Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Puritan Pensioner

That aged, crotchety maiden aunt of the baby-boomer academic set, Germaine Greer, has been blowing the dust off her Sixties' hard-line feminist ideals to ask, with pursed-lipped disapproval, in a weekend edition of England's Guardian newspaper, "why so many female artists put themselves in their work, often with no clothes on"?
Ms. Greer disapproves – with a puritanism that would do a Southern-born Baptist minister proud. The trouble is, Greer is so busy showing off her intellect she misses the obvious: female artists use themselves in their work to explore and rewrite the ways they have been exploited and objectified, and in so doing, re-assert control over their bodies and their sense of self.
Male artists don't do this because, simply, they don't have to. Art has been a male perogative since prehistoric man took to daubing the walls of his cave. Men have never suffered the various sorts of drooling, debasing, denigrating, dismissive depictions that woman have had to. One reason women make naked pictures of themselves, especially younger women, is so that the audience can see the difference (which is one of physical expression, emotional candour, and subjectivity) between what women see – and feel – and what men imagine.
Does Greer really think age-old male ignorance might be rectified by women only painting themselves clothed?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Army Of Me

At last, I'm feeling better. I'm taking a couple more days off to get my life in better order. I hate being disorganised. I hate getting behind in my work. However, I've found it hard to stay on top of everything as my career has accelerated. I am still figuring out processes to make everything more efficient and allow me to spend more time not just making art but exploring the world. I spent most of my late teens and early twenties in a small room, alone, painting day and night. I still do that but there has to be more space for sheer, visceral joy.
My early attempts to delegate my administrative chores to an assistant were a mistake. I employed people who knew much less than me so I always had to instruct and supervise them. Nowadays, I only work with people who know more and have much more business experience than me, people who are able to work independently and, when needed, to tell me what to do. It's been a torturous road but I now realise that I can't – I must not – try to do everything myself.
I still want control. I want autonomy from traditional art world systems. I want personal interaction with collectors of my work and I want to take my art career in directions that are stimulating. I don't want to be an entrepreneur, gallerist, archivist, or business manager. I would rather pay people to be those things for me.
My goal is freedom, including the freedom to choose how, where, when, and on what I focus my imagination and effort each day. And I'm not just talking about art.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mood Music

I've been unwell: pounding headaches that, like a bitter tide, ebb and flow between heavy doses of an analgesic.
I don't know if it's a virus, tiredness, stress, or psychosomatic but it's made me unproductive and restless. I've been listening to an old mix tape to soothe my bad mood. It might not be the greatest thing for my head - the music is mostly beat-driven - but at least the throbbing now coincides with some kind of rhythm.
Once Again
, Cypress HillLoco En El Coco, Cypress HillCome Around (feat. Timbaland), M.I.A.Phenomenon, LL Cool JAround the Way Girl, LL Cool JBongo Bongo, Manu ChaoIt's Alright, Bob MarleyCould You Be Loved, Bob Marley & The WailersThe Seed (2.0), Cody Chesnutt & The RootsGood Luck, Basement Jaxx & Lisa KekaulaLet Me Turn You On, Biz MarkieI Love My Bitch, Busta Rhymes, Kelis & will.i.amTrick Me, KelisMan Overboard, BlondieCaution, Bob Marley

