Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Is Another

As a kid, my earliest paintings scared me. I destroyed most of them without showing anyone. They were dark, angry and self-negating. I never signed them.
In my late teens, my work was pretty and cute. It came across as emotionally vacant. There was still a lot of anger in it but it lay hidden beneath the brittle, candy-coloured surfaces. I signed them with a symbol, a fused HD, like a cattle brand, painted in an obscure position. I didn't like the way it looked but I used it anyway. I told people it was a response to my early readings on semiotics.
But that was bullshit.
I used it because it obscured my identity. It was something of an in-joke among my family that the first person I should show my art to was a psychiatrist. I worried that everybody would be able to see who I really was through my work – or who I wasn't. I wanted to remain hidden from view.
A couple of years later, I began branding my work as HAZED. My father suggested that if I didn't want to sign by hand, I should use a large, custom-made, rubber stamp instead. I liked this impersonal, almost industrial attitude to works that, even then, I preferred to talk about as product rather than as art.
A gallerist suggested I stamp my work with DOONEY. Using my name as a brand for an art object appealed to me and meshed with my increasing desire to exert what I thought of as a Karl Lagerfeld-like level of control over every aspect of my art and self. I even signed my studies on paper in neat block letters practised during architectural drafting classes. My own hand betrayed little trace of me.
I still stamp my enamel paintings with DOONEY, usually at the side of the timber frame. It fits with my enduring desire for control and with the slick, couture-like appeal of the 'productised' works themselves.
In contrast, I sign my name in full, in a sweeping cursive script, on my much more unruly, self-expressive drawings and watercolours. To these, I've also begun adding other words – from poems written by others to fragments of my own diaries and letters – in the same handwriting. I sometimes erase or blur these words but only so they become a background texture.
I don't want to hide myself anymore.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hanging By A Thread

If I needed a kick up the ass to remind me that I was slipping into crusty, suburban complacency, I got it yesterday.
A corporate high-flyer who had commissioned two large enamel paintings informed me that he was able to pay neither the balance owing on one that I had just completed nor a second stage payment on the other, for which I had presented the study drawing.
This left me with a five-figure shortfall in my studio's monthly budget.
After several emails to art dealers in three countries (well, those whom I still regard as friends), as well as a couple of tense, late night and early morning conference calls between the collector, my accountant and me, some of the monies owed were recovered and the finished painting re-sold.
It's the first financial fright of any magnitude that I've ever had to negotiate and the experience left me feeling like a wrung-out dish-rag for the rest of the day.
Last year, my work suffered because of some serious technical fuck-ups. So I immersed myself in creating a better managed, more highly skilled and productive studio in which I could be confident not only of the quality of the 'craftsmanship' but also the capacity to turn whatever I might imagine in the future – in any number of different media – into reality.
For a brief moment, everything I'd worked so hard for was threatened by this one, unexpected default. I'm determined not to let that happen again.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Unchained Art

For the past year or so, I've found it hard to drum up any enthusiasm for exhibiting. Conversations with commercial galleries have sputtered then stalled as I lost interest in the finer details of contract points and unpalatable compromises. Half-hearted searches for spaces I might hire and refit for a self-produced show were quickly distracted by, say, lunch at a beachside café.
I've been quite happy to work through a backlog of commissioned pieces. In between, I've let my intellect and imagination lie fallow, avoiding anything that looked like a challenge to which I might have to rise. I still sketched and made photographs every day but as a discipline more than anything else, a means of keeping my 'hand in'.
Then, about a month ago, I recognised that it wasn't exhibiting that I was trying to avoid but rather exhibiting here.
I have never been an artist whose life or work has been deeply rooted in a place. Over the past few years, I've operated most often in an non-specific, highly distributed virtual space and managed simultaneous dialogues with multiple connections every day. I've become so detached from a localised idea of a 'real' world that now any attempt to define my identity as an artist in Australia feels, suddenly, ludicrous.
I wasn't sure what do about this until the virtual came to my rescue. Within just a couple of weeks, I received a handful of offers to exhibit, perform and speak in different parts of the USA and Japan. Suddenly, the urge to begin working again – really working: delving into new ideas, synthesizing or reforming old ones, making stuff – returned, along with a desire to reconnect on some visceral level with people as I share my art with them.
Maybe because of too many personal disconnections and bad memories, I don't feel like I can do this in Australia – not now, anyway. So, come the end of the year, I am going first to North America, then maybe Africa, on the first leg of what might well become a long, drawn-out journey. Like the character in Paul Bowles' 1949 novel, A Sheltering Sky, I don't think of myself as a tourist: I am a traveller.
"The difference is partly one of time... whereas the tourist generally hurries home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he felt most at home."
Later, Bowles writes, "another important difference between tourist and traveller is that the former accepts his own civilisation without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with the others. and rejects the elements he finds not to his liking."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sotheby's Sale Update

