Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Ka-Boom Of The System

A well-regarded gallery owner came to visit me at the enamel factory yesterday. We have known each other for several years but we had renewed our acquaintance just a couple of weeks ago when I raised with him the possibility of mounting an exhibition at his space in the latter half of 2010. The point of his visit was to seal the deal.
I made fresh coffee and served delicate, mousse-like cakes from my favourite Chinese patisserie. He said how much he liked my new paintings. He also told me that I looked both well and happy. We sat in front of a new, large enamel painting in pretty colours and started to talk about exhibition dates.
Then things went awry.
The gallery owner assumed that my commitment to an exhibition also meant my agreement to local representation. It hadn't been mentioned before. It wasn't enough that he'd make forty percent on sales of the works included in the show. He wanted commission on the sale of all future works to all Sydney-based collectors, even those whose interest in my work I had nurtured for years.
In addition to this commission, he wanted every Sydney-based collector who contacted me to be referred immediately to the gallery and any further contact with me discouraged.
I told him, politely, I didn't work that way. I explained that my individual relationship with everyone who was interested in my work, whether they were collectors or not, was enormously important to me and I went into some detail about how my online presence – through a heavily trafficked web site, a 'blog, Twitter, YouTube, and even LinkedIn – encouraged constant contact.
The gallerist didn't know what Twitter was, and I suspect, hadn't actually ever read a 'blog – let alone mine. When I mentioned that he could see how transparently I lived and worked through my blog, he thought I'd said 'blood'. Even the word 'blog' was unfamiliar.
Still, we talked around the stumbling block of his insistence on representation a little more even though I knew the relationship was doomed and I should withdraw.
After he'd finished his coffee and cake, I walked him to the end of a long work table covered with paint cans and work debris to a clear space where my stencil prototype lay on glassine paper. I talked a little about how it was created and why.
As he had with all the other work, he told me how much he liked it but I realised that he hadn't been listening: he suggested I do the stencil image as a giclée prints.
"As you know, artists can't do traditional colour prints anymore," he said, somewhat archly (and wrongly). "So they're printed in ink."
Ink as in ink-jet printing. The last thing I wanted to do were giclée reproductions – which he would have known had he read my last entry here.
The gallery owner left before I could tell him that I wasn't going to exhibit with him. I called him as he was driving away in his large, shiny, foreign-built car. Politely, I insisted I was looking for an exhibition, not representation.
This provoked him to give me the same lecture I had first heard from another gallery owner over a decade ago. A little too loudly, he boasted that other artists were proud to be represented by him and respected what his gallery stood for.
He went on to tell me that by joining his gallery, I would benefit from the gallery brand. Gallerists always talk about brand with very little understanding that a brand is not just a well-known name: it is inextricable from a set of clearly identifiable values and attitudes.
I replied that – if we were speaking in those terms – I already had my own brand, so I didn't need his gallery's.
"If anything," I said, my own voice rising a little, "my partnerships with galleries are about co-branding. And in every instance, my brand brings benefits equal or superior to the gallery's."
The gallerist moved on quickly, telling me he didn't want to be 'used' for his space, and that the gallery would need a return for its "significant" investment in me during the exhibition. I pointed out that, quite apart from the fact that I usually bore the brunt of advertising and promotional costs for my exhibitions, the hefty commission on works his gallery could sell immediately before, during and for 60 days after the exhibition, not to mention the media attention my shows always generate, would be a more than generous return – on the space and on their time and effort.
His tone became emotional, angry: "What am I supposed to do if I am at a dinner party and someone asks if I represent you? What am I supposed to say?"
"Simply? No," I said.
"Look, you can't have your cake and eat it too," he blurted.
I laughed. The exchange was slipping out of his control, an unfamiliar experience for him when dealing with a young artist.
The gallery owner's last, weak jab was to tell me that his gallery worked to a specific structure, for which I had no respect because I didn't have one. I told him that my studio structure was probably as well or better organised than his but as it was now clear to me that our methods of working would not be compatible, I suggested we end the conversation.
Of course, the 'structure' that old-school galleries like to talk about is nothing more than the same 'middle-man' system used by everyone from mortgage brokers to car dealers: a system in which artists are little more than suppliers of product which is then given 'shelf space' on a sale-or-return basis. In return, galleries 'mark up' the work with commissions that can reach as high as 60 per cent and are rarely less than 40, and the artist gets few, if any, back-office benefits like accounting, tax planning, inventory management, or strategic career advice.
Even skilled marketing and communications are a stretch.
Moreover, art dealers (and artists) of the old school don't want to accept that 'regional' art markets now exist on a much larger scale than mere cities. There's a world-wide community of collectors and fans (whose value, even if they can't afford the work, mustn't be underestimated), for whom online media enables and sustains a highly personal, ongoing dialogue directly with the artist. Even better, there are no opening hours, no middlemen, no doorkeepers, no 'exclusivity', no 'good address'.
The gallery owner saw the value in displaying my name and work on his website but he had no real understanding of how the internet worked beyond what he kept referring to as his 'virtual shop front'.
Ironically, the reason he had schlepped out to see me at the enamel factory, in the unfashionable industrial suburbs far from the centre of Sydney, was because he had been impressed by the speed and scale of the spreading awareness of my name and work over the past couple of years. He was entirely resistant to the idea that this had been accomplished almost entirely online.
My encounter with the gallery, from whom, I suspect, I will never hear again, reaffirmed my view that the traditional system (a system to which not all gallery owners belong) is dying.
What I hadn't really understood, until yesterday, was that the galleries still working within that system are determined to take as many artists with them as they can.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Medium Of The Message

