Saturday, June 30, 2007

Let Me Sleep On It

I read somewhere that the Thai's favourite pastime is sleep. I don't know if it's true or not but everywhere I go in Thailand, I see people sleeping: dozing in fold-out chairs, laid on their back, limbs straight to fit neatly onto large window ledges, snoring in hammocks tied between trees, freeway supports and makeshift shacks at the edge of busy roads. When there are no customers in the beauty salons, staff lay sleeping on the banana-lounge treatment chairs. There is no shame about sleeping.
Maybe this is one of the reasons I feel so at home there. I sleep a lot. I can fall asleep any time, on any surface. In my teen years, I slept on bare floors at friends houses, using my arms as a pillow. I've slept in scores of cheap, posture-wrecking beds. I've fallen asleep with my head on the steering wheel of my car as I waited a few minutes for my boyfriend. I drift into a blissful sleep after hours of lovemaking.
I sleep when I am depressed, in the hope that when I wake I will feel better. I sleep to relax when I am tense. I sleep to keep warm or to cool down. I sleep like the dead. I have slept through the sirens of fire-engines coming to put out a fire in a house I was staying at. I sleep an hour or two nearly every afternoon.
I feel guilty about sleeping even for the usual eight hours at night. If roused by a phone call or a visitor, I pretend I've been awake. It's an embarrassing, obvious lie. I think, like most Westerners, that I should be awake and doing
something, that sleep is a waste of time.
In Thailand, there is no such guilt. Ironically, I don't sleep as much when I'm there.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Soundtrack From Another Life

I found a copy of a song – At The Helm by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien with Hieroglyphics – that I played a lot when I was younger, when I was painting without sleep for 24 to 48 hours at a time.The song kept me going back then. I was broke, alone and exhausted. All my friends were going out to dinners, films, or parties. All I had was my work and my ambition. Listening to it again made me realise just how far I've come, how different (and so much better) my life is now. Those sad, solitary times were worth it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Like Minds

I love it when I find someone of a similar similar age to me who is driven, bright and ambitious. These days, I get to know people mostly through work-related email or 'phone conversations. I end up with have a singular and not always accurate impression of them. Eventually, if we meet in person, I am intrigued as different layers of their personality are revealed. Sometimes, unexpected connections fall into place.
I had coffee with the features director of Vogue Australia yesterday. We had been in touch remotely several times before but it was a surprise to discover that in person, she was an erudite, witty, and well-educated young woman – not at all like the caricatures of catty fashionistas on Ugly Betty (yeah, I'm a sucker for prime-time TV!). I also discovered that she was the founder of a small but fast-rising fashion label called Mrs. Press. I'd saved a press clipping about Mrs. Press a while ago and had been waiting for its clothes to become available; they're the kind of beautifully reworked or restored vintage pieces that I adore. Among my favorites: a range of elegant silk and cotton blend slips that fasten with discreet rows of tiny pearlised buttons on loops of ribbon.
For a long time, I've only worn paint-smeared work clothes: faded black jeans and grey denim skirts, layers of cheap black t-shirts and 'op-shop' jumpers in dark colours. It was partly practicality, partly being too unwell, mentally and physically, to give a shit about anything but the essentials. But I've always loved fashion, especially couture. Meeting the imagination and personality behind clothes that I happen to be into makes it even more fun!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mixing It Up

After ordering some Sennelier Dry Pigment several weeks ago, my first three jars of it arrived today. I spent ages just looking at them. They're the most brilliant, pure hues I have ever seen. There's something romantically alchemic about knowing that they can become any kind of paint I want simply by mixing them with various binders – oil, watercolour, tempera – and in almost limitless combinations of viscosity, texture and intensity.
I am going to use them for some large paintings using a similar approach to my recent watercolour works on paper. I thought about using pre-mixed watercolour but I don't like this medium on a large surface. It becomes flat, without the nuances I'm able to create when using it for small areas of colour. On the other hand, paint that I mix from pigment has a subtle depth. I first saw it used on a large, abstract-like landscape. The washes were beautifully delicate, vibrant, and seductively imperfect. Small fragments of pure pigment occasionally speckled the surface, bleeding into the rest of the colour.
The woman who sold me the Sennelier products remarked on my going back to basics, by which she meant 'old-fashioned' processes. I began painting using tubes and tins of synthetic colour with plastic textures. Mixing my own paint from pigment is a luxury I can finally savour.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Walk The Talk Or Walk Away