Despite a damaged surface, one of my early paintings, Ultra Violet One, sold for $7,800, plus GST, at Sotheby's sale of Important Australian Art in Melbourne, tonight. This was just under Sotheby's generous pre-sale estimate of between $A8,000 and $A12,000, which might have been achieved had the painting been in flawless condition.
In any case, tonight's price was over six times what was originally paid for the work at my first commercial gallery show, eleven years ago.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Art Broken

Whenever I sell one of my large enamel paintings, I provide instructions on how the work should be cared for. I sometimes attach a short note with my invoice. The information is basic, uncomplicated and requires very little of the buyer.
With minimal attention, it's easy to keep my work in bright, pristine condition for decades and I am always available to collectors to give further advice or in some instances, effect small repairs.
Occasionally, paintings of mine turn up in the secondary market looking less than a hundred percent. Art is often bought for love but it is also a significant asset, an investment. Given the value of my paintings, these days, I'm shocked that people don't take better care of them. Then again, reading the condition reports of other artists' work at various auctions, even of important, very valuable pieces, I've noted tears, scuffing, scratches and lots of other avoidable damage, so it's a common problem.
The first owner of one of my favourite paintings, Dolores Haze, who is a serious collector, had a custom-built crate to transport it during the time it was in his collection. Despite having travelled all over the world with it for over eight years, the picture remained in exactly the same condition as the day it left my studio – until it was sold to make room for more works of mine.
I saw it not long after, on the web site of a Melbourne gallery, and enquired about buying it for myself. The gallery sent photographs that revealed a long scrape across the surface: a lighter layer of base paint was visible. I always paint from two to five coats of each colour, so the scrape must have been deep. When I raised this with the gallery, I was told that the "imperfection" was my fault – that lighter paint had mysteriously "risen to the surface" of the work: technically impossible with industrial enamels and totally at odds with the experience of the first owner.
Today, I looked at Sotheby's online catalogue for the forthcoming sale in Melbourne of
Important Australian Art. When I enlarged the photograph of my painting, I noticed several small marks on the surface. I had to subscribe (giving all my personal details) to be able to read the condition report, which stated: "There are three stable hair-line cracks (upper right). There is some scuffing to the painting surface (centre left and lower left) and similar scuffing (centre right). There are two minor spots of paint loss on the left and right edges on the underside of the corners of the canvas. The work is otherwise in good stable condition."
I am happy to be consulted regarding damage to my early works. In many cases, I will undertake whatever is required to bring them back up to scratch (so to speak) myself. The investment is miniscule compared to the value of the work. My only concern is that my work is maintained. Besides, I believe collectors should be able to re-sell one of my works for a profit (you can read my view on droit de suite
here).
I have called and emailed Sotheby's, offering to repair
Ultra Violet One after it has been bought. I've suggested they let interested collectors know of this when the lot comes up at auction.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Point Of No Return?

