Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I Think. I Am.

For too long, I've been unable to think.
When I was admitted to a psychiatric clinic, earlier this year, there were so many broken connections in my head it could only be described as a complete system crash. I couldn't function even at a basic bio-mechanical level let alone communicate coherently. The psychotropic drugs my doctors prescribed controlled the collapse but soon they turned my brain to mush. Thinking was like squinting into an opaque lens smeared with oil: the simplest ideas were formless shadows, too faint to make out.
I withdrew from the drugs against the doctors advice. I was left with a relentless, repetitive electro-static jolt that, for a time, was an insurmountable obstacle to comfort inside my own head.
After I was discharged, I distracted myself as best I could. I was desperate to be productive again so I focussed on practical tasks, like setting up somewhere in which to work. I cancelled out the mental white noise with rigorous physical exercise. When I began making art again, I didn't have to think: I just worked on what I had conceived before I broke down rather than try anything new.
Thinking deeply, coherently, and creatively matters to me. I became an artist because I wanted to live a life of the mind, immersed in new and evolving ideas. Now that I'm settled into a routine – albeit in the last place I expected to be, my former home town of Brisbane, where I have returned to be close to my ailing father – I can retreat back into my own head space and plot what comes next in work that has always been primarily conceptual despite its apparently easy accessibility.
Without the gritty substance of good ideas, productivity is hollow and pointless. The complex, architectural process of conception doesn't just give meaning to my work, it gives meaning to me.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

An Uncertain Journey

I haven't felt like writing lately.
My father has been in hospital for several weeks, fighting the latest round in what has become a long, hard and maybe losing battle with cancer. I have temporarily relocated to Brisbane from Sydney so I can spend time with him. It's a selfish act. I cling to a frayed thread of hope that he will recover but I'm also acutely aware that our time together is limited. I want to savour whatever is left.
I'm still working. And yet things have changed for me – and are still changing – in ways I could never have predicted. It's confusing, heartbreaking, revelatory and a thousand other things for which I have no name.
Usually, I would process this maelstrom of emotions and observations – both beautiful and horrific – in my work. But right now I don't want to paint or draw or photograph anything to do with my life. It hurts too much and it makes it all undeniably real. This will change. It's inevitable. I make art in order to function. I make art as a way of purging thoughts, feelings, visions and memories from my head and to give myself some relief.
At some point, I will make art about this time. What I don't know is if I'll ever show it to anyone.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sic transit

I returned from Melbourne to bad news. I left Sydney for Brisbane just 48 hours later but not before putting in two sleepless days in the studio to prepare works for consignment next week. I didn't bother to unpack or even shower. I pity the fellow passenger who had to sit next to me for the 90-minute flight north.
I'm not sure how long I'll be here. A few days. Not more than a week. I've had to surrender to uncertainty and accept that what happens in each hour – let alone each day – is mutable and beyond my control. I'm no longer the centre of my own little world. I'm at the periphery of someone else's. My role, if I have one at all, is to tender support, love and care. Nothing more.
I can't think about art. I can't even think. And right now it doesn't really matter.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shifting With The Paradigm

