Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Detoxing

I have just prepared one of my last enamel on board works, POW II, for delivery to an Irish collector in England and I am awaiting the return of a version of I Love Cheesecake II from the USA so it can be forwarded to an Australian collector. I have then only to finish one last enamel work – already partly done – from my Lake Eyre On Acid series, titled Under And Over, for another Australian collector and I will be done with the medium for good.
I am already feeling much better now that I don't work with enamel every day. It'll take a while longer for the stench of it to dissipate from the studio.

Making My Marks

Over the past twelve years, most of my work has been created for exhibitions, competitions or commissions. Painting with enamel, as I did for about a decade, was so time-consuming that I had little opportunity to do anything else. When I sketched and drew a few initial studies for each work, it was always within a very tight time frame. Each sketch was an exercise in both detail and reduction – the antithesis of freedom and spontaneity. The results were quite mechanical and I derived little satisfaction from the initial stages of a work.
Then I went about it a different way. The sketches for my recent watercolours on paper – fifteen of which were exhibited at my Venus In Hell show at MARS Gallery, in Melbourne, last year – are visible beneath the paint. They are an integral part of the work.
Very recently, I started working on drawings and sketches for a series of installations. I tend to be obsessed with detail – any detail – and when drawing, I usually over-work everything with fine pens and pencils. It's an infuriating bad habit and I slip into it without realising. To avoid it, I've begun drawing with watercolour instead, using a relatively large brush, and minimal colours.
It's so liberating! I can draw quickly and with greater fluidity (literally!). I don't fuss too much about composition or technique and I am redisovering an innate, almost atavistic love of making simple marks.
I haven't felt this way since before I went to art school, before I even thought of art as a vocation.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

(In)Appropriate

Having one's work appropriated in some way is said (usually by those doing the appropriating) to be a compliment. I don't see it that way. More often than not, it just feels like a cheap mugging, with the loss of not only a sense of ownership but also some sense of self.
Nearly a year ago, I was proud to be invited to design a cover for a special edition of one of Australia's most widely read journals of new writing, Griffith REVIEW, edited by Julianne Schultz. My idea for it was simple: a rough board hand-painted in orange acrylic on top of which I created the issue's title, The Next Big Thing, in distressed, roughly torn, silver electrical tape. The effect was striking and relevant.
Eight months after The Next Big Thing's publication, I came across, by chance, a review of Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive And Others Die, By Chip Heath and Dan Heath, published
this month in the USA by Random House. Imagine my shock when I saw its cover, above.
It'll piss me off no end if the graphic artist who ripped off my idea wins some crappy award for 'their' original work.

Look At You

I have been working on a large-scale installation piece, provisionally titled Sex Tourist. It's too early for me to write much about it – like some novelists I've read about, I fear losing interest in a work-in-progress by "talking it out" rather than just doing it – but it has provoked a deal of intimate reflection about my own sexuality and the influence it has on my art.
I think of myself as a voyeur. I like to watch bodies and faces and I'm intrigued by how posture and expression are influenced by emotion. I like to watch how people move around and with each other, especially in the most intimate circumstances.
I am also captivated by the covert or the taboo. Nudity, sex,
perversity, societal and religious rituals are elemental to art and a lot of my own work is an exploration of their psycho-social significance and effect.
In my early work, I wanted to control the way people looked at my work and me. In some ways, I wanted to reflect their gaze back at them from the shiney enamel surfaces of my paintings. Now I am not so tightly wrapped. In fact, my recent work is completely unbound and at times almost exalts in the lush, warm spill of bodily fluids – blood, semen, saliva and sweat – as I let my libido and the tremor of new-found love mix with the residue of old but still bloody wounds from my youth and flow unchecked through my hands and brush.
Recently, even the brush began to feel too constricted as a conduit for everything I have wanted to express. I am constructing (there is no other word for it!) room-sized environments of not only images – painted, photographed and filmed – but words, sounds and intricate diagrams that are my first attempts to actually map my unstable psyche.
Thankfully I have a man in my life with whom I can explore right up to the most precipitous edges of my desires. He turns me on beyond my wildest imaginings and yet I feel safe enough to go out on the slenderest of limbs. He always has a hold of me.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Slow Embrace

Years ago, I saw an interview with David Hockney, conducted by Melvyn Bragg, in which Hockney, a compulsive snapper, argued why he thought painting was superior to photography.
It was a matter of time. A camera was the perfect means to capture a so-called decisive moment but the resulting print, no matter how well composed, no matter how engaging the subject matter, was only a 'surface' experience. A micro-second frozen, there were no layers of time for the viewer to explore in the same way as a painting. Created over days or weeks, with several, different-aged layers of paint adhering in varying densities on – and in – the canvas, there was a literal and metaphysical depth to a painting. Relatively new, more 'instant' media, such as photography (let alone digital imaging) just couldn't compare.
I was reminded of this as I watched Hockney being interviewed by the Australian critic, Robert Hughes, in Hughes' TV
documentary series, The New Shock Of The New. Hughes made an impassioned argument for a return to the artisan skills of painting and to what he called "slow art" as opposed to the media-friendly, industrially-manufactured, conceptual game-playing of artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst – "Fast art, like fast food!". Hughes wasn't against all conceptual art but like the painter, Sean Scully, whom Hughes also interviewed, he expressed discomfort with the idea of art as an extension of entertainment. Scully railed against the increasing influence of TV advertising, graphic design, and mass-market movies on art's content and techniques. Art, to Scully's and Hughes' minds, should be higher-minded.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Looking Different