Sometimes, when I'm tired and depressed, I wonder if I'd be happier working in a nine-to-five McJob, with a meagre pay cheque and a dull but predictable routine.
I had just such a job, five years ago, before I regained my confidence – and my career – as an artist. I loathed it. But at least I had time to hang out with friends at weekends, go to movies or the local pub, and along with most suburban Australians, enjoy four weeks of paid Summer holidays a year. Who knows? If it had gone on much longer, maybe I might have married, settled down and had a child.
I made a choice in my late teens to pursue my ambition – to paint, every day, and to be a working artist – instead of partying hard or taking off to Bali. I moved wherever I thought I needed to be, even if I couldn't really afford to, in order to better educate myself and develop opportunities for myself to exhibit and be around other artists. This often meant leaving behind family, friends or lovers. I didn't want to live with anyone and I didn't long for a home, just a studio with a bed in it.
My life was – and still is – narrowly focussed, uncompromising, maybe even selfish. As I approach middle-age, it isn't yet everything I've ever dreamed of but it's getting there. I make a good living from my art. I have the means to travel and live where I want. I have the freedom to explore the outermost reaches of both my imagined and real worlds.
I'm beholden to very few. Best of all, I can be myself.
I remind myself every day not to take any of this for granted.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mindful Of Myself

The doctor reviewed the results of my blood tests and chest x-ray with me today. Apart from lacking vitamin D because I spend too little time in the sun, I'm in perfect health. The persistent symptoms I've been experiencing – nausea, headaches, rashes – have nothing to do with my body. They're to do with my mind.
The news was disturbing and difficult to accept, at first – like I had tricked myself (which, I guess, I had). But it's a happy result. The dosage for the mood stabiliser I take every morning is being increased and I'll have to become much more disciplined about regular exercise, good nutrition and a more coherent structure to my working life.
This afternoon, I swam laps in the tidal pool at my local beach. I wanted to establish a new routine right away. I could see my home from the pool; camouflaged by scrub atop an imposing headland nearby, it looked small and precarious on the edge of the sheer, sandstone cliff. It felt good to be in the sun and cold, salty water alone.
I used to think that changes take a long time, that new beginnings are hard. But they're not. All that's needed is a commitment to immediate action – and a little courage.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Briefly, On My Birthday

My birthday was, by choice, low key. I took the phone off the hook, logged off my computer and stayed in bed to catch up on a few weeks of lost sleep. It was the best gift I could have wished for.
There were other gifts, not least a bottle of a hot, 'Dooney' pink ink called
Shah's Rose with which I am going to write everything, even my cheques, from now on.
I have mixed feelings about birthdays, especially as I get older. I don't have any hang-ups about my fading youth (although my fading good looks might be another matter). Rather, as each year passes, I become more acutely aware of how much I've taken time for granted – and how many precious opportunities I've let slip through my fingers, often without even appreciating them.
I'm not going to waste a minute of the rest of my life.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tie Me Down (For Next Year)

I was determined to start the new week in a better, more productive place than I have been for a few months.
I got up early to put the finishing touches on a new enamel-on-board work, All Tied Up!, another in my occasional series of Cowboy Babes, before driving to my 'enamel factory' in the far west of Sydney for another hard day in its toxic environment.
This weekend, I confirmed dates for two very different exhibitions – a new series of watercolours in Toronto, the last nine of my large, enamel Dangerous Career Babes on Staten Island, in New York – as well as followed up leads for other spaces in British Columbia, California and Texas.
I want to end up on a sort of rock 'n' roll art tour of North America in the first half of 2010.
It's been over two years since I last exhibited paintings. For my 2008 show, PORNO, I was more curator and model than I was artist, intent on exploring a simple idea I had about the degree to which we've been seduced by contemporary social media to expose ourselves – in every sense – through photography.
This time, the ideas and the works themselves will be more rigorous – testing, with the Dangerous Career Babes, the coherence of several paintings as a single conceptual piece and with the watercolours, trying to expand the language and content of a medium that's so often seen as somewhat hidebound and unfashionable.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Remembering To Breathe

