Saturday, January 31, 2009

Retracing My Mis-steps

For several months, my energy has been consumed by my enamel paintings. Even when I haven't been working on them, I've been recovering from the physical damage the toxic medium wreaks on me. However, now that I've managed to set up a better process to complete the works – it's just a matter of slow, steady, well assisted production – I am, at last, able to think about new work.
These large-scale, enamel-on-board paintings – which are very deliberately glossy and seamless, as if manufactured rather than hand-wrought – have revived my interest in small, obviously hand-made works. They have also inspired a desire to show, somehow, the history of how each was created within the completed work: the ideas, structure, initial marks, even mistakes. I'm tired of trying to hide all trace of me beneath a flawless surface.
When I was at art school, I was criticised for not making 'process' drawings. Too conscious of time passing quickly, I didn't see the point of them. I visualised sketches instead and worked each piece over and over (sometimes to the point of destruction). I wanted to obscure or even eradicate any hint of process.
Now I write detailed notes on ideas (and different media) I want to explore. As I experiment with each, I sketch and document the various stages of their evolution and try to leave traces of myself – and my mis-steps – within the work.
I end up with a record of my original thinking and of the artisan trial and error to translate it into art. I'm learning to value the process and value the learning I gain from it.
It's surely better than throwing it all away and forgetting about it once I've finished.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Getting My Hate On

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.
-Maya Angelou
Very often, the things that irritate or anger me are inspirations as powerful as the things I love. When I was a teenager, I made lists of things I hated to help me figure out what I wanted to do with my life, who I wanted to become. The fear of perpetuating what I hated drove me to come up with alternatives.
Sometimes I hate for good reason. Sometimes it's for no reason at all. The following is just a short-list of current examples:
Australia's slimey pseudo-left-wing prime minister, Kevin Rudd, for his ignorant, prejudicial, blinkered-suburbanite comments on art, his underhand attempt to censor internet content and his about-face on simple promises to Australia's indigenous peoples; most gallerists (I've only known a few I trust); phoney friends (I used to collect them); mobile phones, especially those by Blackberry; homogenous, inexpressive, unrebellious 21st century teens; air kisses; bad manners; useless, self-serving bureaucracy; boiled vegetables; Charles Saatchi for his artist-competition-as-reality-tv show, Best Of British – and the BBC for airing such crap; his food-porn wife, Nigella Lawson; Ashton Kutcher, for no good reason (well, actually too many to list here); procrastination (of which I'm often guilty); fake 1984-like political correctness (are you listening, Kevin?); sexism; racism; spelling mistakes; people who walk slowly, especially in airports or on busy city sidewalks (as Henry Rollins once wrote, "They're murdering me slowly"); Brisbane (a place where everyone talks slowly); tv soap operas; women who say they're for equality but not feminism (feminism is equality, dummies); the smell of beer, especially seeping through the pores of somebody's skin; indifference (or, worse, not knowing what you like or hate); excuses, especially my own; heavy make-up; The Seasteading Institute (a truly loathsome, tech-funded approach to alternative living on the ocean – for geeks who don't want to get their feet wet); the colour combinations of red and green or green and purple (they make me feel ill); cleaning up after myself; over-familiarity, especially from faceless phone operators; my overly-serious nature; best-selling self-help books like The Secret by Rhonda Byrne that justify greed and self-centredness; berets and artist smocks (and, yes, black jeans and t-shirt are the new artist smock); men in suits, especially cheap ones; neckties of any colour or design; brand loyalty; being away from my boyfriend; rules (especially my own).
OK, your turn.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Social Graces