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Art of Making Bread

Overwhelmed by the administration and logistics of my planned shows in Australia, Japan and possibly Taiwan, later this year, I enlisted the help of an old friend who is an experienced management consultant. She is to take care of everyday business matters, working with my accountant to minimise my tax liabilities and invest my increasing income, as well as handle such such things as repaying my debts, optimising delivery of works to clients, negotiating rents, insurances, and so on. She'll also oversee the costs and logistics of shows I want to organise in larger, unconventional spaces, particularly in Europe and Asia.
My friend is a very intelligent older women, with a deep experience of 'big business'. She is intrigued by my work as an artist and yet bemused that I find the financial aspects of it boring to the point of distraction. I'm also not too good with structure and rules. Unfortunately, I'm now too successful to ignore either, especially as it could lead to all kinds of nasty legal and financial problems.
I invited my friend to lunch at my studio so she could see how I work. I don't usually have visitors here. I spent the morning cleaning and working out the timing for the food I wanted to prepare. Before she arrived, I picked up a fresh baguette and white friesias.
I can see why most artists choose to be represented by a gallery, and manage their art career in a conventional way. Mostly, it's about wanting to be looked after and simplifying the marketing and sales of their work. The trouble is, many galleries, especially in the Australian market, don't have a clue about how to sell, let alone how to take care of the sometimes complex personal and financial requirements of a young artist.
Galleries are little better than gift shops: you deliver them product, they hang it on the walls, and you all hope for the best. It's an unsophisticated process – inefficient, self-defeating, unresponsive to a market that, in general, demands personalised information and access, along with a sense of 'specialness' – a market, in other words, habituated to the instant gratification of the web.
I guess I should be thankful for their incompetence. If I'd stayed within the traditional system, I wouldn't have been driven to evolve the more functional, independent, self-supportive, and profitable approach from which I've reaped unimaginable benefit for the past couple of years.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Time To Turn On Ourselves

When I was growing up, so-called erotic images of women were everywhere in our house. My father owned early editions of a cult comic, Vampirella. They had breathless, pulp fiction titles – Will Vampi Succumb To A Death Cult's Orgy Of Destruction? was one – and covers featuring images of sexy women that were obviously drawn from a life model. Unlike the conventional DC or Marvel comic art I became familiar with later, the images were loose and languid, even if their poses were suggestive of a fight, or some other kind of struggle. The buxom expanses of skin they revealed were suggestive and yet somehow 'accidental'.
My mother owned books on the work of Egon Schiele. His drawings and paintings were executed in loose lines with delicate washes of colour but the women were passive and more victim-like than those on the cover of my father's comics. They also wore ordinary clothes instead of sexually fetishised costumes. Nevertheless, the bodies of Schiele's women were just as much on display – more so, showing pussy, ass and blushing breast.
The one thing all these sexualised images had in common was they were made by men.
Male artists make erotic art for other men, not women. From lowbrow, comic-inspired illustrators (such as Robert Williams) to the respected makers of 'high art', there's not one man – neither Picasso nor Matisse nor Jeff Koons (his erstwhile muse, Cicciolina, was a porn star, for pity's sake) – whose sexual imagery doesn't rely on graphic renderings of breasts, ass, pussy, or fucking. It's not that their works aren't beautiful or even that they don't arouse me – they are and sometimes, they do – but there's no sense of foreplay, no attempt at emotional or intellectual stimulation underpinning their raw depictions.
Women tend to value foreplay more. The erotic art women make is more often about what happens within them during the process of arousal rather than an external act or anatomical location. Its power lies in the suggestion or, more precisely, the narrative of suggestion created through small gestures.
The best erotic artwork by women has yet to emerge so this makes it difficult to analyse properly. Women are just beginning to explore and express openly what turns them on, rather than wasting energy trying to figure out what turns men on and worse, expressing themselves only through what they think men want of their gender.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Into The Light

I was in a dark, fractured mood yesterday. I hadn't painted for a few days and as soon as I began again – on a pale watercolour I'd built up over a week or so – I knew it was a mistake. Within a few hours, I managed to ruin the work. The self-sabotage was so obvious that it plunged me into an even deeper depression.
I thought today might be another wash-out. Then, somehow, unexpectedly, I recovered. All afternoon, I worked without a break on four drawings for my
Dangerous Career Babe series.
The hours pass quickly when I'm productive – maybe because it's the closest I get to some sense of peace.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Stand Up, Artist

