Wednesday, December 22, 2010

No. 1 Daughter

I stopped worked early yesterday to vist my father at the hospice. Despite his frailty and pain – and a veil of Clonazepam to quell his anxiety – we had a wonderful few hours together. I fed him then stretched out alongside him on the bed. We chatted as I massaged his hands. His cancer-ridden body is deteriorating quickly and very visibly now but his spirit refuses to be constricted by it. He is alert and gripping onto the last, fraying strands of life.
Before I left, he gave me a small gift: a military-style dog-tag, engraved with the words No. 1 Daughter (an in-joke between us – I am his only daughter). I started to cry. He told me he was proud of me for living on my own terms, for not letting anyone fuck me over. As a young, tomboy-ish girl, raised by a hard-working but attentive single father, I learned to value my independence – and, later, my art – above all.
As an adult, I finally recognise that if I have become anything at all, it is my father's daughter.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Life Last Week

Setting up adjustable trestles on which to prepare Cowpoke, one of my Cowboy Babes, for shipping to collectors in Adelaide.
While the rest of my studio is litter-free and scrupulously clean, the area around my desk, where I draw, is... not.
I wear conservators' gloves and lean on a clean white cloth as I apply a precise, black enamel outline to Miss May, the latest Big Pin-Up, for a Melbourne art dealer.
In a small space suffused with toxic enamel and other chemical fumes, a filtered face-mask is the minimum protection required as I finish a work bound for collectors in Hong Kong.
On the floor of my studio: heavy canvas drop-sheet, pencil sharpener, mallet for closing paint tins, brushes in various shapes and sizes, pantyhose for straining paint, scissors, and paint stirrers.
Adding words, excerpts from a good friend's poetry, to a small sketch in watercolour I am giving to a couple of loyal (and patient) collectors in Hong Kong.
Titling and signing 300 un-numbered but limited edition photographic prints to be sent to friends, fans, collectors, art dealers and press as my New Year's card.
Applying the first layer of wrapping to protect a small enamel on canvas being consigned to Hong Kong with a specialist art shipper.
Working late, I steal a moment for myself in the corner of the studio.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Intoxicated

It's a sad irony that after I visit my father each day at a local hospice, where I can do nothing but comfort him as cancer wreaks its last, dreadful effects in his frail body, I return to my studio and immerse myself in a miasma of carcinogenic chemicals with no more protection than a filtered face mask and a pair of rubber gloves.
The effects of this daily exposure are luridly apparent everywhere on my upper body. My hair is dry and brittle and my scalp flakey. My skin is mottled with angry rashes and acne-like blisters. The outline of the face mask is not only impressed into my nose and cheek-bones but reinforced by a raw tinge of inflammation. My nose bleeds a couple of times a day and my mouth is always dry.
Friends (and correspondents to this blog) offer advice about how I should reduce – or, even better, avoid – the effects of the enamel paint that is elemental to my larger art-works. But after 12 years of working with the medium there is little with which I haven't experimented. For a brief time, I even took to wearing an all-enclosing 'hazmat' suit but it hampered my ability to paint with precision and delicacy so I abandoned it. Now I rely on the face mask, regular showers and the intake of several litres of water, little else.
For a couple of years, I was hyper-sensitive to enamel. One whiff was enough to make me so nauseous that I'd throw up several times a day. I relied on assistants to apply the large areas of colour under my direction before I steeled myself to paint the fine details and outlines alone. Eventually, I became so ill, I stopped painting in enamel completely for several months and took to watercolours and ink.
Still, I have a toxic love affair with the medium. Like a good drug, I can't leave it alone. I savor its luxuriant, glistening ooze as it coats the brush and its seamless, shimmering glaze as it dries on a canvas.
In the second half of this year, I resolved to overcome my allergic reaction to it and produce a large number of large enamel paintings over the next 18 months. Then, I figured, I'd be ready to find another medium through which to express myself. I might be reckless but I'm not stupid: if I persist in working with this stuff it will kill me.
Oddly, it appears that my nausea might have been psychosomatic. I have been in the studio painting only with enamel or acrylic every day for eight weeks now and I was sick only a day or two during the first week. Now I hardly notice the acrid, sinus-frying odor, although the burning and itching patches on my skin are only just tolerable.
Eventually, I will find a bigger, better ventilated and drier studio – I am planning on tackling a large three metre wide work under an open-sided outdoor structure, once the monsoonal rains stop – but until then, I will steel myself to the risks and discomforts and focus on the work.
For better or worse, it's only ever the work that matters to me.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kiss Or Kill

