From The Terrace – Arty Tarty

By Bruce Menzies

From The Terrace is a regular column taking a light look at Fremantle life through the eyes of a semi-fictional quintet who meet weekly at a café and pontificate about an array of subjects.

Bruce Menzies is a caffeine and café addict who applies his wry eye to the scenes around him.

We sit stoically outside the café as all hell breaks loose. From out of nowhere a thunderstorm erupts. In an instant, a muggy morning is transformed. Rain splatters the footpaths and roadways. Gutters flood as drains block. In the northern sky, tongues of lightning fork towards an awakening earth. And well might earth awake, after this dry and enervating summer.
‘About bloody time,’ says Desert Dan, stirring the raindrops that have begun to fill his coffee cup.
‘Where did that come from?’ grumbles the Kid, spooning the remnants of his sodden vanilla slice from a flooded saucer. Right on cue, his Apple watch pings. The Kid raises his arm and gives us the good news. The RAC have just issued a weather alert for South Fremantle. Heavy rain and strong winds. Batten down the hatches.
‘A bit too late for that,’ says Hydraulic Harry, frantically dishing off a text to one of his building sites. Hopefully, an alert underling will be on the ball and bring out the canvas before the storm moves east.
Five minutes later calm is restored. The wind drops and the rivulets around our feet have disappeared. Young Melinda appears with a cloth and begins to mop the tables. ‘Another round,’ she enquires, ‘on the house?’
Four pairs of eyes light up. ‘On the house’ – unheard of! But then again we are regulars – ageing regulars at that, and probably entitled to a dollop of commercial sympathy.
‘As I was saying.’ Dan shakes the water out of his battered Akubra. ‘As I was saying, you all should get down to the Fremantle Arts Centre while these paintings are on display. They’re bloody brilliant, and we need to support these kids.’
‘These kids’, as we knew by now, included his multi-talented niece. Not only did she play a mean oboe in the Montessori school band but she spent every spare minute turning out quirky sketches of Fremantle folk and their habitat. At the tender age of 17 ½ she was already a vivacious and flirtatious meteor who lobbed into local exhibitions and was destined to land on further shores. Her website revealed a kaleidoscope of colour and an invitation to browsers to click upon an entry button that strongly resembled Cleopatra’s nipple. Once inside, you were treated to a display of paintings and poetry as well as music clips and snippets of millennial wisdom.
Naturally, our Dan was quietly proud of young Jessica Jacobi – known to friends and family as ‘Jumping Jess’. We’d been introduced when we bumped into her one day at Leighton. She was surrounded by equally effervescent and tastefully tattooed teenagers, all conversing loudly in front of the Orange Box. It turned out we’d just missed a gallery opening but we had no excuses for not showing up at this new gig at the Art Centre.
Front up we did, save for the Coach who was taking a long sabbatical down at Dunsborough. (To mutual consternation, our quintet had suddenly become a quartet. We pondered aloud as to how the dynamics might change and made sure the Coach knew that he and his studied contributions would be missed. But the South was calling and, for the time being, our friend would be lost to Fremantle.)
Now, before we pass under the arch and enter the grounds of the solid yet picturesque institution which, in days of yore, accommodated mentally-challenged citizens, let us enter the usual caveat that what follows will be the uninformed observations of those who hold no pretensions of deep and meaningful artistic appreciation. No one in our little group has sung or painted or performed, save in the privacy of their indulgent households. We are not experts in Capital –A ‘Art’.
This caveat is important for, despite our lack of expertise, we are not shy in offering our two bobs’ worth. During the course of our Thursday ramblings we’ve chanced upon many examples of Fremantle flair. At Manning Park we watched a string quartet make a fair fist of Schubert, while an underdressed bride and an overweight groom exchanged vows near the lake. As the Kid remarked, magic was in the air (softened somewhat by a carousing kookaburra and a whiff of algae).
Then, across at Hilton, we dropped coins into the cap of an elderly busker whose oeuvre seemed to begin and end with John Denver. While in the heart of our fair city we’ve paused in front of the markets to pay tribute to jugglers, fire-eaters, operatic aficionados, as well as chalk and charcoal celebrants who would whip up a portrait if you had folding currency of an appropriate denomination. Yes, we were broadly sympathetic to the artistic struggle and tried to do our bit to enable itinerant practitioners to keep their dream alive.
But we also knew where to draw the line – a kind of shared, unspoken boundary that may have had more to do with innate aesthetic appreciation than the incoherent instructions of a former public school art master who we later learnt had covertly imbibed Timothy Leary’s edict to turn on, tune in, and (eventually) drop out. I say this because our mutuality was the exception rather than the rule. On every other subject we were usually in fervent disagreement. But with the local art scene, we had our standards.
