Friday, April 30, 2010

Judging It Better

I'm still feeling my way back to work after the long, isolating stay at the clinic.
I have a lot of obligations but I've resisted the inclination simply to lock myself away in the studio and paint every hour of the day. Instead, I've taken time to develop a healthy, sustainable, daily routine that might give me not only the physical and mental strength I'm going to need but also the imaginative bandwidth for fresh thinking.
My decision to live in a hotel room in the city centre (above) that I pay for by the week, without the commitment of a lease and monthly utilities bills, has been a happy one. Apart from a couple of days during which I was beset by a dark, lonely, soul-sucking gloom – and no, that isn't poetic hyperbole – I've managed to catch up with friends and correspondence, start setting up my new studio and plan several new pieces to work on in between an industrious focus on completing several outstanding commissions. I've put in two hours a day at the gym as well, a form of self-medication that also assuages my vanity.
Today, I cleaned my studio and made it partially secure with new locks for the doors. I ordered a large plexiglass sheet, drilled with air-holes, to block access from a studio next door but still let in plenty of light. Tomorrow, I'll freshen up the walls with a coat of matt white paint, then bring in my heavy duty aluminium trestles, a table-top and some comfy furniture. By mid-week, I should be producing the long-awaited, limited edition series of The Yes/No Stencilsemail me if you'd like to order one – and prepping timber boards for two large enamels.
I'm allowing myself to look ahead again – to new work and new exhibitions – but like a mountaineer, I remind myself that, right now, it isn't the summit that matters but relentlessly putting one foot in front of the other in the right direction.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bed Riddance

My boyfriend rang to wake me at six a.m. this morning. I've been having a hard time getting up early to go to the gym. I know it's essential – even if I didn't want to regain the slim, muscled body I had a few years ago, hard exercise is the only alternative to a dulling cocktail of mood stabilisers and anti-depressants – but in the middle of a southern autumn, when sunrise is still half an hour a way and the air cold, I can find plenty of excuses to stay in a warm bed.
Sometimes, like the French novelist Colette (pictured), I work in bed. Propped up by large, soft pillows, my open laptop and cell phone beside me, I draw and paint on paper clipped to a square of thin plywood. Pollock-like streaks of ink or watercolours accumulate on the bed covers around me. I keep a pile of reference books, their pages marked with annotated Post-it notes, on the floor nearby and jars of water, spare brushes, pens and a notebook on the bedside table.
As a comfortable combination of working and living space, a big bed – California king size – is hard to beat; if it's in a hotel room, even better because then I can call room service and not have to leave my bed to eat.
Then again, once I'm out of bed, some atavistic urge overtakes me and I have to be in constant motion. A nomad by nature, I envy the street photographer or plein air painter who can wander far and wide in search of subject matter. It's too easy for me to settle, to hole up in one place. My art is never better for it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Retail Therapy

Ten days after my discharge from hospital, I should have expected my optimism to falter, my momentum to slow. The loss on Friday of my artworks and other personal stuff hurt more than I'd thought it would. I spent a day burrowed under the bed covers, wallowing in self-pity.
When I crawled out again, I decided to turn my hotel room into more of a home. I rented a car and drove across town to a sprawling Ikea store where I bought folding closet organisers, small drawers for clothing and shoes, door-hung stowage for bathroom accessories, and a laundry basket. Plain, compact, functional pieces of Scandinavian design, they made my limited spaces instantly more livable. Better yet, when I move again, they can be taken down, folded and put in a bag.
I also bought lemon-scented candles, a small vase and, from a nearby market, a selection of freshly cut, pale pink and cream roses.
Back at the hotel, I re-arranged the furniture to create a better area in which to work. I set up my printer/scanner and organised my files in a box beneath my make-shift desk. By the time I was done, my dark mood had subsided and the determination that had driven me to accomplish so much last week had re-asserted its grip.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Snakes And Ladders