Last Friday, after driving to a neighbouring village for a chest x-ray, I thought about spending the rest of the morning at the gym. Instead, I drove home.
I always take the less direct route, off the main road, so I can look out across alternating views of both sides of the peninsula: calm, sheltered bays on one side, a broad expanse of open ocean, uninterrupted all the way to the coast of Chile, on the other.
I glimpsed a score of sleek, black shapes dart behind the break line of the surf, close inshore. At first I thought they were surfers but it was a pod of dolphins. Their bodies arced slowly across the glassy swell as they browsed the sandy-bottomed shallows for food.
At home, I decided to make small, simple moss gardens in three cheap ceramic pots for my studio, a zen task that immediately set my mind at peace. I scraped three kinds of moss off various parts of my driveway – I'd noticed how pretty they were just before I slipped on some and fell – then lay them in mounds atop soil and rock in each pot. I sat the pots on a timber fence that divides my yard from the ocean to spray them with a fine mist of fresh water.
Afterwards, I crawled through the same fence to sit on the very edge of the steep ocean cliff. The sun warmed my back as I stared out across the deep, dark blue water to an empty horizon. I closed my eyes and listened to the rhythm of the churning white surf a hundred feet or more below my feet.
It's rare that I do this. Mostly, when I come home, I head straight inside, anxious to get to work. Always trapped in – and by – my imagination, I forget that I chose to life here for a reason. When I remember to stop and look, it really does make me happy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Way, The Hard Way

My focus is splintered today. I'm reviewing contract points for exhibitions in the US, Canada and Japan next year. I'm working out production and delivery schedules for half a dozen large enamel paintings (the 'factory' is living up to its nickname). And I'm trying to refine a study for a new commission.
In between all this, I'm barely coping with conflicting emotional responses to my ebbing physical and mental health. The results of a battery of tests I did yesterday to assess the impact of my over-exposure to enamel will be available early next week. I'm also managing adjustments in the dosages of new medications prescribed to stabilise my bi-polar disorder, a process always fraught with unpredictable side-effects and unclear benefits.
I resist the urge to curl up in my bed and feel sorry for myself.
Instead, I drive myself harder, filtering out the background clutter so I can concentrate on – and complete – one task after another.
A persistent flaw in my work process (besides a tendency to rapid mood shifts) is my frustrating inability to multi-task.
Organisation, a well-defined structure and a minimum of improvisation and distraction are key to my getting anything done.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Art Might Be The Death of Me

Over the past few years, I've noticed my sensitivity to the chemicals in many types of paint has become so acute that even a faint whiff of nail polish can make me feel queasy. My reaction to enamel's carcinogenic fumes is more extreme but somehow I've grown used to the idea that nausea, a sore throat, blistered, itchy skin, blurred vision and nose-bleeds are all part of a day's work for me.
Yesterday, my boyfriend dragged me to a local doctor. I'd been vomiting and feeling like death for 24 hours following a long stint at what I call 'the enamel factory', in Sydney's western suburbs, where I've been spending an increasing number of days (and nights) putting the finishing touches to the last of my commissioned Dangerous Career Babes.
The doctor's demeanour as he peered into my ears, nose and throat and listened to the faint wheeze in my lungs was a grim reality check: "It's simple," he said. "You have to stop using enamel immediately. The risk of cancer is very high." He drew four vials of blood from my arm and organised for me to have a series of x-rays and a respiration assessment done.
I'm unlikely to stop using the medium any time soon. I still have at least a dozen large paintings I want to complete. But once they're done, I'll immerse myself in other, less toxic media for a while. It might be interesting to delve again – as I did to some extent in my Venus In Hell watercolours, three years ago – i
nto what lies beneath the brittle, shiny, candy-coloured surface of my my enamel works.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sotheby's Preview

The Sydney preview of works included in Sotheby's sale of Important Australian Art opened at the auction house's local headquarters at 118-122 Queen Street, Woollahra (Tel. 02 9362 1000) yesterday and will continue through Sunday, 16th August. A Melbourne preview will open on 20th August at 926 High Street, Armidale (Tel. 02 9509 2900) and close on Monday, 24th August, the day of the sale. Both the Sydney and Melbourne galleries will be open from 11am to 5pm daily.
Another of my early paintings, Ultra Violet One, a 1.50m x 1.0m, enamel on canvas first sold at an eponymous solo exhibition in Brisbane, in 1998, is being offered by a Sydney-base private collector. Sotheby's estimate of between $A8,000 and $A12,000 is realistic if somewhat dwarfed by the high six figures expected for works by elders such as Jeffrey Smart and Sidney Nolan.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Writer's Block