This afternoon, I began preparing for a lunch I'm hosting at my home, on Sunday, for a few of my collectors .
I'm very candid about myself when writing or making art but in life, I'm somewhat reclusive. I wanted to open myself up more to those who have supported my work and me.
Over the years, I've become skilled at organising large-scale events, like the opening nights for my exhibitions. I'm less confident when it comes to small and intimate gatherings, like this simple lunch. So I chose somewhere to start and kept on going. I found a local caterer to come to my house and make the food of my choice. My favorite florist will drop off some arrangements the night before. I've tidied my studio, which usually looks like an unruly tornado (me) has hit it – more than once – and I 've bought some inexpensive plates, cutlery and black cotton napkins.
The only things I remember learning from my mother were table manners and not drinking milk straight from the container. She was, still is, very bohemian and permissive but her upbringing was privileged, 'old money'. I am always surprised when I find within myself ideas of the 'proper' way some things should be done: for instance, I washed then ironed the new table napkins.
My life has been anything but conventional yet here I am doing just the sorts of things against which my unconventional but well-bred maternal grandmother would have rebelled.
I'm looking forward to the lunch. I have a fundamental connection with people who collect my work: they've responded to something that I've made. I hope they feel the same about the food and atmosphere they find here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Seasonal Insomnia

I haven't been sleeping well. Dog-tired at the end of a long day, I lie awake in the darkness for hours each night. When I drift off to sleep, it's restless, discomforting.
This year has been one of the few in which I haven't worked constantly through Christmas and the first weeks of the New Year. I have a large number of commissions in enamel to repaint or repair but my reaction to the fumes – and the increased size of many of the works – means I can no longer do them alone.
Late last year, I found a very good painter to replace the assistants whom I fired for not following my instructions (and causing an unprecedented slew of problems). Jim has very good skills and always works in the way I ask. Unfortunately, like every Australian, he had planned to go away with his wife and family over the southern summer break.
I'm not used to having to rely on anyone else to help me to paint. In the past, when I had a lot of work on, I did whatever was necessary to get through it – regardless of the physical and mental cost. But I can't do that anymore. I can't do it to anyone else, either.
I fretted while he was gone.
I don't have many people in the inner circle of my life. I like to work with a very small, tight group, over a long period of time. Jim is someone I both like and trust: thus, someone very rare for me.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when he returned to work today. Everything was as I needed it to be again. I worked faster and better.
Now all I want are ten hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Big Blue

When I wake, I look out my bedroom window to the sea.
This morning, two white motor boats lay at anchor, rolling gently, close to the fall line of the inshore surf. Surf Life Savers on jet skis skimmed by them. There was a mass of small shapes, constantly breaking the surface of the water. I got up and went to the window.
The beach was crowded with people. At first, I thought they were watching a pod of dolphins, or a pack of thrashing sharks. Then I realised it was a large group of men and women in coloured bathing caps, swimming freestyle towards the steep rocky headland.
It was The Big Swim, a 2.7km endurance race through open ocean, from my local beach to another.
I haven't been physically active for years and I'm not interested in most forms of competitive sport. But for a while, in my early 20s, I was interested in sports psychology. When I left art school, after being told that I wouldn't become an artist, I referred to sports psychology techniques to help my focus, self belief, discipline and mental stamina. It worked for a short while.
I thought about this as I watched 800 or so participants swim relentlessly through a stretch of
dark, heaving water where, on other days, I've seen dolphins, whales and, occasionally, large sharks. Some people were so tired they strayed off course and had to be re-directed by the life savers.
It's easier to stop, to pause, to get distracted, or just to give up, when on land. There's nothing life-threatening about it. Often, I find it difficult to do a number of things at once but the freedom and independence I desire requires that I do more than my art every day. Ocean swimming is unpredictable and can be dangerous and demanding. So people prepare by training – practising the different parts of the required skill all at once and increasing their stamina.
I've been feeling a little overwhelmed, lately, by all the things I have to do. But all that's really required is to approach them as if I'm swim training – to be aware of the different actions that are required to make the whole and to make sure I am doing each properly.
The only problem is, I'm already way out in the deep, blue sea.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Grind House