I spent most of yesterday with Alan Ma, the trustee assigned to my case at the Insolvency and Trustee Service Australia (or ITSA), a government agency "responsible for the administration and regulation of the personal insolvency system". We had agreed to meet at my storage facility in a beachside suburb north of Sydney, which ITSA had sealed a month ago, so that he could assess my artworks and other material assets with a view to selling them.
He arrived with a small cadre of people: Caroline Jones, Senior Art Specialist for Menzies Art Brands, another woman who was also one of the firm's art specialists, and a videographer whose role was to document the process. I was told that I had to remain with them for however long it took to inspect every box, file, and art work. The trustee's demeanour was unfailingly polite, cordial but firm. It compelled me to take the process seriously.
As it turned out, it wasn't as painful as I'd anticipated. It took five hours. They removed about 40 art works – several watercolours, including one from my 2006 exhibition, Venus In Hell, a large triptych of Lin With My Lover, But Not Alone, a dozen framed photographs that were tests for my 2008 exhibition, PORNO, rough, unsigned sketches for a print, IKu For You, and a very poor acrylic study for Dangerous Career Babe: The Cat Burglar – along with several boxes of a book I'd been involved in, Wililam Creek and Beyond, bought in bulk to give to collectors. They also took works that had been given to me – many by artists who follow this blog – including a lithograph from Billy Childish, along with other, more personal mementoes. All were to be consigned to a weekly auction held at Menzies' Melbourne gallery.
There were odd instances of stomach-clenching discomfort, like when the art assessors pored over several proof sheets of 35mm photographs of me having sex, the raw material for works such as PORNO, Sex Tourist, and the Kelly and Lin series of mixed media works on paper.
When I first met Alan and Caroline, I was already embarrassed. I had worked hard to build my career and achieve an unprecedented level of independence for a young, female artist. I had achieved a high degree of fame and an enviable income. Now I was bankrupt and facing the brisk disposal of everything I had. It was particularly galling to meet Caroline, who, as Head of Art for Menzie's Sydney operation, had recently been involved in several profitable sales of my works at high profile auctions: "I need a minute to compose myself," I told her, before we even had a chance to shake hands. I fled to a bathroom, where I squatted on the tiled floor and wept.
Later, , Caroline, who was noticeably pregnant, her colleague and I sat together on a cement ledge in the loading bay to eat a take-away lunch. We traded war stories about being women in a predominantly male art world – clashes of egos, office politics, sexual harassment. We shared perspectives on the future of commercial galleries and agreed that pre-auction exhibitions were "very cool", because they provided a glimpse of works that are rarely seen outside private homes. They reassured me that what I was going through was just a small 'bump' in what was going to be a long and productive career.
We finished in the middle of the afternoon. The trustee wheeled large trolleys piled with my goods down the steel-lined corridors of the warehouse to the elevator. Outside, as he waited for an art transporter to arrive, he discussed with Caroline the levels of commission Menzies Art Brands would earn on the auction of my works. The cruel symmetry of it made me smile: the auction house that had profited from my success would now also profit from my first big failure.
There's nothing quite like losing everything to draw a line between one stage of your life and the next – in my case, youth and adulthood. The trick is to do it only once. And not look back.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Back In The World

As the end of my first week out of hospital draws near, I am still somewhat dizzied by how much I've gotten done. I have a room I like in a hotel at the heart of one of my favorite inner-city neighbourhoods. I have a new studio and a clear plan for the work I'll undertake in it over the next several months. I have begun to reconnect with my collectors.
Failure still haunts the edges of my subconscious but I'm no longer worried about the future. I have just enough money for my immediate needs. And I'm allowing myself the time and solitude to rediscover the untrammeled joy of exploring new directions for my art. I read. I sketch. I scribble notes to myself on scraps of paper. (I slide them edgeways into the frame around a mirror in my bedroom and glance at them whenever I get stuck for an idea. Often they're nothing more than a shopping list or a title of a book I want. "Record Tilda Swinton's Derek tonight," one reminds me, although my room has neither a digital recorder nor cable TV.)
At night I sleep lightly. I'm tired – two hours every evening at the gym ensure it – but I'm excited, too. I listen to voices echoing from the street below and the soft thump and moans of a couple fucking in the bed on the other side of the wall behind my bedhead. Flashes of red, blue, orange and white reflect from storefront neon signs to form kaleidoscopic patterns on the ceiling. Disjointed images of art I've imagined but have yet to make unspool, like frames of 35mm celluloid film, in the middle of my head.
I'm impatient for another day to begin.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bill And Ted Can Kiss My Art

