I received a very impressive critique. But the course was outside of my budget of zero and beyond the realms of really thinking about. But I did discover something in that exercise that I do value - it was the understanding that art could be something that was exciting and fulfilling - and I could do it!

As a bit of an outsider, in my head at least, I was drawn first to the subject of mathematics and then to physics: they both provided me with a sense of determinism, order and security. These ultimately proved my saving grace as I achieved some worthy results and (more) scholarships and went to Melbourne University to read Engineering. Oddly though, I didn't have a clue about much of what the lectures were about, I was thoroughly unprepared for the university approach, but the one subject in which I engaged fully was Engineering Drawing.

I studiously and pedantically followed every instruction in the subject, from how to sharpen a pencil to drawing the finest of measured lines and accurate transcriptions. Throughout the year we were given exercises to follow, bits of engineering machines (later I discovered that these should correctly be entitled 'components') and I drew them with great panache and craft. My drawing was by far the best and I even received top marks for every one of the series. The course came to a conclusion with the final drawing exam where we were expected to put all the 'bits' together in a single composition. Unfortunately, my sheltered and deprived upbringing failed to equip me with the knowledge necessary to complete the task, even start it. What was a 'lathe'? I had heard the term but had not a clue as to what it was or what it did and even less that the parts, bits or 'components' that I had been so very attentively drawing, could in any way be joined together to form anything. Engineering was certainly not for me - anything that included drawing was.

A friend from secondary school, Eric Tierney, was my saviour. He had started the year before me studying Architecture and during my engineering year had shown me the projects and assignments he was required to complete. It looked extraordinarily exciting. After a few disasters and stories to be related later, I began the course. I finally found in architecture everything I had dreamed about and more: drawing, design, colour, making things, life drawing and lots of art (guided by the memorable artist and teacher, Wes Pemberthy) and not forgetting architecture. And instead of a lecture theatre full of aggressive boys, there was a studio with lots of kindred, interesting, visually able and communicating people. I discovered and engaged freely with my art and produced my first portfolios and, as well as becoming an architect I was also an artist.

Before my final year I was offered a job in engineering draughting; jobs were very thin on the ground at the time, recessions the order of the day. It was with W P Brown, a firm of structural engineers in Melbourne. I worked for Puskas, an engineer and Hungarian refugee, who directed me to carry out all the structural drawings for the new precast concrete terminal buildings at Tullumarine Airport in Melbourne. My drawing was excellent and I followed Puskas' details and direction faithfully. However, many years later, when I was working in the UK, I heard that part of the Tullamarine Airport building had collapsed (and its sister in Sydney was also in the throes of tumbling down!)! The Royal Commission into the disaster, which followed, was presented with my drawings as evidence and my name entered the official judicial records of the state for the first time!

It was, I feel, my drawing skills, compositional abilities and an ability to follow instructions (naively and with blind loyalty in most cases) that gave me a passport to travel the world. Although flatteringly contradicted by some kind and able people, I sadly did not have much confidence in my ability as an architect. I felt that I did not have (as with the 'lathe' incident) a sufficient technical and creative depth. On the one hand, I probably missed the appropriate lectures, and on the other, the 'brutalist' architecture', which was the prevailing aesthetic at the time, did not encourage the expressive flair that I needed. In fact, I needed to be 'taught' to be creative and to have flair, and it is an appreciation of this that was to inform my latter teaching. I was fortunate to work on some exotic buildings around the world. However, a major influence on me was the political nature of architecture and the profession: from apartheid South Africa, blindly entrepreneurial Europe, the corruption surrounding the construction of some significant buildings. I was left with a strong sense that much architecture was indulgent, disproportionate and inappropriate to people's needs. At least I was able to travel to some exotic locations and work (from the drawing board) on grand architectural projects. In any case it all lead to my emancipation from the constraints of the architects office and into the hallowed studios of the Central School of Art.

For most of my personal drawing I used oil crayons; these were rich in pigment and solid in texture and I was able to create hard-edged poster-like compositions - on political themes mainly. Typically, I was ignorant of lots of other more appropriate media. But what is interesting in retrospect was the almost fanatical detail and finesse I was able to put into those drawings. I felt a great joy in the completion of each composition and celebrated with a personal 'private' view (that is, invariably on my own), staring and enjoying every detail and basking in the creative effort (with a glass of wine) for a few hours - still practice that ritual to this day. And possession was just as fanatical: I could not sell or bring myself to give away anything - the work was an intimate and indivisible part of me - and to this day still have most of this work in my archive. (Poor bugger!)

So, at Central School I discovered the joy of screen-printing, not to forget the wonderful aroma of the art studio - mainly carcinogenic oil based inks - wonderful! Larry (research) was my mentor: "Len, what ever you smell you'll invariably get!" But I produced a large portfolio of hard-edged colourful prints, became a printmaker, learnt about the art world, and met some very able and interesting artists. Among these was Juan Munoz, who went on to be one of Spain's most famous contemporary sculptors. Together we worked upon a number of political projects, producing large runs of posters on South American political issues. We were also the leaders, at that time, along with one David Dalson, of publicity for the 'Occupying Committee' for the art school occupations of the late seventies. Our near claim to fame was, on the first day of the action, we covered the entire Central School facade in political posters or our own design and production - took us a day to print and another to fly post the building. Sadly, the reactionary leader of the student union, the son of a famous designer, someone of the Conran dynasty I recall, had all our work torn down overnight, and our statement and potential fame was in ruins. Rich kids' politics give off a bad smell. We proudly saw ourselves in the tradition of political artists in the vanguard of the struggle against the imperialists and rich kids! Well we though so anyway.

