Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Birth Of A Career Babe

It began as a sarcastic joke about the women's movement and 'girl power'.
All through primary and secondary school, not to mention my brief stints at university, I was bombarded with the message, Girls Can Do Anything. I guess it was the times. The same message was appropriated by Mattel when they re-invented Barbie for a post-feminist pre-teen market.
I was brought up as a practical feminist, mainly by my father, who taught me less traditionally female skills. I learned, through him, that these were not always easy, or fun, but this was the price of equality. As a teenager, I began to suspect that the rest of society liked the idea of the empowered female more as a marketing tool, a perception reinforced by the vacuous Girlpower movement. Young women played dress up in the clothes of a serious career but they didn't really pay their dues, didn't really commit to what that career demanded. They were sold an attitude, an idea spoon-fed to them by wily advertisers. They ate it up, felt strong, independent, and full of baseless ambition.
Little wonder that this was the first serious theme I confronted in my painting. The result was Career Babes (example above), the most recognisable – and one of the most successful, both critically and commercially – of my series of large works.
In many ways, Career Babes defined the social, political and sexual themes that run through all my work, many of them inspired by the way women themselves have subverted idealised, sexual objectifying mass media and advertising images of femininity in order to compete with each other and, at the same time, try to seduce men. Over the past ten years, I have revisited the series to re-examine it and to review my feelings about the underlying themes.
The latest update of it is really a series in itself. Dangerous Career Babes explores how people use cosplay to play dress-up in fetishised versions of powerful, interesting characters. In other words, it's a step beyond mere career to something that reflects the current social predilection for the sensory, the virtual, the remixed, although it still about the impulse we have to assume a role, a character, in order to succeed. Career, vocation, life path, role, performance – in contemporary culture, these words have taken on new and very similar meanings. People inhabit (or lust after) characters in video games, avatar-based online communitites, anime, movies, even in art (I have heard women make jealous remarks about my earlier Career Babes series, and men make lustful ones).
Intrinsically, it comes down to female sexual desirability.
In the post-post-feminist society, men desire women who have an implied sense of danger, even if they and it are really a puerile, cartoon rendering. Lara Croft is a good example. She is intensely physical, with lots of sexually placed weaponry. Her profession is a great ruse for ogling and objectifying her. She can be held up as a great role model because she ticks some intellectual boxes. In the video game, she is often filmed from behind, each physically demanding movement eliciting a sexualised grunt or moan. Having dangerous female characters in moving media instead of dolls creates many more advantages for 'accidentally-on-purpose' voyeurism. It legitimises the opportunity for the female character's uniforms to be skimpy and skin tight to allow for 'freedom of movement'. Women and girls mimic the concept: the desire for sexual power as a tool again emerges.
Of course, the roles examined – and parodied – in Dangerous Career Babes also fulfill my own fantasies of being a strong, capable, desirable woman who does not need anyone else, whose occupation is dangerous and thrilling. It's a desire for life to be more than it is, to have the pedestrian edited or excised, to be more powerful in a number of ways – many of them related to female sexuality and youth – which are transient, and relatively easily manipulated by others and are not really that powerful after all. Most young women try to turn the last to their own advantage, devising themselves as a marketable 'package'.
I have struggled with the idea that I have had to do this too – an idea pushed on me by gallerists and art dealers and other, more powerful women. I fucking hate it.
In my teenage years, I was often sexually harassed. Men would followed me onto trains and buses, right to my front door. My school teachers hit on me. It debased my self-esteem, devalued what I felt had to communicate. So I dressed plainly, even though people tried instead to dress me up, to make me more pretty. It infuriated me. It also caused me a lot of distress and anxiety. I had to harness it in some way so, in the end, I made art about it.
I don't think people got it, at least in the beginning.
For too long, I felt I was pressured to not contribute to society, to not develop myself to my full potential. I have always been intelligent, but became disliked for it. To make everyone else comfortable, I had to shut up, dumb myself down, grow my hair long, be pretty, flirty and hold my tongue. Just because I could fill that role, because of what I looked like, there was huge pressure that I must.
I see women wasting huge amounts of time, effort, and money, to turn themselves into an ideal that age will inevitably destroy. It's an insult to everything that previous generations of women fought for. There are now so many opportunities for women to develop and realise their fullest potential, but most ignore or misuse them. It makes it harder for those of us who do want to take the best advantage of them.
All this, then, is the raw anger and frustration from which I conceived the original Career Babes, starting with scores of Polaroids self-portraits through which I channeled sexualised mass media imagery into a single, sinewy, crotch-baring pose. Art is supposed to cause people to think. To my annoyance, many who first saw Career Babes thought the works were cute. Women wanted to emulate the figures, and men wanted to bed them. I had made them desirable very deliberately to provoke such reactions, but I'd hoped that people would think more deeply about what it was about those reactions that should discomfort them.
With Dangerous Career Babes, I have decided to revisit the series after a long hiatus. The new images will be more subversive and confronting – yes, still sexualised, but not really cute. I can only hope they will be better understood.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Insomnia