I try to update entries to this blog at least every couple of days, if not more regularly, but sometimes the concise documenting of my activities and thoughts is thwarted by the messy reality of my mind.
It goes blank.
It doesn't happen often. I don't believe in waiting for inspiration to come out of nowhere. On most days, I draw, paint, scribble in diaries and take photographs to make sure I'm always alert to the stray thought, the peripheral observation, that might lead me to my next work. It's a discipline I try to maintain even when I'm tired or depressed. It has enabled me not just to produce a lot of work but also refine and articulate the ideas within it.
The pace of my life and productivity has accelerated in recent months. At times, I've struggled to keep up. I have days when the weariness is bone-deep and the physical toll of the medium I use is marked. Sometimes my mind just shuts down and I can't think of even the simplest things, let alone construct a coherent sentence. When that happens, I just hope regular readers will understand.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

My Law And Disorder

I'm not a disciplined person. Having bipolar affective disorder doesn't help but I suspect that even if I didn't have it, I'd still find any kind of predictable routine or structure uncomfortable or confining.
In order to be as successful as I have been, I've had to resign myself to a relentless internal conflict.
I impose on myself an unforgiving regimen that ensures a reasonable amount of work gets done (and not just in the studio) every week. At the same time, I struggle to resist the fast shifts of mood, stray impulses and occasional surrender to lethargy that conspire to erode it.
Most days, I achieve a precarious but productive balance. Some days I don't. Then, nothing at all gets done. When I fuck up, there are always plenty of good excuses. But I've learnt that cutting myself even a little slack makes it harder, not easier.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Saving My Self

Five years ago, after a well-received but poorly attended show in a Melbourne gallery, I retreated far from art and stopped painting completely. Instead, I worked in a shoe shop. I still called myself an artist but there was a part of me that had come to terms with the idea that maybe I wasn't.
A box of English watercolour paints changed that. At the end of each day, after I returned from work (to the small room in my father's house where I was living), I would sit on my bed, open the box, and lose myself in experiments with unlikely textures, colours and ideas. I would also make one tiny painting that I would send the next morning to a new friend. He received hundreds over the next few months, each completely different.
These paintings saved my life. I ignored pressure from the galleries then representing my work to return to the large enamels they identified as 'typically Dooney'. But eventually I gave up my job at the shoe shop and committed once again to the idea of myself as an artist. My 'come-back' exhibition, my first in two years, was titled Venus In Hell and comprised fifteen torrid watercolours inspired by Voodoo rituals and beliefs.
I still do the small watercolours every day for the same friend and for this blog. I have sold some to first-time collectors for whom my larger works are out of reach – the works on scraps of Italian cold-pressed paper range in price from $US400 to $900 – but they're unlikely ever to be exhibited. Of all my art, they are the most intimate and telling. The white walls of a gallery are entirely the wrong way to share them.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A Dream Of Open Spaces

I've been thinking a lot about how I want to exhibit my work in the future.
I don't enter into representation deals anymore. When I do exhibit in a commercial gallery, it's a one-off arrangement, usually negotiated on the basis that the gallery recognises my shows draw a big crowd and generate press.
I don't ask much of the gallery other than a freshly painted space. I underwrite a lot of the costs (such as advertising, direct mail, and catering) myself.
You might hear that the success of one or other of my shows owed a lot to the organisation efforts of the gallery but it's never true. In Australia, the same, small team manages every aspect of my shows, from the design and photography of the posters and the writing of the press releases to the transport of the works, the hanging and the logistics associated with the opening night party.
There are some very skilled gallerists elsewhere – in China, Japan and maybe the USA – and I look forward to working with them in the next year and a half. In the meantime, however, I'm trying to figure out how to present my art beyond the virtual spaces I've refined over the past four years. I want to give as many people a chance to experience it in the real world and make the experience engaging, provocative and maybe even memorable.
I hate the colourless, antiseptic, and whisper-silent spaces of galleries and modern art museums, which leach away the unruly, visceral experience of art and reduce it to something as clinical as the bloodless corpses medical students use to study anatomy. But there's no point bitching about it if I'm not prepared to put my money where my mouth is and do something different – and better.