Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wordless, Day Nine

Blood Does Not Lie, 2010
Study in watercolour, gouache and lead pencil on cold-pressed paper, 21cm x 29cm

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wordless, Day Two

I Dressed Up As You, 2010
Study in watercolour, gouache, acrylic and lead pencil on cold-pressed paper, 21cm x 29cm

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wordless, Day One

Biology Makes Me Understand, 2010
Study in watercolours and lead pencil on cold-pressed paper, 20cm x 21cm

Friday, January 22, 2010

Drawing From A Well Run Dry

Painting – then being forced to repaint – a couple of dozen large, hard-edged enamels last year took its toll on me. The muscle-numbing, close-quarters brushwork and tedious hours spent hunched over two metre wide frames, not to mention the lung-searing toxicity of the paint, left me physically and emotionally drained.
I needed to do something – anything – else for a while.
I've missed the intimacy and looseness of other media. I've missed making things without knowing exactly what they'll look like once they're done. The more immediate connection between emotion and action, especially in my works on paper, are a balm for the twitchy, hyper-tense anxiety that has badly corroded my psyche.
I inherited my mental illness from my maternal grandmother, who died by her own hand long before I was born. I've been thinking about her a lot lately – about how her history has insinuated itself into my own. It has suggested somewhere to begin a new and very different body of work.
My grandmother committed suicide in a house my mother shared with friends. One of them was a founding editor of the Sixties' most notorious, satirical counter-culture magazine, Oz. I've decided to contact him to see if he might talk to me about my grandmother.
Maybe because I'm afraid of 'writing out' the many visual narratives percolating within me – maybe, too, because I'm tired of words – I'm going to take a break from writing this blog for a while. I'll post drawings and paintings instead. They'll convey a lot more coherently what is roiling inside my head.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Picking Up Pieces

"I believe that one defines oneself by reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself. To cut yourself out of stone."
– Henry Rollins
I have gone soft.
Over the past several years, I've tried to bind who I am now to someone I used to be. I was hoping to retain some connection to my past but as it turned out, it was a mistake. Insidiously, it eroded my ability to commit to my future.
Late last year, I started sorting through the detritus of my old life – including old works – and threw most of it out.
I'm not sure what I'll do with the little I kept. Not having it visible is already a liberation of sorts. I figure if I'm trying to create new habits and new work, I need everything that isn't relevant to be out of sight and out of mind.
As I try to effect radical changes in my life and my way of thinking, I've been looking at the lives and work of people I admire. I'm not into hero-worship. I make a lousy fan. But sometimes I come across seeds of ideas and attitudes in others' lives that might help me rebuild or refine my own.
I'm most drawn those who've come up with ways of being that others haven't – then had the nerve to embrace them.
Among the few:
Isabella Blow I first came across the late style icon in a Vogue Italia fashion story, surrounded by rake-thin, pouting models and eating with her hands. Her intensity and eccentricity were compelling and exerted a profound effect on, among others, milliner Philip Treacy and fashion designer Alexander McQueen. I love her most for the way she dressed – like a walking piece of performance art.
Eva Hesse So much more than a sculptor, elements of her works on paper and sculptures reflect each other: for example, the cylindrical membrane of skin-like latex in her sculpture, Repetition Nineteen III (1968), has the same delicate fragility as her ink wash of drawing, No Title (1966). Thus, each work stands alone but also together. Her fascination with innovative and unusual materials was extraordinarily sophisticated, even if, ultimately, it probably killed her (like Blow, too young).
Henry Rollins
Whatever you think of this angry, aging punk-rocker, his hardcore, DIY work ethic and independent, empathic and democratic sense of self are impressive. His work isn't self-conscious – often, it isn't even that good – but he does it relentlessly and now, over half a century on, there's a substantial body of recordings, books, film and spoken word perfomances. I listen to him spew the sardonic humour of his road journal, Get In The Van, on my iPod whenever I feel down. An unframed poster for it, signed by him, is taped to my studio wall.
Sylivie Guillem Diva, rebel, radical perfectionist, she's simply the most dynamic and daring dancer of this age. She's also fearlessly independent and uncompromising. Having left her position as prima ballerina at the traditional Paris Opera Ballet at 22, she has pushed the boundaries of ballet and contemporary dance further than anyone since Nijinsky. Of all the women in the world, I find her the most inspiring.
Her music, lyrics, performances and video clips are playfully experimental and emotional and yet always unarguably original. She also has a way of expressing her sexuality freely, without submitting to conventional notions of glamour. She conveys, in everthing she does, that she is, somehow, untameable.
Diane Arbus I'm fascinated by misfits and people with physical and mental 'abnormalities'. The late NY photographer captured the essence of these and made it OK for everyone to stare. She photographed 'normal' people as if she were looking for their abnormality beneath the surface. "Nothing is as strange as they said it was," she once said. "It's what I've never seen before that I recognise."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Redemption Road