Over the past few months I've been refining a short story commissioned by a leading literary journal. The piece is autobiographical, bleak, and, in the editor's opinion, very good.
A few days ago, a lawyer for the journal advised against publishing the story because he felt it might provoke a defamation suit – even though he conceded that the alleged defamation was mild. He also added this inappropriate, condescending advice: "While it may well be a cathartic thing for her to be so open about it, I would like to know she had been adequately counselled on the implications of going so public". Leaving aside the ludicrous idea that I might be so fragile and naïve a personality that such counselling was necessary, I wondered if the lawyer had looked at the journal or its website, where a leading critic touts it as “demanding, disturbing and superb collection of writing by some of the best and most subtle thinkers and writers in the country”.
The female editor and I had many conversations about the need for stories like mine to be told. Both of us were aware of the controversy and cost that might result from its publication. From my point of view, I'd kept quiet for so long about the series of ugly incidents – including threats of rape, sexual harrassment and financial manipulation – and its perpetrators that it damaged me much more than any public fallout this story might cause. The editor has decided that, for her, caution might be the better part of valour but I am fucked if I am going to stay silent and not publish what I want.
I'll do what I usually do and work outside the system – maybe with a little more ferocity than usual, even for me.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Same Walls, Better Bunker

I've been re-organising my studio. After several months here, I have decided to unpack the remaining boxes and commit to spending half the next eighteen months or so in this space, in between my shows in Asia and Europe.
To be honest, I find it hard to settle. I am not sure I even know how. Still, I'm going to give it my best shot. I have bought a stack of modular plastic drawers and I have re-thought where I want to paint and where I want to handle my day-today administrative stuff. I have a desk and a comfortable chair. I've installed wi-fi and connected my stereo system to it. I've bought another stainless steel bookshelf. I have ordered a larger, queen-sized, Javanese teak daybed.
I have finished the last of the Kelly, The First Time series of watercolours. Now I have a two-metre high canvas on which I am going to begin painting during the next week or so. It feels good to be thinking about something new and on a larger scale.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Money Changes Everything

A few days ago, I found one of my drawings for sale at a well-known gallery. I was shocked. The drawing (in gel pens on paper) had once been the only one of my early works that I had kept – until I gave it to a close family member as a gift after they'd told much they liked it. All my work is tightly held so it's usually fun to see my pieces on the secondary market. When I saw this one for sale, I felt sick. It was if a part of me had been sold off – and by my own blood.
If it had been a more valuable work, maybe I could have rationalised the sale as a necessary solution to some pressing financial need.
Only recently, the same family member had sold some of my first paintings for tens of thousands. However, this work is of little monetary value and I doubt they would have received more than half a grand for it.
I'm ok with my art becoming a negotiable currency. It's an inevitable part of success. It just never occurred to me that a most personal gift to a family member might one day be cashed in.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Once Upon Another Time

It was long ago and somewhere completely different – a party at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney to celebrate the publication of a book I was in.
I had shaved off all my hair, which used to hang in long loose curls. I had put on weight. I was beyond caring. An aging male artist I’d met only once before told me I didn’t look as pretty: “Women should have long hair,” he said. I glanced at the spongy bulbs at his hips, the oily skull underneath his thinning hair, and his gaping overbite. I said nothing.
As I moved through the room, almost every man I met tried kiss and hug me, even if they didn’t know me. I turned my head so they couldn’t kiss my lips, and I moved their the groping hands off my hips and arse. Several pressed their business cards into my palm and invited me to call.
I stopped to get a drink. I could see one of my works from where I was standing. It was a two metre high self-portrait, in high gloss enamel. I was in my underwear, holding a rifle. I tried to remember the person I was then, but I couldn’t. I felt unbearably damaged, like my soul had been leached from my body leaving the rest of me trapped inside a dessicated, brittle shell.
My eyes shifted to the desert landscape behind the figure. I knew that part of me was still there; wandering, lost and broken, bleached like old bones by the sun, on the fractured mud shores of that long-dry outback lake.
My life is different now. And I've regained the part of me that was missing out there for so long.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Tempus, Fuck It

After all these years, you'd think that I'd get it: an artwork takes as long as it needs for it to be done.
Too often, I become impatient when a piece doesn't flow quickly from my imagination to reality. I think that I'm being stupid – or worse, that the idea is flawed. I get frustrated when it feels like I'm having to drag it out of myself, inch by inch. There's a point where I want to get rid of the work, to destroy it, so I can get on to the next one. In the past, I would. Nowadays, my boyfriend stops me.
Without exception, the hardest works turn out to be among my best. Somehow they absorb the effort and the hours that go into them and acquire more layers of meaning and emotional complexity. How this happens is still a mystery to me. I just have to learn to let each one have the time they need.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Old World Contemporary