A lot of artists and photographers warn against the unauthorised use of images from their web sites, even if such use is 'non-commercial'. I can't help feeling that they're shooting themselves in the foot.
Copyright is a contentious issue. Like many other visual artists, composers and writers, I've thought hard about the consequences of relinquishing control over my work. Not that I have much choice in the matter: every image I upload to the web is likely be downloaded by someone else and re-distributed without my permission. And now that we all have cell-phone cameras that can SMS, email and access the web, even works in the real world can be captured and shared with ease. Nevertheless, the disadvantages of restricting the distribution of my work far outweigh the advantages.
Unfettered sharing encourages a wider awareness of my work and me.
I have licensed my images (and my words) under the flexible and user-friendly terms of Creative Commons for the past four years, allowing non-commercial users "to copy, distribute and transmit the work" under the following conditions: the user "must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work)". They must neither use the work for commercial purposes nor "alter, transform, or build upon the work" without my explicit permission.
Operating under this license is a fair and effective way of allowing reasonable public engagement with my work and my ideas and effectively 'unleashes' it so it can be reproduced and shared freely without impinging on those rights from which I might derive the most financial benefit, now or in the future, or on other rights I might have, such as 'fair dealing' or fair use rights, so-called moral rights, or even the rights of others either in the work itself or in how the work is used, notably privacy rights.
Many artists think that Creative Commons undermines their rights. They clearly don't understand that while it allows others limited use of one's work, it doesn't support, in any way, the idea that someone can steal it and claim it as their own.The specific terms of the Creative Commons license I use precludes the 'mash-up' of my work without permission or, worse, attribution.
On a personal level, I like to think that others can draw whatever they think they need from what I do – quote it, adapt it, synthesize it, copy parts of it, whatever – to create something distinctively different, providing they acknowledge me as the source. There is a big difference between plagiarism and appropriation, just as there is between forgery and reproduction.
Using another's work as a starting point is not at all new. Artists have fed off each others' ideas, themes and subject matter for several hundred years. The 'modern' tendency towards appropriation took root with Andy Warhol, whose unabashedly literal reproduction of press images and package design in the 1960s ruptured once comfortable boundaries between inspired originality and 'copying'.
Warhol's soup cans, soap boxes and screen-printed multiples of Elvis were important and liberating in their day. They appear a bit mundane now, especially given how easy technology has made replication of any sort. But Warhol's real innovation was recognising long before any venture-funded dot.com entrepreneur that attention was a form of currency. He was unperturbed when his own works – even images of him personally – were copied, re-worked and widely distributed. For him, as for the web generation he has inspired, ubiquity had replaced rarity as the key element of defining value.
In the new economic reality of the art world, increased awareness promotes increased opportunities for artists to exploit not only their work but themselves. The locus of value is shifting – from the 'product' to the 'producer'. Unquestionably, the wider distribution of 'product' (even if it's free product, shared without restriction) enhances the audience's awareness and with it, the value, of the producer.
As artists, we need to be focussing less on preserving our rights in our product and more on enhancing the value of ourselves as producers and being imaginative about how we exploit and extract that value.
Above: an iPhone self-portrait at The Cullen Hotel, in Melbourne

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Last Woman Standing

I've been back into my usual Sydney routine for less than a week and now I'm packing to leave again. I am flying to Melbourne tomorrow. I'm to be filmed in an interview with Michael Short, who edits a new multimedia section called The Zone for The Age newspaper, and I have meetings with galleries and collectors. I'll stay at The Cullen, one of the Art Series Hotels, as a guest of the owners.
I spent the morning cleaning a handful of my Renewed Originals acrylic on paper studies before they're consigned to buyers in four countries. Nothing leaves my studio in less than pristine condition but one drawback of my new studio is the amount of dust that infiltrates it and settles on every exposed surface, including drying painting. The painstaking task of inspecting and (sometimes) re-coating each work is slow and mind-numbing.
Later in the day, I had to surrender myself to my accountant, a hard-headed but immensely intelligent, perceptive woman who is a director of a leading 'wealth management' firm headquartered in Sydney's central business district. We sat opposite each other across a a conference table covered with files spilling balance sheets, expense reports, tax statements and correspondence from the trustee administering my bankruptcy.
There was good news: I was making headway in my financial recovery. There was also bad: I was going to have to work even harder over the next 12 months to repay back-taxes and to ensure a measure of stability. "You're selling your work too cheaply," she told me, in much the same tone a mother might admonish a recalcitrant child. I protested and reminded her of my recent high prices at auction. She offered a thin smile then showed me a spreadsheet where material costs for my largest enamel series totalled tens of thousands of dollars.
In the evening, I went to the gym for an hour of merciless cardio' and weights training. I used to think I was pushing myself physically to get my body back in shape and maybe to still my troubled mind. Now I realise I'm hardening myself up like a boxer for a long-coveted title fight.
As a famous Australian writer once observed, somewhat cynically, "If there's a secret to success in the arts, it's being the last man standing." Or woman.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Show Off (And On Again)