I have been sleeping badly. My body feels tired but as soon as I lie down, my mind becomes alert, over-active. I read until the early hours of the morning, then I finally fall asleep. When I wake, my jaw's clenched so tight I have a headache.
My mind is craving stimulation. Input, not output. It's been hard to paint but I've had some good ideas for future works and exhibitions. They come in a steady stream so I write each one down before its smothered by the next .
I sketch as well, small black scribbles – shapes, figures, shadows. They're like Rorschach ink blots spilled from my subconscious, nothing to do with future works, just obscure symbols of things that are bothering me. I don't want to show them to anyone. By getting them out of my head, they can exist and interact on a page, not haunt me inside my head. It gives me a sense of peace.

Maybe my sleeplessness has something to do with trying to stop these things from coming out in my artwork. I have to just let it all out. Otherwise, I'll only tear myself up inside.
With that small revelation, I might sleep better tonight.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Breaking Camp

I was told I had to move out of my studio. The news was unexpected and at first, it caused me to feel panicked, jittery, and depressed. For the first time in my life, I was having to leave somewhere before I was ready to go.
It's taken me a year to settle in. I've accumulated more material things during my stay here than at any other time in my life – although friends would still call me minimalist. I sleep on a daybed that doubles as a couch. My desk and drawing table is improvised: one of the custom-made wooden frames I use for my larger works atop a pair of adjustable aluminium carpenter's trestles. I own a coffee table, books and shelves, five-by-one-metre wall of stackable clear plastic drawers for files, a number of favourite art works (not mine), and art materials - frames, paint, canvas, and boxes of things I have been collecting for future works.
Despite my reluctance to relocate, I found a new space. It might even be a better space. A small, unelaborate, cliff-top cottage, it has great natural light and there are enough rooms for work and storag. There's even a new shed in which I can finish the last of my enamel works.
One other thing I love about my new studio: it has a killer view. Through every window along the back of the house, I look out to the Tasman Sea across a crescent moon of beach and an ever-present pod of sleek, black wet-suited surfers. I have always been drawn to the ocean. It soothes me, makes me feel small: gazing at it, any troubles I have become insignificant.
I'll still be travelling a lot, but it will be good to know that I have a place like this to come back to. Who knows? I might even begin to call it 'home'.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Wandering Ghost

I have never thought of myself as an Australian artist. I was born in Australia, but I'm also British – or, as I prefer to think of it, European. I can live and work without any red tape in 28 countries.
I was raised as a nomad within Australia but I dreamed only of exploring the rest of the world. At age five, I made elaborate plans to go to Europe and later, to explore China's Yangtze River. I sensed even then that I belonged to more than just one place. My parents came from opposite sides of the world – in both a social and a geographical sense – and we spent my early childhood in a odd, alternative world that they created together. My father grew up in Leyton, in London's East End, the old neighbourhood of the Kray brothers. My mother was from what her oldest friend calls colonial landed gentry. When my parents moved away from their pasts, they lived like gypsies. I always expected to do the same when I grew up.
Nowadays, not even my few friends could tell you with any precision where I'm living, let alone why.
My definition of what constitutes 'home' – or, at least, an ideal of it – is a combination of my favourite parts of different places I've been, and yet nothing to do with an actual location. Home is where I sleep, or where my things are right now. Each place that I've spent time has an equally familiar feeling to me. I have no more loyalty to one than another. And I am no more loyal to a place I have been than to one to which I have yet to go. In many ways, I have more affinity with the latter. They offer new possibilities, more intriguing stimuli, unsolved mysteries.
No wonder I sometimes think of myself as ghost, quietly haunting wherever I happen to be. I am intangible, non-specific – then gone.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fuck Art, Let's Dance (Again)