I am going through an extended period of change.
Last year, I turned my back on the large enamel works on board that have driven my career (and a constant flow of commissions) for the past decade to focus on more intimate watercolours on paper. Unlike my enamels, the watercolours were done quickly, almost impulsively, and served (to paraphrase the fine American novelist, Jim Harrison) to thaw a frozen sea within me. I continue to experiment with a variety of media on both board and paper but more and more, I find that I am 'seeing' on a larger, mutli-dimensional scale and the confines of a flat surface can no longer contain the more intricate concepts that have been occupying me.
Radical change in life and art can be a harrowing process. Having managed it in the former, albeit at high personal cost, I am getting ready to tackle it in the latter. Already, sketchbooks, notepads, maps, books, photographs, odd clumps of partly shaped clay and cipher-like patterns formed with bamboo sticks and beading are scattered across my studio floor. I am not answering the phone. I have released my assistant. I have the first, exciting but vapour-like inklings of... something. I have to spend time alone with it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Blackout

I'm sorry for the long spell of no entries here. It was because, according to Blogger's invisible and uncontactable administrators, a so-called 'bot had wrongly flagged these pages as a 'spam blog'. My account was frozen until more sentient wetware could verify that whatever else my writing is (or isn't), spam has nothing to do with it.
I went to Typepad for a while but somehow I couldn't quite get comfortable with the cheap decor there. So, for better or worse, I am back.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Telling Tales

I have finished the penultimate of a long series of enamel paintings. One more to go – a commission for a favorite collector, who has agreed that I can take my time on it – and then I will be done with the medium.
I wonder whether I am also done with traditional painting. Over the past year, I have worked with watercolour, pen, pencil and collage on paper but more and more, I find myself imagining beyond the single dimension of a flat white space: I keep thinking about large-scale, navigable installations, works that occupy a deal of floor-space and enable the viewer somehow to interact directly with a mixture of abstract ideas and remnants of actual experience – art as artefact and narrative.
Narrative is something of a dirty word in art these days. It implies a subjective art as opposed to the notion of an objective art, art that is, as Jeff Koons has described it, disconnected from the messy sprawl of self-expression. And yet just as I can't let go of a sneaking pride in the basic craftsmanship of my work, I can't turn my back on an almost primitive impulse to make works that tell stories, however obscure.

Paint It Black

A number of people have written to me asking about the risks of using enamel paint.
I used to work with enamel for intense periods, mostly indoors. For nearly a decade, I have painted, on average, 12 hours a day, six days a week, with it and while I might not have cared about the risks it posed when I was younger, I didn't really know too much about them.
Now I do and it scares the crap out of me.
Enamel paint sets slowly as the chemical drying and hardening agents evaporate, creating a brittle, glossy finish. These toxic agents are inhaled, absorbed by clothing and settle on skin which, of course, also absorbs them. I use a respirator with chemical filter pads but it can't scrub the air completely. The mask partially obscures vision, and after a few hours use, condensation forms on the inside. Moisture drips, or is 'breathed' out, onto the paint - it can ruin an entire coat.
Recurrent ill effects that I've experienced recently, all attributable to the paint, are asthma, bronchitis, skin sores, rashes and red, burn-like marks, bleeding ulcers inside my nose, stomach pains, vomiting, dry, sore eyes, and general itchiness. Worse, my doctor is concerned that my general sensitivity to chemicals will increase to include those which are considered harmless. This is happening already: last time I filled my car with unleaded gas, I vomited.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Eye and throat or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness, and vision problems are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some chemicals. In professional painters who are exposed to high levels of paint vapors for long periods of time, some chemicals in paints have damaged the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Some chemicals cause cancer or reproductive and developmental effects in laboratory animals. To avoid any health risks for themselves and their unborn babies, pregnant women should avoid undertaking painting projects and should limit their time in freshly painted rooms, especially when oil-based paints are being used."
As for the turpentine
used to thin enamel paint (and to clean brushes):
"It is a skin, eye, mucous membrane, and upper respiratory tract irritant in humans. It may also cause skin sensitization and central nervous system, gastrointestinal, and urinary tract effects... The signs and symptoms of acute inhalation exposure to turpentine may include irritation of the skin, eyes, mucous membranes, and upper respiratory tract; salivation, cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath; confusion, headache, dizziness, nausea, anxiety, painful urination, bloody urination, or decreased urine output... signs and symptoms of chronic exposure to turpentine include dermatitis or eczema, with irritation, redness, swelling, and small or large fluid-filled blisters on the skin. Workers exposed to terpenes (a principal component of turpentine) for longer than 5 years may also be at greater risk of developing lung cancer."