I've always wanted to do a series of prints. In the past, I've been invited to collaborate with print-makers on etchings, silk-screens, and (to my horror) giclée or ink-jet versions of my paintings but I really wanted to do something more original, on my own, and avoid mere replications of my existing works. I also wanted whatever it might turn out to be to resonate with my past.
My early work was influenced by graffiti, sticker tagging, agitprop and propaganda posters from the mid 20th century. Back then, I was interested in the wood block prints produced during China's Cultural Revolution, in which symbolic colours and simplified shapes reinforced short, directive slogans. Ease of printing meant that these were among the most intensively mass-produced, widely distributed art of the pre-web 20th century: the objective was maximum saturation of the imagery and the propagandist ideas represented in it.
Given these influences, the obvious medium for
my serial works was stencil. This gave me pause: conventional stenciling is crude and I didn't want to end up with a pastiche of bad street art. I experimented with different methods and materials. I wanted the finish to be beautiful and seductive, referring to ideas in my other hard-edged work. It also had to be durable.
I'm now refining versions of two early ideas – one titled NO!, the other, YES?. Each is hand-stencilled in high gloss enamel on 100% cotton,
museum-quality, archival mat board – the stark contrast of shiney paint on flat, unprepared board is stunning – and measures around 40cm high by 60cm wide (15.7" x 23.6").
I'll probably offer five editions of 25 signed, numbered prints each in five different colours: lime green, hot pink, tangerine orange, papal purple and jet black. A sixth, 'artist's proof' edition of just ten signed prints will be in white gloss enamel (still on white mat board). Like agitprop street posters, different versions of the same – or opposite – messages could be hung together.
The simple, hand-worked stencil process should make each very affordable.
More than anything, I want the works to appeal to as many people as possible. Like any good propaganda.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Free Of Me

As I've mentioned several times, I want to give as many people as possible an opportunity to own an example of my art. In the past, I've offered an unlimited edition print to download as well as a high numbered, limited edition photograph. This time, I thought I'd give just one person the chance to own an original piece.
This is how it works:
Take a look at the pair of Polaroids that illustrated yesterday's blog entry. One of them was used as the study for an enamel painting. But which one? And for what painting?
The answers can be discovered by exploring the images on both this blog and my web site. The first reader to send the correct answers – including the full name of the painting and the URL linking to it – to my studio email, along with their full name and snail mail address, will win a signed, dated, one-off Polaroid 600 study photograph, unmounted, as a prize.
Easy, no?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Life In Pieces

I sat up until the early hours of this morning, sorting through loose folders filled with more than a decade of hand-written notes and sketches for paintings, and hundreds of Polaroid 600 instant prints I'd kept for years, somewhat carelessly, in a large plastic garbage bag.
Four years ago, I didn't archive my preparatory work or any other papers. I didn't see the point. I'd lost confidence in my painting to such an extent that the evidence of what went into a specific work was of little value to me – nor, as I saw it, to anyone else – and was even somewhat embarrassing. I treated study drawings and photographs with contempt. Whatever I didn't destroy, I stuffed into drawers or files that I was never tempted to open again.
A friend came across the bagful of Polaroids in my old Palm Beach studio – a fibro' beach cottage rented from the actors Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward – just a few months before my Venus In Hell show. From several hundred creased, stained or faded prints, he edited a selection of a dozen which, without my knowledge, he took away to have mounted and framed.
He delivered them back to me, in Melbourne, on the day I hung my show. He insisted they should be exhibited in a small ante-room of the gallery. The price arrived at for each small print was arbitrary, around $A400. By the end of the show, every one of them had been sold.
I've offered very few of them for sale since. They're intensely personal – as a narrative of my conceptual development as an artist, as a sporadic snapshot of my life. Still, the price has more than doubled. Recently, a signed, single image related to a specific painting, mounted in white archival rag, sold for $A1,000 in the secondary market.
I'm learning to hold onto these pieces and not be so quick to dispose of them, either through sales or throwing them in a garbage bin. I now have a formal archive and an assistant who takes care to wrap my stray bits of handiwork, however unloved, defaced or battered, in acid-free paper, then annotate and date them, before storing them on purpose-built shelves.
Maybe, over time, I'll learn to appreciate them. For now, it's enough to know that, somehow, they've survived.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Little Flight Reading