The studio where I paint my enamels is in a semi-industrial area of western Sydney. Hot, drab, acres of concrete and brick, it's very different to the beachside suburb where I live.
I like the contrast: bunker-like warehouses, scuffed bricks and rusted, corrugated iron, huge metal roller doors, high gates and tin sheds. The bleak regularity is calming. There's no chaos and everything smells of industry.
I've been trying out a brush, one with long natural bristles, to see if it makes painting outlines faster or easier. It doesn't. Today I bought some of the cheap, short nylon brushes that I normally use. I'm happier working with them and I can control the paint more effectively.
I'm at a frustrating stage of going over every inch of three re-painted works, adjusting the shape and thickness of the outlines so that every part of the image looks seamless and fluid. It's a neurotic process that feels like it could go on forever. But it's essential to the work. I ignore the tedium and just get on with it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Paying It Forward

Over the past few years, a number of people have asked me how to become an artist – or, rather, a successful artist. Even non-artists have asked me how they might go about having a different career (and income) doing what they enjoy, what they find most fulfilling.
I offer encouragement but never advice. During the early years of my career, all the advice I was given was counter-productive – if not downright wrong. In the end, each person, whether they're an artist or not, has to figure out what works for themselves, in a way that suits their individual ambitions and needs.
I did OK for a while working things out as I went. My paintings were exhibited in commercial and curated exhibitions and most sold. I earned a meagre amount of money from the sales: it barely covered the debt I'd accumulated buying materials. I continued to live at home because I couldn't afford to rent my own bedroom, let alone a studio. I drew and painted up to eighteen hour days, seven days a week. Somehow, I still managed to hold down a McJob.
There's a common myth that if you work hard enough, long enough, you'll achieve your dreams. I don't agree. Sometimes it can just grind you down.
Trying to imitate someone else's career doesn't work, either. There's no magic formula for what I've done that will help someone else succeed.
However, I do think that everyone, at some point, needs some outside help.
The core of what eventually enabled me to take control of my career and turn it into something that not only supported me financially but also become the stuff of my wildest dreams, was a period of inspirational mentoring. This took the form of a series of serious, practical discourses that broke down my inhibitions – or, more precisely, the prejudices I had about how things were supposed to be done – and challenged my long-held assumptions and beliefs. They also enabled me to see who I really wanted to become – as opposed to who others had told me I was supposed to be.
I began to realise just how much had been holding me back from what I wanted to achieve. And even though I thought I knew what I wanted, I didn't know how to go about getting it. As I learned about who I really wanted to be, what I really wanted, and what my needs were, I also learned how to go about making them real. I don't think this could have been done alone.
With a different perception, a different approach was possible. A new strategy for my life and career was designed. I learned the emotional and business skills I needed to execute it.
It's not about a specific set of questions or a single, one-size-fits-all approach. I've seen the person who mentored me take completely different approaches with others – approaches that respond to each individual's different circumstances and aspirations. That's why it works. It's not an easy process. I was pushed harder and further than I thought I could bear. Deep thinking was demanded and no excuses or self-pity were accepted. I lost count of the times I was called out when I was bullshitting myself or him. I learned to be braver than I thought I could be.
It was confronting. It required commitment and hard work and compelled me to step way outside my comfort zone. For these reasons, I hesitated to recommend it to others, even when they asked about it. However, lately, I've been thinking that it's an experience that should be shared, especially in these hard times when so many people are having to revise their lives and career plans.
Anyway, I'm thinking of asking the rather extraordinary person who mentored me to host a workshop at my studio in Sydney. If you're interested interested in attending, email me your contact details. This is one experience that could change your life.
It changed mine. Totally.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sense Memories

Tonight, I opened another package I came across in my studio. It was a next-day-delivery item, a month old, that I'd hidden in a 'special place'. Hiding things is a habit left over from when I lived in rough neighbourhoods where my home and car were often broken into and possessions stolen or smashed – sometimes by people I knew.
I'd secreted this package away because it was from two collectors to whom I am particularly close. I knew it'd contain something special. The problem with my 'secret places' is that they change so often – and I forget where exactly they are – I lose things in them for months.
Anyway, inside the package was a hardcover, A4-sized book. Each time I've visited these collectors, they've cooked the most exquisite food for me. I've often asked how they learned to cook so well. They offered to write down some of the recipes to share them with me.
Which they've done in this book – but in a way that's so lovingly detailed and intimate that I don't really know how to describe it. Each page is filled with handwriting and photographs – letters to me, recipes and cooking instructions, diary-like entries of their days, family gatherings with notes about handed-down recipes and (to my further delight) fashion.
I haven't read it all properly, yet – I'm still shocked that anyone would take the trouble to make a whole book just for me – but it's already amongst my few most treasured possessions.
I've heard people speak about the emotional link between food and family or friends, about the meanings it holds for them. I've never really understood it. I make meals that I remember my mother cooking but it's never a specific recipe, just similar ingredients. Now I know what it is to be able to prepare, smell and taste a particular food that I have shared with people I care deeply about. It can, within minutes, dissolve the physical distance between us.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Cautionary Tale, Part 3

