Earle pops on a mask

FACELIFT: Larri Patience, inhabiting the body of landscape artist John Earle, standing among some of his pop and abstract art. Picture: Simone De Peak
FACELIFT: Larri Patience, inhabiting the body of landscape artist John Earle, standing among some of his pop and abstract art. Picture: Simone De Peak

FOR more than three decades, John Earle’s paintings have been as recognisably Newcastle as Bar Beach on a sunny day.

Perhaps that’s because John Earle has been best known for painting realist images of Bar Beach on a sunny day, along with depictions of other landmarks around Newcastle and the lake.

Yet this artist associated with sand, surf, and unfiltered light has now put on the mask - or perhaps taken it off - to show another side of his work.

“I see myself as being two artists in one, and it’s almost an embarrassing thing for me,” says Earle in his studio, gallery and home in Merewether.

TRADITION: John Earle, in his Merewether gallery with some paintings of local landmarks, which is the art style he is best known for. Picture: Simone De Peak

TRADITION: John Earle, in his Merewether gallery with some paintings of local landmarks, which is the art style he is best known for. Picture: Simone De Peak

That “other” artist who inhabits John Earle has been given a name: Larri Patience.

The name was arrived at in a rather random way. He and his partner, Amanda Pitcairn, cut out the letters for their surnames and kept arranging them, searching for a pseudonym. 

An array of anagrams was found, including Peran Literaci, Claire Painter, Prince Le Tiara, and Trance Pereili, before Larri Patience materialised.

“This name jumped out at me, and it’s the one name I can remember,” shrugs Earle.

Larri Patience came into being so Earle could feel more comfortable in revealing something he is not known for but has been painting and sculpting for a long time: abstract and pop art.      

“In the old days I used to show two styles, but I thought I should knuckle down and be sensible,” he explains.

After his landscape paintings were hung in the high-profile Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, “I went in that direction, but the abstract has just kept creeping back in, behind closed doors”.

John Earle doing a painting study at Bar Beach. Picture: Simone De Peak

John Earle doing a painting study at Bar Beach. Picture: Simone De Peak

As his reputation as a realist landscape artist grew, his abstract paintings slipped further into the corner, out of public sight, but never out of the artist’s mind. When he resolved to show some of his abstract and pop artworks alongside his more traditional paintings, Earle asked himself, “How can I handle this?”.

“So I came up with Larri Patience.”

“What I find useful about Larri Patience as a name is I talk about ‘Larri Patience stuff’, rather than surrealist pop art.” 

To give a face to Larri, Earle puts on a mask. It is that of Ambassador Magma, the character of a Japanese comic and 1960s TV series.

“It’s how he’d like to look in real life,” says Amanda Pitcairn about her partner.

“Well, he has good youthful skin,” offers Earle, before describing Larri’s character. “It’s kind of a bit like... Is there a better word than ‘superhero’? He’s a bit like Astro Boy.”

“Is he a boy, or a girl?,” asks Pitcairn. “Larri is generally nice. She has solar panels on the roof and a rainwater tank. So a new age superhero.”

What looks like a childhood throwback with that mask is actually the face of a mid-life passion. For the past decade or so, Earle has been collecting Japanese vintage toys, particularly robots. He has hundreds of them and has paid up to $1800 for a toy.

His explanation for collecting toys is simple: “These old robots are kind of interesting.”

Choosing a name for John Earle's alter-ego, Larri Patience, from the letters of his and his partner's surnames. Picture: Simone De Peak

Choosing a name for John Earle's alter-ego, Larri Patience, from the letters of his and his partner's surnames. Picture: Simone De Peak

More than give a face to Larri, the toys, and the time they have come from, have fed the inspiration for the art. Across canvases that are so finely painted they look as though they have been quilted, amoebic shapes float, and dots and circles bounce. Many of the images look as though they are Earle/Patience’s take on 1960s psychedelia and flower power. There are even floral motifs in some of the works.

The influences from another era also flow into the sculptures John/Larri has been creating. They are bright and sheeny, with a couple in particular looking like petrified blobs from a lava lamp. Actually, in the lounge room, a lava lamp sits between the sculptures. Earle explains he did some drawings of the lava lamp blobs. Then he converted those drawings into something three dimensional.

“I haven’t seen anyone doing it before, so I thought I’d have a crack,” he says.

Having a crack, however, required monumental effort, bringing together artistic imagination and trade skills. In his backyard, Earle crafted rough sculptures with plaster and balloons. He enlisted the help of a Central Coast sculptor to turn those plaster shapes into fibreglass creations. 

Earle took the fibreglass work to a panel beater, who “treated it like a smashed car”, feeling for the bumps and lumps and smoothing them out. He then went to a spray painter, who applied coat after coat to the sculptures to create a “mirror effect”. For the large works, Earle had to use a truck repairer’s spray painting booth.

The artist says it was interesting approaching tradesmen with his ideas: “You get someone who is either bemused and helpful, or they struggle with what you need.”

Many of the jumping-off points for the sculptures and paintings may come from the past, but Larri Patience is not stuck there.

“Larri Patience has been taking in the influences from this millennium, computers and technology,” says Earle.

And so John Earle, with his landscape paintings that wear the stately influences and techniques of artists dating back centuries, and Larri Patience, with his high-vis interpretations of modern life and art, are holding a combined exhibition at Cooks Hill Galleries.   

Given the reputation and audience Earle has built with his realist landscapes, he could have grounds for being concerned that Patience’s surreal works could frighten off customers who don’t need or want the shock of the new. But Earle doesn’t seem fussed.

“Who gets worried at this stage of life!,” Earle, who is 63, says. “It allows a certain amount of freedom. Who knows if I’m up for another [exhibition] like this?

“I really like my landscapes, but I thought the abstracts may be on trend.”

Earle hopes the works created under the Larri Patience name encourages viewers to take another look at him as an artist. What’s more, Earle says, Larri has been good for his own art.

John Earle with some of his Larri Patience creations. Picture: Simone De Peak

John Earle with some of his Larri Patience creations. Picture: Simone De Peak

“It’s surprising,” Earle explains. “You spend a few weeks doing Larrie Patience, and I know I have to get back to a landscape, and I ask, ‘Can I do that?’. “I’m befuddled for a minute or two, and then I snap back.

“One inspires the other. It keeps me fresh. I learn from the abstracts, and the landscapes continue to improve.”

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