Saturday, October 31, 2009

Letting Me Be Myself

How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something, but to be someone.
– Gabrielle Bonheur 'Coco' Chanel
If we are told something again and again, it can become true. It can seep into our subconscious and take hold there as an indisputable fact. It doesn't even matter if we know it's not true.
I was bullied in high school by people who were close to me: not physical violence just harsh, twisted whispers. I heard them so often I took them to heart.
Repetition in advertising and political propaganda works the same way. Even if we see through the manipulative messages, it's hard not to be affected by them. Inventions and interpretations become fact, as immutable as the sun rising in the east.
I once believed a whole gamut of 'truths' about myself, most of them instilled in me by my family from childhood. Some were good, some weren't. As I grew up and became an adult, I realised there were no such truths.
I still struggle to rid myself of some of them.
People often cite their family as a reason for not pursuing their dreams. If we turn our back on our families, if we reject their comments and criticisms we risk being rejected ourselves. It's hard to confront – let alone argue with – people whom we love and who have nurtured us. It's even harder to comprehend that they don't always have our best interests at heart but rather their own.
Too often, what we are told by our parents, siblings and closest friends – again and again – becomes what we tell ourselves. Over time, it also becomes the way others define us and how we define ourselves.
Re-defining oneself can be hard. In my case, it felt impossible.
In the end, it was utterly liberating. Living only on my own terms turned my world upside down. The woeful, discouraging, critical voices continued to harp on – even louder when I started to ignore them completely – but they were countered by an intoxicating rush of happiness and freedom, a real sense that I could do and be anything.
The relief was absolute.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

In My Room

As I convert more of my home into working space, my bedroom has become my refuge. Its shelves are crammed with books and personal mementoes, among them a trussed, scarified Barbie doll from my Voodoo-inspired Venus In Hell exhibition, a miniature chess set, necklaces of bones, beads and glass, peacock feather earrings, a Moroccan bowl overflowing with a collection of sex toys, an old, painted Balinese buddha head enhanced with a spiked leather choker, photographs with diaristic, hand-written inscriptions, a Blyth doll given to me by a couple of favourite collectors, my private journals – even a glow-in-the-dark plastic Holy Mary.
Until a couple of years ago, all these possessions would have felt like unbearable clutter. I would have given them away or packed them in boxes. Now, I find them comforting. My bedroom is a cocoon. It's familiar, filled with things I love from people and places I love.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Snake Oil

A couple of days ago, I came across a marketing blog that referred to my much-publicised, public declaration of artistic and commercial independence and an attitude I summed in a self-penned catch-phrase: Art Is War. The blog's author, Cory Huff, works as a 'Blogging and Social Media Specialist' for a marketing firm,
In his blog, Huff co-opts my phrase, using it as the title for an event he is organising called the Art Is War Workshop. The workshop promises to explore the key elements of my success and the success of others like me.
I don't know Huff. I certainly didn't give him permission to use my name to spruik his own schtick. I have nothing to do with the event.
In discussing how to circumvent a system in which art dealers are (as I see it) predatory middle men, Huff promotes his own services as a middle man despite having no deep experience of art. The workshop is free, a common strategy among commercial 'mentors' to generate sales of further information and paid guidance. However, everything an artist needs to know is freely available online already, not least from my blog and the interviews I give (for which a very complete
Bibliography on my web site provides links), as well as blogs such as Hugh McLeod's smart Gaping Void. Both Hugh and I make ourselves very accessible to those wanting to know more.
There are those who innovate, then there are those who follow behind making money talking about – and completely missing the point of – what we do and why. More and more art marketing sites are springing up, targeting gullible artists and artisans who want to sell their work online. Some are positioned as services by artists for artists. Others are unashamedly opportunistic middle-men with smooth patter and no real knowledge or experience of art at all.
Oddly, none waste much time on art itself – let alone exploring the core importance of creating a body of work. And yet the concepts of an artist's work are integral to the ways in which each artist should share it. (Which is also to say that what works for one artist might not work for another). Articulating the work should be the main focus of using new media, with sales a welcome side-effect, not the main purpose.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Fresh Outlook

