In 2002, Moira Pericles, wife and business partner of Leon, curated a print retrospective spanning 33 years of Pericles¹ handmade printmaking. This impressive body of work comprising over 100 pieces was accompanied by a publication including more than 80 colour plates and biographical text written by Moira which is a warm account of the life of the artist and events and influences which spawned the body of work.
The purpose of a text in support of a retrospective exhibition is to reflect on a lifetime of work in a broad sense, looking at the series of events and influences in the artist’s life which parallels the creation of those works. Much of the detail of events in this text has been reduced, I would refer the reader to one of the relevant publications on the work of Leon Pericles which has delved more deeply into these areas.
As Leon’s wife and business partner for over 30 years, I take pleasure in contributing details of his life’s experience. However, I have been careful not to venture into any critical commentary as I am most certainly not unbiased in my judgements, nor qualified to make any.
Over the many years as a practising artist Leon has made his base in his studio at Mt. Lawley. To walk into this space imbued with an artist’s sensibility, is to experience a part of Leon’s creative energy. To work in it is to be a part of the collective creative process which arises from the many artists, some of whom are Leon’s former students, framers, or youngsters undertaking work experience, all of whom contribute to and participate with Leon in making his art. It is a vibrant, warm and busy studio with a generous sense of sharing from all involved. I have been privileged to live within, and be a part of this work environment and watch the growth of the man and the artist as revealed in this retrospective exhibition.
The dusty outback town of Meekatharra was home to a handsome and hospitable couple Dido (Arthur) and Enid Pericles where in 1949 after 10 years of a childless marriage, they gave birth to a son. At the time, as publicans of the Meekatharra Hotel, they led a hard working and lively life, accommodating and entertaining passing businessmen, pastoralists and those involved in the mining of rich deposits of gold discovered in the area.
When Leon was 2 years of age his sister Niobe was born and within a couple of years his parents had accepted the management of the Grosvenor Hotel in East Perth where they moved in 1954.
Life in a hotel was a lonely existence for a child and allowed for few occasions for family outings. Leon was left to his own devices frequently and he created his own entertainment. His imagination was fertile and he had every opportunity to explore it. In the labyrinth of passage ways and rooms in the iron clad victorian hotel Leon and his imagination ran amok.
During his school years he felt the isolation of hotel life acutely. It was difficult to invite friends home and there was no wider suburban infrastructure to provide activities out of school. The assortment of people who passed through the city hotel provided a colourful spectrum of life for a young boy with both positive and negative experiences.
At an early age he began drawing; initially creating his own work on top of advertising posters promoting tobacco and tourism then returning them to the hotel’s walls. Late last year when clearing out old boxes in storage, his grade 5 teacher from Thomas Street Primary School wrote to him and enclosed an art work from a class project. On the reverse of the image referring to the work she has written the words “Excellent (?genius)”!
Enid & Dido were busy with hotel life, by now managing the less salubrious Bedford Hotel in the city In some ways it consumed their world to the exclusion of their children. Regular entertaining of guests and financial pressures took their toll. Family life such as it was deteriorated gradually as Enid’s drinking problems increased. Dido became absorbed in a high flying group of gambling men. Dressed in his velvet jacket and bow tie, he would leave the hotel to meet friends in exclusive clubs and private homes where over a period of some years the earnings and assets of the family were slowly depleted.
At the age of sixteen this sensitive and vulnerable young man quietly left the private school he had been attending and enrolled into the nearest technical college to complete his education. Amidst financial hardship and marital disharmony at home, he battled to complete his final year of school.
His peers were mostly a year or so older than him, many returning to the Tech for another attempt at the Leaving Certificate . Together they journeyed precariously through a maelstrom of youthful adventures with little attention to education. Leon became a member of a rock band, discovered the holiday paradise of Rottnest Island and enjoyed an extremely busy social life. His sharp wit and devilish sense of adventure ensured this period of his life was full.
Art was always a subject that he excelled in and although music at this point was a more significant part of his life, he managed to submit a folio and gain acceptance into the fine art course at Perth Technical School in 1967. The fact that Robert Juniper had been his art teacher at high school was not insignificant in his decision to pursue this career path.