When I ran away to Japan with my best friend, Michelle, at age 17 – the first time either of us had ever been outside Australia – my bags were filled mostly with books. They were a predictable reflection of mid-teen angst and included The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing, several volumes of poetry by Sylvia Plath, one of which included my then-favourite poem, The Bee Meeting, and an anthology of jisei no ku, Japanese death poems, by poets whose names I can't remember.
I still travel with a lot of books, none of them typical airport fare. 'Dead' hours in airport lounges, in planes, cabs and occasionally trains, or waiting alone in hotel lobbies are precious opportunities to catch up on my reading. Tonight, as I packed for an overnight trip to Melbourne to meet with a prominent collector, I had four paperbacks laid out next to my back-pack:
Idle Worship: How Pop Empowers the Weak, Rewards the Faithful and Succours to the Needy edited by Chris Roberts. It comprises the reflections of various musicians, performers and writers on the weirder phenomena of fan-dom.
Sex, Death and God in L.A.
edited David Reid. I love this quote, by screenwriter Jeremy Larner: "To be disturbed by anything is to be a loser."
The Lives of the Dead
by poet and Southern gothic novelist, Charlie Smith, who is shamefully unrecognised by an audience beyond the slim readership of the Paris Review.
Oil Notes
by Rick Bass. Recommended by a friend who has the best – and widest-ranging – literary taste, it's the journal of a young, itinerant, Texan oil surveyor turned writer who finds all kinds of unexpected relationships between oil prospecting and the everyday dilemmas of life. Of all the books I own, its pages are the most profusely earmarked with tiny post-it tabs.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Scratching The Surface

As hard as it is to get to grips with a new medium, it can be even harder to get to grips with a new idea. I am struggling with both right now.
When I first started working with watercolours, four years ago, I was determined to strike out in a completely different direction from the hard-edged, tightly constructed, Pop-infused images that defined the enamel paintings that had been my enter output for nearly ten years. As I've written before in several other posts, I wanted to puncture the seamless, shiney surfaces of these works and expose the unpretty emotional and psychological mess I'd wanted to entomb beneath them (think Chernobyl and thousands of tons of concrete poured into its nuclear reactor to seal a rupture).
My first marks on paper felt like I was committing some nameless crime and for several days after – and several dozen false starts – it didn't get any easier. The breakthrough came only when a close friend picked up one of many discarded attempts off the floor – one in which I'd deliberately defaced a pair of serpentine female demons with slashes of heavy black paint instead of tearing the paper apart – and said, simply, "Maybe look again at
this one. I think it says something." I did and during the two days I spent repairing and reworking it, I came to understand, finally, what I was trying to get at.
It took just four weeks to produce the other dozen works that were exhibited with it at my first-ever exhibition of mixed media works,
Venus In Hell, in Melbourne.
I haven't yet had a similar breakthrough with my experiments with pen and ink. Again, my lack of self-confidence and frustration are such that I over-work and destroy nearly every picture. And yet, somewhere in the recesses of my psyche is an imprint of past experience that reminds me that, although the next few days or weeks are likely to be bloody hard and unproductive, something will eventually emerge as the key to unlock the meaning of all the disparate symbols now scattered – like unresolved cyphers – across these pages.
Until then, I have to keep reminding myself not to give up – and resist the impulse to destroy all evidence of my failures.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Process Serving

When I find myself blocked in my own work, I stop and look closely at the creative processes of artists I admire.
A work of art doesn't emerge from the imagination fully formed. It's conceived in rough-hewn fragments, each of which has to be refined, drafted, notated, and revised (and, sometimes, discarded) several times before it becomes apparent just how, where and why it fits in a larger whole.
Picasso's several early studies for his renowned, 25-foot wide oil painting on canvas, Guernica, were barely recognisable as having anything to do with the final work. And yet, as the studies evolved, there was no sense of trepidation or doubt: the great Spanish artist explored as many elements as possible of the ideas they suggested – as if figuring out a puzzle – before committing to the final work.
The German-born, American sculptor, Eva Hesse's process included scribbling instructions and explanatory notes to herself in a small spiral-bound notebook, after sketching only the most basic shapes on graph paper. I used to be criticised for writing rather than sketching at art school but words often helped more, in the initial stages of working out a piece, than pictures. Later, I'd collage, cutting out shapes and parts of study photographs to position and move around before filling in the spaces with pencil drawings.
For more than fifteen years,
Edward Weston's Daybooks recorded the American photographer's daily struggle to understand himself and his work. His brief, sometimes clinical entries remind us that process doesn't end when one thing is finished. It's ongoing, relentless, not just through a body of work but also an entire artistic life.

