Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

The local post office frequently neglects to tell me when packages arrive for me. I have to ask. Usually, I know what's coming through the mail but today was a surprise. I received a package from the USA, from an artist named Scott 'Malcho' Hull, who often comments on this blog. We've exchanged brief emails but I don't know him well.
I wasn't prepared for his gift: a wooden box full of luminescent watercolours from Daniel Smith, an American brand he'd told me about. I've never seen anything like them. They're slightly pearlised, with glints of a metallic, yet they don't have the artificiality of most metallic colours. They look more like natural minerals as one first sees them, glistening in veins within a rock face.
There was a note inside the box, explaining how his artist friends had given him help and various practical gifts so he'd decided to 'pay it forward' to me. There was also a catalogue, with details of daylight lamps, bags, and storage draws that I've always wanted but haven't found here in Australia.
Also included was a t-shirt (in black, of course!) with Daniel Smith's logo on the back. I usually hate branded clothing. I even cut the labels off the insides of my clothes. But this t-shirt's kind of cool: the logo is a white silhouette of a cactus in a desert. Maybe I'll break my own rule and wear it.
I'm sending a personal thank you note but just in case he reads this first: Thank you, Malcho!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Picture Me Here, Now

I've started a visual diary of my everyday life. I've always used photography in some way in my work but this is more personal, observational, forensic.
I find it easy to live inside my head. Emotion amplifies my memories. This is good for my watercolour paintings because it allows me to blend intense feelings drawn from everyday life with dreams and images from my subconscious. Unfortunately, it isn't always good for me psychologically.
Keeping a visual diary helps me to see my day to day life as it really is. Everything has changed so much in the last three years that I feel like part of me is still catching up. Sometimes, I wake and think I am still in the past: I recognise my surroundings but the sense of being in another, earlier life persists. Reviewing images of my every day, and adding to them, helps me to be more a part of the present, and to navigate it better.
For this reason, I never go anywhere – not even to the local grocery store – without a camera. I have four: a Leica CM 35mm film camera, a Canon Digital IXUS 70 and my very first camera, a Pentax MZ-50 SLR, also using 35mm film. I prefer to use film rather than digital but I have grown addicted to the instant gratification, the immediacy, of digital. I also use an old Polaroid 600AF, a shitty, dime-store 'instant' camera that's been the 'workhorse' of my art-making for a decade or more.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Days Like This

I've been having a bad week. My drawing is going too slowly. Every mark feels like it has to be dredged from sludge somewhere in the darker recesses of my psyche before it can be transferred to paper.
A close friend sent me the image above from one of those dumb, text generator pages scattered around the net. It made me laugh – then it didn't.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Divan Diva

I use each part of my studio for a different purpose.
I have a glass-topped desk at which I deal with paperwork and correspondence. I also work on studies for my 'hard-edged' works there, such as the current Dangerous Career Babes oils – it's near the printer and scanner and I use both in the development of compositions. In the largest room, I have a makeshift bench, actually a slightly damaged painting board on two aluminium trestles. It's in front of a floor to ceiling window, from which I can look outside when I stand to work. The surface of the bench is white gesso, stained with the watercolours I paint with on it. Finally, I have a workspace for large enamel pieces set up in a shed, some yards from the house, where I am slowly finishing the last of my works in this toxic medium.
The real heart of my studio is my daybed. I begin and end each day there, dreaming and I retreat to it to clear my mind when I'm stuck on a problem or I'm feeling a little depressed. Lying on my side, I just stare out to sea. It calms me to watch the long, unceasing swell as it rolls towards shore, its ridges rustled into white caps by the wind, and listen to the waves breaking below. Sometmes, I prop two large pillows against an arm at one end and write or draw ideas for a new work.
Originally, I bought the daybed as a temporary place to sleep but it's become something of a magic carpet, a place to make myself comfortable and rest as I let my mind run free.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Horror, The Horror