Through his introduction to art history he became fascinated by the works of Klee, Hundertwasser, Matisse, Rembrandt and Schiele amongst others. Whenever he could, he purchased books of artists he admired. He read keenly and showed interest in a wide range of artists around the world. His own work was typically eclectic, experimental and topical for the period.
In the late 60’s during the heady days of conscription for the Vietnam war, he sought protection in the form of an apprenticeship in Graphics at Gibbneys & Sons, pre-press and platemakers for the printing industry. Under the guidance of Art Director John Lunghi he spent one year working as an illustrator during the day while completing his art course at the Claremont Campus of Perth Tech at night. It was here that he developed his interest in printmaking under the guidance of Ron Waddell and Ted Pagram. (See plate.. Stockman)
As if making up for lost time he focused his prodigious talent on the task of gaining knowledge in as many mediums of art as possible. As Tony Russell, Head of Department of Art & Design, W.A Institute of Technology said “he always displayed a sharp sense of direction, accomplishing his set tasks with just a hint of impatience”.
Printmaking was experiencing a period of neglect with very few contemporary artists working in the area. Leon embraced the medium, with his characteristic passion and fervour, in particular that of etching.
It was during 1969 while still a student he held his first exhibition at Tuscany’s Art gallery, a new space in Claremont which unfortunately declared bankruptcy shortly after his exhibition closed, leaving an unpaid debt.
(See plates.....Reminiscence, The Quarry)
In 1971 he married Moira MacKellar. Leon was then studying Fine Art at W.A Institute of Technology (Curtin University) where he was converting his diploma into an associateship with a one year course. During this time, Moira was working as a travel consultant at Wesfarmers Travel. Someone had to pay the bills!!
Such was Leon’s commitment to his art and preparedness to work hard that he successfully completed his studies while at the same time working through the night, gathered a body of work for his next solo exhibition. At art school his works showed the necessary intellectual enquiry and examination of techniques and styles as he enjoyed pushing the boundaries of acceptability. However the works for his exhibition held at the Parmelia (Hilton) Hotel were realistic landscapes more akin to Turner and Constable. This sell out collection which parodied the romantic style of art identified Leon as a notable emerging artist and as Tony Russell wrote in the preface to his first book “Pericles Etchings” , “he enjoys something of the reputation of an “enfant terrible” .. amongst his contemporaries. (see plates.... Bridgetown River, “And the Valley Below”
Leon was impatient and determined to make his mark. His work ethic and unwillingness to toe the line of established art perameters, saw him marginalised to a degree by his peers. But this suited Leon. He saw many of his colleagues drift in the aftermath of university life, unable to focus and unwilling to take a commercial stand. By comparison he was outrageous and outstanding.
A successful application for an Australian Arts Council grant for overseas post graduate study saw Leon and Moira travel to Europe and UK for 2 years. Birmingham Polytechnic proved a valuable time and place to work and reflect on being an Australian and an artist. It was the birth place of Widjimorphup. (see plates...Over E. Widji Station, The Curse of Tutenkhamen over Edgbaston) Leon returned with an irrepressible enthusiasm, full of ideas and seeing more clearly the nature of Australian life used this vision as the spring board into the series of satirical and fantasy images which became his trademark.(see plates....Merino Dream. The Quick & the Dead....)
The birth of son Damien on return to Australia in 1974 considerably influenced and instigated the element of fantasy in his work however it would be fair to say it most likely re-ignited the child in the artist, perhaps, unfulfilled. Leon had lived a life which at times drew an ambiguous line between fantasy and reality. He had become adept at escaping into his imagination as a child. It was natural for him to travel a path with his work where he explored this concept. He clearly loved to challenge his viewer with the notion of absurdity and the blurred line between the real and unreal. (See plate - Superman.....)
In 1975 Leon was offered a part time teaching position at Nedlands Secondary Teachers College and thus began a period of making art, exhibiting, teaching and rearing a family. Daughter Nia was born in 1976. By the end of the 70’s Leon had won 9 art awards and held 9 solo exhibitions.
