It’s easy to mention Martin Sharp’s name in the same sentence as the word ‘icon’. After all he was an exemplary iconographer, an artist who reproduced and recreated icons, striving through duplication and repetition for the essential image.
But it says more about the artist than the images that Sharp became an icon himself, and his images became as iconic as their celebrated subjects.
Like all the best cultural conduits, Sharp was foremost a fan. And it was here that his work will be most remembered. He was a magnificent obsessive. He loved and he loved deeply and long. His obsessions, like all the most prolific maniacs, were well documented. And by maniac, I don’t mean he was insane, though one would hope that he was touched by some special madness. (He at least flirted with it with his preferred pharmaceutical enhancement LSD.) But he was maniacal in his compulsive pursuits, crazed and driven.
Let’s consider some of his most prized passions. Let’s face it, Tiny Tim was a strange looking man in an ill-fitting suit and a misshapen mop of curly hair and an unfortunate face inclined towards the grotesque. But Sharp, besotted with his shrill falsetto and his ethereal interpretation of the American songbook, found a special beauty. He became his main muse and many of Sharp’s most memorable works can be attributed to this strange affiliation.
Sharp then took Australia’s most beloved but over-illustrated icon, the Sydney Opera House, and anthromorphised it so elegantly it may as well have been winking at you. He got to touch up an actual icon up close when he redesigned the grimacing entrance to Sydney Harbour’s sideshow alley, the even more compelling face of Luna Park.
And who but Sharp could take that other famous vaudevillian visage of Roy Rene, and infer his oily greasepaint with a few master strokes of block colour, turning the legend into a logo? Who but Sharp could do better justice to the iconic copperplate typography and the divine graffiti of Arthur Stace who wrote the word ‘Eternity’ on Sydney streets for decades. Fellow travellers, Sharp understood Stace’s yearning to see the eternal in the everyday.
Sharp always appeared to be in good company, judging by his involvement in cultural flashpoints of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, like the utter oppression of Oz magazine for which Sharp was sentenced to hard labour for his art (seriously what could give you more cred?). As exemplified by his participation in the Yellow House project, he was one of an exclusive, improbably influential tribe of Australian artists and acolytes that changed the face not only of Australia art but the face of Australia itself. And Martin Sharp always did like an interesting face.