Having cleared out the furniture and everything else from three rooms, it will take another full day of hard work to clean both my home and studio. Then I'll re-organise them so that they're more comfortable as well as practical.
I've decided to postpone my move to the city and I'll abandon the enamel factory in Sydney's south-west. For the time being, I'll work on large enamels in my home studio, making space for them at one end of the modestly sized but bright, well-ventilated space I have overlooking the sea. It might not be ideal for such a noxious medium – I expect the fumes will infiltrate the rest of the house – but I won't have to drive five hours to get to and from it. During those moments when the stress (or the smell) gets too much, I can escape to the nearby beach.
I still have to find a competent painting assistant, which won't be easy this far from the city. Maybe the view will tempt someone with good skills to commute. With summer just around the corner, there are worse jobs.

Monday, October 26, 2009


I had to take some time off to get my life back on the rails.
I have worked nearly 18 hours a day, every day, for the past six months, ensuring a slow but steady output from both my studios. I haven't had any time for myself. A week ago, I realised that I was living in the sort of squalor you read about in those stories where the neighbours notify the police of a 'strange smell' coming from the house next door and they discover a long-dead bag lady buried under piles of decaying rubbish in the living room.
It wasn't just 'artistic' mess – discarded paper, tubes of glue, empty paint pots, hardened brushes, and broken segments of pencil or charcoal – although there was plenty of that. There were layers of grime, dried salt spray, food particles, and drink stains on every surface atop which were strewn unwashed clothes, stale underwear and even a handful of lube-sticky tissues. In between were skewed piles of reference books, unpaid bills and other papers, and tipped-over cardboard file boxes spilling their contents under chairs, the daybed, coffee table and desk.
The physical disarray underscored just how far I had let tiredness deteriorate into an increasingly disordered mental state. Exhaustion had overwhelmed my working and living spaces just as it had my health. I decided to stop working for a week. It was only then I recognised the bad shape I was in. For a few days, it was all I could do to stop crying and catch up on lost sleep. When I woke this morning, I was calm for the first time in a month.
The long, slow process of cleaning my house is penance – I can't afford to let myself slip into this state again. It also gives me time to figure out how I'm going to do things differently.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Running Out

Three weeks ago, I offered readers of this blog an opportunity to purchase my first, large-scale serial work, the Yes/No Stencils.
Two images, each 40cm x 60cm (or 15.7” x 23.6”), hand-stencilled in high gloss enamel on 64cm x 86cm (or 25.2" x 33.9") 100% cotton, museum-quality, white Alpharag 4ply archival board, are available in five editions of 25 signed and numbered (on front) prints of each image, in five different colours: faux-fluorescent lime, Dooney pink, industrial safety orange, papal purple and pitch black.
There is also a sixth, 'artist's proof' edition of just 10 prints of each image, signed and numbered, in virginal white gloss enamel on matt white board.
The response has been extraordinary. Within just a few days of the editions being announced on October 5th, nearly half the stencils (in all colours) were sold. This was gratifying because the stencils were an attempt to put my work within the reach of those who wanted to own my work but could not afford the five-figure prices for my large enamel on timber board paintings.
However, good things have to come to an end. Especially with the U.S. dollar plummeting in value against the Australian dollar.
On November 5th, the few remaining stencils will be increased in price to align with the valuations for similar works of mine now in the market. The coloured editions will rise to $US1,000 (from $US500) while the more limited white-on-white editions will rise to $1500 (from $US750). From that date, there will be no discounts for purchases of the full set (six stencils, in all colours) of either – or both – the YES? or NO! images.
For further information, or to order one of the remaining stencils, please
contact my studio. Those who have already ordered one or more prints can expect delivery after 5th November, when the painstaking process of printing, drying/hardening, and packaging will be completed and all works consigned.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