The art critic, Ashley Crawford, who is a friend of mine, is among the speakers at something called, CHANGE Forum, one of a series of events under the umbrella title, A Constructed World, organised by the Australian Centre For Contemporary Art (better known as ACCA), in Melbourne. The subject: "We live in an environment of publishing without publishers". According to the invitation I received, it's intended to examine how material self-published by artists is consumed by audiences and ask, "Is anyone actually keeping or collecting these works?" It adds, "This conversation follows an Open Call for Publications and explores whether the market is too small or too unconcerned to support a print culture by or about artists."
Ashley will, I'm sure, make an intelligent contribution to the 'conversation' but I can't help feeling that there is something anachronistic, even quaint, about it. If anyone is self-publishing on paper these days, it is almost by definition in a small, limited edition that surfaces only in the gallery representing the artist and a few specialist bookstores. Even artist's 'zines reach only a slightly bigger, though still marginal audience. Very few artists would claim that any such publications are at the heart of their ouevres but rather, they're by-products of it, intriguing, but too often self-indulgent and amateurish curiosities that rarely enhance our understanding, even if, sometimes, they can be a lot of fun.
I suspect this isn't ACCA's view – which is a shame. Let's face it, when it comes to self-publishing and the wider distribution of an artist's work, not to mention the potential for an ongoing creative dialogue between artist and audience, new media is really where it's at. In its ignorance of that – implied by its 'open call' for publications and its unqualified reference to a 'print culture' – ACCA fails to live up to name. Instead of exploring the vanguard of artist-driven publishing, it wastes the rich intellectual resources at its disposal to pick over the remnants of what is no more than a declining, post-Guttenberg cottage industry.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ch-ch-ch-changes

For the past couple of weeks, I've felt like I've been wrapping up yet another chapter of my life and career. I've nearly finished a number of long-standing commissions, including two in enamel that bring to an end my ten-year relationship with this toxic medium. In between, I've been clearing out of my store-room a number of older works, mostly studies in acrylic on paper for early enamel paintings, and offering them to a selected few of my favourite collectors. I've also completed the last of my sexually graphic series of watercolours, Kelly, The First Time. As for what comes next, I have a pretty clear idea (for once!). It won't be in Australia. This country is something else I want to put behind me. For a while, anyway.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Tokyo Tremors

After a prolonged hiatus, plans for one or more shows in Tokyo, in late Spring, next year, have suddenly sprung to life. A set of dates has been confirmed, including an 'opening night' party at the Tokyo-based English architect, Mark Dytham's cooler-than-thou venue, Superdeluxe. I'll be heading there to finalise arrangements within the next couple of weeks.
I have shown once before in Japan, as part of a low-key group exhibition, but this will be my first solo outing, possibly covering not only my painting but also my photography and installation work. I'm unlikely to show in Australia for the next couple of years – I want to focus on Asia and Europe, where I have begun developing a modest base of collectors, instead – so I can't help but be a little nervous about the response of a whole new audience to my work.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Far From The Maddening Crowd

The poet and art critic for New Yorker magazine, Peter Schjeldahl, once wrote something to the effect that the best way to make it as an artist was to move to New York, meet some other like-minded artists, form a gang, and then promote yourselves together as not just an up-and-coming movement but a whole damn zeitgeist. He was only partly joking. Since the Renaissance, most successful artists have not only hung-out, worked and exhibited together, but also shared houses, studios, galleries, models, vices, lovers, hangers-on and patrons. Those that didn't found it a lot harder to claim a reputation, although a few – Caravaggio in the 16th century, Warhol in the 20th – ended up creating their own, non-art milieux that caused different kinds of stirs.
Of course, there have always been art's outsiders – the socially inept, the mentally disabled or the emotionally withdrawn – who have found recognition late in life or after their deaths, usually because of the arcane enthusiasm of a single collector or curator. What the critic, Roger Cardinal, defined in the '70s as 'outsider art' spans a pretty broad and unrelated output that, even in recent years, includes the works of L.A.'s Robert Williams and Brooklyn's Joe Coleman today and of the late Henry Darger and Joseph Cornell.
I don't have a gang, neither one I belong to nor one I 've formed around myself. I don't really think of myself as an outsider – I make too much money and too many people know me for that. Still, curators and gallerists have a blind spot when it comes to the individual intent on going it alone. Artists like me don't fit into a neat category. Labels are difficult to apply to us.
I don't know if this will this prove to be a loss in the long-term. Right now, I'm relieved not having to deal with a crowd. I do my work. I sell it. As for the rest, I don't worry about it. Only time will tell.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Not So Fem' Farang

