Then look at Martin Sharp's work
22 November 2009
"You knew Martin Sharp, didn't you? In the 60s?" I was at an event in
Sydney, and was mildly put out by this question, coming as it did
from a man in a suit, who could hardly have remembered the 60s. "I
still know him," I said. "He's not dead. In fact, he's just put on a
one-man show at the Museum of Sydney." But we had reached the end of
the concentration span of the man in the suit. He went on to talk to
somebody else about something else, which was fine with me.
Martin's show is called Martin Sharp Sydney Artist, but anyone who
sees it has to become aware that there is more than local history
involved. It's true that he left London in 1969, and subsequently set
up the Yellow House in Potts Point, where hundreds of artists and
would-be artists hung out and hung on. He returned to London in 1972
and produced a book of collages called Art Book.
He once gave me a collage of Van Gogh sunflowers on a Bonnard. At
least I think he did; he quoted me a price but I don't know that I
ever paid it. He also gave me a round mirror on which he had painted
a basic motif of his: a ball hanging above a flat landscape and its
own elliptical shadow. He used the same motif for one of his eyes in
a self-portrait. The first thing he ever gave me was an exquisite
Japanese print he had found in Paris, in a shop on the Left Bank. I
still have all three.
In 1973, Martin returned to Sydney for good. His presence certainly
invigorated the city's art scene but, though he may have felt no
desire to leave the island continent ever again, his psychedelic
imagery travelled the world and still influences emerging artists
today. Everybody who can remember anything about the 60s can remember
Martin's poster of Dylan as Mr Tambourine Man, printed in red and
black on gold paper, and the covers he executed in 1968 for Cream
albums Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire.
I have a memory, which may be no more than a dream, of going into the
studio he shared with Eric Clapton, and seeing a full-length study of
Jimi Hendrix that he was painting in vibrant acrylics, on the back of
several layers of Perspex film. That image of Jimi holding the Fender
in his left hand, with his right holding the pick flung out parallel
to the guitar neck, while a multi-coloured explosion begins at the
strings and streams to the four edges of the picture, is an ikon of
1967. I remembered seeing it as a full-length figure painted in three
separate layers. Martin didn't. He thought I might have got it mixed
up with his equally famous votive image of Mick Jagger.
Martin showed me the exhibition, which he had installed himself. Its
co-ordinator had met with an accident, the show was due to open
within hours, and Martin's treasures were all over the place. He had
painted the long high room electric blue, and displayed against it a
galaxy of work, much of it carried out in the same blue, plus
red-vermilion and yellow ochre. It was as if the inside of Van Gogh's
brain had exploded and we were swimming in bleu-orange. Martin works
his ikons over and over in different media, on different scales, from
the tiniest to the hugest. Mickey Mouse, Ginger Meggs, Van Gogh, Van
Gogh's chair, the Sydney Opera House, and poor dead Luna Park, the
Sydney funfair, were all there, spinning around the room.
I first knew of Martin as an inspired cartoonist, working for
Tharunka, the student newspaper of the University of New South Wales,
and then for Australian Oz. He had written a dramatic monologue in
the person of a drunken lout congratulating himself on having pulled
off a "king hambone" that is to say, stripping off and exposing
himself in a state of excitement. The cartoon itself showed nothing
revolting, being mostly composed of Martin's script spidery,
angular capital letters that seemed to shake with revulsion but
even so, he and his mates on Tharunka were charged with obscenity
and, stranger still, pleaded guilty.
No one could be less obscene; fastidious and gentle is more like it.
I think I know now why he revered the grotesque American balladeer
Tiny Tim so, and why he didn't revere Richard Neville. It's all there
in his portrait of Richard as a spruiker, a sort of huckster, painted
as long ago as 1965. Martin is as unworldly as Tiny Tim, loath to
sell his work, unwilling to abandon his inspiration. We talked of the
film of Neville's memoir Hippie Hippie Shake, which is still being
made. "How can they do that?" he said to me. "How can they put me in
places I have never been, and make me say things I never said?"
If the curse of Greer holds good, they never will.