Goodbye Gus, the guardian of the semen.

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This is from a talk I gave in 2005, when I opened an exhibition of Gus’s work in Balmain. With additions.

“My curves are not mad” wrote Henri Matisse in the notes that accompanied Jazz, twenty decoupage compositions he had done for the publisher Teriade.

I quote it firstly because old Henri is one of Gus’ heroes, secondly, because neither are Gus’ curves and lines mad – I brought my 12 year old into see these drawings yesterday and she fell in love with them, saying to me “the more you look at them Dad the more you see.” And thirdly because I reckon the only thing that’s missing from these beautiful notebooks of his are some words. Gus is a damn fine teacher – and a few wry observations on the drawings would not go astray – and maybe make the whole package more marketable.

After all, as another one of Gus’ mentors, Pablo Picasso once said, the only thing an artist should talk about is money.

I’ve known Gus Cohen – tangentially – for a very long time during all of his career phases. I wrote for Pol around about the time Gus was art director there, but never knew him there. I worked in advertising in some of the same places as Gus but never while he was there. I wrote for Billy Blue when Gus was doing covers for them, but he never did a cover for one of my stories.

But I can’t remember not knowing him. There always seems to have been corner of my life full of Gus. Talk about painting and books and drawing and playing pool and – long ago – drinking lots of piss in The Clock before it became a poncy pub for dotcommies. When the bikies had the basement and you’d play pool with Maori boys and girls the size of barns. Which was funny because Gus was always the size of a pool cue.

When De and I and Laura came back to Sydney from Spain in 1991, we ran into Gus and went to his last Sydney show at Access in Balmain in 92. We bought a Glasshouse Mountain triptych that still hangs in my office at home.

And some time after he moved to Melbourne, Gus began sending me stuff. Soon I had so much stuff I began what he and I call The Gus Book. You can actually trace a trajectory of his life through the book.

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He wasn’t a very happy Gusso when he went to Melbourne. I visited him with his Mum in Heidelberg. She died soon after.

But gradually, things began to pick up. The settlement (of the will from his mother) came through and he bought the little house in Castlemaine. And then, he met Annie. I saw less of him, less envelopes for the Gus book arrived, but it didn’t matter. Because Gus was on top of it again.

But through all of his ups and downs, Gus had one true friend. Drawing. And painting. And later, sculpture. And he never stopped working, right up to the end.

Gus Cohen is not a big, flashy pushy artist. He doesn’t sit on art gallery committees or go to openings. He works. And he lives. And he knows, from life, as John Berger wrote in Permanent Red that “For the artist, drawing is discovery.”

I’ve got Gus paintings and drawings all over. There’s one beauty of Moore Park in my office and another in the little house we (used to) own in Spain. A couple of years ago, I let that house to a painter. She took down everything in the house – except the Gus Cohen Moore Park. It came home.

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One more story, and I’ll finish. I was doing some research for my last novel, The Man Who Painted Women – which Gus didn’t like much and had the decency to tell me, which writers really like by the way – and I was reading a totally insane book called The Mushroom and the Cross by John Allegro, who had been on the team preparing the Dead Sea Scrolls for publication when he went mad and decided that Christianity was a mushroom cult and wrote this book.

Any way, on page 58, I found this fascinating piece of information:

“The most common Hebrew word for ‘priest’, ‘kohen’ familiar as the well-known Jewish surname, comes from a Sumerian title GU-EN-NA, literally, “guardian of the semen….. He had charge of the god’s house….pouring the god’s semen over the heads of these dignitaries was intended to represent them as ‘gods’, replicas of the divine penis in heaven.”

And for all of you who buy a drawing or a construction tonight, remember, it was created by the guardian of the semen. No wonder he’s a such a spunk.

Post Gus.

Gus rang me out of the blue somewhere in the week beginning September 11 this year. He said “I was just going through my Teledex and your name was there so I’m ringing you!” I told him he was perhaps the only person in the world still using a Teledex. He proudly told he he’d bought a computer but hadn’t used it yet. He reminded me I’d promised to send him my latest book, and I hadn’t. I said I would do it next week. He said “ and I’ll send you a little self-portrait. I’ve been drawing like mad the last few weeks.” We said goodbye. I felt good. I always felt good after talking with Gus.

Then on the 20th I heard from his daughter Samantha. Gus had died over the weekend. Probably heart. I hadn’t seen him for a while but he was a constant presence in my house, and in warm corner of my mind. Gus, wherever you’re going, I hope they give you paints and crayons

At the end of the talk that I took the body of this post from, I had written ‘I declare the show well and truly open.’

Sadly, I now declare the show well and truly closed.

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