Just a week at home and already I'm longing to be elsewhere. I miss my evening walks along the cluttered, crowded Pattaya beachfront, where the usual saline whiff of the sea is dissolved by the stench of undiluted sewerage, acrid exhaust fumes, and sweet-sour, chili-laden street food, and all you can hear above the relentless sputter of thousands of scooters and hundreds of tinny, Japanese-built taxi trucks is the cockatoo-like squawk of bar-girls and club touts appealing to the passing trade. My short hair, six-foot-plus farang frame, and uncommon (for the tropics) black t-shirt and skirt made the street vendors look twice, especially at night. Once, while I was walking with the petite, tattooed Poy, I was asked, "Hey, you lady-boy?". I smiled. In a country where the transsexual katoey is thought of as being of both a separate sex and caste, it didn't bother me at all.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Outsider Inside

I've been determined to re-organise the way in which I managed the representation and distribution of my art. I've long had a distrust of galleries, even the best of them (and there are damn few of those in Australia) and I've been increasingly dismayed by the rash of art prizes and competitions that have reduced creativity and intellectual complexity to little better than sport. I cling to a naive idealism about art that I've had since my youth, despite what I read about the callous manoeuvrings of well-established artists to have their work included in events such as the Venice Biennale or major institutional collections.
The first thing I did when I got home from S.E. Asia was sever my relationship with the Melbourne gallery, Metro 5, with which I was to have an exhibition of large paintings next year. My experiences with the gallery at Art Melbourne, this year, were less than good and although I like its director, Andrea Candiani, it was unlikely that any future collaboration would be a success.
I'm not going to join another gallery. I've had a few offers but I have enough financial independence now to develop ways to show and sell my work that (to use the jargon of the so-called new economy) 'disintermediates' it and creates a direct connection with collectors
– and not just here in Australia.. My online presence has already done that, to some extent, but there are still many other possibilities to explore.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Moral Outage

The late American novelist and teacher, John Gardner – who wrote, among many other books, Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues – was a champion of something he liked to call 'moral fiction'. In his view, moral fiction aspired "to discover those human values that are universally sustaining". I've never been quite certain what he meant by "universally sustaining" and how he came to define that as moral but I used to think it had little relevance to my art. At first glance, my most recent work has been defined by a thematic constant of moral ambivalence. However, I think they do have a 'moral' under-pinning, even if it is not exactly what Gardner had in mind when he wrote (in On Moral Fiction, published in 1978) about his elevated ambition "to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment."
A few people, including some influential (mostly middle-aged, male) curators and gallerists, have expressed disquiet about my recent work and its graphic depiction – its 'glamorisation', as one put it – of my own unabashed user-experience of the sex trade. I suspect they mistake realism for a crude marketing ploy – or worse, think that a young woman should shy away from delving too deeply into the darker inclinations of her own, uncertain sexuality. I don't see anything glamorous in my recent works. I am simply trying to draw the instinctually remote viewer into much the same emotional transaction – and literal dissection – as Damien Hirst offers in the opportunity to walk through the glassed-in, formaldehyde-preserved viscera of a dead cow. I want the sweet-sour scent of sexual fluids, cheap lube, booze and stale perfume to pervade my paintings to the point that they teeter between prurience and discomfort.
Maybe what's most novel about the precarious juggling act of my most recent works is that it's performed by a female artist. I suspect that this amplifies the dismissive clamor from those arbiters of taste who think that contemporary art post-Emin should somehow not be so intimate – and even if it is Emin, raw, 'deviant' sex still isn't really a suitable subject for a woman.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Bar Fine For A Muse