At different times in my life, I have been a victim. I'm not talking about when I was young, when I didn't have much control over my life. I'm talking about when I was older, when I realised I was allowing myself too often to be cast as one.
At first, I just didn't know how not to be. I was naive so I was sometimes exploited. I didn't always have guidance when I needed it most. When I was in my early teens, I was groomed by predatory, older males, including one of my school teachers. By the time I was in my early twenties, it was a habit formed not just by experience and a lack of knowledge and self-awareness but also an insidious, almost Pavlovian process of response and reward. That is to say, I was rewarded for being a victim.
For nearly everyone around me – the men in my life, my family, even those who sold my art – I was 'safer' then. I was impressionable, malleable, controllable. As long as I stayed that way, I was given approval and attention. All it took was for me to negate myself, my ambitions, my opinions, and my needs.
I'm talking about all this now because I have been thinking a lot about Tracey Emin and Frida Kahlo. Both are well-known artists who have exposed themselves relentlessly in their work. However, unlike the hyperbolic Emin, Kahlo didn't achieve much recognition in her lifetime. She sold just a couple of pictures. And yet Kahlo is so much stronger and more authentic than Emin: her art and life were directed by raw suffering and neither she nor her work was easy.
But Kahlo was not a victim. Emin is.
Kahlo was powerful, independent, radical, sexually liberated and intellectual. Emin is a drunk who renders her opinions, and even work, powerless through her own self-absorbed, exhibitionistic self-destructiveness. Watch her disintegrate during a 1997 appearance on a live, televised discussion about that year's Turner Prize
on UK's Channel 4. A decade later, she is still playing the victim.
In art-hype, Emin is talked of as one who bravely makes intimate revelations. This has become her 'brand expression'. She has even been elevated to academic respectability as Professor of Confessional Art at The European Graduate School. 'Confessional' is an inaccurate, trite description of Emin's work. What it's really about is being a victim. Her identity as a victim has been elemental to her train-wreck of a success.
In her very early career, Emin made a little money by writing letters to people asking them to invest £20 in her as an artist. Infamously, one recipient was Jay Jopling, who later became her dealer. In other words, she begged – and profited from pity.
Emin's 1998 work, My Bed, is described, melodramatically, on the Saatchi Collection site as the "bloody aftermath of a nervous breakdown". A decade later, Emin is a star, flying to the opening of the Venice Biennale - where she is representing Britain - on a private jet. Yet despite her successful, even luxurious life, her work is still about being a victim. At Venice, she exhibited drawings about being abused since the age of nine, as well as 27 watercolours about her abortion, painted in 1990.
Deep-seated effects of emotional trauma are documented and real – and I am not criticising Emin for being open about such things – but I find her efforts insincere. Despite her now powerful, celebrated position in BritArt, she clings to her self-portrait as a powerless, damaged victim. Unfortunately, I suspect she's responding to the press of society's – and 'old' media – impulse to reward displays of female powerlessness with recognition, money, and attention. For Emin, being a victim is money in the bank.
Frida Kahlo's paintings are more painful, more confronting, more raw than any of Emin's so-called confessional works. However they are also more sophisticated, mixing metaphor, cultural symbolism and intensely revelatory personal moments to create unique visions of a dream-like, yet somehow recognisable, world. Of the two women, Kahlo could easily have been the greater victim. She contracted polio as a child, witnessed extreme violence during the Mexican Revolution, and was involved in a now infamous street car accident, which shattered her spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, and right leg; worse, an iron handrail impaled her abdomen and pierced her uterus. Kahlo lived in extreme physical pain, and was often beset by emotional tumult (discovering that her husband was fucking her sister was just one incident). All of this was explored openly in her work.
Kahlo suffered miscarriages and was unable to bear a child. She had good reason to identify herself as a victim, but she didn't. Emin chose – and it is a choice, not an accident– to have numerous abortions and make work about their traumatic after-effects. In all of these works, she casts herself as a victim – of time, of circumstance, of the men who made her pregnant, of her emotional instability, of her alcoholism, of her perception of other people's judgments of her. Yet the act of aborting is tied absolutely with women's rights. Emin made the empowered, conscious decision to abort. With the right of choice comes responsibility for one's decisions – and the consequences.
Powerful people are intimidating. Victims are no threat at all. I think there is a very strong relationship between Emin's success and her perpetual role as a victim. She – and too many women in general – are rewarded for being victims. I am ashamed to say that I have experienced it myself, both within my familial structures, within relationships, within the context of my career.
But I am not a victim anymore. And I accept the consequences – the fall out , if you like – of this self-empowering commitment. A lot of people, too many, preferred me when I was a victim. All of them have been pushed out of my life and my career. I refuse to give into their need – and, occasionally, mine – for me to surrender.