Success should have given me the freedom to do what I want, when I want. So why am I unable to devote every day to making art? I've become encumbered by the business my art generates: marketing, sales, collector relationships, exhibition logistics, consignment, transport, materials specification and ordering, staff supervision, accounting, correspondence, and phone calls (so many phone calls).
It's not that I dislike these responsibilities. I enjoy them, a lot. But too often, if I don't get through them all within the time I allot, everything begins to spin out of control and I am unable to concentrate on painting – or anything else. If I'm going to enjoy the independence I've fought so hard to gain, I have to figure out how to make it work better for me. Fast.
I'm a control freak. It's related to the serious mood disorder I suffer, which, at different times, pits two completely opposite poles of my personality against each other.
This can be seen in my art: on the one hand, precisely organised series of tightly controlled enamel paintings, with brittle, gleaming, seamless surfaces and on the other, loose (to the point of anarchic), stream-of-consciousness watercolours and ink drawings. The process of painting in enamel soothes an anal, obsessive-compulsive desire for precision, repetition and perfectionism. It affirms my ability to be in control. The watercolours free me from the disordered thoughts and chaotic emotions that too often undo my self-disciplined life.
Success has driven my life out of control. Now, I have to stop it.
After a year or so experimenting with two very different, geographically separate spaces, one for my enamel paintings, the other for everything else, I've decided to assemble all my studio processes under one roof. Commuting several hours a day in heavy traffic wastes time in which I could be making art.
Not being in one space all day, to supervise and provide guidance to assistants, also wastes time because mistakes are made in line, colour or technique when I am not there to advise or do the work myself. Often, the paint has dried by the time I get to see errors so the surface has to be sanded back and repainted with several coats. Each re-applied coat takes a full day – and, sometimes, two – to dry. And each error not only costs money – materials, salaries, progress lost on other works – but also tries the patience of collectors.
I am moving my studios and home to a multi-level structure closer to Sydney, where I'll have access to a bigger pool of skilled personnel and at the same time, be a lot more accessible to my collectors, advisers and suppliers. Where I am now, even an office supplies store is a thirty minutes drive away.
I've reduced my assistants' and my tasks to a daily 'one-sheet'. I've done these simple to-do and who-to-call lists infrequently in the past – they made me feel more like a business executive than an artist – but they're extraordinarily effective. They keep my constantly shifting schedule and responsibilities in plain sight and update those around me who need to know what I'm up to.
On the other hand, I've stopped caring about my young staff's personal lives. I've had to remind myself that they're not my friends but my employees and our only relationship is in the studio. This might sound callous but if I ensure my own emotional issues are left outside the studio, everyone else must as well. My studio is emphatically not a democracy but a benign dictatorship.
These and other changes are not just about organising my time, energy and resources better. They're also about keeping my unruly mental health in check.
Naively, I've been clinging to the idea that one day, I would wake up and the bi-polar affective disorder I've suffered my whole life would be gone. Most of the people with whom I work don't notice its worst effects – or so I tell myself – but I have to manage it closely with medication, hard exercise, and simple food, rich in Omega-3.
From here on in, I want to be driving my life and career, rather than being driven by it. It's not really a question of being a control freak. It's about being neither a victim nor a stooge.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Point Just Passed

"No wonder you're late. Why, this watch is exactly two days slow."
- The Mad Hatter, from Alice In Wonderland

