Interview with Martyn SOMMER

    the ephemera interviews

    In this series of interviews artists directly involved in ARIs and artist-run culture 1980- 2000 speak about the social context for their art making and provide insights into the ephemera they produced or collaborated on during this period. Artist ephemera includes artworks, photocopies, photographs, videos, films, audio, mail art, posters, exhibition invites, flyers, buttons and badges, exhibition catalogues, didactics, room sheets, artist publications, analogue to digital resources and artist files.

    BIO

    I called myself a Painter from the early eighties to the late nineties. However, that would be a misnomer now, as I haven’t really touched a paint brush since 1998. I am a Photographer.

     

    After graduating from Queensland College of Art in 1986, I found some studio space in Fortitude Valley and focused my life on being an Artist. I shared this space with three other emerging artists for about a year before relocating to a studio above an arts supply shop in Elizabeth Street in central Brisbane city. This new location made it easier for me to interact with other Artist friends within the CBD. From here I made strong connections with THAT Contemporary Art Space, where I was involved in several group projects.

     

    Painting was my full time ‘occupation’ from 1987 to 1989. However, I also worked part-time in the office of ‘Eyeline’ Art Magazine, and wrote some article and reviews for this and other periodicals.

     

    Apart from my graduate exhibition (1987), other major shows that I was involved in during this period were Sex/Object (1987), the Livid Festival art show (1988) and Axis-File, Sites of Dis-Closure (traveling exhibition, New York and London, 1988).

     

    I moved to Sydney in 1989, where I alternated between painting, working in art supplies shops and traveling overseas. Since 1999, I have lived in Sendai, Japan, working as an English teacher, except for three years from 2004 to 2007 when I returned to Australia. My last painting exhibition was in Sydney in 1996. However, in desperate need for a creative outlet, I have been trying my hand at photography for the past three years.

    4 October, 2015

     


     

    PA: 

    Martyn, 1980’s Brisbane Social History, by way of a snapshot,tell me about what sort of world was this Queensland for you?

     


     

    MS:

    Graduating from QCA college corresponded to the first time I moved out of my family home. So, this combined experience made way for a kind of liberation.

     

    All of my friends at the time were doing something creative, in one medium or another, and Brisbane was a good place to do it because it was insanely cheap to find accommodation and studio space and the Artist compensation system, that is DSS, went a long way.

     

    Also, through connections and the tight-knit network, I always found myself at someone else’s studio, either discussing or collaborating in something.


     

    PA: 

    The Bjelke Peterson Regime, “The Police State” political backdrop how did it directly or indirectly impact upon you?

     


     

    MS:

    Of course I was police searched or questioned on numerous occasions during this time. But it actually created some great underground clubs and a lot of interesting art. To tell the truth, I have nothing but exciting memories of this time. But my young age probably had something to do with that too.

     

    However, there was one time when I was taken into the police station and questioned for a few hours because I was a suspect in a bus bomb threat.

     

    The bus had been delayed and the driver was snooping around so I said to my friend, “maybe there’s a bomb.” Another passenger heard this and called the police, as there had actually been a bomb threat. They found me easily in Queen Street because of my long red hair. After the police were satisfied that I was innocent, one of the officers looked at me with distaste and asked, “why do you wear your hair like that?”


     

    PA: 

    How did this political climate directly impact on your friends and peers?

     


     

    MS:

    We usually did all the bad things in the privacy of our homes, instead of in public like people do now.


     

    PA: 

    And the type of art work you were making during the 1980’s, media used, subjects and themes?

     


     

    MS:

    I think my paintings at that time reflected the thinking of the art and philosophy world of the early 80s more than my immediate environment.

     

    I was painting a lot of huge neo-classical narrative works which explored my relationship to, and love of, art history. I always used oils then, sometimes departing to charcoal sketches.

     

    I tried to be as realistic and true to Renaissance art conventions as possible. However, looking back, I see that I wasn’t quite as successful as I would have liked to have been.


     

    PA: 

    Tell me a bit about the artist collaborations you directly participated in?

     


     

    MS:

    My most memorable collaboration was called Sex/Object with yourself and Angelina Martinez at THAT.

     

    I think I had my work included in at least four group shows at THAT. I also had my graduation exhibition at the School of Arts in 1987. Smaller works were included in other shows at the time, but I was more closely associated to That Contemporary Art Space.