A man of many passions, Leon is a lover of books. His personal library was growing but it was time to start making books. In 1975 he prepared his first publication “Pericles Etchings” a compilation of all his hand made prints to date. As Tony Russell said in his foreword “....it is no small thing to compose in published form any collection of works and to present them in a way which meets not only the standards required of the work itself but all of the excellence of design and presentation appropriate to such an edition.”
With predictable commitment and energy he pursued exhibitions on the eastern seaboard. Prominent Sydney gallery director Barry Stern identified the unique qualities of Leon’s work and encouraged him in the satirical and whimsical style he had ventured into. He had numerous exhibitions with Barry Stern Galleries in Sydney beginning the Australia wide following of his work. Veda Swain of the Greenhill Galleries in Perth and Adelaide was also a mentor who encouraged his work. Other doors opened and the collective enthusiasm inspired confidence in the body of work he was pursuing.(see plates.....Heaven & Earth 1977)
As a teacher of art including sculpture at Nedlands Teachers College, he expressed interest in the art of kite making and introduced projects within his classes. Kite flying is the ultimate in caprice. It suited Leon’ escapist tendencies and he loved the beauty of sunlight through painted images. He referred to them as “stained glass windows in the sky”. Typical of Leon’s passion, he pursued the interest through travelling to Japan as part of a tour of kite festivals. Subsequent invitations to return to fly his spectacular kites at festivals in Japan, China and Singapore are indicative of the high regard in which he was held at an international level. In 1984 he achieved the highest score in the “best kite’ award at the Weifang International Kite Festival in China. (see Plates......Kites)
With his love of the narrative, he began to produce work which satirised and celebrated aspects of life and landscape. As the work developed so did the town of Widjimorphup. Leon was increasingly using the fictitious town as a vehicle to express his ideas. (see plate....Down Town Widji. The Royal East Widji Art Society was formed to investigate and protect the discovery of an art find in the cellar of the Widji Shire Hall. This spawned an exhibition which in a respectful way satirised the nature of rural communities rallying together for a worthy cause. The same exhibition travelled to London where it was shown at the Qantas Gallery in 1983. (See plate......Royal East Widji Air Show).
Following quickly in its wake was the formation of the Royal Lake Widji Yacht Club which in 1985/86 deliciously parodied the America’s Cup Challenge in Fremantle. With the construction of its own 12 metre yacht and a committee led by the club Commodore Olse Dogg, a collection of paintings and prints marked a fund raising event for the club. Both these exhibitions combined an element of performance and public participation. Leon embraced the public with competitions and produced souvenir paraphernalia. He engaged VIPs in a series of letters concerning the proposed Cup Challenge and published his story of events. (see Plates....Storm in a Teacup)
Between these two important exhibitions Leon assembled his second book “A Bunch of Pictures” which continued the documentation of his limited edition print works.
Since the late 70’s Leon has been keeping notebooks; Japanese double sided washi paper stitched and bound in fabric, containing a plethora of ideas and working drawings that develop concepts and themes and are often the precursors to an art work. Now totalling more than 25, this collection offers an insight into the working mind of the artist.
As a young boy, Leon was a keen collector. At 9 years of age he had a cactus collection at the Grosvenor Hotel. The joy of seeking out that special piece be it a book, plant or just a unique object of curiosity, has been one of his life’s ongoing pleasures. Julian Leatherdale noted “There is an aspect of Leon’s work I would like to call the collector’s sensibility. It is the love of objects, little treasures in their own right, and a desire to arrange and order them. It is also expressed in the collector’s urge to cram as many objects or images as possible into a particular space either on a collage or in a jumble of pictures in a small frame as in the Congregated Images series.”