People tell me they would love to be an artist. But they always make excuses: there isn't enough time or money, there's no guarantee of being able to make a living. I wonder why they don't apply the same analysis to everything else they do. They have time for a regular job, even if they hate it; they manage to drag themselves to it when they're under-paid, undervalued, exhausted and sick.
Why is it such a big step to sacrifice this grind for something that will provide a deal more spiritual, emotional and social satisfaction? There's no guarantee that you will make a lot of money, that's true. But that's no different to an ordinary McJob. And in the economic new order to which we're all subjected, a steady job (and the equal opportunity to succeed in it) is a myth.
People invest a lot of time and money to study – and qualify for – well-paying, high status careers in business, law, medicine and the sciences. They accept that there's a narrow window of opportunity through which they have to squeeze if they're to succeed. Even if they're highly qualified, this success will depend, in part, on luck, making the right connections, and how much drive and self-belief they can muster. They will be measured constantly and if found wanting, discarded in favour of a better equipped competitor.
One of the most difficult things for most of us to accept is that as soon as a moment has passed, it's gone forever. Putting off something – or procrastinating about it – is a vain attempt to stop time. Every day brings a whole new set of demands and priorities.
Which is why those who really want to be artists have to start right now. If they put it off, the chance might be gone forever.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


"I don't think about art while I work. I try to think about life."
- Jean-Michel Basquiat
I control my emotions when I paint with enamel. When I paint with watercolours or draw in ink, I let them all out.
I don't think about technique, composition or colour. I try not to think at all. Instead, I probe the tender areas within myself to reach feelings I've suppressed. I revisit emotional experiences – heartache, love, death, happiness, obsessions, dreams, nightmares – and with them, memories that once I might have tried to erase. There are also images that have seeped into my subconscious from elsewhere: fragments from other people's paintings or photographs, scenes from movies, TV documentaries or music videos, incidents glimpsed through the windscreen of my car, descriptions I've read in poetry or a novel, or lurid fantasies that exist only in my head.
The result isn't random or a matter of luck. Somewhere between my imagination and a blank sheet of paper, the coagulated spill of feelings and visions acquires coherency, revealing some underlying intention. For better or worse, it becomes art.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Talking To Myself?

After a hard, frustrating week at the enamel factory, I had to take a few days off. I avoided logging onto my computer or answering my 'phones. I tried not to think about anything to do with art. If it hadn't been for a diligent assistant, I might have missed an email from Mark McGuinness, co-founder of Lateral Action, letting me know that he had just posted a long interview he had done with me on his site.
In many ways, this is a 'companion' piece to an interview I did with Hugh McLeod, of Gaping Void, just three months ago. It develops my argument (which risks becoming something of a manifesto) for artists' increased independence from the 'traditional' gallery system. It even takes its title from the new sub-title of this blog – Art Is War – to convey, in part, the rigour and commitment such independence demands to make it successful.
I look forward to reading artists' and galleries' reactions to the interview, either at Lateral Action or here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Not A Hard Sell

On Friday, the Head of Art at a respected Australian auction house, Menzies Art Brands, emailed to tell me that two more of my early works, Buck and Career Babe: The Firefighter (above), have been consigned for a sale on December 16. Later, we spoke on the phone about the condition of the paintings, their history, and more generally, about the archival properties of enamel paint.
A couple of years ago, my opinions about my own work were dismissed by a rival auction house. Now my insights and expert knowledge are sought by senior staff members at all that sell my work – and these days, my work is included in nearly every major auction of Australian art. When my work is offered by Christie's, in London, I'm in regular contact with their staff – a number of whom follow this blog.
The first time I ever had anything to do with an auction house was when Menzies Art Brands emailed me for permission to reproduce my work in their print and online catalogues. If I hadn't been representing myself, I wouldn't have heard a word. The staff were surprised when I went to the sale preview to check the condition of the work for a collector who was interested in buying it and they were gob-smacked when I emailed additional, useful background information.
However, it didn't take them long to 'get' it. Now, the information I send is included in the print catalogue, where my work is always given prominence.
My independence from the traditional primary market has had only positive effects on the regard for my work – and me – in the secondary market, where the financial value of even the most famous artists' works and reputations are tested in public. The idea that artists who manage themselves aren't taken seriously in this market is as dead as the Dodo.
No matter what old-school commercial galleries keep telling us, contact between independent artists and even the largest auction houses is not just accepted – it's welcomed. Auction houses recognise that artists who understand the function of auctions and who care not only about the condition of work offered for sale but also about contributing to its long-term value are a resource that enhances their efforts.
Remember, too, artists don't make any money on the sale of work through the auction house, which is usually acting on behalf of collectors who insist on anonymity even from the artist. However, we work together on the basis that the interests of the auction house, the collector and the artist are parallel.
Commercial galleries do their damnedest to discredit artists who work outside the traditional system – the so-called primary market – because they believe a lack of complete control will undermine the influence (such as it is) they exert on their collector base and their income. It's a short-sighted and stupid attitude.
As collaborations between artists and auction houses are demonstrating – look at Damien Hirst's incredible pre-crash marketing and sales coup with Sotheby's – the benefits for galleries who work with artists on equal terms far outweigh the meagre risks.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