Australians don't like to think. Too much Australian art is valued for its 'curb appeal'. Scratch its surface and there's nothing more to it: as someone once said of L.A., there is no there there.
To obscure their intellectual and spiritual barrenness, local artists pen statements filled with simplistic notions plumped up with dull, omni-referential jargon and inane, self-inflating 'brand positioning'. Their collectors just skim over them, not because they're smart but because, being Australians, they are nothing if not pre-Socratic. They don't like to think. They blanch at the sight of too many long words. Even if they pretend to understand them, all they really care about is the surface: if it looks slick and glossy, it must be good.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I Am An Island

I've been worn out since I got home. Spending four days 'on the road' and interacting with lots of people have been hard on me. I'm used to solitude: I like it.
My psychiatrist recently encouraged me to focus on rekindling various friendships and family relationships. He quoted John Donne's well-worn line, "No man is an island".
Unfortunately, I disagree – with both Donne and him. Just as there are islands in a geography dominated by continents, there are people whose nature imposes a need to be alone and apart from the mass of, well, others. Mine is a curious, friendly, communicative but introspective, insular personality. If I connect with people at all, it is almost always through my art.
The one exception is my boyfriend, whom I would describe as another island. Luckily, we share a vast ocean of the mind and heart, something I once thought impossible.
In the past couple of months, I've tried to spend time with different people from my past. I have invited them to stay at my house or I've arranged for them to fly somewhere to join me. I can't say that I've enjoyed it. All have been visibly discomforted by the restless, seven-day-a-week busy-ness of my life and work – which are pretty much indistinguishable – and the degree of what they obviously regard as 'privilege' I've earned from it. All have been unable(or unwilling) to bridge the chasm between the woman they once knew and the woman I am now. I end up feeling drained and frustrated. Maybe they do too.
My psychiatrist has argued for the importance of friends as a network of support. Frankly, I would rather pay people to support me, just as I pay him to help me care for my mental health. I pay a cleaner to come to my house once a fortnight. I pay a business manager to handle my financial affairs. I pay a driver to take me to and from airports and hotels. I have good relationships with all these people but I would not call them friendships. As far as I'm concerned, they're more efficient and hell of a lot easier.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Art Of The Deal, Deal Of The Art

I ran into a Melbourne-based art dealer I knew at a party hosted by a law firm in Adelaide. He was there because, like me, he knew the principal of the law firm, who is a collector of my work. The Melbourne dealer introduced me to another, local dealer, who knew who I was. The dealers asked which galleries represented my work and were perplexed when I told them none. When I tried to explain that I worked outside the conventional gallery system, using the web, their eyes glazed over with confusion and incomprehension. "Do you still exhibit?", they asked, "Don't you think it's important to exhibit?" Of course, I said. Just look at my CV.
Both knew a lot about my work and me but neither could explain why. They didn't make any connection between all the information they had and the methods I used outside conventional media to disseminate it. They kept asking why I was in Adelaide: I told them, more than once, that I'd come to visit several collectors of my work. The notion seemed almost arcane to them.
The next day, when I visited a commercial gallery with two other of my collectors, I saw a different art dealer. He asked how long I was staying in Adelaide. When I told him I had arrived last night and was leaving in a few hours, he muttered something about me "flitting around".
So many gallerists I know from well-established commercial firms with reputations ranging from recognisable to renowned cannot grasp the simple idea that I travel a lot to take care of what is, after all, my business.
I care for my collectors as I would for close friends. I gave a small, acrylic painting as an 'office-warming' gift to the principal of the law firm, who was thrilled with it. At the home of other Adelaide collectors, I was shown how my work had been hung within their large collection. They also had a stack of books, magazines, and catalogues containing my work, which they asked me to sign: I added personal notes to them and referred to the relevant artworks of mine in their collection.
With each of the collectors I visit, I talk about my ideas for future works and plans for exhibitions. They buy my work because they love it – it's obvious and I am deeply touched by it – but I also recognise that it's an investment, not only in an individual artwork but also in my long-term career. I email collectors whenever I know a work of mine has become available on the secondary market and I show them work before its exhibited. I take calls in the early hours of the morning from collectors wanting to secure work a week or more before one of my exhibitions opens.
I was gobsmacked by how little the art dealers I met really understood – or cared about – the needs of their clients. Surely, they should be doing everything I've described here, and more!, not only for their own benefit but for their artists. Instead, they note my success – and the evidence of it in my ubqiuity – but don't pause to analyse it. They're simply bemused by it.
Maybe they're content with where they are right now, although I am damn sure their artists aren't. I guess they're happy to be moderately successful and to continue to adhere to a traditional, unimaginative and untaxing methodology, selling the same work by the same artists to the same people in the same way.
The trouble is, many collectors are as frustrated as artists in their dealings with galleries. Many prefer not to have to deal with galleries at all. After all, as too many gallerists have forgotten, the collectors are there for the art.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Valet Of The Dolls