Every year I was at art school, at least one first year student made a work based on the vagina dentata. I've seen enough variations to last me a lifetime. The one that made me laugh most was a pair of high heeled shoes, sheathed in red satin, with spiky dentures where one's feet were supposed to slide in. Many (too many) opted for not-so-subtle references to penetration and textured red or pink cloth. Sharply spiked sea creatures (note the fish-smell pun) were also a favourite.
I hated them all. I know a pussy full of fangs is an elemental part of feminist iconography, but I find the idea dull and crass. I'll never forgive my often too exuberantly 'old school' feminist mother for regaling me with its several meanings long before I even reached puberty.
Now there's a film, called Teeth, rehashing this tired idea. Ironically (or, maybe, predictably), it's written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of renowned Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein. Described as 'a black comedy horror', in that ear-jangling marketing-speak with which Hollywood spins its product, I hope it's an art in-joke. Given the plethora of clich├ęd sexual symbolism in the trailer, (including, for Christ's sake, an unfolding red rose), I suspect it isn't.
What's worse, it'll inspire yet another generation of art school students to rework this done-to-death schlock again instead of doing something genuinely original.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ghost Story

Every so often, I paint another in my series of light-hearted, fairytale-like watercolours about a solitary female ghost . The ghost is that of a young Korean woman who was my first female sexual partner. The few episodes of intense intimacy we had together informed a series of five, large, sexually graphic watercolours, Kelly, The First Time, that were exhibited at Art Melbourne, this year. I wasn't in love with the woman – hell, we weren't even close – but being with her freed my own troubled spirit and allowed me to begin to express my long-suppressed bi-sexuality without guilt or fear.
She died, suddenly, this year. That was the beginning of the watercolours. I wanted to do something delicate, untroubled and free, just as I prayed her ghost would be.
They aren't serious artworks. Still, they seem to have a life of their own. I paint them only occasionally and sell them to people whom I think might relate to them. Mostly, I give them to friends. None will ever be exhibited.
I never have to drag these small, diaphanous images out of me, unlike most of my other work. Instead, after haunting my imagination for a brief moment, they just float onto the page.

Monday, November 19, 2007

My Muse, My Self

I always use myself as a model in my work, even when the work isn't autobiographical.
It began during my teens. Lacking a life model, I taught myself to draw by looking into a mirror. I felt a certain detachment from my body, which has increased as I've grown older. Drawing was (and still is) a way of connecting myself to it, of convincing myself that I actually inhabited it.
I used to wish that people could consist only of mind and shadow so that physical appearance wouldn't be such a distraction.
Like many things, I think this was related to the places where I grew up: lonely little places that didn't care much about the intellectual or creative – and didn't trust them, either. In school and later, at university, it infuriated me that ideas were reduced to mere competition. I think this is what drove me to try and make my body a starting point for something more.
The first mature work I made that used my own image incorporated a full length mirror. Onto the mirror, I lay coloured vinyl to create a simple, glamorised silhouette of myself. The game was for the viewer to try and fit the reflection of their body into the stylised outline of mine. Of course, no-one did, not even me. I was doing some fashion modelling then, so my profile was very tall (which it still is) and lean (which it is no longer).
The work pissed a lot of women off. The notion of women working with their bodies but striving to undermine the objectification of them is essentially feminist. But it became clear that my work would be accepted as feminist art only if I was shorter and heavier. My own inescapable physical reality somehow excluded my work.
(That didn't stop feminist lecturers at university making objectifying remarks about my body unrelated to art.)
A year or so later, I started playing with perspective to force the viewer look up to, rather than at, the figure I created– a figure based, as always, on myself. I wanted to create a kind of feminist idolatry (or heresy) although, in retrospect, I'm not sure sure I was successful at communicating that.
I am still both artist and muse. Because of my feminist upbringing, I used to interpret the role of muse with scepticism. It was, I used to think, related to looks, not intellect, and so inevitably ephemeral and ultimately destroyed by time.
Now I'm not so sure. In the muse that is myself, I am only just beginning to penetrate layers of 20-something years of tightly woven emotional, psychological and intellectual fabric that are enriched, not eroded, by the slow decay of the physical self.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Processed Painting