Of course, the viewer sees only the completed work. What it took to get it there is, too often, swept away, lost, and forgotten – except by the artist, who has always to return to the process to develop the next idea, to experiment with new media and techniques and ultimately, to produce more work.
Accepting that – accepting, too, that it's very rarely quick or easy – helps relieve my constant, nagging frustration with myself.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Let It Bleed

When I exhibited my first works in mixed media – pencil, ink, watercolour and acrylic – on paper, three years ago, I was asked why I'd 'suddenly' decided to turn my back on the slick, colorful, high gloss enamel paintings that had proved so appealing to collectors. I hadn't worked out a good answer. All I knew was that, for a long time, I'd wanted to fracture the shiny surface of everything I'd created to that point and expose what was really going on beneath it: a simmering gumbo of long-suppressed frustration, brittle anger and confusion.
It wasn't easy to do. I had to unlearn everything I'd taught myself over the previous decade – all the rigid, highly disciplined processes derived not only from my take on post-modern theories about 'objective', de-personalised art but also an almost neurotic drive to obscure any trace of the human in my work. Then I had to re-learn to think and feel more deeply and at the same time, acquire the confidence not to stifle any stray, instinctive impulses that resulted in marks on the paper that I didn't always expect or understand.
As all this went on, I had to get to grips with the materials themselves. Being someone who is awkwardly obsessive/compulsive, my initial ineptness almost defeated my ambition: my studio floor became a rustling dune of crumpled or torn-up paper as I went through sheet after sheet of expensive, Italian-made, cold-pressed stock. I also went though several tubes of imported English watercolours.
The floor of my studio is again buried under reams of discarded paper. This time, instead of tubes of paint, it's dozens of three-ounce, tin-capped bottles emptied of ink and broken pen nibs. In between regular commutes to the enamel factory, where I spend many hours drawing the finest, straightest, cleanest outlines and painting wide fields of colour which dry with no trace of my repeated brush-strokes, I hunch over my drawing table and try to tame the anarchic, spidery trails and random blots that spill across the paper from my dip pen – without success.
Failure in my art wrenches at me worse than the loss of any lover. But as with a broken heart, all I can do is endure.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Who Said It Was Simple?

"Your silence will not protect you"
– Audre Lorde
It's been the same every time I begin a new series of works on paper. Half-blind, I feel my way around the edges of the dense thicket of ideas I have, trying to make sense of what at first appears to be an impenetrable tangle. To help, I read a lot, both online and off, not for information but for something less specific – an emotional or psychological node that resonates strongly enough to prompt me to start painting.
I've been browsing poems by several black women, including the late Audre Lord. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants who settled in New York in the '30s, she described herself as "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet", and argued powerfully for a feminist movement conscious of both race and class. "I am defined as other in every group I'm part of," she once observed. "The outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression."
Who Said It Was Simple
There are so many roots to the tree of anger

that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks

the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls

they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first

and the ladies neither notice nor reject

the slighter pleasures of their slavery.

But I who am bound by my mirror

as well as my bed

see causes in colour

as well as sex
and sit here wondering

which me will survive

all these liberations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Coloured Girls

When I was younger, an Indian-Iranian girlfriend told me, "You never paint a coloured girl." I hated to admit it but she was right.
I had my reasons. One was that most of my early works were a deliberate objectification of women and I was reluctant to use anyone other than me as a model. Another was my lack of basic skills when it came to mixing paint.
I only began painting Asian women a few years ago, after a brief lesbian fling – my first, having suppressed my bi-sexuality for too long – with a Korean girl my age. When she undressed, I couldn't help but take in the unfamiliar contrasts between her body and mine, in shape, size and skin colour.
Now I'm drawn to African women, maybe because their often large, strong, powerful bodies more closely resemble those I've always painted – which is to say, my own.
Two women, a Kenyan and an African-American, have asked to model for a few large enamel works I'm creating to benefit arts projects in East and West Africa. I'm looking forward – maybe a little too much – to trying to capture their pronounced curves and musculature, as well as the way their dark skin tones, so subtly different to each other's but also starkly different to mine, absorb light.
More than anything, I want to be able to paint them in the same way they move, as if responding to some insistent rhythm playing only in their heads.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Secret Women's Business

Despite enduring a few of the busiest weeks of my working life so far, I'm only just now getting to grips with the whole concept of 'prioritising'. As a result, I've yet to finalise any of the exhibitions I've planned for 2010. I'm besieged by gallerists, justifiably impatient to nail down dates and contract details.
At least, I'm not worried about the content of the shows. My heart is already set on doing a number of works in mixed media on paper rather than another series of large paintings in enamel.
I've missed the emotional and sensual turbulence of my earliest experiments in watercolours, which I first showed at my Venus In Hell show at MARS Gallery, in Melbourne, three years ago. I want to delve deeper into syncretic Afro-Christian rites but at the same time, explore the complex relationship women can have with the ecstatic spiritual experience – a theme limned in my recent Precious Blood paintings. Within this experience, as within other aspects of female experience, joy and pain are inextricably bound together.
It's ambitious stuff which, I suspect, will make for a rigorous intellectual and creative adventure as I try to resolve disparate ideas and turn them into coherent shows. I can't wait to get rid of everything now on my plate and get started.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Recession Originals