Among the first casualties of my three-month confinement in a psychiatric clinic at the beginning of this year were half a dozen solo exhibitions in Japan, S.E. Asia, the USA and Australia, scheduled for later this year.
Only two involved traditional galleries. The rest were to be mounted in unconventional, warehouse-like spaces that had taken several months to locate, then several months more to negotiate short-term leases. My assistants and I had spent a year on the intimidating logistics: from packing and shipping a large number of works to different destinations and to mailing of press and promotional materials and planning opening night parties. The prolonged recovery from my breakdown meant that unique opportunities were lost, along with thousands of my hard-earned dollars.
Now I have to start again. This time, I'm hampered by having less time to look for new venues – I have long-delayed commissioned work to complete over the next six months – and a lot less money.
Most galleries plan their exhibition schedules a year or more in advance so I'm unlikely to get dates in Melbourne or Tokyo before the latter half of next year. I've been invited to do 'something' in collaboration with Plateform, in Paris, before the end of this year, as well as show works on paper at a new gallery in rural Victoria. But it will probably be next year – three years after my last solo exhibition, at MARS Gallery in Melbourne – before I'm able to produce a series of events featuring new paintings and works in other media anywhere else.
Various friends are helping me to identify and connect with new spaces – I've described my approach in a previous entry here – and to negotiate dates and non-standard terms. As I've written before, I envision 'playing' in different places in much the same way as a rock 'n' roll band 'on the road' – which is to say, I'm open to any ideas that enable me to interact 'live' with audiences interested in my art and ideas, regardless of where they are.
Above: The famed, psychedelically daubed bus,
Further, driven by Jack Kerouac's On The Road muse, Neal Cassady, which transported the novelist Ken Kesey and his commune of Merry Pranksters across the USA in 1964. Photo by Gene Anthony.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Size Matters

The aspect of my work that provokes the most ascerbic criticism is its easy accessibility.
My best-known paintings are big, brightly coloured and shiney, like ads in a glossy magazine, and they depict idealised, sexy women. At first glance, there doesn't appear to be any more to them than this. They can be easily dismissed as outsized graphic design rather than serious art – at best, afflicted by the "subversive and slick trademarks of contemporary consumer culture", as the Australian critic Ashley Crawford once put it; at worst, "predictable".
One of the drawbacks of having my work recognisable mainly from its wide distribution across the web is that its essential elements of repetition and scale are overlooked. For example, the 24 Dangerous Career Babes are basically identical, even if the clothes, accessories and backgrounds are different. They share exactly the same dimensions and are over two metres (just under seven feet) in height.
Individual Babes have been bought by more than a dozen collectors but the series was conceived as a single work, an installation intended to occupy several thousand square feet of wall space. It isn't until you've stood among half a dozen or more in the same room that you begin to feel the almost claustrophobic oppression these deliberately clich├ęd depictions of modern women – "part action figure, part Barbie doll" – impose. The insidious taint of advertising and entertainment stereotypes on the contemporary female psyche is a conceptual trace element in many of my works.
Scale is also important to my latest series of enamels, Big Pin-Ups (Miss April pictured above). I wanted these unabashedly Pop portraits of 21st century adult performers to be just as prim yet as seductively appealing as illustrated pin-ups from the 1930s and '40s. But by painting them big enough to loom over the viewer, in noxiously pretty, 'girly' pastel hues, our "predictable" responses – regardless of how they're keyed by our individual sexuality – are subverted.
Which is another way of saying, yes, my work is accessible and quickly 'read' when you first encounter it. But it's what happens next that argues for its power and validity as art.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Art Fart

"Never trust a fart." Or so the Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, once advised anyone who was getting close to fifty. "You can never be quite certain what might come out."
I feel the same way about being interviewed. No matter how prepared I am for a particular line of questioning, I'm never entirely in control of what comes out of my mouth. I can be waspish and critical. I'm quick to dismiss questions I think (sometimes unfairly) are stupid. But I'm less concerned with pissing people off than I am by the occasional, completely random stream-of-consciousness that, when I come across it later in a transcript, I ask myself, "What the fuck was that about?"
One of the weirdest was when I was being interviewed for a profile in Brisbane's Courier Mail newspaper's QWeekend magazine. One minute I was responding to a question about my unconventional rural upbringing, the next I was instructing the bemused journalist on how best to face down an unruly goat.
Yesterday, the American artist, John T. Unger, interviewed me for nearly two hours by phone for his online
Art Heroes Radio. An edited version will be uploaded tomorrow at 9pm, North American EST, and made available as either downloadable or streaming audio via iTunes. Apart from beginning our conversation with an admonition, "All art should be 'not safe for work!", I tried to keep it well-considered and instructive – of a piece with the other smart, alternative perspectives on art making and marketing that John has curated in his series.
Which is to say, I steered clear of any barnyard references. And fart jokes.