Collage began to appear in Leon’s work around the mid 80’s. He would expand a theme or narrative by adhering to the art specially created or found objects relevant to his topic. Leatherdale sees in Leon the collagist and collector as one, “creating order and balance - in colour, tone and design.”(see plate .... He Must Be Using Maggots or Bird Watchers)
The work of combining exhibitions with what was almost full time teaching reached a culmination in 1988. To quote Oscar Wilde gazing at the flock wallpaper on his death bed “one of us has to go”. For Leon it was an obvious choice, he relinquished his teaching job. By this stage he was teaching at Perth Technical College, St. Brigid’s campus and the whole structure of TAFE was under review. The tensions had been immense and it was an enormous relief for him. (see plate ...Getting Away from it All)
In 1989 the Art Gallery of Western Australia approached him with an invitation to hold a retrospective print exhibition. This marked a significant period in his life as he moved into a full time focus and the formal recognition of his significance as a West Australian artist. Curator of Prints at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Janda Gooding curated the collection and acknowledged “The key to his success is that he magnifies aspects of Australian life, bringing people, places and events into sharp focus......The works demand to be studied.”
His next book had been brewing for a couple of years and in 1990 he published “Unseen Works from the North Wing of the Widjimorphup Shire Art Gallery” This publication was extensive and included selected paintings, prints and biographical documentation written by Janda Gooding and arts editor of the West Australian Newspaper, Ron Banks.
Robert Juniper, the writer of forewords in two of his books has remained a close mentor and friend. He says of Leon “The outstanding quality of Leon’s work is his youthful exuberance; smiling and witty, his puckish humour touches all subjects. Combined with a mastery of technique and experimentation he manages to put laughter on a higher plane.”
With the freedom from teaching, Leon began to travel more extensively, accepting artist in residence invitations, large commissions and expanding his horizons.
A trip to Europe, in particular Venice in 1990 where he visited the gallery of Peggy Guggenheim planted the seed of his next series of exhibitions “The Tiggy Puggenheim Collection”. The subject for satire on this occasion was art patronage and blockbuster exhibitions. Nine months travelling around Australia in 1995 (towing a studio/caravan affectionately named “Jayleen”) saw 20 exhibitions held in major cities. Leon created a blockbuster in his desire to highlight the hype and uncritical acceptance which sometimes accompany these exhibitions. As ever, he subtly blurred the lines between fantasy and reality, demanding the viewer take a closer look. An example of this is the story of the shipwreck off the coast of Western Australia where Paul Gauguin, injured and lost, found his way to Widjimorphup where he convalesced. (see plate...Gauguin at Widji.)
With this series of exhibitions a new book was launched “The Tiggy Puggenheim Collection”. Sydney based arts writer and critic Julian Leatherdale contributed the text and commentary on the collection of new prints and paintings.
By this stage Leon’s work was reaching a wide audience around Australia. In Sydney during the 80’s Helen Turpin was appointed as his agent for NSW. Through Helen, Leon took a studio on the harbour’s edge of Black Wattle Bay in Sydney in 1999 and spent two months working on local images.
Returning home, other opportunities were pursued, commissions undertaken and an extensive building programme of homes and studios both in Perth and the South West were welcome distractions from what had been a long period of hard work.
With frequent journeys into more remote parts of Australia, Leon has established an affinity and affection for many parts of the country. His respect and understanding for the idiosyncracies of rural life have inspired many works (see plate.... Kanga in the Queue, Windy Ridge I & II). Early exploration of Australia has also fascinated Leon. Amazing stories of hardship and suffering have inspired a number of etchings. (see plate....In Search of.....)This often leads him in search of information about historical journeys, maps and events where he becomes absorbed for hours reading material from libraries and bookshops. (See plate.....Batavia...)
In the year 2000, by now young adults, Damien and Nia had moved to Sydney to work. Since the old home and studio was no longer a home, Leon established a fellowship for a graduating fine art student in memory of his fathers’ considerable support in the way of framing his work in his early career. The Dido Fellowship is a one year studio and accommodation fellowship. It is designed to assist a young artist in the crucial year following the completion of a university degree. ARTSWA support this initiative with a $10,000 living allowance for the fellow.
One of the ongoing concerns for any artist is that the well of creative energy and ideas may dry up. For Leon Pericles this appears to be highly unlikely. The essence of this artist may lie in the fact that he constantly reinvents himself. Never to be satisfied with the security of a predictable style or formula, Leon has the ability to pull things out from left field. This chameleon-like capacity to adapt keeps his work vital and his audience wondering what might happen next.
Last updated Saturday, 4 March, 2006