When I discharged myself from a psychiatric clinic in Sydney, just a week ago, I made up mind to change nearly every aspect of how I lived and worked.
In some ways, it wasn't hard. I had lost my home and my studio. I had also been confronted by the unreliability of not only my family but also many personal friendships and professional relationships I had grown to trust. Ironically, it took madness, artistic failure and bankruptcy to deliver a stark reality check.
The life I have now is designed to be frangible – not just adaptable to sudden change but entirely disposable. A friend of mine calls it being 'chaos compliant'. Nothing is fixed. I live week to week in a small hotel and I rent my studio space by the month close by. I have no need of a car: the half a dozen city blocks I look out onto from my room contain everything I need, from art supplies, a gym and fresh sushi to DVD rentals and sex. I have a P.O. box number as a mailing address and an unlocked iPhone with a pre-paid SIM. I don't have a credit card so every transaction is in cash. Except, maybe, sex.
I can't wait to see what effect this less burdened, free-flowing context has on my work. I have a deep backlog of commissioned works to complete – as well as works I have to repaint because I defaced or burned them in a manic frenzy just before I was committed – but as I develop new routines and disciplines, I can't help feeling that my art is about to become a 'most excellent adventure'.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My Self Is Muse No More

When I first began using myself as a model for my work, it was out of desperation. I didn't know anyone else who would put up with the tedium of posing undressed for long hours in my grubby Brisbane studio as I sketched and photographed them.
A decade later, I'd evolved from model to muse. Bored with the cartoon-like imagery of my early enamel work, I wanted my work to be more conceptual, smarter. I turned my back on crisp lines and expanses of bright, shiney colour and experimented with other media. It was if I had to shatter the brittle surfaces of my old art to get into my head.
In 2006, I exhibited 15 works in mixed media on paper in a show I titled Venus In Hell. At the time, I wrote of being inspired by "an intense curiosity about Haitian voodoo and Central American santeria", especially the way "these religions’ syncretic rituals based on African
tribal rites and Catholicism mined a deep seam of inner personal conflict..." But that wasn't the real story. I felt an urgent need to exorcise the roiling confusion that, even then, had a hard grip on my psyche.
I'm not sure my work has been altogether coherent since then. The more I've become pre-occupied with "expressing my self", the more I've experimented. I've continued painting colourful Pop-inflected imagery in enamel – and arguing for its serial 'productisation' and machine-like glossiness as the works themselves have grown larger – but I've also produced much smaller and very different works in mixed media on paper, pen and ink, and pure watercolours, as well as photographs, theatrical installations, videos and reams of text, not all of it – maybe very little of it – good enough to be seen in public (not that I've let that stop me showing it).
And there's the rub. Since my mental and physical breakdown at the end of 2009, I'm not so taken with my self as my subject. Put it down to 10 weeks in a psychiatric clinic, during which I had nothing else to do but contemplate my mental disarray, but anything that feels too much like introspection repels me now. For the first time, I want to extract my self from my art – if not my art from myself – and let it grow outside the hothouse of my labile emotions.
Which is to say, I'd like my art to be about something – or someone – else for a change.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Chelsea Girl, Sort Of