The last six months have been hard.
I've been laid low with illness. My commitment not to exhibit this year and instead, to re-organise my studio so that it might better manage the increasing demand for my work had a serious, end-of-year financial impact and left me with with a backlog of unfinished commissions. Opportunities turned bad, relationships soured. I was left disillusioned and plagued with self-doubt.
Collectors and acquaintances urged me to try to see the positive in all this. I got so tired of their encouragement that I stopped answering my phone and responding to emails. I couldn't even be bothered to update this blog. For the first time in my life, I thought about giving up art.
To make sure I didn't do anything rash, I set off on a long road trip to where I grew up, the barren, empty country of northern New South Wales, just my dog and me and the last of my savings.
Several hundred miles along the desolate back-country blacktop that took me deep into my past, I began to regain some clarity. Things had become intolerably hard, yes, but I saw that my overwhelming desire for independence, especially from a system that had ground me down a hell of a lot more often than it had lifted me up, had driven me to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency and success unprecedented for a young artist.
The risks I'd taken for what I believed in had benefitted me and the people who'd supported my work, even if it had pissed off the local art world's old guard.
It was only when my commitment faltered – when I backed down, compromised or, worse, was too eager to please – that the seeds of trouble were sown. My redemption lay in being even more insistent, not less, on doing things my way.
In just the last few days, I've crawled out of a mire of depression, anger, debt, a long-standing gallery dispute and a creative dead-end. I'm not out of trouble yet. I still have some serious health issues to contend with and a lot of work (and debt) to clear. But I'm not conceding an inch. If anything, I'm going to be even more determined, ruthless and 'difficult'.
I've broken free of the stultifying control of the traditional gallery system and I'm not going back.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Silence Is Shame