‘Is the bar open yet?’ asked the Kid, in the polite voice he reserved for tender-eyed wait-persons and alcohol dispensers of female persuasion.
After receiving an affirmative nod from a sequined cherub, we put in our orders. Three of us went for an elegant rosé, suitable for a summer evening, while Hydraulic Harry settled for a sauvignon blanc – the product, he told us, of a friend’s vineyard in the Great Southern. Armed with modestly-filled glasses, we commenced our perambulations.
I have to say the Arts Centre is a splendid venue. Patches of lawn, large shady trees, a paved courtyard, complemented by the building itself. We are told Western Australia’s convict past was brief yet intense. Well, the intensity steams through in what is billed as a fine example of Australian Gothic. Strolling the corridors, it’s easy to imagine dark times when opium-smoking Chinese immigrants and sunstruck miners, and later impoverished women, were incarcerated and treated with something less than loving care. Ghosts remain. But their presence has been subsumed by cheerful galleries, gift shops, and a café – not to mention an upstairs room named after a Fremantle footballer. Sipping our wine, we strolled and stared.
The exhibits, as often happens, were a mixed bag. Young Jessica’s pencil sketches of street life burst with vibrant energy. They occupied most of the main lobby. Desert Dan looked smug, and well he might. We had no need to bung on the praise. As our resident retired jurist might’ve said: res ipsa loquitur – the things did speak for themselves.
But other entries ranged from bland to arguably blasphemous. A side room was filled with sparsely framed, mono-coloured canvases straight from the Jackson Pollock School of splatter and scatter.
‘Rorschach inkblots, perhaps?’ said Harry, whose memory of psychology 101 was surprisingly useful in tight situations.
‘Dunno,’ shrugged Dan. ‘More like a turd dropping competition between feral camels and donkeys.’
I’d already turned away, my attention drawn to the sculpture in the middle of the room. A whopping great chunk of jarrah ascended from a limestone plinth. Vaguely fashioned to resemble a human, the figure sported a crown of eucalyptus leaves and gumnut lingam. The bald head and round face looked a rip-off from the ubiquitous stone Buddhas that sit in every third garden in South Fremantle. And, on close inspection, the dark eyes appeared to be cut-outs from Jennifer Lopez photographs in Woman’s Weekly.
‘Isn’t it simply gorgeous?’ A person of indeterminate gender stood at my side. He/she wore a muddy coloured outfit of recycled hessian. ‘I’d love to meet the artist.’
‘It is I.’ We’d been joined by a lithe young fellow clad head to toe in black silk. He affected to bow, and I found my hands coming together in a reflexive namaste.
‘What is your sculpture intending to symbolise?’ I asked, after grasping for a hopefully intelligent question.
‘Mon dieu! That is up to you, good sir. For me, however, this work springs from my innermost depths. Actually, I can’t say I created it. It simply arose.’
‘Like Phoenix,’ he or she murmured, while touching the artist lightly on his armpit.
‘Like hell!’ We turned to find a bearded fellow of advanced years pointing his walking stick at the sculpture. ‘I’m going to write to the Council. It’s a travesty to show something like this in a public place. An absolute disgrace, a bloody blasphemy.’
The artist swayed back on his heels, looking a tad shocked. The hessian–clad person glared daggers at the bearded one. After a moment’s silence, I enquired carefully:
‘A blasphemy? Do you think he is having a poke at Jesus?’
Our newest arrival swung his stick in the air. ‘No, you fools. That Jewish fellow is long gone. This – this monstrosity is obviously not Jesus. I wouldn’t mind if it was. But can’t you see – he’s poking fun at Banadaya – the great Banadaya. My guru! Nobody should be allowed to do that.’
Dodging the swinging cane, we all slunk to the extremities of the room. When I rejoined my friends and recounted the tale, they nodded sagely. In these modern times blasphemy and art were still at odds. Everything done or said would offend someone. Voices would be raised and verdicts given. I pitied the poor Council officers, sifting through voluble correspondence of aggrieved citizens. They deserve medals.
‘Couldn’t agree more,’ said the Culinary Kid, for once about to have the last word. ‘We need to renegotiate our deportation treaties. If this bloke loves his guru so much, he should be put on a plane and sent back to India.’
I gazed up at the darkening sky but didn’t say anything. A few days ago a former member of the saffron circus had confided that this Banayana was an enlightened Aussie from Palmyra. Hence, the gum nuts, a rather neat example of religious art, it could be said.
Arm in arm, we sauntered to the bar. Great wine and good art – or good wine and great art, does it matter? In Fremantle, dear old Freo, seemingly not. We are blessed with both, and everything in between.
Comfortably  sanguine, I bent over to retrieve a program and felt my shorts split. The serveuse behind the bar smiled and blew me a kiss. On that artistic high, the evening ended.