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Trading Places

 



   WHAT do murderer Chow Hayes, republican Malcolm Turnbull, cultural attache Les Patterson, author Robert Hughes and the number-crunching    Graham Richardson have in common? If you said ‘‘an ability to demolish opposition'', go to the back of the class. The correct answer? All have    had their portraits painted by Bill Leak. And all of these were finalists in that annual cultural circus, the Archibald Prize. Yet despite a record 732    contenders for this year's $35,000 award for portrait painting, there was no Leak among them. Nor was there last year, or the year before. Given    that an Archibald without the cartoonist is like a Sydney summer without cicadas, what gives?


   Just before entries closed in March, I chanced upon the answer -- and Leak -- near the entrance to News Limited. ‘‘Who are you painting in this    year's Archibald, Bill?'' I asked. ‘‘No one,'' he answered, ‘‘I've been too busy finishing my book.'' And you, he asked, ‘‘working on another book?''    ‘‘No time, I've been too busy finishing my Archibald entry.''


   I'm not sure which of us was Eddie Murphy, but suddenly we felt like characters in the film Trading Places. ‘‘I'm doing a novel,'' he said. ‘‘Not    about me,'' he added quickly, ‘‘about someone I used to know, a long, long time ago. Who have you painted?''


   ‘‘[Our colleague at The Australian] Nicolas Rothwell,'' I said. ‘‘He's a brave and forgiving friend.''


Several weeks later, Leak and I meet over coffee to show and tell. An acclaimed oil-paint artist for many years longer than he has been an acclaimed cartoonist, he is not the first painter to write a novel, or the first novelist to paint. Australia has had several such dual-driven practitioners but few combine satire with fine art and fiction.


The roguishly amiable Leak is a surfing rockabilly who cultivates stubble, leather jackets and wisecracks -- yet only the foolish ignore the prickly intelligence behind the bonhomie. For nine years now in The Australian, his cartoons have lampooned the pretentious and the political. His work there and earlier for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Bulletin has been much feted, netting him 19 Stanley Awards for excellence in media art and eight Walkley awards.


As for the Archibald, well that has been a love-hate obsession since he first entered ‘‘in 1984 with a painting that was still unwrapped when I went to collect it. I swore then I'd never enter again.'' But he's no once-a-year portraitist -- he's captivated by the process. After five years, he weakened and entered again. That one made the cull, and he has been an Archibald finalist 10 times since, along the way annexing the Packing Room Prize twice (for his portraits of musician Tex Perkins and Patterson) and the People's Choice twice (as a subject for Jo Palaitis and Esther Erlich).


Too often, though, his works have been faint-praised as kissing kin to caricature; he also became disgruntled with a procedure that has seven (usually businesspeople) trustees and two artists selecting the winner. ‘‘That makes as much sense as having seven artists and two CEOs pick businessman of the year,'' he snorts. When his hot-pick portrait of Hughes was just tipped out of top spot in 2001, he retired from the lists, saying: ‘‘I think I'd have a better chance of winning it if I didn't enter ... I'm sick and tired of the whole circus and my role in it as a clown.''


That was true of 2002, but the past two absences have been because he has had the temerity to write a novel. Is there no end to the man's talents, I mutter as I head to our rendezvous. He's even an accomplished musician, having studied piano for 12 years. Jealous? Moi? Still, it's hard not to feel that our meeting is not one of equals -- my modest involvement in a half-dozen books and (now) fleeting acquaintance with an Archibald justifies a dose of the ‘‘I am not worthies''.


As a ‘‘words freak who reads all the time'', Leak always felt he had that book in him, if only life didn't keep getting in the way, whereas I had flirted with painting before sidling into journalism, and for more than 20 years held a Mittyesque dream of entering the Archibald. Which I sabotaged annually via procrastination. This year, though, the family cajoled me into eleventh-hour gusto. For a month, a Sunday dauber run amok, I painted, getting up at 6am to work on the portrait until 9, then off to work at the paper, then more painting until a bleary-eyed collapse at about 2am.


Such a regimen is not conducive to clear-eyed inspiration or carefree application, and in the end I ran out of puff, and time, at the 90 per cent done mark. I knew my chances were slim. Well, non-existent, really -- for a start, you apparently need talent. But in the spirit of the Melbourne Cup, where a $100 nag might line up for a quixotic tilt against the million-dollar blue bloods (which might fall over), I thought my $30 entry fee would buy a month of daydreaming.