Fuck them. Fuck so-called 'role models' like Emin. Art is so much more than just another way of getting the attention that narcissistic, self-absorbed victims like Emin crave.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

And The Winner Is...

Having introduced an informal and not entirely serious poll as a new element of this page, I am curious about what my readers, many of whom are artists themselves, really think about art beyond simplistic 'one click' answers. For instance, if they had to name just one artist as the most influential of the first years of the 21st century, who would it be?
I'm pretty sure no-one would pick Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons but what about other media favorites such as Cy Twombly or Lucien Freud? Comments, please.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Voodoo For You

Because I travel a lot – and because I don't have a permanent home – personal tokens, fetishes and charms are important to me.
I started collecting them in my mid teens – a stone with a hole in it from my grandmother; a bracelet given to me by a neighbor at my first studio, something from each member of my family (from a time that was good), and unusual pieces I've found in thrift shops and flea markets. I prefer old or used objects with an emotional history, even if it's someone else's.
My boyfriend has given me a number of small, beautiful objects that have become my talismans: necklaces and pendants that I wear for comfort, tiny carvings that I hold and take with me when I travel. He has also given me talismans of his own, rare charms that have traveled with him. They make me feel incredibly close to him, as though we've shared a life before we met. I've made him gifts using my own hair sewn into a bracelet and a doll very like me, dressed in denim from my painting jeans. I've given him some of my own talismans, ones that I've had since childhood.
This sharing of objects with a personal history was one of the things that led me to research voodoo beliefs and practices, in which objects and natural phenomena are believed to possess spiritual significance or to encase a soul. Many of my own belongings were depicted (sometimes cryptically) in my Voodoo-inspired watercolour series, Venus In Hell.
When I set up my Sex Tourist installation at Art Melbourne '07 – a messy hotel room, with my photographs and sketches as the memories of events that had taken place in it – I used a number of my own things: a favorite green make-up bag, empty prescription bottles, a half-empty bottle of perfume, a mobile phone, my own lip-print in red lipstick on a glass, even a set of my own lingerie (washed – I don't give that much of myself away). People picked through the make-up bag, handled the objects scattered on the bedside table and the bed, stared at the images on the walls. I felt – and people's responses indicated – that it was a more meaningful experience because everything was real. Each piece had a history, each was a piece in a human puzzle more intriguing – and, ultimately, more revealing – than a work relying solely on my imagination.
Nowadays, instead of throwing away personal items that I no longer need, I hold onto them. I don't keep just any old junk. They have to have been something of value or of constant use. Like a voodoo mambo, I use them to imbue an otherwise two-dimensional work with a real history as well as an additional emotional and sensory dimension.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Porn Again

That tired, old line about accomplishment in the arts being just 10 per cent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration is probably true but every so often inspiration has a way of insinuating itself into the imagination in unusual ways.
Yesterday, my boyfriend emailed me a pornographic photograph from Bangkok. "I saw this on a video cover in Patpong," he wrote. "It reminded me of one of your watercolours." A voluptuous European woman, naked, straddled the cock of a rotund European male as he sat in the lap of a large, ornate Thai Buddha. Another man stood above her, also naked, thrusting his rigid cock into her mouth. The pose was elaborate and over-dramatic and every detail of it was rendered in high definition. The warm, twilight, flash-enhanced colors were rich and saturated.
At first, I wondered what the hell my boyfriend was talking about. Apart from the Buddha reference and the sex, the image didn't look like anything I'd paint. And yet, for the rest of the day, I couldn't get it out of my head. Late in the afternoon, it had filtered down to my hand. I went to my desk, took the phone of the hook, turned up the hi-fi, and began to draw.