From the Central and because of the occupations of art schools, I became involved with the Poster Collective (later the Film and Poster Collective) becoming a contributing member (Sadly though, the reactionary politics and egotism of the elite few of the group came to bear on the good work of others as the former attempted to purge their political street image and go for a more post-modern credibility - the PFC www site unfortunately ignores and demeans many of the very productive and creative members of the collective.) I produced with Juan and others, some notable and effective publicly which ended up being fly-postered on the streets of Europe and abroad. Through both the Central School of Art and the Poster Collective I renewed my interest in the teaching of art and design.

I first started teaching at Kingston Polytechnic and there, realised several of the basic precepts of pedagogy: while it is certainly involves a creative process for the student, it is significantly so for the tutor; that teaching is about giving, selflessness - a lot of intense art direction and critical creative thought, for example; that the institutional structure of education, and particularly its administration does not follow the same path as pedagogy. I regard teaching as a great artistry and the great teachers are to be revered - McCarthy was one of them, O'Neill and Quarry, at university could be mentioned, and some others.

This period of my life involved teaching at all tertiary levels in a number of schools of art and design but also in engaging with art in a more effective way as an artist (as opposed to someone wanting to be one). I eagerly learnt everything that I tutored and taught and, at the same time, hopefully educated, enthused and inspired many (also, as indicated above, aggravated and upset some, certainly those on a long list of so called managers - but much fun was had too).

My major concern, and hopefully, contribution, to pedagogy, has been the engagement of tutor and student in a methodology, by encouraging the opening up the spectrum of 'permitted' or 'approved' expression, of liberating creativity from the constraining limitations of established ways of thinking, will engender in the student, and equip the student with the tools, for a truly creative way of contributing to the world. Creativity, inventiveness and flair can be infused through the teaching process.

During those years I was inspired by a large body of artists, in particular, Saul Steinberg, Philip Guston, also a long time hero, Bruce Petty, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Valerio Adami, and many, many others. All were able to make lines talk, to compose wonderful inspiring compositions, and to colour the world with a rich and articulate visual languages. Immersing myself in art has been one of the liberating aspects of my life - art is a place of refuge and it is forgiving. It should go without saying that the surrealists, classical, modern and outsider, are central to my inspiration; but also, the political cartoonists, poster makers and, particularly, the graffiti makers and artists who affirm the freedom to express - and humanity - in their work.

My enjoyment of mathematics was rekindled with an introduction, and some intensive self-teaching, to computer graphics. At Kingston Polytechnic I wrote a number of interactive programs for aiding perspective drawing, also for metamorphosis and animation. I enjoyed the process of manipulating symbols and words into graphic compositions. I subsequently took over the Centre for Computer Arts at Middlesex Polytechnic (now University) from the maverick, Paul Brown, (who went on to become a well-known stand up comic!). This gave me access to some high level computing power and output devices and allowed me to further experiment with computer-assisted drawing. At the same time it allowed me to engage in education on an international level (and, incidentally, to get to see some great galleries and expositions of the world at the same time). I also produced some of the first of computer graphics for television at that time. My research soon expanded to include the new and fresh 'world wide web'. I immersed myself in research and wrote lots of tutorials on html, style sheets and Javascript, supplemented this by games and lots of interactive www designs. But computer graphics became for me only a vehicle, and one that required being somewhat indirect in the image making process. So I refocused upon my drawing and used my computing skills for publishing.

My sketchbooks and drawing, which I had never discarded, then became central to my practice. These became intense visual diaries, and were the point of reference for an emerging, and more fluent, visual language. The sketchbook or journal became a focus for my examination of my relationship with the world: my personal history and identity as an outsider; in art; in the nature of alienation; in the chaos and confusion of the society around me; in the violence that rules the lives of the other; and in the fundamental problem of practice - defining political art and action. The results have been brought together in my ink and line drawings - compositions - particularly looking at the work of the last ten, or so, years.

I look at my drawings, I still possess them all - none given away as a gift or rarely offered for sale (a symptom perhaps either of bad business acumen (likely) or evidence of some syndrome with some scary acronym from which I suffer (probably) - and see a visual language there; a language that is attractive and seductive but difficult, though not impossible, for a reader to access, translate and absorb - at least share. The images I have produced are compositions and, like music, are made up of both real and abstract elements brought together in a comprehensible but not quite literary or textural form, utilizing the process of pattern making to communicate some positive emotion or meaning. Drawing is perhaps visual music. Drawing is like music: it is always a way of interpreting the world in a language that transcends the obvious. The most delicately sensitive interpretation of art was beautifully expressed by Bill Jones, who said of his performance, 'I want my audience to go home feeling more human'.

Drawing is a way of making sense of the world, a way of reasoning - being more human.

Me, Len Breen, May 2008