Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Other Side Of The Question

When I'm not making art, I like to write. I keep a sporadic diary and sometimes, if I feel strongly enough, I'll pen a couple of thousand words as a personal response to something to do with art. I don't think of myself as a writer, merely as someone who writes as a way of thinking out loud. However, my pieces have been published in the respected Australian literary journal, Griffith REVIEW, and even the Australian Financial Review (the local equivalent of The Wall Street Journal). Go figure.
Last year, I was one of the first artists to be invited to respond to a
lengthy Q&A with the founder of the then new Canadian alternative arts 'zine, Hoboeye. This year, I was surprised to be invited by the editor to interview an artist of my choice. So, given this was my first attempt, I decided to approach the one person I know who'd be most uncomfortable being described as an artist – or anything else for that matter. The result was a smart, unexpected exchange that is, if nothing else, a little different from the usual, jargon-laden monologues you get in most artist profiles. The only disappointment was that the 'zine decided against publishing some of the more confronting examples of the work (such as the Polaroid print, above).
P.S. If you read the interview, take a moment to download the (NSFW) digital book, Instant Pictures, from a link at the end of the page!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Out Of The Mix

When I'm working, I listen to mix tapes – or, more accurately, playlists – that I make up from several thousand tracks stored on iTunes.
I was preparing one tonight when I came across some tracks that an old friend downloaded to me last year. We used to have similar tastes. Now, I realise, we don't. The time
we spent together just a few years ago feels like another life.
I often feel old when I talk to my peers. I've felt since I was a teenage but more acute now. Maybe I have a low threshold of boredom or an insatiable hunger for new
experiences. Maybe it's simply that I find it hard to settle the way they have. Whatever the reason, I'm so discconnected from people my age it's as if I'm living in a parallel world with no points of interaction or exchange
I don't drink, smoke, or do illegal drugs. I can't remember the last time I went to a club. I spent my early twenties in a studio, mostly alone, painting although I still found time to go to a different rave, festival, club, or party every night (and, sometimes, day) of the week. Looking back, I was never really interested in the content but I was curious about the context. These days, I still spend nearly all my time in the studio. I go out a hell of a lot less.
And why should I? I connect best with most people through making art. It might be connection at a remove – I make a work then anyone who
wants to engage with it can, without me having to be around – but it feels like the only kind that has any potential to deliver fulfillment or satisfaction to us both.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Dark Matter

I haven't been sleeping well. Again. If asked, I tell people it's because I'm pre-occupied with work but, truthfully, it's because I've been having a lot of nightmares.
Often, they're so realistic that I wake up feeling exhausted, battered, anxious, even afraid. Sometimes they're explicit and brutal, other times they're surreal and symbolic. Mostly, they're just plain bad and it takes me a while to get over them, to banish their memory. It's not easy. Deep in sleep, my mind and body still react as if each experience was real.
Upon waking, it can be hard to distinguish dream from reality.
A few months ago,
I read in a Thai newspaper that police were investigating the death of a Thai worker in Taiwan. He had passed away mysteriously in his sleep. The Taiwanese police suspected it might be a case of Nightmare Death Syndrome. According to the article, Nightmare Death Syndrome is recognised as the leading cause of death in young men in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Japan. The largest number of such deaths occur in north-east Thailand and Laos. In the Philippines, the syndrome is known as banungut – which is also the word for 'nightmare' – and in Japan, pokkuri disease. The Thais call it laitai.
Many Thais believe that young men can be the victims of 'widow ghosts' that claim their lives to ease the widows' loneliness. The Hmong people (many of whom live in Loas and north-east Thailand) ascribe the deaths to a malign spirit, dab tsong, who is said to take the form of a jealous woman. Apparently, Hmong men might sleep dressed as a women to avoid the female spirit's attentions.
The syndrome is also recognised in the USA, where it's referred to as Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome, as being specific to immigrants from Southeast Asia. There are various western studies attributing the deaths to tropical seasons and location but all fail to explain why so many immigrants died of the complication after they had left those situations.
I'm not afraid of dying in my sleep. My nightmares have simply sharpened my empathy with Southeast Asian superstitions and beliefs. In the developed world, having acutely realistic dreams is, according to my psychiatrist, one of the the symptoms of a mental illness. However, other cultures are not so quick to dismiss the possibility – and taxing effect – of heightened sensitivity, visions, and metaphysics. The link between art and madness is a popular Western cliché but only in Asia is the step from art (and madness) to an alternative reality a common element of the everyday.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Reconceiving My Art, My Self

