Painters keep it real in Freo
Ken Wadrop, left, Marcus Beilby and Ray Beattie outside their old High Street studio. Picture: Gerald Moscarda/WA News

Their watershed exhibition High Street Studio Realists toured from the Art Gallery of WA to the State galleries in Sydney and Melbourne in 1980 to great acclaim.

Now Marcus Beilby, Ken Wadrop and Ray Beattie have been reunited for their first exhibition in 34 years, Fremantle Realists.

The trio shared a $15-a-week studio in the late 1970s above Archie Martin's in Fremantle's High Street, bouncing off each other as they explored realism and photorealism.

While art institutions in the 1970s delved further into abstraction, Wadrop says they were at the bottom of the rung. We were the scummy realists. Fortunately punk rock arrived, which gave us that rebel stance."

Beilby says they were feeling their way. "We were mucking around with traditional realism, exploring what it is to see and perceive, which is what photorealism is about. We liked the idea that we were not elitist and anybody could tap into the pictures."

The collision of punk rock, the old wharfie town of Fremantle and art, seemed an unlikely recipe for success. Like many other artists who took advantage of cheap studio space in the port city, the three embraced their environment, depicting Fremantle in their work and trawling its underbelly for inspiration.

Beilby says Fremantle was pretty rough before the glitz and glamour of the America's Cup. "You'd look out the door before you'd step out. The Backpackers in High Street was the Commercial Hotel. At five o'clock you'd open the window of the hotel waiting to see a fight start. I remember one that rolled out on to the streets. They all ran in to the RSL then stopped and suddenly looked at each other and walked out quite passively."

They would find excuses not to paint: playing cricket (knocking out the odd window with the odd six), pool or having cardboard swordfights. Wadrop says they'd plagiarise movie names, such as Return of the Pink Panther, for their titles. "We had a great time coming up with stupid titles. We felt a title could say a lot and you could also have a bit of a laugh."

Action Painting, 1978, by Wadrop is a prime example. Referencing the description of Jackson Pollock's work as "action painting", Wadrop painted a skip bin at Fremantle wharves in photorealistic style. The skip bin had the name of its owner, the Action company, emblazoned on the side. Curls of rope in the foreground allude to the characteristic paint-dripping swirls of Pollock's style.

Similarly, Beilby's 1976 Breakfast at Tiffany's depicts the counter of the old Coles Cafeteria, now Target, in Fremantle. Buttered cabbage was apparently all the rage, and goulash with noodles the proud 'special of the day.'

These now-historical visual documents are just some of many captured in a conscious drive to depict the everyday - the more ordinary the better. Beilby's 1990 painting depicting Happy Hour at the National Hotel on High Street, vandalised by fire in 2007, was used as a visual reference for the remodelled interior.

The "scummy realists" were being offered shows before they graduated, with Wadrop and Beilby well established in the High Street studio before Beattie joined them.

Born in Northern Ireland, he arrived in Sydney in 1967 and was conscripted to the Vietnam War in 1969, with both experiences influencing his work. Using printmaking as his medium, and realism the vehicle, Wadrop says there was a lot of emotion and psychological angst in Beattie's work. "That's what we liked about it. And the doom and gloom of punk at the time fitted in nicely."

Beilby went on to win the Sulman Prize for Australian Genre Painting in 1987, and was commissioned by the Queen to paint the opening of the new Parliament House in 1993.

Wadrop won the SECWA Prize in 1993 and was twice a finalist in the Mandorla Art Prize in 2002 and 2004. Now based in NSW, Beattie taught painting and printmaking at the Queensland College of the Arts for 16 years before retiring in 2003. His exhibitions include the 1997 Impressions: Australians in Vietnam at the Australian War Memorial.

Rather than being a retrospective, Fremantle Realists is a celebration of their 1980 touring show. While including some of the original works, the exhibition also shows their direction and influences since.

The stunning treatment of light in Wadrop's 1970 The Day the Earth Stood Still, and others, is replicated in his recent work, Ghosts of the Communication Age, where two figures are lit by the glowing light of a computer screen. Beattie, in comparison, has shifted from creating very personal works to overt political statements, while Beilby has strengthened and intensified his subject matter.

The three studied at a time when there was no tertiary allowance. It was a case of saving funds to afford art school. Beilby painted pictures on surf boards, Wadrop had been in the workforce since leaving school at 15. Both started at art school at the same time, at the age of 21. "It was a big moment being 21," says Wadrop. "You felt you had to get your s... together."

Beilby says the best thing you can do as an art student is be out of fashion. "It sounds like a cliche and it's really difficult because when you're young you're trying to find yourself and fit in. It's much easier to be groomed and moulded but you have to have the courage to be independent, though it's much easier said than done."

Fremantle Realists is on show at Fremantle Arts Centre until July 17.

The West Australian

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