For the past several days, I've been looking for a new home and studio. I've schlepped from one part of the city to another for inspections, only to be herded, somewhat brusquely, with scores of other house-hunters through rooms so small they could be mistaken as closets. None was anything like what I had in mind.
While waiting in yet another queue of hopeful tenants-to-be outside a pigeon-infested, non-descript apartment block, I got to thinking about how several of the artists, writers and musicians I most admired had lived for months, even years, in New York's Chelsea Hotel.
Australian painter Brett Whitely, a doomed, Jim Morrison-like figure (one of his works shown above) – part madman, part visionary, part rock star, part fake – kept an apartment at the Chelsea during the late Sixties. Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin lived on the same floor. Years before, the hard-drinking poet Dylan Thomas had lived and died (of alcohol poisoning) there. Years after, the nascent stars of New York's downtown art scene – including photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, punk rock godess Patti Smith, actor and playwright Sam Shepard and artist, musician and film-maker Larry Rivers – honed their art and concocted their personal legends in its warren of high-ceilinged rooms and dingy corridors; some even paid their rent with artworks. In one of the rooms, The Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death in a drug-fucked stupor.
There is no equivalent of the Chelsea in Australia. But I thought, fuck it, I'd just come up with my own.
I threw away the handwritten list of addresses and real estate agents I'd collected and went looking for the right hotel. I found one small enough to be considered boutique and yet dilapidated enough to be cheap and unpretentious. Its exterior could never match the Chelsea's high, faux-Gothic, red brick facade but its low-rise, art deco entrance had curb appeal. I paid a month up front in cash. It was less than I would have forked over as a deposit on a shoe-box-sized studio apartment: even better, the utilities were free and I didn't have to wash my own linen, take out the trash or make my own bed, The city's largest art supplies shop was just down the street.
I now live in the hotel's penthouse, a single, large, somewhat down-at-the-heels room decorated in white. Creaky French doors open onto a small terrace with a pretty, wrought-iron railing, over which I have an uninterrupted view of a long strip of cafés and a street dotted with hookers, dealers, drag queens and the occasional, fabulously uncategorisable freak. I no longer have a personal assistant but instead, there's a defacto 'front office' in the form of a concierge who takes messages, receives packages and for a tip, can recommend even the most arcane services. Everything else I could possible want is nearby, including take-away brown rice sushi and pistachio ice cream.
I can stay as long as I want. I can leave within a moment's notice and still be welcomed back. In a period during which I want to make radical changes in both my life and art, it's the perfect place to call home.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Breaking Out

I checked myself out from the clinic today.
The process was fast and unsentimental. Nobody said goodbye. I didn't care. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. I was done with being treated like an invalid or worse, a delusional idiot. My discharge date had been scheduled for Tuesday, next week, but I was already at my limit.
A little money came to me earlier than expected. I notified the registrar that I was leaving. I filled in various administrative forms and phoned a car hire company. Orderlies started to remake my bed and vacuum around it even before I'd finished packing my few possessions – a reminder that the clinic is, after all, primarily a business. I left a vase of long-stemmed red roses, the texture of their petals like bloodied velvet, on the bedside table.
I drove in peak hour traffic to a hotel in a neighbourhood I'd never spent much time in before. The room was simple, stylish and quiet. I sighed with relief as I took it all in. For the first time in 10 weeks, a nurse wouldn't be intruding to check on me every couple of hours.
I lay in the deep white bath for an hour and let the hot water lap around me. I scrubbed away the city grime, sweat and dried tears from my skin.
When I left the clinic, a nurse told me me that everything would feel 'too much' for a few days. She was wrong. I can't get enough. Maybe I'm stronger, healthier, and more rested. Maybe I'm determined to discredit one of my psychiatrists' opinion that I needed to live "a life more ordinary".
I have an insistent, voracious appetite to go after everything I ever wanted but didn't dare to – until now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hard Drive

Notice of my imminent release from the clinic has resuscitated my libido.
It revived suddenly, a hot rush of longing and wetness. I felt like a prisoner who'd been in for a long stretch. I couldn't help thinking about who I'd do – and how – when I got out. A relentless, vivid mash-up of sexual memories welled up from my subconscious:
not-so-straight couplings enhanced with glass and silicon sex toys, strap-ons, latex, oils, ice cubes, food, fists, tongues, cocks, breasts and bodily fluids.
The day I get out, I'm going to check into a hotel for a couple of days and have everything I've imagined sent up to my room.
A raging libido is a reliable signal that I'm ready to make art again. Sex isn't apparent in the drawings and paintings I've been working on recently but it's still an urgent inspiration. Its elemental sensations run like a hot wire down my spine and radiate out to my pelvis. Insidiously seductive but raw, confronting and difficult to contain or control, they're a physical expression of the unrestrained, messy emotional responses I want to provoke with my work.
The best sex – and the best art – is expelled from the subconscious and leaves one with nowhere to hide. At its most intense, my libido is pure energy: not just sexual but physical, emotional, intellectual, and creative. It inflames my curiosity and compels me to be, quite literally, open to everything.
I'm relieved to have it back.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Shifting Dimensions