Position Fix

I slept through Christmas. I'd planned to work but instead, I surrendered to the need for rest. I spent a lot of time thinking and dreaming without feeling compelled to transform it into art.
I've started a diary again, in words photos and drawings. Things got a little ragged, last year, as I scrambled to adjust to the accelerating pace of my career. I let a lot of things slide – including the discipline of keeping a journal – but now, more than ever, I need to record. Not only will it help me to keep track, to remember, but also to understand, to feel at ease with who I am and where I've been.
Like a ship's navigational log, it will help me plot more accurately where I'm heading.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

No Place To Hide

Today's entry is my 250th, something of a milestone for someone who has always been uneasy with words.
Writing is a medium which I've had to learn in public. Mostly, I use it to explore my work and myself. Inevitably, because my work is autobiographical, the former is where intriguing issues of identity – specifically, sexual identity – and personal candour collide.
Sex pervades my art. Unfortunately, art that's overtly sexual is too often overlooked by the cultural establishment. They like inference, but not stuff that's too real or confronting (especially from women). In state-run institutions, collections of erotic work are often hidden away and revealed only to approved scholars and only by appointment.
Talking about a current exhibition of 2,500 years of erotic art at the Barbican Centre, in London, Seduced: Art And Sex From Antiquity To Now, the Centre's Head of Galleries made sure she defined the show as anything but sexual. "This is not an exhibition about sex and it's not an exhibition about pornography. It's a serious work of art history and curatorship," she declared. "It's an exhibition about how artists presented sex as a fundamental experience which connects everybody." Even the Barbican website describes the show as "the historical and cultural framework to explore the boundaries of acceptability in art." It's the country's biggest exhibition of erotic art and yet in all their references to it, the institution tries to distance itself from the real stuff of it, dumbing it down with pseudo-intellectual Newspeak. They try to pretend it's all about context, not content. No sex, no emotion, no sticky mess.
The greasy rut of real intercourse, the squish and ooze of shared and singular boldily fluids, troubles curators and critics most – literally and metaphorically. Intimate self-expression of any kind is especially difficult for them to take in the autobiographical context of a young woman. The anguished self-portraits of Frida Kahlo still make people cringe, as do Sophie Calle's brittle, forensic photographs and typed confessions. It's almost as if something sacred – something taboo – is transgressed when women depict their sexuality, along with the actual physical expressions of it, in their art.
Sex is still subversive, despite the ubiquity of porno-chic in advertising and entertainment. I'm repelled by the empty, amateur, exhibitionistic porn that women post on the web: graphic, self-conscious humping – "Look, Ma, I'm fisting!" – with hairy-arsed husbands or spotty boyfriends or bovine girlfriends (or all of them together) intermingled with happy snaps of their pets, suburban mall shopping and ten-pin bowling. The photos, like the clumsy MySpace-like pages to which they're posted, are neither expressive nor sexy. There's no thought, no reflection, no deeper narrative. Like professional porn, the only point is his final oafish grunt and her pig-stuck squeal during the inevitable facial money-shot.
I paint and draw graphic sex. Like the suburban hausfrau, I am almost always a 'character' in it. But what I'm doing – and why I'm doing it – is very different. I'm offering up my psyche and my self within the act. (I'm also just a tad better on the technical side of things). Sex is a symbolic device to demonstrate just how starkly I'm ready to reveal myself. It has nothing at all to do with exhibitionism. It's intimate and reflective. Each painting or drawing is an excerpt from an ongoing, multi-tiered (think hypertext) narrative of my life, offering different (sometimes contradicory) facets of my self, my sexuality, my emotional experiences.
The only way work like this can be effective is if nothing is held back – ever. To hide any part of my self or my story simply because of shyness or discomfort – not least the discomfort of others – would be wrong. The work would be leached of the very qualities that distinguish it as art.