I have finished another of my Dangerous Career Babes, painted in oils on canvas. It's a reprise of the cowgirl character that has appeared now and then in my enamel work over the past ten years.
More and more, the entire Career Babe series, which I have been painting in one form or another ever since I began my career as an artist, is emerging as a conceptual work rather than a revisiting of 'pop' through references to archetypal advertising and entertainment images of women. More than one critic has noted that when seen together, the Career Babes' disciplined repetition of the same pose in different uniforms, in the same-sized, large fields of bright, glossy colour, have an intellectual and emotional impact that is similar to the repetition of advertising on TV: it's seductive and yet empty and unsettling. In other words, I've managed to create art that, despite its surface allure, replicates the deadening effect of mass media – brittle, vivid beauty that doesn't alleviate boredom but imposes it.
My most recent works continue to explore this murky intersection between the traditional concerns of figurative painting and the intellectual polemics of conceptual art. I can already foresee a time when I might stop painting and exhibiting completely for a while in order to produce work that requires no specific space or media to be experienced. I am coming around to the idea that the last bastion of so-called 'real' art might be inside our heads.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Turning Whine Into Water

As much as I enjoy the conceptualizing of my large, oil-on-canvas series, Dangerous Career Babes, the execution is something else. As I've written elsewhere in this blog, it's slow, rigourous, and tediously mechanical. Every brush stroke has to flow ar a measured pace across the canvas so as to leave no trace of itself in the surface of the paint. Every outline (drawn freehand, with no arm brace or ruler) must be overpainted two or three times until it looks machine-wrought: smooth in texture and directionally precise.
After a few days of this, I am ready to scream. My body aches as if wracked with rheumatism, my eyes are bloodshot and scratchy, my neck muscles are wire-taut and my right arm numb from the relentless tension needed first to suspend it precisely over the right place on the canvas then to move it without tremor.
I have to retreat regularly to watercolours and drawing, and the almost anarchistic sense of fun, intuitiveness and imaginative freedom I discover every time in them. Each mark suggests another possibility, a hint of something else, if you dare to explore it. Control of the paint is illusive: it blotches, thins or clogs in unexpected ways within the irregular fibre of the paper. The unpredictability of the materials encourages fluidity and speed but enforces long, thought-laden pauses (for drying). Beneath layers of aqueous, transparent colour, the physical traces of human expressiveness, including passion, uncertainty and fear, are preserved in smudged pencil or charcoal marks, erasures, accidental drips and smeary fingerprints.
The contrast to the painstaking, technical, and highly disciplied process of my large oil and enamel works is necessary – and even when it doesn't quite work (as in the image above!), revitalising.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

No Sacrifice

I have always made altars, in one form or another, even if, for a time, I didn't realise what they were.
It began when I was in my teens. Wherever I lived, I assembled installations that combined found objects – bones, feathers, weathered or polished stones – with small personal keepsakes or luck fetishes. Later, I developed an interest in the syncretic religious ceremonies and iconography of voodoo and santeria. I began adding plastic statues of the Virgin Mary, rosary beads and different types of crosses and crucifixes. They became more complex and almost ceremonial, even though I'm neither spiritual nor superstitious.
I've always enjoyed the slow, contemplative way in which these altars come into being: every element is mulled over for a long time and as many individual pieces are taken away as are added. They change, too, over time – sometimes, I suspect, even without my intervention. I wonder if some pieces are haunted by an unknown, arcane history.
There's no question that my altars are a form of art. Their creation has been as much a constant in my life as my drawing and painting – and the emotional expression in each is just as deep and distinctive. However, I have only ever exhibited one. It was a couple of years ago, at an exhibition of a series of 15 voodoo-inspired watercolours, entitled Venus In Hell, at the Melbourne Art Rooms and despite a couple of offers, it was not for sale.
For the time being, my altars are just for me.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

My Place In Another Space

One of the reasons I abandoned selling through galleries was the personal relationship I was missing with the people who responded most to my work. I wanted not only to be accessible to them but also to be able to maintain a discreet ongoing connection to my works after they were sold.
This can be rewarding in unexpected ways. Yesterday, when I was having one of those
'what's-the-point-of-it-all?' sort of afternoons, I received this email from one of my most enthusiastic collectors: "We couldn't keep from hanging your paintings any longer, even though it's been a hectic weekend... We had intended to hang the paintings next weeked after we'd cleared a room of furniture but we were so eager to see them up that, well, as you can see, we hung eight. Another two can't be done as they are to go where a wardrobe is now and it's too heavy for us to shift. Also there's no space to shift it to."