I Love The Smell Of Napalm

The SMS popped up on my iPhone as I sprawled on the daybed in my studio, sipping my first coffee of the day. Four words: You're such a wanker. I didn't have to look to know whom it was from.
Less than half an hour before, an art dealer had called to berate me for my blog entry,
The Ka-Boom Of The System, a couple of days ago. Did he think my account was inaccurate or unfair? Maybe. He didn't say.
What angered him most was that I had written anything at all.
Time was, not so long ago, artists had to be wary of crossing swords with art dealers, even those with modest reputations. One bad word from them could put a crimp in a promising career. But the art world post-Web 2.0 is different. I felt no fear, just a sliver of pity – for the dealer, not myself – as he muttered, "You've blown it. You've really blown it."
No, I haven't.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Performance Arse

From the beginning of my career as an artist, men have made the mistake of thinking that the strong, sexy women in my paintings are me.
At a gallery party, a few years ago, a middle-aged executive type looked me up and down and said, "You're different to what I thought you'd be."
He took my silence as an invitation to describe some twisted fantasy derived from the gun-toting women in my Lake Eyre series of enamel paintings: "I figured a white, tight wife-beater, denim cut-offs, oh, and long boots, as if you were, y'know, up for anything."
"Up for anything," I repeated, blankly. How had I ended up in a conversation with a dickhead like him?
"Yeah," he said. "I'd show you to my mates and pay for you and me to fly to..." I walked away, leaving him to talk to the empty space where I'd stood.
As my reputation as an artist grew, I expected never again to have these sorts of encounters. I've fought hard to be respected and I've taken every opportunity to articulate in public the post-feminist perspective of my work.
The severe, monochrome, shaven-skull head-shot of me used on this blog and in all my publicity materials makes it plain that I'm not exactly user-friendly when it comes to sexist fools.
Today, I received an email from a married, 30-something guy who bought a painting from me a few years back. He and a friend – who "also owns one of your works" – were throwing a stag party for "an avid art collector". The theme of the stag night was to be an art exhibition so he was "just wondering" whether I'd consider (as a favour to them, as collectors) "tastefully painting" the groom-to-be "naked with some props" as a kind of performance piece in front of the other party goers.
At first, I tried to stifle my astonishment and anger. Then I thought, why the hell should I? I emailed back and told him bluntly that I had no interest at all in this puerile idea. I also asked him whether such a proposition would have been put to me if I was a late middle-aged, male artist.
Probably not.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Recession, Yes And No