The art dealer's classic sports convertible crept down my gravelled driveway. It stopped outside the front door, where I was waiting. As I walked towards the passenger-side door, the dealer nodded toward the vehicle in my open garage, an Inca yellow Triumph TR7.
"Whose is that?" he asked.
"Mine."
"Nice." he said. "How much did you pay for it?"
"Four grand."
I'd bought it a few years before, after my first successful show. It was cheap on petrol and parts and fun to drive. Sitting low to the ground, everything looked different and the speed felt more intense. The impracticalities of the engine and design were tempered by the pleasure it gave me. At least, that's how it used to be. By the time the art dealer pulled up in his shiny reconditioned car, I couldn't afford a regular service anymore. The temperamental qualities which were charming when constantly maintained were hardly worth the trouble.
"This one's over a hundred grand." he boasted, patting the dashboard of his own car.
I was thinking of his friend, also an art dealer, who had a garage – actually, more of a showroom – full of rare cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Paintings by Brett Whitely hung on the walls. They were some of Whitely's most boring works, pumped out for money, safe images in the colour he was most known for, ultramarine blue. Both the paintings and the cars fitted the formula many big dealers use when acquiring – buy the most recognisable, not necessarily the best.
I slid into the low front seat next to the dealer. He reversed his pride and joy slowly, making sure that no branches grazed the paintwork. There were cafes near my studio but he drove past them. The sound of his voice – an incessant, self-inflating drone – blurred into the rhythmic bass tones of the engine.
Urban streets then leafy suburbs flashed by. I started to wonder where we were going. The scenery gradually became more industrial as we drove through an area that I hadn't heard of before. The car slowed and pulled into a side-street. There an open roller door revealed a specialist garage. Mechanics rushed to open the art dealer's door. They were obviously expecting him.
We got out and I followed him through a door into a lounge area. As my resentment and anger built, I found a worn, Naugahyde couch and sat down
"Want a coffee?" asked the art dealer, motioning to a coffee vending machine that served a bitter, mud-brown liquid and long-life milk into plastic cups.
He sat down next to me and launched into an aggressive tirade about the contract I'd refused to sign. Instead of apologising, he continued his pitch. Newspapers lay on the coffee table in front of me. I spread one open and began to read it, ignoring him. Although furious, I wanted to appear calm and unemotional. In the periphery of my vision, his hand movements became more emphatic and agitated, his face flushed.
"Look at me!" he hissed, through clenched teeth. I continued to scan the newspaper.
He fell silent for a moment. Then he said, "Ok, I'll give you sixty thousand. Right now."
I made an amused, dismissive grunt. Sixty thousand dollars as downpayment for my soul – for everything I'd worked for. Money I'd be screwed out of somehow anyway. It suddenly struck me as funny.
"Eighty thousand," he barked, as if my reaction had been a form of negotiation.
Like a delusional bidder at a non-existent auction, he quickly increased the price. "One hundred thousand!"
I continued to leaf deliberately through the newspapers, my expression unchanging. I was beginning to genuinely enjoy the performance. The art dealer leaned torwards me, exasperated and confused, his jaw clenched. He was losing control and his voice became more forceful.
"Doesn't money mean anything to you?"
I closed the newspaper, and laid it down on the coffee table. I stood up and slung my bag onto my shoulder. I hadn't looked at him since we'd sat down and I didn't look now. Staring straight ahead, I strolled to the door, past the dealer's red sports car, and onto the street.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Cautionary Tale, Part 2