     

    PA: 

    Some detail about your family’s own immigration story?

     


     

    MS:

    I am a fifth generation Queenslander. My great grandfather’s home can be visited next to the Ginger Factory in Buderim. They came over from somewhere in Germany in the mid 19th century. My father, grandfather, great grandfather and his father were all builders.


     

    PA: 

    Are there other members in your family who are artists or designers?

     


     

    MS:

    My older brother is a graphic designer. He is very good and has always been able to find work.


     

    PA: 

    Is there one particularly vivid memory or event from your childhood when you knew you wanted to become a professional artist?

     


     

    MS:

    I’ve been able to draw longer than I’ve been able to speak. So, I decided to become an artist from a very early age. There was no one time that made me want to start painting, but there were plenty of times that made me want to stop.


     

    PA: 

    Tell me about your schooling and early Art classes/education in both primary and secondary schools and about what significant impact it made on you?

     


     

    MS:

    I always earned good grades in art class, but never great. I remember crying in the toilets at high school because I didn’t get an A for what I considered to be a great work. However, one of my paintings still hangs in the teacher’s room of my school to this day.


     

    PA: 

    And your experience of Higher Education, QCA?

     


     

    MS:

    Attending Queensland College of Art in Seven Hills was, and always will be, the highlight of my life, and my life has been pretty eventful. This is where I gained confidence and grew as an artist.

     

    But it’s also where I development intense relationships with other artists and basically learned how to make the most of life. I was there for a total of five years and studied painting, drawing, graphic design and art theory, among other subjects.

    I didn’t really think about photographic documentation back then, but thirty years later we have a great document of Australian art history here. Now I’m happy that as it happens, everything was so well documented at that time.
    Martyn Sommer

     

    PA: 

    Tell me about your own experiences of QLD sense of place and your sense of belonging – or indeed not belonging – at the time living and working as an artist in Brisbane/ Queensland during this decade?

     


     

    MS:

    I had a studio with some other artists, first in the Valley and then in Brisbane city. We had our own spaces but we often got together to discuss our work and throw ideas around. And then I’d go to other friend’s studios and do the same thing.


     

    PA: 

    Where did you hang out? Where did you eat? What did you eat? Where did you dance? Sounds, smells, tastes?

     


     

    MS:

    I had lunch almost exclusively at the Hare Krishna restaurant in Elizabeth Street. On Friday nights I went to Morticia’s and or Hades with my friends. Other times I hung out at various studios, gallery openings and friend’s houses.


     

    PA: 

    Tell me a little about two or three of your intimate and most influential artist colleagues and peers at the time?

     


     

    MS:

    My closest friends were Jane Richens and Angelina Martinez. However, I was acquainted with almost everybody who made art at the time. Jane was one of the most creative, fun and wild people I have had the pleasure of knowing.


     

    PA: 

    Tell me about your most vivid and early exhibition experiences?

     


     

    MS:

    As I mentioned before, the exhibition ‘Sex/Object’ at That Space was my most important show from that time. The entire process of making the art, promoting it and setting up the show taught me so much about the art world and helped me with future exhibitions.

     

    Sex/Object was my first major exhibition after graduating from college. Although one work was completed in my time at QCA, everything else was created especially for the show.

     

    I was particularly pleased with the huge charcoal montage, which I think really captured the spirit of the theme. The narrative oil paintings that I created were a clear reflection of what I wanted to achieve with the medium at the time.

     

    Looking back, I don’t think they were all entirely successful, but I was still in the early days of exploring the ideas of classical form, surrealism and sardonic humor and trying to gel them together.

     

    The three of us, you, Angelina and myself, had very different styles but when the show went up it all worked so well together. Of course we had the same conceptual focus, but even formally the overall ambiance was quite harmonious. As a whole, the show was a great success.

     

    I remember dressing up for the opening night in 18th century dandy style and greeting the huge turn out at THAT. I think that starting on such a high note gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities as an Artist. It was also a good example of how everyone in the Brisbane art scene supported each other in positive ways while still maintaining a critical perspective.