During the three years that I've been writing this blog, I've attempted to give as many people as possible an opportunity to own one of my artworks.
First, there were series of unlimited edition, downloadable, monochrome images that I offered to sign for anyone who printed them out and snail-mailed them to my studio. Then I created a downloadable stencil for street art based on one of my earliest paintings (a pair of Adelaide collectors used it to decorate a room of their house). Most recently, to celebrate my 500th blog entry, I offered a free, limited edition, signed and numbered photographic print to the first 500 readers who emailed me their addresses.
Now I want to give my readers and first-time collectors a chance to acquire one of my original, signed works on paper at a price that's affordable for many even in the midst of this ugly recession.
I've uploaded images of 10 original, signed artworks to Twitpic, along with a description of the media used and dimensions of the image size in both centimetres and inches. These small pieces, most of which are conceptual sketches for larger works or illustrations created specifically for this blog, are offered for sale only occasionally and are usually priced from $US500 to $US900. However, for the next 72 hours only, each is available for just $US275.00, including delivery via Registered International Post.
To acquire one, contact my studio through the email address on my web site, noting the name of the work that you wish to purchase (along with two alternative preferences, if possible). The studio will respond with payment instructions. Sales will be on a strictly 'first come, first served' basis.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Declaration Of DIY Independence

I figured out early in my life that if I wanted something, I had to make it happen myself.
I was raised in a feminist household. I was given the same freedom as boys my age but I had to shoulder the same responsibilities and be equally strong and capable. In the fairy tales I was read, princesses rescued themselves and didn't aspire to marry the first man who offered them a crystal slipper.
The DIY ethic has always been deeply ingrained in me as an artist. I produced my first, very successful exhibition myself but later, I allowed myself to sucked in to an increasingly archaic and inflexible commercial gallery system. Over time, I became dependent on it, despite a decreasing number of sales.
I lost personal contact with collectors, curators and critics, as well as my reasons for wanting to be an artist. W
hen I complained of this isolation to the gallerist, I was told, "The last thing you want is everyone interested in your work" – as if ubiquity and accessibility were anathema to art. I was offered one, two-week exhibition a year, "subject to availability of space", for which I paid the gallery 50 percent of gross sales as commission, plus expenses. Among the expenses were thousands spent on advertising and promotion in which the gallery featured more prominently than my art.
When the exhibition was over, it was almost impossible for collectors to find out about what I might be working on next, let alone when I might be showing again in the future. The gallery was too busy selling the next artist (who might prove to be a better meal ticket) to be bothered with either unsold inventory or works they had yet to see.
Dealing with institutional or public galleries wasn't – isn't – much better. In their cloistered world, entirely
dependent on public funding and big-money private patronage (oh, and gift shop sales), even the best-known living 'fine artists' are discouraged from curating their own work. Large-scale exhibitions materialise despite, not because of, academic prejudices, croneyism and turf wars, and are hide-bound by bureaucratic constraints. So much rides on these institutional shows that they can only pay off if they're hyped as 'events' and living artists are usually a lot less bankable than dead ones.
Now, thanks to the web and a plethora of social network tools, a younger generation of artists has been able to regain control of their work and their careers and nurture a direct, one-on-one relationship with everyone interested in their work. They no longer have to rely on traditional bricks-and-mortar spaces to exhibit and they can use a combination of new and old media to to distribute awareness and understanding of their work. They can also network with artists and entrepreneurs outside their own home towns to create multiple opportunities to collaborate or connect with new audiences.
Even better, they get to keep the lion's share of whatever revenue they generate.
DIY has been embraced as an mainstream ethos, devoid of any taint of dilettantism.
A recent edition of the UK newspaper, The Independent describes electro-poet/musician George Pringle as Britain's most exciting new talent. She has set up her own label, through which she is releasing her self-produced debut album. It's available to download on Amazon, Tunecore and 7Digital. "Girls don't challenge themselves enough," she told the newspaper. "It's like being a damsel in distress – waiting for a knight in armour to sweep you up and take you to a recording studio."
The power of the web has forced even the lumbering dinosaurs that are large record companies to concede more creative control and a bigger cut of the action to the artists they want to work with. But small, independent labels have been doing it for years. Tummy Touch Records released a limited edition of just 100 Pilfershire Lane Box Sets, a multimedia work that was also a 'debut album' by musician, Tara Busch. Curated and designed by Busch and collaborator Maf Lewis, it blurs any boundaries between conceptual art, music and self-promotion.
In order to wrest back their freedom from an archaic system, visual artists have to become as innovative, adaptive and willing to experiment as artists in other disciplines. They need to re-think not only how they exhibit their work – and increasingly 'exhibition' sounds as anachronistic as 'videotape' or 'hardback edition' – but also how they can control and increase access to themselves, a key to making their work more coherent, cohesive – and commercially viable.
Commercial is a not a dirty word among artists anymore ( it was always a snotty, 19th century, Romantic prejudice that deserves to be disposed of ruthlessly by 'next generation' artists). After all, true independence requires self-financing. And yeah, that means goodbye gallery advances and government grants.
I've been accused, within the comments of this blog, of 'loving money'. But this criticism doesn't recognise the difference between greed and acquiring the resources needed to be able to do what I want, when and where I want, with my work.
I still use commercial gallery spaces for my own, self-produced events but the income I generate and my self-funded and self-organised logistics and communications – my studio's own mailing list numbers over 7,500 entries and I have personal contact with a couple of hundred collectors – allow me to maintain a high degree of control and creative direction.
By not relinquishing my involvement in the sometimes awkward business side of my art, I have little or no dependence on middle-men. As a result, they have no leverage they can use to constrain or direct me. My increased earnings are invested in the means to create new work and produce future shows. I can afford a small, well-trained crew to ensure that my unmediated (and undliuted) self and my work are distributed as widely as possible. Having something to say is one thing, having someone to see, read or hear it is just as important.
A direct connnection with everyone who's interested in my art, especially interested enough to buy it, is key. Collectors don't just buy the work. They buy into the wider scope of the artist's vision. Their support enables me to create more art and at the same time, encourages me to take more and greater risks, something that commercial gallerists, who rarely have a clear idea about what collectors are really interested in (mainly because galleries are too busy gazing longingly at their wallets to listen closely to them), actively discourage in their artists.
Nevertheless, I am also realistic that many of my collectors are looking for a good return on their investment and so I assume some responsibility for ensuring the value of my work continues to rise.
Having regard for the role money plays in the art is hardly new among artists:
Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Damien Hirst have all kept a close eye on the hundreds-of-million dollars their art and 'brands' have generated. And it's not just a 20th or 21st century phenomenon: Michelangelo left a 16th century estate
worth many millions in modern-day dollars, which included a palatial villa overlooking Florence: even in his early career, he was infamous for his 'push-it-to-the-limit-and-stick-it-to-em' demands on powerful Church and aristocratic patrons.
Independence costs money – but dependence costs freedom. The first, DIY steps towards independence can be hellishly difficult but this is infinitely more preferable to naïve, self-negating surrender to the mercy of a creaky, unproductive, discouraging and isolating commercial gallery system that is, in its present form, doomed.
Photo above: The painter Francis Bacon's studio at Reese Mews, London, at his death.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rock 'n' Rolla