Monday, June 07, 2010

True Colours

I received an unexpected gift today.
It arrived in a large, non-descript cardboard package. Inside, a shoe box was wedged between swathes of bubble wrap. I opened the lid to find a pair of canvas Air Walks, hand-painted just for me by the young American artist Jason E. McDonald. There was no wrapping, no note, just a business card that could have been a tag.
They were beautiful. On the canvas uppers, delicate line drawings of weird, stream-of-conscious-like imagery were rendered in vibrant colours and overlayed with almost obsessive detail in ink. A soft focus woman floated horizontally in the background. Words in long, abstract sentences decorate the inner trim. The painting and linework is much finer, brighter, and subtle than that might be imagine from the photograph here (other creations can be seen at Jason's web site). I 'got' immediately the artwork-painted-on-traditional-canvas-but-they're-shoes twist. I wanted to wear them and yet I want to keep them forever, displayed within a perspex box. Maybe I'll do both.
Jason's shoes were all the more wonderful because they turned up in the middle of a very bad day. This morning, I woke to a plethora of electronic hate mail – most of it more-bitter-than-average snarkiness about the link between my income as an artist and the apparent shallowness of my 'sexy' artwork or, in a couple of cases, my own looks – along with pseudo-solicitous notes from males-on-the-make, some of whom also happened to be artists. The latter read as if they were from the same hand (sadly, they weren't): condescending, barely literate missives about how the writer was 'worried' about me and wanted to meet so he – it's always a 'he' – could counsel or console me. As if. They revitalised the sour after-taste I had following an episode I wrote about yesterday.
I had been re-considering my commitment to share so much of myself and my work online. I wanted just to disappear, to be left alone. Jason's generosity changed my mind.
This is not the first time something unusual, hand-made and beautiful has found its way to me as a 'thank you' for what I try to share online. Artists I've never met have sent me etchings, photographs, badges and a screen-printed card, a well as a wooden box full of luminescent watercolours – prompted perhaps by my own public gifts of free, limited edition photographs or unlimited edition, downloadable prints, the latter of which I've signed and sent back at my own expense to those who've asked. A few have even gone out of their way to help me to set up solo exhibitions in rural Victoria, Staten Island, red-dirt Texas and Arizona – places I might have never otherwise had an opportunity to get to.
These gestures mean more to me that I can possibly express. They erase the hurt and anger that grip me whenever I'm confronted by the ill-intentioned – or simply ill – emotional gimps, sleazoids and haters who lurk at the fringes of my online audience.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