And I knew the Archibald-winning recipe. Go eye-catchingly big, paint with brash gaudiness, think celebrity, think up-front headshot, think controversy. So I went small and understated, setting an assessive Rothwell amid a defining background. And I painted with acrylics, not the oil paint I love for nuances and dimensionality. (This was a mistake: Rothwell and I had regular debriefings while writing our most recent books -- his won last year's Courier-Mail Book of the Year -- and let me tell you, no one has more nuances and dimensionality than he.)


Paint, of course, is nothing like words: it's organic and very slippery, and can easily turn into a mud-pie morass. That's fun to play with but it can also induce rages of frustration, especially when the aim is an illusion of dimensionality using light and shade rather than the clinical precision of verb and adjective. In the end, I was quite happy with my portrait: it wasn't my best work, but if viewed from the right distance, in the right light, with the head skewed slightly and the eyes half-closed, it did look like Rothwell. On the morning after a late night. Or two. More important, it offered a different insight into a multilingual man of European mien whose journalistic career has seen him interpret diplomatic nuances from the UN and communist dictators to outback corroboree.


My plan had been to quietly enter my painting, suffer its rejection, then nurse my angst in anonymity. Instead, my cover was blown when D. D. McNicoll, columnist for The Australian, discovered that Sydney artist Liz Muir had entered a painting of me. ‘‘What about your Archibald entry?'' he asked the day before entries closed. ‘‘How did you know about that?'' I said, misunderstanding the question, before breaking down under grim interrogation to confess all. He promised to be discreet. And he was -- as in ‘‘gossip item in national newspaper'' discreet.

 

Which meant my not-quite-done painting and I crept into the receiving dock behind the Art Gallery of NSW two hours before entries closed, where a patina of village fete preparations was over-glazed with tincture of pre-rock concert roadie rage. Removal trucks, some as big as pantechs, were disgorging pantech-sized canvases amid a chaos of painting-laden panel vans and roof-racked cars. Egos, some as big as pantechs, were also being disgorged. The packers were sweating, the artists were sweating, the latter prompted largely by how the former were cavaliering their works around. I felt like a Lilliputian in the Land of the Giants as paintings the size of house walls were manhandled past, more so when the packers tossed my minimalist baby into the shadows between two leviathans.


* * *

ADELAIDE-BORN but raised in NSW's outback Condobolin and Sydney's suburban Beacon Hill, Desmond Robert Leak comes from a musical family. His father, Reg, was a postmaster with left-wing philosophies; his mother, Doreen, a piano teacher; and they hoped their middle child would become a musician like older sister Lynne, who teaches in Perth, or Melbourne-based Graeme, a performer and composer. Art was where his heart homed in, however, after he uncovered a book of Norman Lindsay watercolours amid a pile ‘‘of Man and Playboy magazines in the shearers' quarters at a friend's parents' farm''.

 

Copying Lindsay's fantasies taught him to draw, high school self-preservation made him a cartoonist. ‘‘Doing drawing classes on the weekends meant you were either a poofter or a pervert; doing caricatures of the teachers in sexual congress with each other meant you were a great bloke who could be forgiven for being able to draw,'' he once said.

 

Two years at the Julian Ashton school gave him a fine-art edge before he dropped out on an E. H. Holden pilgrimage across Australia, playing pub piano and sketching locals for his keep. Then came his masters pilgrimage to Europe to see his idols -- Rembrandt, van Gogh, Goya and Picasso. He met his German wife, Astrid, in Salzburg in 1978, living with her in Bavaria and painting with manic energy until 1982, when they returned to Australia. The next year, having decided that man does not live by critical artistic acclamation alone, he took up cartooning. Divorced in the early '90s, he now shares his inner-city Redfern home and studio with his youngest son, Jasper.


Leak has long been renowned for his ‘‘anarchic attitude'' and ability to party hard, and often. Or he was until 18 months ago, when he ‘‘decided to give up drinking. I've given up before but this time it was forever. But I know when you give up the drink, you have to involve yourself with something that's all-consuming.'' By a process of Leak logic, that thing became a novel. Writing may have begun as a distraction but he ‘‘immediately became totally engrossed. And as quickly realised how different it was to painting.''