The art dealer called a week after I'd kicked him out of my studio. "Let me take you for a coffee," he said. "I want to apologise to you in person. Clear the air."
"No." I told him. "It's too late."
Another artist was sitting next to me at my kitchen counter, coffee cup in hand. "Is that the dealer?" he asked, whispering.
"Yeah." The dealer was still talking, trying to wheedle me into seeing him.
"You should go," the other artist urged me. "Don't burn bridges. You don't have to sign his contract but he's still a buyer – and you're broke."
I didn't say anything to either of them.
After a few weeks, the psychotropic drugs prescribed by the art dealer's psychiatrist had numbed me into complete apathy. Being pulled in different directions by people trying to manipulate me had also worn me down. No-one was trustworthy, I figured. Everyone had lied.
I couldn't remember, then, how the artist had come to be there. Maybe I had reached out to him, thinking another artist would be supportive, some kind of comrade. I had a crush on him, too. Or I did, for a short while. Although I was more successful than him, he liked to tell me how experienced he was in the art world and sought to give me advice. I still don't know why I took it.
I interrupted the art dealer's ceaseless spiel: "You want to apologise to me, take me for coffee? OK. Come over now." Defeated, I put down the receiver and let out a long sigh.
"You're doing the right thing," said the other artist. He patted me on my upper back like a coach giving a team player some encouragement.
I shrugged his hand away, suddenly angry. I turned, grabbed his face and squeezed his mouth and jaw between my thumb and middle finger. Then I pushed him. We stood facing each other in silence for a few seconds. He opened his mouth to speak but I put my finger to my lips.
"Please don't say anything else," I said, quietly. "Don't tell me it's alright when it's not."
Like a man condemned, his head dropped. "I better get going," he muttered.
"Yeah. You'd better."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Secret Language Of Tarmac

I've always been intrigued by road markings. They're like an abstract language daubed on bitumen: parallel, continuous and broken lines that divide freeways and roads, curved arrows, chevrons and oblique perimeters indicating parking spaces, broad stripes for pedestrian crossings, even the reflective plastic prisms that sound staccato thumps when you drive over them. They each have distinct meanings that we understand. They rarely need words. We follow them without thinking. We are directed and contained by them.
Sometimes, I come across more arcane and random symbols. Sprayed in neon colours, they're a secret language informing of adjustments to the road or sometimes, the location of simpler, more widely understood symbols to come. It's these ephemeral markings that I like the most. Their forms, shapes and colours are probably regulated by someone somewhere but road-workers apply their own aesthetic to come up with individual interpretations.
I find them beautiful – perhaps more so because I know they will soon disappear beneath a seamless strip of black bitumen and clean, regimented lines applied by machine. They're probably destroyed in the process but I like to think they remain, bright and anarchic (despite their utilitarian intent), like shadowy alternative waypoints beneath the more rigidly constructed patterns that guide our everyday movements.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Working Girl

"Before Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water."
– Zen proverb
In Australia, the business world closes between Christmas Eve and the 12th January. The three week hiatus drives me crazy. Suppliers are closed. Shippers are immobile. I can't deliver work. My income slows to a trickle. I keep thinking that in the midst of a global economic meltdown, there should be a reality check but in Australia, the summer holiday is sacred.
This is really apparent in the privileged, beachside village in which I live. In summer, it becomes just another over-crowded, high-priced resort: half the home-owners only come here at this time of year and only if they're not renting out their houses for $20,000 a week. Shiny new Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars and the odd Bentley cut in front of each other for the few parking spots and their drivers reverse without looking in the rear-view mirror.
Everyone here is, in their own minds, at the centre of the universe and everyone looks the same. The young trophy wives are blonde and tanned, the older women tweaked with plastic surgery.
The fragments of conversation that I overhear are always the same, too – real estate, investments and foreign travel.
I find myself longing for the third world. Through fiscal necessity, everything's open and anything's possible, all the time. It can be confounding, frustrating, and counter-intuitive but it's often easier to get things done. especially once you've figured out how it all works. At worst, it's always interesting.
After Australia Day, the country's big national holiday on the 26th January, everything will be back to normal. The evacuation of the rich has already started. It's still almost impossible to get to the local bank or post office, but tomorrow, I'll drive out to my studio in the west of Sydney and start painting again.
A lot of people live to holiday but I'm only really alive when I work.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Bloodletting