I met Poy on a revolving carousel bar in the middle of a pedestrians-only alley off Walking Street, near Pattaya's central beachfront. She was sitting on a high stool, sipping a beer and staring blankly straight ahead, as her stool and a dozen like it circled clockwise around a narrow counter. She was small, round-faced and pale, with long black hair piled high into a brittle, hairsprayed beehive. A denim mini-skirt barely covered her short, brown legs and there were large Japanese-style tattooes on her bare legs and on her back and arms where they emerged from beneath an abbreviated, silver-sequinned halter-top. She had silver studs in her nose, lower lip and tongue, and looked like a cross between a pyschotic geisha and a 1950's Asian cheerleader gone wrong – Gogo Yubari before she graduated to O-ren Ishii's yakuza gang.
I paid a 'bar fine' to her mama-san just like any one of the hundreds of U.S. navy boys who were drag-netting the neighbourhood for girls-for-hire that night. She took my hand and pretended to be my date as we strolled up the street to a well-known hip-hop bar where we could sip soapy cocktails and grind our pelvises together as we danced to a live band.
Later, back at my hotel, she became shy as she'd stripped. It wasn't her nakedness. Somehow, exposing the full extent of her intricate, blue-black tattooes seemed suddenly very intimate. She stood still, smiling faintly, eyes closed, as I drew her – as if my pencil was a finger moving lightly over the ink outlines on her skin. Only after a couple of minutes did she cover her bare nipples with a fore-arm and cup her shaven pussy with a tiny hand.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Beneath Her Skin

Every couple of nights, I would sketch one or two of the bar girls in my hotel room, away from the curious eyes of passers-by. I wasn't interested in making finished pictures. I wanted to sketch their eyes, their mouths, and the shape of their faces, as well as the way they angled their necks, elbows and wrists, the physical gestures as individual as fingerprints. Sometimes I photographed their tattoos, crude, inky stains tracing traditional Thai and (in a couple of cases) Japanese imagery.
I
rarely sketched them naked, although sometimes they relaxed enough that a languid sexual tension seeped into the space between my hand and their skin like a stray, sweet scent. We spoke so little that I was left alone to imagine myself within their minds and muscle, imagine what they did each night – and did with me, a couple of times, when I surrendered my inhibitions.
Truth is, I wasn't trying to find anything of them in the rough, quick marks I made. I was looking for shard-like reflections of myself
.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

I had the same conversation with nearly every Thai girl I met on the streets of Pattaya:
"What's your name?"
"Hazel."
"You staying long?"
"A couple of weeks."
"What hotel?"
"One near here."
"I think I know it. Where you from?"
"Australia."
"Ooh, Australia! I have a boyfriend in Australia." (
The boyfriend was always from wherever I was from, even when I said I was American or French.)
"Really?"
"Yes, but I'm very sad. He's not here."
"I'm sorry."
"Yes, but you're here."
"Yes I am."
"Are you alone?"
"Right now, yes."
"You are very nice. I like your short hair."
"Would you like a drink?"
"Yes."
Pause. "Umm,what's your name again?"
"Hazel."
"No matter."

Friday, June 01, 2007

Walking Street, Working

It's the 'wet' season in Thailand, the hot, humid, summer days of the south-west monsoon. Nothing in Pattaya really moves until late morning, when the streets have been cleared of the debris (mostly human) in front of the all-night bars and the pervasive smell of 'rice and mice' has been diluted by the fumes of the traffic and the diurnal sea breeze. The first week I was there, I rarely ever left my hotel until four p.m. or returned to it before 4 a.m.
I'm not, by nature, a night owl – except when it comes to painting – but I immersed myself in the hubbub of Pattaya's back streets. They're filled with noisey, neon-lit bars and go-go clubs, and the street circus of curbside vendors, food stalls, club touts and young girls and transexual katoeys trawling through the shoals of paunchy, balding, late middle-aged Caucasian men looking not for a fast fuck but the illusion of affectionate companionship, the 'real girlfriend experience', that in Thailand can be bought for less than the price of a cheap motel room back in the USA, Russia, Germany or any of the other places they come from by the thousands. Sexual tourism isn't new to me – I've been painting and photographing my experiences of it for the past year – but the open-ness of it in Pattaya, even during daylight hours, when the aging white men take the local girls for 'play dates' in the modern shopping malls and fast-food franchises, or at the manicured poolsides or frangipani-scented outdoor bars back at their hotels, caught me by surprise.
It didn't take long before I was reaching for my camera and my sketchbook. Even as I kicked back, drank a little too much (sometimes), and let myself be carried along by the raucous crowds, not to mention the temporary acquaintances I made – mostly working girls, who probably saw me a young, distaff alternative to their usual, blubbery marks – I slipped into what is, after all, the default mode of nearly every artist: voyeur.