The Monster Within

Every so often I succumb to a sickening dread that I am, somehow, not succeeding as an artist, despite the increased financial rewards and celebrity I have gained over the past 18 months or so.

It sneaks up on me when I read about another artist, usually someone I know, of a similar age to me, who has been included in a prestigious museum show or awarded a generous grant. I can't help wondering what they're doing that I'm not and why whatever it is has drawn such attention. Of course, everything that should assure me of my own accomplishments – the sold-out shows, the backlog of commissions, the critical acclaim – recede from view and pretty soon I find myself wallowing in irrational self-negation.
At least there's an upside. These episodes don't last long and afterwards, I drive myself to work even harder, to think more deeply and with more complexity about what I am doing. As odd it might sound my art improves as a result of these flashes of inadequacy and envy, even if I'm left somewhat ashamed by them.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Agoraphobia

This is my 100th post here but if you're expecting something exciting from me to celebrate this, you're going to be disappointed.
I've hardly been out of the house this week. It was something of an adventure, this morning, to drive to the next small town along the coast – a distance of just a couple of miles – to have one of my works on paper photographed for a New York art magazine. Even then, after fifteen minutes in a long tailback of traffic on 'the bends', the two-lane strip of blacktop winding around a deep, rain-forested gully that is the main route in and out of the peninsula where I live, I was ready to do a U-turn, drive home, and not venture out again until the end of the tourist season.
I have enough to keep me occupied. I am almost finished the commission for the UK client – a large enamel on board that's aggravated my acute allergy to the medium – and in between sketching a new series of works, I have been trying to balance my half-yearly accounts and catch up with a pile of correspondence that I've been ignoring for a month. Of course, I am supposed to be resting, according to the doctor, and I have promised myself that I will.
Tomorrow.

Monday, January 08, 2007

At The Bleeding Edge

Like a junkie who can't give up the self-destructive rush of ice or crystal meth', I haven't been able to give up painting with enamel even though its impact on me has been almost as ruinous as any street drug. Yesterday, I was given a grim warning that there really was no choice: either I stay away from the medium for good or risk serious illness and an early death. Its fumes are so toxic to me that my skin is covered in blisters and the small, bloody sore in my nose has become a suppurating ulcer. I might be regaining my mental stability but my physical health is a mess.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I wouldn't have cared but it's different now. I care very much. After a long, hard apprenticeship, I am beginning to find my way with my art. I am excited about the several projects I have planned for the coming year. I am not only making a good living but I am making a good life. Better yet, I have found someone – someone very smart, sexy, enigmatic and inspiring – with whom I can share it.
So it comes to this: after more than a decade, I am spurning enamel's luminous, glossy but ultimately fatal allure. I won't paint with it again. I will get better. I suspect that my art will, too.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Job Description

"The artist's job is to bring back the consciousness that nothing is really necessary, and that rational things, rational decisions and facts and events, are not any more necessary than imaginary things."
Francesco Clemente (in an interview with Rainer Crone, 1996)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Outdoor Type

For the last few days, I've been painting outside, underneath my pole house. The space is a large, concrete slab on which I can position the boards and canvases so that they're sheltered even from the worst weather. Working in the open air eases the toxic effect of the enamel fumes. I still feel sick, especially the next day, but it's not as bad as when I paint inside.
I love this new studio without walls. I can look across the wide, forested bay with no windows or doors framing the view. I can smell the rain before it comes, and the fragrant scent of frangipanis in the warm breeze. I usually play music while I work but in these past few days I've been content to listen only to the sound of cicadas
and native birds.
I love the idea of breaking out of the confines of the traditional studio space. I have always wanted to be more mobile with my work. Many artists travel. I've been looking at how Francesco Clemente divides his time between Italy, New York, and India, filtering his observations and experiences of these places through his own visual language. Miquel Barcelo lives and works in Paris, Majorca and Mali, using pigments, ash, and materials from each of these areas.
I've begun researching the rich tradition of 18th and 19th century expedition artists – artists as explorers. Before I studied art, I began a degree in languages and anthropology. I grew disinterested in anthropology – I couldn't help thinking of it as the most exploitative, self-serving form of tourism - but I remain intensely curious about cultures, customs and beliefs very different to my own. More and more, the mindless, spiritually bereft, predictable routines of the developed world's consumer society are wearing on me. I long to live and work elsewhere for a while, away from so-called 'civilisation'.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Tapping The Source

Sometimes I paint a picture and as soon as it's done, I wonder, "Where the hell did that come from?". It doesn't happen often – after all, I tend to be a control freak – and it's disconcerting because the picture usually bears no relation to anything I've done before. Still, it excites me because it can mean that that I've tapped into a new and unexplored layer of my subconscious and with it, the opportunity to deepen my work.
Of course, it can also be crap, random (even irrelevant) visual data that have somehow coalesced to form a simulacrum of real inspiration. I can't always tell. It takes time – or someone else – to examine the work to recognise it for what it is or what it might become.
That's the thing about art: there's nothing predictable about it. One can never rest easy.