I cut myself today, a deep gouge in my ring finger. I did it as I was striding through my studio, moving boxes of materials while my mind was a million miles away. The red was so beautiful that I let it drop onto some watercolour paper, smearing it as the base for a drawing.
It reminded me of an English Literature tutorial during one of my sojourns at university. We were studying a poem in which there was imagery of blood. I tried to argue for the beauty of blood, especially its colour; all one had to do, I said, was detach emotionally from the implied violence and pain. Everyone, including the lecturer, looked at me as if I were mad or disturbed. Even the class goth blanched.
Maybe it's an 'artist thing'. In the documentary
Rivers and Tides, Andy Goldsworthy talks of the emotive power of the colour red. He points out that blood is red because of its iron content, which is a rich russet. Goldsworthy uses powdered iron oxide spilled into water to create beautiful imagery – stones look as if they're bleeding, rivers gush like opened veins, small pools of vibrant red sit still in smooth rock, like disjointed blood cells.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Bury Me Standing

As a toddler, when I was upset, my father would wrap me in a blanket and take me for walks outside. He would name everything that we looked at together. It always calmed me.
Before I hit my teens, I would sneak out of the house at dawn and return only at dusk, having spent the day riding my horse miles over unfamiliar terrain. I'd follow dry creek beds just to see where they went. I got my driver's license as soon as I turned 16. I went 'cruising' at all hours – four wheels took me even further afield. Now, as an adult, I have to be in motion. I'm no good at staying in one place. Prolonged settlement depresses me.
In the back of my mind, I've always felt I should aspire to having a permanent studio. Every artist I've ever admired has been photographed at work in theirs. If they die famous, their studios become places of pilgrimage. I've been to some. I lived and worked in the late John Perceval's final studio space and spent a lot of time at Heide – a studio used by Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Joy Hester and others – in Melbourne.
To have a studio seems like the most natural thing for an artist to want. But maybe it's just the most conventional thing. After all, most suburban Westerners are not raised to be nomadic.
My current studio is set up in two places. Enamels are painted in a warehouse in an industrial area of West Sydney. I also have a studio at home where I work with non-toxic materials. Yet I hardly ever use it. I paint on the floor or on the coffee table or sitting on the edge of my bed with my materials balanced on a stool. I draw sitting on the carpet, my back against the wall, paper balanced on my bent knees. I even like to make things in the hallway, because it's blank, all white and empty. I have never used a traditional easel.
For a long time, I thought that having a permanent studio would help my work but all it does is put pressure on it – for one thing, I have to pay the rent – and makes me feel confined, frustrated and unfocussed. No matter how much space I have (and I have a lot), I fantasize about escape, about being constantly on the move – and I don't care much where.
I've traveled to a lot of different places. In many, I've thought "I love it here. It might be fun to stay for a while". But I've loved them only because I was there temporarily – visiting, just passing through.
I used to think that settling down – surrendering to immobility, as it were – was a matter of finding the right place. But I was wrong. My upbringing programmed me with an almost pathological restlessness. I can be nothing else but a nomad. I'm not going to fight it anymore. Instead, I'm going to get rid of my house and studio and live and work on the move.
Just don't ask me, yet, how I'm going to manage it.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Good Tidings, Post-Christmas

Today I started opening a two-week-old cache of letters (not all of them bills) and packages found buried under the ankle-deep mess of papers and art materials in my study.
I started with the smallest. The envelope was thick, purple, with the texture of silk. Inside, attached to a hand-made card, was a Christmas tree ornament. Tiny glass beads were sewn invisibly on luxurious felt. They caught the light with every small movement. This unexpected gift brought home to me the real beauty of Christmas – a beauty that gets lost in the materialism and burdensome familial expectations of the season. It made me feel as if Christmas could be something lovely, after all.
Thank you, V.G.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