For my birthday, a month ago, two friends who also happen to be important collectors gave me a Blythe doll. I've always loved dolls, possibly because my mother went out of her way to discourage me from having them when I was a child, but none more than Blythe. There's something wonderfully sinister, even slightly deranged about the persistent vacancy in her cute, round-faced, manga-style expression. If I had more time, I'm sure I'd be obsessed with dressing and posing her.
Maybe not quite as obsessed as my friends, who have created a quasi-spiritual shrine to Blythe, her clothing and accessories in their home. They have built an impressive, well-considered collection of Australian contemporary art and photography but their Blythe shrine is far more unsettling, intellectually confronting and original than anything hanging on their walls. I was totally inspired by it!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Just Another City

Melbourne and Sydney are less different than I used to think. Australia's second largest city could be just another suburb of Sydney. The one-and-a-half-hour flight south to Melbourne can hardly be called 'travelling'.
I'm a very different woman to the one who left Melbourne, three years ago. I had a lot of bad experiences when I lived here, including a nervous breakdown in 2001. I had another just before I left in 2005. I let myself get used and ripped off here – several times – and as a result, I always felt dislocated, out of place. Now, with unarguable success, I am happy, confident, and much more at ease when I visit.
Melbourne is easier-going. more a 'people city', than Sydney. People often do things together, as a community, and the faux-European, riverside layout of the city encourages it. I like the narrow streets in the city's centre, where the faint whiff of burning sodium hangs in the air from the overhead power lines for the trams. There are graffiti everywhere, from the work of committed 'writers', who have an international reputation, to cheesy stencils, crude political slogans, and moronic 'tags'.
I'm still nostalgic about my old neighbourhood, Fitzroy North, and the local Italian supermarket, Piedemonte. There was an Italian woman who lived behind me, who only knew how to say "beautiful" in English and an older Italian man whom I saw every day, riding his bike, who would tell me, in a very genteel way, that I looked "lovely". I miss walking my whippet in Edinburgh Gardens.
For all this, Melbourne is still just another place I lived once. I came here for my career. I come back here only occasionally for the same reason. What's the point? Australian cities are so homogenous and suburban, they make everything, even art, feel dull and futile.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

P.S.

My small painting – 40cms x 50cms – from 2002, 21C Feminism: Resized for Easy Consumption, in high gloss enamel on board, sold at tonight's Deutscher-Menzies auction for $5,000. In other words, bidding reached the highest estimate for it published in the catalogue. This compares very favorably with the price for one of my much larger, early works, Death Angel, a 100cms by 150cms enamel on canvas painting from 1998 that Lawson-Menzies sold at auction in April, this year, for $12,000.
I'm thrilled!

The Selling Of A Younger Soul

Tonight and tomorrow, two of my early enamel works, 21C Feminism: Resized for Easy Consumption (2002) and Homogenous Babes (1995, above), are to be auctioned by Deutscher-Menzies and Lawson-Menzies in Sydney.
Tonight's
auction includes a number of works by very well-known artists such as Damien Hirst, David Hockney and Jeff Smart so I was thrilled to discover that my name is among those mentioned by Adrian Newstead, the new managing director of Lawson-Menzies, in his introduction to the auction catalogue: "I am particularly excited that our specialists have collected a number of contemporary works, which represent many of our most exciting emerging Australian artists. Worthy of mention is our first lot, Anna Egger's Caroline (Lot 201) along with the beautiful glazed beakers, which have become Gwen Hansen Pigotts's signature works (lot 207). Also represented are Cherry Hood (Lot 202), Graham Altmann (Lot 205), Matthew Johnston (Lot 206), Hazel Dooney (Lot 208) and Angela Brennan (Lot 211) - each extraordinarily talented painters highly worthy of attention by serious collectors."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Taking Flight From Myself