It has taken me a while to feel at ease doing the studies for my new series of oil on canvas paintings. I haven't worked in the 'hard-edged' style of my early works for a while and I always forget just how tedious and time-consuming it can be. When I was younger, I developed methods to make it quicker. It's taken me a while to remember them.
Initially, I make a lot of notes in order to 'visualise'. It's quicker than sketching. It allows me to move as fast as my thoughts, instead of as fast as my hand can go. I work out the idea of the painting, then write more notes about the details: how I want the pose, what 'props' might be involved, what they symbolise, and whether or not all of this will communicate the basic idea. It's all a form of problem-solving before I begin to draw – or as a friend of mine puts it, "gradually filtering all sorts of ideas to get to the heart of what you want to see, without knowing what exactly that is."
I often work out a pose using a mirror, then I photograph it on cheap Polaroid 600 film as a starting point for a sketch. Being my own model has always been an important conceptual part of the work.
Everything in the painting is decided in the drawing stage. So the drawing itself is re-worked – over and over again. I draw, cut, paste, photocopy, draw new parts, and white out others. I repeat this process sometimes hundreds of times.
Another part of the concept is perfection, as if the work has been machine-produced. I want all trace of human touch, of emotion, eliminated.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sore Points

In much the same way that old friends have been discomforted by my success, I've seen a lot of women I don't even know discomforted by the imagery in my paintings. I've been told (by gallerists) that what many of them see in these glossy, candy-coloured, cartoon-like paintings of women frozen in positions of seduction and control is an embodiment of a lot of things they don't feel they have.
That's part of the point – but it's also missing the point. The images are more-than-perfect, neither skin pore nor brush stroke is visible. Their shapes are unrealistic. Hell, not even Nadja Auermann has legs like the ones I've drawn in my early paintings. And yet I've overheard women compare themselves physically to these exaggerated figures. Recently, an art collector wanted to buy two of my works in the secondary market but his wife said they made her feel insecure.
At my last gallery exhibition of watercolour paintings, I noticed people hardly knew where to look – or they looked everywhere but at the works themselves. The images were only a little more sexually explicit than those seen every day in mass media. They were no more violent than footage on the evening TV news. I guess what people found disconcerting were the ideas within the images, ideas that irritated personal issues with sex and intimacy, ideas that insisted on the viewer embracing or rejecting a certain psychological/spiritual/sexual inquisitiveness.
It's much easier and self-assuaging – especially in the dumbed down, spoon-fed, hyper-appropriated and regurgitated culture of our omni-mediated world - to not think, to not have to deal with someone else's perspectives, just as my former friends and lovers could only deal with me when I suppressed mine. I remember how often I kept quiet so I wouldn't be accused of thinking too much.
If people are discomforted by ideas, it's not surprising that they become discomforted by being around someone whose whole focus in life and work is to explore ideas and somehow bring them to life. Maybe that's why truly dedicated artists and other creative thinkers have often been quite solitary. While their ideas are appreciated over time – in other words, at a distance – having to deal with them up close, every day, has always been confronting and difficult.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Friend or Foe?

"I'm selfish, impatient, and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I'm out of control, and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best."
– Marilyn Monroe
When I emailed my last monthly newsletter, Studio Notes, which mentions my brief profile in Vogue Australia, most of the people who unsubscribed were either former friends and lovers or artists and musicians who were long-time acquaintances.
Over the last year I've received indignant emails from some of them, complaining about receiving my newsletters instead of personal emails from me. They tell me, huffily, that if I can't be bothered to write to them individually, they'd rather not hear from me at all. On the few occasions when I've caught up with them in person, their discomfort with my success – and the isolated life required to achieve it – is palpable.
I don't understand how anyone can be threatened by a friend's success. Why wouldn't anyone want good things for the people they care about?
Too often, in the past, my boyfriends were jealous of the time I spent painting. One even accused me of having affairs but he had only to visit my studio – something he avoided – to find me alone with a canvas. Another, who was also an artist, put down my work under the guise of 'helping' me. We collaborated on a painting, once. I'd been invited to participate in a group exhibition and I wanted to include him. After 'showing' me how to paint, he ended up covering everything I'd done with his own work, so it was really just his work - instead of ours. (Intriguingly, he still tells everyone who'll listen how much I 'owe' him).
I've never had a lot of female friends. I have less now. I stopped being in touch with one after a string of subtle put-downs about the nature of my recent work (like 'joking' that she hoped my family didn't see it). Another, an old friend from art school, attributed my success to my manic depression: according to her, the narrow focus and nervy hypermania gave me some kind of advantage. I was, at once, shocked and hurt: I am not my illness. Besides, hypermania might contribute to bouts of physical and imaginative energy but extreme mania and depression are debilitating and destructive and I fight both constantly. Even one of my oldest and best friends decided our paths were too different and we didn't have anything in common anymore.
Ironically, the one close female friend I do still have is married to a farmer and lives far away in rural northern New South Wales. They have two beautiful daughters. It has crossed my mind, more than once, that she is fine – and very supportive and caring – about my life and work because she is secure in her own.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Stitch In Time