School's Out

A chance encounter: I just happened to be in the same place, at the same time, as another artist.
We hadn't met before but I could tell he knew who I was. There was that awkward mix of curiosity and surprise that comes from a real life encounter with someone you've only seen in a photograph. He stared an instant too long, scanning the nuances of features that didn't quite match the image he remembered.
To be friendly, I got us both a coffee. Almost immediately, he launched into a long tirade about art dealers. He was sick of paying them so much. They didn't do anything they said they would. He hated paying their expenses, especially when they took 50% of every sale and often didn't pay him until months after a show. He was sick of it all and didn't know what to do.
I told him to go independent, to do it all himself. He made sighing noises, as if it was all too hard.
I asked if he knew of any non-gallery spaces to hire, as I was thinking of producing a show in Sydney. He only knew of commercial galleries. Then he said he wanted to "pick my brains, too".
I winced, not just at the implication that he had given me something worthwhile in exchange but also because I knew what was coming.
"I want to ask your advice on self-promotion," he said. It was now obvious he already knew who I was and what I'd accomplished. It pissed me off that he was still bothering to pretend not to. It also pissed me off that the only stuff less successful artists think to ask me about is promotion, as if my success is some magic trick that has nothing to do with making good art, that it's all down to some glib schtick rather than a substantial body of art and writings, that it's plain dumb luck.
Still, the impulse to try to help a fellow artist, even a socially inept one, dies hard. I offered to explore with him what he might do, even if I'd given my best advice already. I asked how old he was and how long he had been making art? Did it support him financially? Did he have a website or any other online presence? How often did he exhibit? Finally, I asked him what, exactly, he meant by self promotion.
What his answers boiled down to were that he supported himself through art but didn't earn enough to buy materials. And he didn't exhibit as often as he wanted.
I told him that Australia was only one, small market. He had to get his work in front of more people. He showed me his website. Almost all the information on it was at least eight months out of date. He exhibited only through galleries but the gallery listed on the site no longer represented him. He was a little embarrassed: "Yeah, I know. I meant to update that a few months ago."
"It's pointless having a rarely updated website with inaccurate information," I told him. "No-one will go there. It needs to have more content. Maybe do a blog to drive traffic to it. You have to give people something; otherwise, why would they bother going there at all?"
"Oh," he said. "So, with a blog, how often do you update it? Once a week?".
"No," I replied. "It should be done every day or every other day."
He blanched. "That's a lot of work."
"Yeah." I responded. "But it's a small price to pay for what you're after."
But he didn't want to know. "I don't want to earn a lot," he said. "Just enough to get by."
I rolled my eyes and resisted saying what I thought: I know you want more money. You already said you did. What you really want is an easy answer. You want something that doesn't exist.
"A curator told me that I should auction my work in Europe, to get it out there more," he said.
"You mean make more people aware of your work?" I asked. He nodded. What the fuck does a curator know about the business of art?
I tried to be delicate: "Umm, you've been in one group exhibition there. Your work hasn't been sold at auction anywhere before and there's no proven support for it yet on the secondary market. I don't think the major auction house you mentioned would accept your work. Besides, why you would try to put it in yourself, especially as an attempt for publicity.
"Based on what you've told me, it's unlikely that it would sell, even if it was accepted. And if it doesn't sell, it's on a public record. Auctions signify the strength of your work in the market. People need to be aware of your work before it goes to auction." I couldn't help shaking my head – the function of an auction is not to build awareness for an artist but rather to put a price on it.
Wearying of the conversation, I told him it sounded like he just wanted to play the traditional game of entering competitions and exhibiting with traditional galleries. He told me he'd stopped entering competitions because he never got anywhere and it cost too much. I bit my tongue.
"Maybe you just need to get into a bigger gallery." I said. He'd need more than that.
Of course, he'd been thinking about that. He told me of one he'd like to approach. "I have contacts there already," he boasted.
"Sure." I said, with no enthusiasm. I wanted the conversation to end. "Go for it. Sounds like that's what you want." I added that he shouldn't mention my name to the gallery's owner: "We fell out. He wanted to represent me and was pissed off when I wanted to do a deal on my terms." I laughed.
"Well," the other artist muttered, defensively, "I can see his point. I mean he does have a specific structure."
Suddenly, I felt a surge of anger. Despite whining about every aspect of the traditional gallery system, the artist had used exactly the same words the art dealer had once said to me. Either he'd heard the story before, elsewhere, or this has become the standard, meaningless excuse for the traditional gallery system not to change – because it already has a "specific structure". Hell, that structure was fast becoming redundant. I couldn't think of anything more stupid.
"Oh, fuck off." I said. "I can't believe you said that."
He muttered something about not wanting to burn bridges, that he might need the dealer – even though the dealer had obviously shown no interest in him. I turned away as he made excuses to leave.
"Anyway, it was nice meeting you." he said, as he scurried off.
"Yeah," I lied. "You too." Not. I admonished myself for the insincerity. I really wanted to punch the fucker in the face for adding insult to the injury of wasting my time.
Why was I surprised? I've had the same conversation a hundred times with a hundred different artists. The next time one complains to me, I'll repeat what an unsympathetic Gore Vidal told a student at an American university lecture, after the student complained of the hardships of writing and getting published:
"Fuck off then. Plenty more where you came from."

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Stepping From The Flames

If my recent blog entries lack the combative fire that ignited my writing a few months ago, it's probably because I've been keeping emotion in check. The precision of my large works in enamel requires me to be calm, orderly and disciplined. Unfortunately, my best writing occurs when I am not.
I have to regain the high productivity as an artist that I achieved a couple of years ago. It's not just because my output was reduced to nothing by my recent breakdown and there are a score of obligations that now need to be met. It's also because I've committed to manage every aspect of my career alone. If I'm to stage my own exhibitions in the coming year, as well as travel and forge new opportunities to exploit my art, I'm going to need, at a minimum, the financial resources of a modest gallery start-up – and probably much more. I don't have a rich husband or family wealth. My only source of capital is the value I've created over several years in my work.
I've rediscovered the intense satisfaction I had in my late teens, when I sold my very first works. Nearly all my paintings have a buyer even before they're completed – this has been the case for a few years now – so I have come to think of the process ending not when I make my final mark on the work itself but when the specialist freight handlers arrive to pack it carefully in the studio and remove it. As soon as a work leaves the studio, another is begun in the space it once occupied. At any given time, there are a dozen works-in-progress, in watercolour, acrylic and enamel, covering the studio's walls and floor.
Despite this fast-moving work-flow, words still ricochet around my brain. I am more fired up – and maybe even angrier – than I was a year ago. But I'm learning to tamp down this passionate intensity so that I stay in control, rational, and undistracted from my painting. It might make for boring reading but it's a matter of priorities: I'm an artist not a writer.