The owner of a small, new gallery in rural Victoria was surprised when I agreed to her hesitant suggestion that I might consider her space for a show.
A lot of artists, curators, gallerists and some collectors think there's a pecking order for commercial galleries, according to the artists associated with them, the size and location of the spaces, the credibility and perceived acuity of the management, the money behind them, and so on. They talk of there being the 'right' venues for emerging artists and the 'wrong' ones for artists with established reputations, as if some spaces should be deemed to be 'beneath' a venerable 'name' or acknowledged money-maker.
I think of galleries the same way a rock 'n' roll band thinks of venues: there are good and bad ones, there are ones that have a bit of history or a better weekday crowd, but you pretty much play them all when you're on the road. And as long as the crowd gets into what you're playing, a cramped, smokey chicken-wire bar at a truck-stop in the middle of nowhere can be as much fun as a slick 'big room' or a swanky theatre in the heart of a city.
Punk and No Wave bands in the 70s and 80s and grunge bands in the '90s used to eschew large capacity venues for the club circuit.
Even stadium gods like the Stones have been known to warm up their aging chops in small, local dives before heading out on their million-dollar, multi-national tours.
Of course, late 20th and 21st century artists have long been encouraged (by gallerists, mostly) to think of exhibitions as being more occasional, elitist and, well, reverent than a music gig. It's a residue of a 19th century Romantic notion about so-called fine art that I just can't stomach. So, next year, I am planning a series of shows around the world that will open within a few weeks of each other, each featuring different works, in different media, in very different types of venues, from small, single rooms in major cities and rural towns to rambling, museum-like, multi-room spaces in suburbia.
I'm also doing a few talks and 'one-night-stands' at universities and artist-run spaces.
At it's simplest, it's an experiment. I can exhibit new work and at the same time, meet some of the people who have found their way to me through my various virtual spaces online – just as they have to a new generation of young musicians, film-makers and performers.
I can also test the idea that, in this post-Web 2.0 age in which concepts of 'ownership' are increasingly tenuous, there's been a radical shift in the locus of real value in the arts – a value no longer determined by scarcity but by ubiquity – from the art work (the 'product') to the artist (or 'producer').
When it's over, I'll follow the routine of road-weary musicians and return to the studio to compose new works. Who knows? Once I have a new 'set', I might take it 'on tour' again.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Turning Japanese

