By Christina Peek
A bald man skips, walks, peers and pushes against the perimeter of the paper. Another holds a mask. Another tries to hold himself down with a stack of books. Sometimes absurdist, always questioning, the bald man seems to be at war with the inanimate. He attempts to find the boundaries of his imagined world and, perhaps fruitlessly, tries to understand it.
Christopher Orchard has been drawing this figure for decades. Artist and educator at Adelaide Central School of Art, he is the recipient of this year’s South Australian Living Artist (SALA) Monograph. Whether one has spied Orchard laughing jovially at an opening or has known him through lecturing at Adelaide Central School of Art, he has long been a fixture of the Adelaide arts community.
Orchard says that he tries to draw as a writer would write. His bald man, a reoccurring protagonist through which to experiment and examine the world. Orchard compares this repeated figure to the character of Estragon in Waiting for Godot. The bald man for him symbolising the essential nature of what it is to be human.
When asked what prompted him to begin drawing he laughs, ‘fear of failure!’. Orchard recounts the anecdote of his London agent telling him ‘…there [are] two possible pathways for a reasonably intelligent, creative individual, … crime or art. [He] decided that art was the better option.’ But underneath this convivial exterior Orchard confesses, ‘[drawing] keeps the meaninglessness at bay’.
Though passionate about putting charcoal to paper, Orchard did not start out drawing. Instead he majored in sculpture at the Torrens CAE and South Australian School of Art, creating constructed installations. ‘I couldn’t draw to save myself’ he states, but was fascinated by the serialised mark. To Orchard drawing gave him the permission to explore the repeated. He enjoyed the sense of mark making as a gesture, which betrays the failings of the human hand and mind. Orchard compares this phenomenon to‘…the double helix. An echo of a universal truth’. Each mark cannot be identical yet there is similarity. These smudged lines and fevered scratching reflect their creator.
To Orchard the practice of drawing is humbling. Artists, just beginning their creative endeavours, tentatively echo marks seen in the drawings of old masters. Drawing is, perhaps the most primal of all visual art. The materials favoured by Orchard, burnt wood and paper, are perhaps as rudimentary as one could hope to get. Yet spots, scratches and smudges made by charcoal capture form and depth, continuing a deep river of tradition.
Perhaps this all sounds a little romantic from a man who flippantly describes his studio as ‘…neither ugly nor beautiful, it just is …’ But it is his rigorous dedication to practice that makes Christopher Orchard an ideal artist to be featured by the SALA Monograph. From nine am to five pm, Orchard can be found in his studio. ‘Strictly public service hours’, he tells his friends. In this way Orchard throws water in the face of the myth of the chaotic artist, working at odd times, seemingly chancing on their work of genius. Instead he highlights the labour and devotion required to maintain and cultivate a successful artistic career.
When asked how he felt about being featured in the annual SALA publication, he nods and summarises it in a single word; ‘surreal’. Though others had been submitting his name for consideration for the Monograph for years, he believes it arrived at the right time. Nevertheless, Orchard says it was terrifying sifting through 40 years of artistic practice and personal history.
Despite this he wasn’t afraid to break the mould. Orchard asked five writers to contribute to this year’s Monograph. He wanted more than a chronological documentation of his work. He invited South Australian artists and lectures, Roy Ananda and Julia Robinson to contribute their cross generational views on his practice as well as Peter Goldsworthy whose poems preface each new writer and end the monograph with irreverence and profundity. Margot Osbourne, who has written about Orchard’s work previously for over 20 years, writes a more traditional essay, though nuanced and tender. He chose to include Rod Taylor, interested in his insights and perhaps perceived role as a mentor. Orchard thinks of this publication as just as much a celebration of the writers as a celebration of his work, he wanted their voices.
‘I’m not really into self promotion,’ confesses Orchard. ‘I want the work to be … not only amenable, but a kind of heart beat.’ For him the promotion he has received as a SALA feature artist is priceless, ‘to go [to galleries and organisations] with a beautiful 160 page publication … it’s got cache. It’s not just me turning up with my scrappy little publication of my own, … it’s like, this is a big deal’. This generous publicity both nationally and internationally has spurred the launch of Orchard’s Monograph, The Uncertainty of the Poet, and an exhibition of Orchard’s work by Stephen Rosenburg Fine Art in New York.
Orchard has always been involved in SALA, though perhaps never so centrally. Exhibiting and on the board of the very first SALA week, it was the innovation of the event, that attracted him. An un-curated festival of practice allowed professional artists to exhibit alongside hobbyists and it truly became a celebration of skill and craft. He reminisces that this was also an opportunity for writers and curators to be involved in the visual arts, ‘it was a genuinely exciting festival of visual art, for the first time!’ Although he remembers the exhilaration of the inaugural SALA event he struggles to remember what he exhibited. He presumes it was a series of head studies he had been inspired to draw after a trip to Vietnam. There he had seen a small hand-painted monk figure, whose humbleness and exquisite beauty began a series of drawings, which scrutinised the human head. He recalls spending a long time repeatedly drawing heads from his imagination with no regard for anatomy or geometrics, through which eventually came the visage of the bald man.
One might be forgiven for wondering if the phrenology of the bald man is a reflection of Orchard himself. He’d tell you you’re wrong. And though perhaps anatomically they bear no relation their mutual curiosity and passion for pushing at the parameters of paper is a point of connection. Sitting in his studio Orchard muses, ‘you just do your job. Occasionally you get to celebrate it.’ This is one of those occasions.