Over the past few years, I've become increasingly dissatisfied with painting. Part of it is physical: nearly every day for ten years, I've stood bent over a wide timber or canvas frame and inhaled acrid, carcinogenic enamel fumes as I've strived to create flawless, glossy surfaces that betray no trace of being 'hand-made'. Part of it is dissatisfaction with the medium itself. As much as I love painting, I've come to think of it as a medium constrained by its history and in an age in which we're inundated with images, most of them moving, more and more in 3-D, at risk of becoming as anachronistic as opera or drama in verse.
My work is inextricable from my everyday curiosity about the way our expectations and, ultimately, our identities are shaped by entertainment and advertising. For a time, I painted large, Pop Art-inflected, figurative enamels in series – recently, 24 paintings with the same figure in the same pose but in different colors, with different clothes and props – as a response to the insistent, serial nature of advertising (think roadside billboards or mail-order catalogues or blocs of TV commercials). But I began to realise that what I was really striving for couldn't be contained within the two-dimensionality of a painting. I wanted to touch, hear, smell, and feel what was in my imagination. I wanted it to respond to and change with interaction.
People can be deeply affected by a painting, no question. I just wanted to take them further.
A breakthrough came when, in response to an invitation to put together a small exhibition of new work for a commercial gallery presence in Renault New Generation Art at Art Melbourne, in 2007, I created my first 'installation'.
Titled Sex Tourist (video), it was a forensic reconstruction of a hotel room, littered with evidence of everything that had taken place inside it during the course of a single stay. Memories of this stay were documented in works on paper and photographs hung on the temporary walls. Visitors could also sit on the bed, rifle through drawers and personal notes spilled on the bed and read the labels on empty bottles of prescription pills. They could pick through a make-up bag and even try on the lipstick and smell the perfume. Some lay on the bed to look at the images, others to take Polaroids of each other – squealing when they accidentally trod on 'used' condoms dropped on the floor – which they added to the pile I'd left of myself participating in various, real-life sexual acts.
In short, they were able to experience fragments of what I had painted instead of just looking at it in two dimensions. It might have been hastily conceived and flawed but it was an unarguable success, as well as something of a scandal.
Sex Tourist
turned me onto the possibility of 'mediated spaces' – part-installation, part-theatre, part conventional exhibition – that allow direct, multi-dimensional interaction between not only the viewer and the work but the viewer and me. If there's one concept that has the capacity to re-ignite my imagination after the long, cold winter of my madness, it's this.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

After The Crash, Part Two

I was admitted to the clinic nine and half weeks ago. This coming week is likely to be my last here.
During my stay, I've been administered – and weaned off – almost every psychotropic medication the doctors could think of. The hit and miss process was intended to reveal a combination of drugs that might best balance emotional relief and an ability to function with the least harmful of possible side-effects. It didn't quite work out.
I've done a lot of drugs. There have been mood stabilisers , including sodium valproate, carbamazepine, Lamotrigine, lithium and the relatively new Quetiapine. There have been anti-depressants, including most of the SSRIs and SNRIs. Some worked for a short while. Some didn't. But my mind or body reacted badly to most. One drug gave me a potentially fatal (and hideous-looking) rash. Another created a dark still pool in the centre of my mind that repelled any analytical and creative thought.
The side-effects of each drug were treated with more drugs. for instance, one screwed up my thyroid, which had to be treated with a thyroid hormone stimulator.
A psychiatrist described the clinic's treatment strategy as "a combination of skills and pills" and although the pills have proved to be a nightmare for me, the skills have helped. Throughout the medication trials, I've had constant and intensive personal therapy with psychiatrists and psychologists, during which I've learnt more about mental discipline, meditation, nutrition, vitamin supplements, sleep, exercise and acute self-awareness.
Most recently, the 'team' assigned to me have been trying to teach me a set of skills to manage my disorders without medication. These require an inordinate amount of rigour and self-denial. My doctors aren't entirely confident that I can cope with this non-traditional course of treatment. Neither am I. So they'll continue to seeing me as an out-patient. We all accept the possibility that I might need to return as an in-patient at some point.
I've been frustrated with my clinical team and at times, felt that they'd failed me. But when it became apparent that the standard treatments didn't work, they were willing to explore alternatives. I've been surprised by their open curiosity about the creative mind. They admit it is, for them, not easily understood.
It's probably just as much a mystery to the rest of us.