Australia's National Association for the Visual Arts Ltd (NAVA) has just published an important booklet for artists:, the Art Censorship Guide: What you should know about threats to artistic freedom and how to deal with them. NAVA is the main (primarily government-funded) organisation representing the professional interests of Australian artists. The publication is now available from their website.
The Art Censorship Guide explores a number of case studies of Australian artists whose work has been censored. It attempts to advise on how best to respond to censorship and details the several laws and protocols that can prevent public access to artworks – many of which can be invoked capriciously or on the whim of politicians, officials or interest groups.
It also examines laws relating to classification, blasphemy, profanity, defamation, indecency and obscenity, sedition, public order, vilification and incitement, as well as the issues involved with working with children, human remains and animals.
I was approached last year by the Guide's project manager, who asked if she might include a case study of the censorship of my Sex Tourist installation at Art Melbourne, a couple of years ago. The episode attracted national press coverage, led by Melbourne's The Age newspaper and ABC Television news. The mixed media works featured in the installation are reproduced in the Guide in colour.
The publication has had a lot of media attention since NAVA announced, in 2008, that they would be developing it – most recently in an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
The publication of the Art Censorship Guide is particularly timely. This week the government of my home state, New South Wales, announced their recommendation that the ‘artistic defence’ provision be removed when images deemed as ‘child pornography’ go to trial.
The Australian definition of child pornography includes pseudo images (artwork) of children. Only the Child Pornography Working Party (in which no artists are included or represented) decides whether artworks are created for a legitimate artistic purpose or child pornography.
Even works including non-sexual nudity can possibly be deemed as such. During prosecution, the courts decide the artworks' standards of morality and decency, its literary, artistic or educational merit, and the general 'character' of the material.
The full Report of the Child Pornography Working Party can be read here.
No artist, gallery or arts body would be exempt. NAVA submitted their Art Censorship Guide to the state's Classification Board before release to avoid possible censorship, restrictions or legal action. Inevitably, government art grants will only be given to art and artists that meet the Child Pornography Working Party's guidelines.
Bill Henson
is an established, internationally recognised and critically acclaimed Australian photographer. He represented Australia at the 49th Venice Biennale in 1995, and has works in major institutions in the USA, Europe and, of course, Australia.
Throughout his career, Henson has explored the transitions of pre- and early adolescence in his photographs. However, In 2008, Henson's Sydney exhibition was shut down and his photographs seized by police after complaints that a photograph of a13-year-old girl, naked from the waist up, was child pornography. Our prime minister, who hadn't seen the images, described them as "absolutely revolting".
I wrote about the controversy in a blog entry in 2008. Despite spurious charges against Henson (and his gallery) being dropped, a media witch-hunt ensued. And it continues.
initial cultural, legal, media and public response to the issue across Australia was deplorable. No-one – not Henson, not his gallery, not the many senior curators that exhibited his work, not the hundreds of collectors and government-funded institutions that have bought his work, not the many critics who had given his work rave reviews – spoke out. The silence was deafening.
Potential damage to Australia's cultural significance was mentioned. But no-one said a word in public about the works themselves or Henson's role as an artist – although some were moved to acknowledge he was "a good artist" (whatever that means).
Instead, a number of galleries removed Henson photographs from their public collections and websites until the controversy passed, probably because they were concerned they might lose governmental and corporate funding. I was, still am, furious that an entire segment of society that's supposedly devoted to art was too gutless to stand up for itself.
I was enraged that Henson didn't defend his own work and the ideas he had been exploring in his photographs for more than twenty years. He stayed silent and out-of-sight. A month later, he made a brief, ass-kissing statement thanking people for their support and praising existing laws. It was an unforgivable betrayal not only of his own work but of the work of other artists. Whether intentional or not, his silence was a submission to censorship.
Artists don't need further encouragement to self-censor their work. These days, they're pressured by commercial galleries to create work that sells and that can double as interior decoration. They're also pressured to conform to current academic and cultural trends – not to mention government agenda – in their applications for funding grants.
The culture of art competitions and prizes further encourages the ideas of creating a work that will be popular or appeal to a certain set of judges.
Henson's lack of action implied that art and ideas are not worth fighting for, that the role of the artist is to avoid risk, to retreat in the face of adversity and controversy, to be silent on (then publicly thankful for) oppressive laws. His actions – and even, in some ways, the Art Censorship Guide's advice for avoiding damaging public or media reactions to artwork – are a recommendation to artists to play safe and be prepared to edit their work to avoid controversy.
This is indirectly confirmed by Executive Director of NAVA, Tamara Winikoff's statement that the tightening of NSW child pornography laws could increase the artistic self-censorship that has happened in the wake of the Bill Henson controversy.
Bill Henson states that he is not interested in a political or sociological agenda (even though his work inevitably engages both). It's a neat line used by too many artists to extract themselves from any further involvement when the real-world issues blow up. This unwillingness to be involved reinforces art's current irrelevance to the world. The position is beyond safe. It's cowardly and hypocritical.
The recent legal developments regarding censorship – and my reactions to it – have made me re-evaluate my own position. I have been increasingly disquieted by the fact that I have taken less, not more, risks. I'd been considering moving away from my more sexually explicit work. Not anymore.
It has only been a few decades since women began openly to discuss their sexual desires. Even now, we face derision, abuse and neglect – to which men are not subjected – when we're frank about our sexuality. But we need to remember that in art as in all things to do with sex silence equals shame. I'm all too familiar with the damage that silence can wreak.
So I refuse to be silent.