As soon as I finished high school, I booked a one-way ticket to London via Japan. I was seventeen. I went with my best friend. Tokyo and Osaka were our first experiences of a world outside Australia.
We were guests of a Japanese family who were keen to show us as much as we could digest of Japanese culture. It soon became apparent that they also liked to be seen with us. We resembled a pair of
ill-matched manga action figures come to life. My angular, six-foot-tall frame and severe, high-cheek-boned face reflected a fetishistic Japanese ideal of a Caucasian warrior woman – without the wavey blonde hair and pneumatic tits. All I needed was a sword. My friend was the petulant but pretty schoolgirl, a paedo-sexual fantasy, right down to the huge doe eyes, long eye lashes, small nose, full lips and pert but ample-chested body.
Even then, I had an interest in erotica. It pervades Japanese popular culture and doesn't refrain from the fleshy, forensically intricate display of every sort of weird sex – and not just between humans. I bought paperback books of photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki from Aoyama Book Store and pored over his saturated colour 35mm and Polaroid close-ups of rope-bound young women (an example above) and hairless vaginas penetrated by fish, plastic dinosaurs and tiny Japanese cocks, and replicated by orchids, as well as his monochrome snapshots of the inside of Shinjuku 'soap lands' and 'love hotels'.
I hadn't expected so-called 'high art' to be exhibited in department stores, as if it was just part of an enhanced shopping experience. Years later, the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, reminded me of this when he wrote, "Perhaps the beginning of the 21st century will be remembered as the point where the urban could no longer be understood without shopping." In Tokyo, the boundaries that separated so-called 'high culture' from everything else didn't exist. Every form of visual art was everywhere.
So was sex. Every Japanese read manga and grey-suited, inscrutable salariman sat on rush-hour commuter trains unembarassedly absorbed in hentai cartoon panels filled with uncensored, hardcore (and often sadistic) sex and gore-laden violence.
Manga
's most popular characters were also sold as action figures and rendered on every imaginable type of merchandise, from t-shirts to tiny vibrators. Many young Japanese, especially geek-ish otaku fan-boys, collected these with a connoisseurship that matched a professional curator's.
These days, Japanese artists have global recognition. But they still appear intent on blurring the boundaries between commerce, entertainment and art. Takashi Murakami operates a slicker, more sober and commercial version of Warhols 'factory, with scores of young artist apprentices and protegées. He oversees the production of work ranging from cartoony 'Shock Pop' (a term he invented) paintings and resin statues to anime films, home wallpapers, rugs – as featured on Murakami's factory website, Kaikai Kiki – and collaborations with the designer Marc Jacobs and the French fashion house, Louis Vouitton. In Japan, Murakami's colourful, Vuitton-branded fashion accessories are also exhibited as artworks.
Another Japanese artist, Yoshimoto Nara, also reproduces his original art, which has an international cult following, on merchandise, including ashtrays, clocks, drinking glasses, postcards, and the covers of diaries. This sort of productisation would cause disdain if done in the Western world by a Western artist, especially if they weren't sold in galleries as an attempt to legitimize them. Nara's products are available to the mass market through the boutique toy shop Sweaty Frog, Kaboodle, and even Amazon.
Tomoaki 'Nigo' Nagao doesn't call himself an artist but he acts like one – well, a peculiarly Japanese, mutant version, a gene-splice of Jeff Koons, Malcolm McLaren and the Beastie Boys. He began designing limited edition clothing under the label A Bathing Ape In Lukewarm Water, shortened to BAPE, but has expanded the brand to include BAPE Cuts hair salon, BAPE Sounds records (for which he is producer/director) and BAPE Café and Gallery. Each is independently successful, and enhanced – rather than diminished – by an increasingly distributed and popular brand.
I've often been criticised within Australia for my non-traditional approach to both to my work and career, especially my insistence on serial (albeit handmade) paintings and my talk of the 'productisation' not only of my art but myself. Unarguably, I'm influenced by – and supportive of – the attempt by Japanese artists to redefine the purpose and meaning of art and to a large extent, democratise it.
I'm unconvinced that their motivation is really about art as much as it is about cashing in. So I've been very careful to ensure that in my case, the art comes first and that its 'productisation' is recognisable as part of a broader conceptual approach. Then again, maybe I'm just clinging to a threadbare, Romantic notion of art within an increasingly creaky Western context. Australian curators have already consigned me to a box marked 'post-Murakami, manga-influenced', regarding me as a local artist with little connection to any identifiable Australian tradition.
In 2007, my work featured in a show titled BLAST! The Influence of Manga and Contemporary Japanese Popular Culture on Australian Artists that toured regional public art galleries in Queensland. For the first time I realised that my art did belong somewhere – just not in Australia.