I have been steeling myself for four days of travel later this week: first to Adelaide to visit some collectors, then to Melbourne to catch up with gallerists and more collectors. I am still going through a fallow (read 'blocked') creative period so instead of butting my head against a blank canvas for several more days, I'm taking care of the business side of my art, something I've neglected for the past couple of months. At worst, I get to have breakfast served to me as I linger in bed in a couple of cosy boutique hotel rooms, I can eat in a few good restaurants, and have lively conversations with people who, even if they have nothing else in common, are all interested in my art.
I have spent a lot of the latter half of this year travelling, mostly to Asia. Truth is, I've become a little weary of it, especially as I've discovered, somewhat to my chagrin, that I'm someone who needs a specific place in which to work. I need to feel settled, to have my favorite brushes, tools, paints, books, music, and fetishes around me. A year ago, I would have argued that I was otherwise – a nomad, whose art was enhanced by the experience of working (and living) 'on the hoof'. Yes, I am deeply infected by wanderlust, and innately curious, but I can't process the experiences I have, no matter how exotic, unless I have somewhere familiar, safe, and comfortable to come to rest and there, with little haste, think about all that I've absorbed.
I think it was in a William Gibson novel that I came across the appealing notion that jet-lag was just a matter of a person having to wait for his or her soul to catch up with them after a long flight. When I get back to Sydney after an extended trip to Asia, I always feel as if I have to wait for the various ghosts and demons who attached themselves to me there to leave and find their way back home. Only then can I begin to paint.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Way I Was, And Am Again

I came across an old black and white photograph of myself, taken when I was about 18. I was living away from my family, although I didn't really have a home of my own, just rooms I rented at different times in half a dozen different apartments around Brisbane's grotty, working class suburbs. I had just committed to taking myself more seriously as an artist and I was working towards my first exhibition. I was idealistic, angry and what my few friends at the time described as 'intense'. If I wasn't entirely certain of who I was yet – what 18-year-old ever was? – I was damn sure of who I wasn't and any attempt to argue compromise with me was met with sullen contempt. I wasn't exactly easy to deal with then but I liked who I was becoming. I relished the hardcore resolve within me.
I don't know what happened to me over the next few years – actually, I do but I'm not ready to write about it yet. I lost my inner compass and self-confidence. I continued to work. I earned some critical and financial success. But more and more I was persuaded (by people for whom, in retrospect, I had very little respect) that I had to submit to convention, to become more user-friendly, to accept that art and, increasingly, artists were just another high-priced commodity to be packaged and sold.
By the time I was in my early '20s, I was a mess. When my
Self Vs. Self show at the John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne bombed – it received good critical notices but it was another year before all the works sold – I fell into a depression so deep that my whole personality disintegrated. I gave up art and went to work in a shoe shop.
I've come full circle during the past three years. I've recovered my desire to make art by resolving not to compromise, not to listen to what middle-aged men in suits tell me is the 'right way' to manage my career and not to say 'yes' to anything that doesn't feel right, no matter how much money or publicity is on offer. I've also begun to exert greater control on how I market and sell my art, disintermediating the connection between my collectors and me and making my art and myself, as the artist, more accessible. In a sense, I've deconstructed the process that's often the biggest obstacle to most artists making a decent living. I made it work for me – the 'me' I wanted to be – rather than the other way around.
According to some, I'm once again not too easy to deal with. But I like who I'm becoming.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Rule Nothing Out

One of the many things that appeal to me about South-East Asia is the benign anarchy that bubbles just beneath the not-so-well-manicured surface of everyday life. Part of it has to do with poverty and the pressure on a majority of the people to make things work somehow without a lot of resources but part of it is also an inherent humanity – something the wise king of Thailand recently described as a necessary element of "an economy of happiness" – that isn't yet suppressed by too many petty regulations born not out of a genuine care for the populace's well-being but an insidious need to control. What Westerners would think of as rules, like having to stop at a traffic light, are merely suggestions for most Thais, a perception that's reinforced the moment one tries to negotiate rush-hour traffic as an unlicensed driver – "Just pay the policeman 150 baht, maybe less. License is not necessary. If you really want one, I have a friend who can print it for you." – on an uninsured Japanese motor-scooter.
For the outsider, like me, it encourages s a new-found sense of personal freedom, of possibility, that flows into the work. The unsubtle civil disobedience and readiness to improvise that pervades daily life infects the imagination, making the idea that something as ill-defined as 'art' has any rules to break seem absurd.