I want a new generation of collectors to have more access to my work.
My enamel paintings have done very well at auction in London, Sydney and Melbourne over the past two years, with even very early works achieving prices that are 1,000 per cent over their original purchase prices. Unfortunately, they are now out of reach of many (especially those my age and younger) who might be interested in owning my work.
To remedy this, I recently offered a dozen very small works on paper – Recession Originals – for just 72 hours, only to readers of my blog and my 2,500 followers on the online social network, Twitter. All were priced at just $US275. They sold out within 24 hours. A further six works were added; these sold out within 12 hours.
This response encouraged me to produce my first, large-scale serial work, the Yes/No Stencils. They comprise two complementary images: NO! and YES?.
Each of the images is 40cm x 60cm (or 15.7” x 23.6”), hand-stencilled in high gloss enamel on 64cm x 86cm (or 25.2" x 33.9") 100% cotton, museum-quality, white Alpharag 4ply archival board.
There are five editions of 25 signed and numbered (on front) prints of each image, in five different colours: faux-fluorescent lime, Dooney pink, industrial safety orange, papal purple and pitch black.
There is also a sixth, 'artist's proof' edition of just 10 prints of each image, signed and numbered, in virginal white gloss enamel on matt white board.
It's intended that different versions of the same – or opposite – messages can be hung together.
The coloured NO! and YES? prints are priced at $US500 each unframed (Euros 350.00 for European orders or $A640.00 for Australian/New Zealand orders), including GST (for Australian orders only) and delivery.
The white NO! and YES? prints are priced at $US750 each unframed (Euros 515.00 or $A940.00), including GST (for Australian orders only) and delivery.
One set of six
NO! or YES? prints – five colours plus white – is priced at $US3,200.00 unframed (Euros 2,200.00 and $A4,375.00), including GST (for Australian orders only) and delivery.
Both sets of six, 12 prints in all – in five colours plus white – are priced at $US6,400.00 unframed (Euros 4,400 and $A8,750.00), including GST (for Australian orders only) and delivery.
To order or request further information, please contact Priya at Payment can be accepted via PayPal – yes, I've finally caved in to persistent requests – Western Union or national or international bank transfer.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Hostage To My Independence

If there's one drawback to handling my own sales and marketing, it's the hours each week I have to put aside to promote and sell my own work.
I blog and tweet with a regularity that puts some professionals to shame. I ensure that my web site, which is intended to be more an exhaustive reference resource about my work and career rather than a sales tool, is kept updated. There is a monthly e-newsletter – Studio Notes – to write and email to over 7,000 subscribers each month, as well as a monthly media release to another two or three hundred individuals.
But the core of my non-art activities are dozens of phone calls, emails and meetings with existing and potential collectors.
I don't often welcome visitors to my studios – these are reserved for my most ardent collectors, for whom I host occasional lunches in my cliff-top garden, a couple of hundred feet above a Pacific Ocean the color of lapis lazuli.
I prefer email and the phone to personal contact. Nevertheless, I ensure not only that I'm always accessible to collectors and fans but also enthusiastically communicative about new series that are available for commission, works in progress, and works that are for sale directly from other collectors. I also have a small network of non-gallery art dealers, corporate curators and recently auction houses (acting as brokers) through which I channel a small volume of selected works.
Incidentally, if you are one of those who believe that big-money collectors need to see a work in real life before spending five or six figures on it, think again. Major auction houses routinely receive bids for works priced upwards of a million dollars from buyers who have never set foot in their show rooms. My own experience is that if an artist's brand is well regarded, a buyer won't hesitate to spend tens of thousands of dollars without having seen anything but a digital image of the work.
Apart from sales, there are self-produced shows as well as those produced in partnership with smart gallery owners who don't insist on the conventional terms of trade with an artist. I have, so far, six of these planned in the next eighteen months and apart from actually producing the work, I'll have to spend days dealing with the logistics of framing, packing and shipping work, travel bookings, collating and distributing press materials, and supervising the design of posters, postcard, t-shirts, magazine advertising and invitations. I have a very clear vision of my image and message for every show and I am loathe to leave to anyone else to ensure its communicated properly.
Last but not least, like any business, I have accounts to balance, staff to take care of and taxes to pay. I do as much of the paperwork as I can before handing it off to a very smart accountant (and collector) to assemble into statements or returns. When I first hired her, my income was less than $A300 a week after tax: now I spend that on coffee and snacks for my crew.
As I keep saying, independence has its price. Or, rather, its ransom.