Friday, September 04, 2009

No Place Like Home

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.
– Robert Frost, The Death Of The Hired Man
I've travelled a lot for my art. As an Australian-born British citizen, I can travel and work as I please throughout the United Kingdom and most of Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand. I am welcomed without too much hassle at the borders of India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Japan.
I have also an Australian passport but I don't think of myself as an Australian. The artists who've influenced me most have been European or North American and none of my work echoes, even faintly, an Australian tradition (not even my paintings from Lake Eyre). I feel less of an outsider in London than I do anywhere in Australia.
My boyfriend used to tease me for masculinising my posture and broadening my vowels – pretending, somehow, to be more Australian – in order 'to fit in'. It was something I learnt to do growing up in small, patriarchal rural towns. I adopted it as a survival tactic when I was included with nine middle-aged male artists on a testosterone-amped art expedition to Lake Eyre
, in the Australian outback, when I was in my early twenties.
I think I'll fit in just fine in North America. I have no history there, no close friends, no family ties and since the 2001 Patriot Act, no civil rights. But it's where I've wanted to explore most my whole life. Thanks to the 'net, I've discovered that, in a way that's almost visceral rather than intellectual, Americans 'get' the populist, mythomanic entertainment and advertising references and post-feminist sexual politics of of my enamel painting. They're also open to my much rawer and experimental watercolours and drawings.
Yes, I'll be a foreigner, with less rights than I might have even in Thailand or Cambodia. But wherever I end up, it will feel more like home than here.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Weekend Retreat

At the end of a long week, everything begins to slow in the studio. The work pace decelerates, the noise level abates. The clock takes an age to complete an hour. Conversations are longer and more personal. The phone stops ringing.
I look forward to each weekend not as an opportunity to rest but rather to work on new ideas without distraction. I buy good food. I open up the windows through the house to allow the ionized sea air to circulate through every room. I program my iTunes to play my favorite music at random. And then I draw. If I'm not too tired, I might remained focussed on a particular work for twelve hours or more.
I remember the pleasant, productive solitude that first drew me to a life as an artist.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

King Ink

I want to draw in ink again.
A few years ago, I used gel pens and simple, pared down outlines on white archival board to create the first studies of my 2004 enamel series, Self vs Self. I chose gel pens because of the uneven mix of colour particles suspended in the sticky fluid. I traced over the top of them with a glitter pen. The tiny, silvery fragments were barely noticeable but they reflected and enhanced the colour variations.
Recently, I came across a beautiful, traditional, US-manufactured ink with brighter but subtler variations of colour than the gel pens. The magenta is a rich purple that transforms itself into crimson then bright pink at the crisp edge of a line. There's also a rich, venous red, the same colour as my blood; it dries as dark as coagulated trace evidence.
The colour shifts in the inks replicate what I've been trying to achieve with watercolours, except that ink is more precise, even when I draw fast and messy. I bought some old fashioned dip pens so I can splatter the ink a little and experiment with different nib shapes and thicknesses.
I'll exhibit some ink on paper works as well as watercolours for my planned exhibition in Toronto. I want the drawings to be stark, uncluttered but sensuous depictions of arcane rites and sexual practices.
Artists returning to simpler, more traditional media is something of a trend right now. Damien Hirst eschewed assistants to go all brooding, neo-Expressionist in paintings he unveiled earlier this year in Moscow. Brit Art's It Girl, Tracey Emin – who vies for the title with Jay Jopling's ex-missus, Sam Taylor-Wood – recently exhibited pen and ink drawings. They're execrable: scratchy, laboured linework barely concealing a wobbly hand, with figures flattened so clumsily they resembled road-kill, all life (and sex) squashed out of them.
The medium deserves better.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Business Of Being Myself

The worst days are not those in which I have a lot to do. The worst days are those in which I have a lot to do and I'm totally ill-prepared.
It has taken me a long time to get to grips with the demands of a successful artistic career. It's not just the constant output of my studio – after two years, I'm only now refining a process that enables me to cope with a large number of commissioned works or works committed to shows and still have time to develop new ideas and experiment with other media – but also the responsibility of managing myself without too many intermediaries.
At any given time, there are logistics – production schedules, shipping, customs, publicity, and so on – to plan for shows in two or more countries. There are private sales to be negotiated and works consigned. There is a constant flow of other commercial enquiries that might range from a fashion company seeking to license one of my images to a publisher wanting me to contribute a few words or an essay to an upcoming book.
And there are the regular updates of words and pictures – small drawings, watercolours and photographs I create every day – to this blog, along with scores of one- and two-liners to Twitter, all of which keep me closely connected to those most interested in my work.
There was (and maybe still is) a part of me that didn't really believe that I'd 'make it' as an artist. So, for a long time, even when my work began to sell well, I paid scant attention to the lessons other tried to teach me about how to get a handle on the growing number of things that had to be done in a working day.
I ignored the simple utility of making daily 'to do' and call lists and sharing a weekly schedule with everyone who worked for or with me. I resented the hours I had to spend overseeing my improving finances – which led to more than one tense conversation with the tax department and several hair-tearing reprimands from my accountant – or reviewing contracts and business correspondence.
I'm more realistic now. I recognise that if I'm to be truly independent and self-determining as an artist, I have to adapt the intelligence, imagination and discipline that are elemental to my art to taking care of the business my art has created.
If I don't, then my art – and my life – will end up, once again, being controlled and exploited by others.