They Mean The Most To Me

During the brief time I've taken off – over what are, in Australia, the Christmas, New Year and summer holiday seasons rolled into one – I've been thinking about what artists' works have had a persistent hold on my imagination. There are only a few – and none are young or 'of the moment'.
Paula Rego
makes sculptures that she then arranges like strange puppets. She also paints. Although I like her paintings, her sculptures interest me much more. They are put together crudely, with papier maché and stuffed hosiery, but they have a subtle refinement of proportion and detail.
Rock paintings by the San, or Bushmen, of southern Africa:
I've been thinking a lot about art made using objects found in an artist's immediate environment. The San are said to have mixed pigments with tree gum, milk, animal fat, plant juices and body fluids of animals and insects and used their fingers and brushes made from sticks, feathers and bones. As explained by David Lewis-Williams, the San's paintings are about San mythology, and spirit world. To enter a spirit world, trancing has to be initiated by a Shaman through the hunting of power animals, such as the eland. Elegant Shamanic figures with cloven feet hold the tail of dying eland. Both have their legs crossed at the ankle. In another, the shaman begins to take on more of the animal's form. The human-animal combination has been used by thousands of artists since. What interests me most is the visual representation of the transition to a spirit world.
Ghada Amer:
I'm less interested in the subject matter of Amer's work than I am in its use of embroidery, the traditionally female 'craft' of sewing. Amer leaves threads loose and hanging.They look like delicate drips of paint (with which they are often combined). In her more abstract works, the thread takes on a gossamer quality, forming chaotic, intricate patterns in their tangle.
Jackson Pollock:
I saw Blue Poles at the Australian National Gallery when I was just a kid. It overwhelmed me like a magnificent storm, paint flying about in a way that looked random but was very deliberately placed. I've thought of that work, now and then, ever since, especially when I'm at the beach, staring at random, geometric patterns carved into the sandstone cliffs by powerful Pacific swells. I wasn't very interested in Pollock beyond that work until I saw a documentary on his life, the other day. Now what interests me is that he created a new way of painting. I want to know the process, how he came to paint in that way, and why he lived his life the way he did.
Cy Twombly:
A few years ago, I bought a number of large books on Twombly but for some reason, I lost interest and never read them. Then, after beginning to use words in my own work, my interest returned. Often, when I am using words in art, I focus purely on mark making. The words are important, but during the process, they become a texture. I'm still not totally enamored of Twombly's work but I'm really interested in what lies beneath it.
Alan Moore
is a writer (famed for the graphic novels Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell), artist, vegetarian, anarchist, practising magician and occultist. Impressively intelligent, he lives within his eccentric world completely.
I should also include Francesco Clemente and Andy Goldsworthy in this list but I have written so much about them before on this blog, I probably don't need to say more.
Who'd be on your list?

Friday, January 02, 2009

New Year Dolls

Despite my best intentions to start the new year well-organised, my study is still a mess. It unnerves me – not least because I seem to have so much bloody stuff. I've spent most of my life with very few belongings and now, the accumulation of materials, papers, books, ornaments, electronics and furniture is, somehow, burdensome.
I take a break from tidying and filing every hour or so (I can deal with domesticity only in small doses). Then I work on a set of six, small dolls, a gift for a dear friend. The smallest is just 55mm high, which is about the limit at which my hands can manage detail.
I made one version entirely of polymer clay but I baked it too long and it became so brittle that it fractured and broke as I was winding cotton thread around it for its clothes. I've gone back to my preferred method: a clay head, hands and feet attached to a calico body. I'm still figuring out how to dress the doll. I've experimented with painting straight onto the neutral-colored calico as well as painting onto a fine silk from which I could then cut and sew the clothing.
As I work, I think about other ways to make dolls. I'd like to use them in larger works. The artisan intricacy they require absorbs and soothes me. Small pieces, especially, can be worked on between chores or, indeed, other works, throughout the day. The hours pass more quickly, productively and enjoyably.