     

    Which reminds me, I liked having a studio in the Valley because I lived at Kangaroo Point back then and it was an pleasant walk across the bridge. But a couple of the Artists I shared with were a bit scared of the area, and none of us stayed there until late at night. Fortitude Valley was like a different world back then Really run down old warehouses with homeless people and junkies on every corner. There were a couple of interesting cafes, like the cosmos, but where we were was basically the strip club and sex shop block. Great inspiration for my upcoming exhibition, but not the safest environment, especially for the young women just out of college who I shared with. It wasn’t uncommon to find a homeless youth sleeping on the steps when we arrived in the morning. I’d been going to clubs like the Terminus, the Beat and the Hacienda for years, so I was used to this area.

     

    However, at that time, you pretty much just went directly to a venue and rushed back to your car afterwards. That is, we didn’t linger on the dark streets at 3am. Also, the guys who owned the strip club that we shared a floor with, actually worked for Gerry Bellino, a now infamous Australian underworld figure.

     

    The reason we moved out of the studio was that Bellino was arrested and the club was closed down, so our share mates lost their jobs and had to find alternative lodgings. These two guys were a little sleazy and usually brought strippers back to our studio space for the night and we could see them leave in the morning. But I got on well with them and they actually came to the opening of Sex/Object and why wouldn’t they?


     

    PA: 

    Tell me about two or three of your most memorable share house experiences?

     


     

    MS:

    I moved house about five times between 1987 and 1989. Once I was paying about $20 a week for my large room within walking distance from the city. These share houses were always good, fun social or party places with no sense of permanency about them. Fantastic enclaves for cultivating ideas.


     

    PA: 

    This year marks the 40th year anniversary of the Institute of Modern Art, tell me about the role the IMA played in your own personal experience during your early artist years?

     


     

    MS:

    I often visited IMA and I guess I felt like Brisbane was a big, exciting city , like Sydney, when I was there. The IMA showed the more mature art of the time.


     

    PA: 

    Tell me about any direct measure of support, patronage and interest from established Brisbane/Qld galleries/institutions you received during this time in your career?

     


     

    MS:

    No. I didn’t receive any direct financial support at that time, but we all supported each other as friends and colleagues.


     

    PA: 

    Tell me in detail about the types of ephemera you made or designed?

     


     

    MS:

    Yes, it was always very exciting to design invitations and flyers for my shows. But one of my finest memories was calling a condom manufacturer to ask for hundreds of free condoms to attach to our Sex/Object exhibition invites.

     

    It was so much easier to get them than I thought it would be and a huge box was delivered to my door the next day. Though, the invites did offend some people.

     

    The mid-eighties was a time of heightened sexual paranoia due to the onset of the AIDS/ HIV epidemic. Queensland’s anti-gay laws implemented by Bjelke-Petersen were an offshoot of this panic. In a way, the exhibition, Sex/Object, was a reaction against this reaction. Even though we never really talked about it as such, this was the climate in which we were working.

     

    When I called the company to ask for 300 condoms to attach to our invitations, I said that they were for an exhibition that promoted AIDS awareness and safe sex. However, there were a few very negative reactions from people who received a photo of a naked young man with “SEX/OBJECT” stamped over him and a condom stapled to it. Either they thought that such openness about sex was offensive in the current climate or they found the humor inappropriate. I believe that some even took it as a personal affront to their ‘politically correct’ attitudes towards HIV. As Artists, we welcomed this kind of reaction.


     

    PA: 

    Pre internet the question many are asking now is how, where and why did you network?

     


     

    MS:

    It was all ephemera, word of mouth, openings, dancing and parties for me. I love the internet because I don’t have some many hangovers after showing my work.


     

    PA: 

    On reflection, why do you feel there was such a significant proliferation of ARI activity during the 1980-1990 period?

     


     

    MS:

    I think that Brisbane felt a little inferior to its big brothers in the south and had to prove a point. We were more isolated back then, both geographically and politically.

     

    A lot of people, including me, moved to Sydney where we found it much more difficult to have the same level of involvement in the art community. And that was the great thing about Brisbane in the 80s.

     

    You could easily find places to show your work and find support from your peers. The city was small enough to know everyone but big enough to be taken seriously. We had access to so much great work from that time that would have just been lost in a city like Sydney.


     

    PA: 

    And the notion of archiving and photo documentation during this period, was this important for you at the time?

     


     

    MS:

    I didn’t really think about photographic documentation back then, but thirty years later we have a great document of Australian art history here. Now I’m happy that as it happens, everything was so well documented at that time.

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