If there's such a word as extrospective, he says, ‘‘then extrospection is what you use in painting, and a deep process of introspection goes into writing a book. You also have to rely on your memory. And if you've gone about the business of destroying your memory as assiduously as I have over so many years...'' He raises his eyebrows in Groucho Marx self-mockery. ‘‘When people used to talk about childhood memories, I'd say my earliest recollections were of when I was 43. But I've discovered that's not true -- all those memories are actually filed away and writing compels you to delve into them. It's very disturbing -- and no surprise that most writers are completely mad.''


He'd envisaged his book, which is doing the rounds of publishers, as ‘‘a gigantic cartoon in words because in all cartoons, something serious underlies their purpose'', but finished up with something that ‘‘while hopefully amusing, is not about anything particularly funny. Its working title is Heart Cancer and it involves the myth of our classless society, but it's not overtly political. Nor is it about painting -- all the things people would expect me to write about I didn't want in there, although art does have a part. They say first novels are always thinly veiled autobiography and I tried and failed to avoid that, but none of the characters ... is actually me.''


Only when he reached the end, he says, did he realise ‘‘what the book was all about. I'd thought it was a rather cynical look at love, which in its benign form can be harmless but in its malignant form can kill you. So when I wrote the ending, which surprised even me, I thought, `Hey, how fantastic, now I can rewrite the whole thing.''' So he did, going ‘‘nine months straight when every day I'd go home after work and write until 4am''.

 

 Self-expression either comes out constructively through a creative process or destructively through doing violence to yourself or other people, he says. ‘‘Vlaminck, a painter I've always liked but one who was a brash booze artist and knockabout guy, was asked once why he painted and he said: `It stops me killing people.' I think he may have touched on something.''


‘‘You identify with that?''


‘‘In a sense ... with me, if something isn't coming out, I'm totally dissatisfied. To watch TV is a huge effort because I have to ... forget about expressing myself.''


‘‘But it's not just about expressing yourself,'' I dorothy dix, ‘‘it's also about understanding. You have to look to see...''


‘‘...to understand. So while I can admire and even love abstract art...''


‘‘You're more generous than I am.''


‘‘Well, there's good and bad art, and at any given time 90 per cent of the people doing it are no bloody good at it. I appreciate great abstract art but for me to work in that way would be pure affectation. And while great art rises above the mundane, it must still try to understand and create something out of the chaos around us.''

 

Which was some solace when he started writing: ‘‘I thought, well, I'm 48 and my life has been pretty chaotic [but] if I can create something out of that, it won't all have been a complete waste of time.''


Welcome to my mind-set. And to a cultural sea-change. Because where writing seems to require a gallingly front-brain focus, painting, I suggest, ‘‘can be an almost mediative process, especially when you're working in the painting rather than on it''.


‘‘That's why so many painters live so long,'' Leak beams. ‘‘They spend half their lives in suspended animation, like gurus on the mountaintop contemplating their navels -- except you don't get any bloody paintings from the gurus.''


Art and cleverness don't mix, he confides as we stir our second coffees, ‘‘yet cartooning and journalism by their nature are about cleverness and the ephemeral. But when you confront a canvas, you have to leave that behind. You don't want the painting to endure for, say, seven seconds ... you want it to retain in 50 years' time the same depth of meaning that's in it now.''


Yet a large part of the art of successful writing is to work and work at something so that it looks like it was dashed off in 10 minutes.


‘‘Picasso once said the art of art is to conceal art,'' Leak replies, ‘‘and that's so true.''


‘‘True of your book?''


‘‘It was the aim. But I really do love the struggle with the process, whether painting or writing. There's something so wonderful about oil paint, for instance, because it so doggedly refuses to co-operate.''


‘‘But it's also very forgiving.''


‘‘That's the great thing about it. And when it goes wrong, you can just wipe it off. Watercolours are anathema to me because they're so light -- I prefer working into something.''


‘‘A bit like writing a book.''


‘‘I was just about to say that. Watercolours are like writing music for a violin or flute -- it might be lilting and lyrical, but oil gives you the whole orchestra. When I started writing, my instinct was to get a bloody big dictionary and plop it down and think: There's my paints in my paintbox, and I'm going to have fun with all of them.''


As for me, I'm not about to give up my day job, but I am going to keep having fun with my paintbox. I've studied the works that made the Archibald cut this year and come up with a can't-miss strategy. Watch out for the house-sized self-portrait on wallpaper of a black sheep wearing a Ned Kelly helmet -- it's a winner, for sure.

 


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian, 29 May 2004. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren

 


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