When I was a child, my mother taught my how to sew by hand. Over the years, the skill has been useful to repair worn-out clothing, alter thrift store finds, or tailor the odd original item without a pattern (my mother also taught me how to place fabric on the body, pin it, then sew, adjusting as I went).
I began using sewing in my artwork a few years ago. It began with a few beads to accentuate an area of watercolour on paper. Later, I used thread, sequins, and beading to define a different kind of line. I like how sewn elements carry emotional connotations. A hand-stitch can look like a suture or it can echo a tradition of decorative or illustrative embroidery. It can also form an invisible structure, making transparent beads look as if they're suspended on a surface in a way that's much more refined than using glue. I like the subtle texture of thread, whether it's 'finished' in symmetrical patterns or broken and left hanging.
Sewing in art is mostly seen as a feminist reference, blurring the line between art and craft – art being regarded as male, craft as traditionally 'women's work'. Ghader Amer's erotic scenes, embroidered with frayed, coloured, hanging threads, are always argued as 'feminist', with her choice of medium being fundamental.
I don't see it that way. Yes, I learned sewing as a tradition passed from mother to daughter - although like every good, '70s feminist mother, she taught my brother as well – but whether it's a stitch or a suture, when I use threads in my art it is so intensely personal as to be almost spiritual. Sewing is a female act of making that can carry memory into the very fabric of an artifact – the power of which is something the voodoo mambo understands every time she crafts a fetish or a curse doll.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Under Control

I have managed to get on top of my too-long-ignored administrative chores. Now I have no excuse not to get back to what I think of as 'real work' – making art.
I have drawn up a rigid schedule to better manage my time from now until the end of the year. I work best when I'm organised. As much as I like to think of myself as intuitive, flexible, and good at improvising, I'm not. I don't like it when the unexpected intrudes on my working day. With the exception of Sunday, when I cut myself some slack, my every waking hour is accounted for, in one way or another. Even the time I allow myself to experiment is rationed. This is not just because of a neurotic need for structure but because, over the years, I've found that I tend to be more rigorous and productive if I constrict rather than expand the amount of time I invest in evolving new ideas, new techniques.
It isn't easy. Then again, allowing myself too much leeway makes it even less so. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm a control freak. I crave order, predictability (at least, everywhere outside art), and precision. After a few years of living in denial of it, I've decided to embrace the personal discipline – and the well-ordered studio environment – that might turn this disconcerting personality trait into a virtue.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Moving (In Various Ways)

After an intense month of unplanned, short-notice travel – not to mention a bumpy transition to my new studio – I've been working through an embarrassing backlog of orders, enquiries and proposals. Each month, I become busier, with a tighter, ever more restrictive schedule. Each month, I've become a little slacker about dealing with it.
Maybe it's because I've been plotting some new dimensions to my future output.
For a while now, I've felt something was missing in my art – as if I've been denying a part of myself (despite the explicitly forensic self-explorations of my recent watercolours). I'm known only for my painting but long before I ever picked up a brush, I worked in other media. I've just never exhibited the results.
Recently, I've been revisiting youthful experiments in video, photography, sculpture, and collage and it has given me a renewed sense of freedom in my work - and my self. I still want to paint, but alone it's no longer enough.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

In Vogue

The December issue of Vogue Australia features a profile of twenty young, creative Australians 'on the rise' – among them, the actors Toni Colette and Rose Byrne, the designer Marc Newson, and the musicians Angus and Julia Stone. I am one of just two artists included (the other is Shaun Gladwell).
For once, I'm happy with my photographic portrait: I'm seated, dressed in simple black (well, the top is by Hussein Chalayan, so maybe not that simple), in front of a large work-in-progress, Innocent Demons.