Long-distance relationships of any kind are hard to sustain. When the people involved hardly know each other, they can be impossible.
Amanda Palmer and I have never met in person. We exchanged a few messages of 140 characters or less via Twitter, earlier this year, and read enough about each other online to get a sense that we might be kindred spirits. When I had half an idea about how we might collaborate, she felt comfortable enough to say, "Why not? Let's give it a try" – or words to that effect. Amanda is more informal and funnier than I am.
I think of myself as moody, serious and remote. Others call me difficult and self-absorbed –
'particular' is how Amanda's assistant put it.
Maybe Amanda and I were both too distracted by other projects to figure out properly – let alone articulate – what it was we really wanted to do together. Our ideas were, at best, fuzzy even in the initial flurry of emails between us. It only got worse when Amanda went on the road with the Dresden Dolls and had to leave it to others to relay her thoughts.
What started as a narrow fissure caused by lapses in communication and misunderstandings soon became a chasm. Our best intentions almost slipped into it and lost. Frustrated and depressed, I took my phone off the hook, instructed my assistant to run interference on the outside world and locked myself in my studio to finish a handful of large works that had to be delivered before Christmas.
It says something about Amanda's character and professionalism that she wouldn't let me walk away. In the past couple of days we have exchanged emails outside the loop of our respective 'people', trying to bridge the fractured divide. Whatever comes of this effort – whether my art makes it to the stage with her at the Sydney Opera House on January 26th – Amanda Fucking Palmer still has my respect.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Waving, Not Drowning (Not At All)

Last night, in Melbourne, at Menzies Art Brands final auction of Australian fine art for 2010, Career Babe: The Surf Life Saver (Resized for Easy Consumption), above, one of my smallest works, sold for $A7,320, including the buyer's premium. Painted in high gloss enamel on board measuring just 40cm x 50cm, the pre-sale estimate for the work was $A3,800 to $A4,500. However, bidding started at $5,000.
This is a record high for a small work of mine. And given that I will no longer paint works on canvas or timber board at this size – the Resized For Easy Consumption series was a one-off and studies for my new work are undertaken only in acrylic on cold-pressed paper – this price is likely to be improved upon in the coming years.
A larger, older enamel on canvas work, Pearl: Soul Eternally Lost, Soul Eternally Saved, from 1998, measuring,100cm x 150cm, did less well. The work was in noticeably poor condition, with several serious scuffs to the paint, according to an art dealer who was potentially interested in bidding for it. Nevertheless, it sold for $A8,540, just below its pre-sale estimate of $A9,000 to $A12,000.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ostinato Rigore

The 'art' of my hard-edged, Pop-inflected enamel paintings is all in the initial study image. I draw and collage it from a series of reference photographs even before I order the canvas. I use it not only to work out the overall composition but also to plot the 'tracing' of a black outline that defines different areas of colour.
The painting itself is a technical exercise: large areas of colour are applied in a rigorous, carefully calculated schedule of coats and drying times to create a seamless, lustrous surface, then outlines are painted with painstaking but fluid precision. It's intense, focussed and tedious – and almost entirely devoid of passion. Given the size of my recent canvases, many of which measure two to three metres across – "Nothing in the photos you see of them prepares you for just how big and imposing they are," someone commented just yesterday – it's also physically demanding.
Not least because I'm inhaling a carcinogenic miasma of enamel fumes that hangs like a shroud over the studio.
I can't wait to finish the half a dozen works in progress right now. Once they're delivered, I'm going to spend a couple of weeks working on a dozen small watercolours to 'illustrate' tracks from Amanda Palmer's latest CD, Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under. Amanda has encouraged a lot of leeway in how I interpret her songs and while the more lurid sex, violence and syncretic religious references of my non-enamel work might have to be toned down a bit for her fans (the Voodoo-inspired watercolour above is an early idea I rejected), the medium will encourage me to be more intimate, expressive, and unrestrained as the ideas flow directly from my hand to the paper.
The indiscipline will do my work – and my head – good. I miss the inadvertent, the unforeseen; I miss the surprise and havoc they can wreak.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Deep Low, With Rain

I have half a dozen large paintings under way in the large, well-ventilated, semi-rural space that has been my studio for the past couple of months. My progress on them has slowed to snail's pace. After several days of humid heat and heavy rain, expanses of fragile enamel – the total surface of some of my paintings measure six square metres – have not dried and hardened as they should. Each colour requires several coats and each coat is sanded and cleaned before another's added. In dry weather, I can do two or three a day on each painitng. In the persistent 'wet', I manage – barely – one.
I'm three days behind on an already tight schedule.
With pre-Christmas delivery deadlines looming, I've been forced to move production to a couple of small but better insulated rooms in Brisbane's inner suburbs. There, drying can be accelerated. But the lack of space will limit the amount of canvasses that can be worked on at the same time and amplify enamel's ill effects. Even in a larger, well ventilated studio, the paints' toxic fumes raise blisters on my skin, redden my eyes, and scour my nose and throat (despite the protection of a filtered mask).
This morning, I lost another couple of hours carefully wrapping the works-in-progress so that a specialist art transporter could truck them across Brisbane. With luck, I will be able to make up the time by working late into the night and early morning. With luck, the finished works will have dried in time for the same art transporter to collect them for delivery to Melbourne and Adelaide on Wednesday. With luck, I won't be laid out on the floor, too exhausted and nauseous to do everything else I've planned for this week.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Surface Pressures

In the past, I've resisted letting anyone see my works-in-progress. I've never welcomed studio visitors and I seldom allow photography of unfinished paintings. Since my bankruptcy, when scores of my working drawings and reference photographs had to be surrendered to an auction house for sale, under the direction of a State-appointed trustee, I've taken to destroying sketches and failed drafts of every work I complete.
However, age and an increasing confidence in my skills has made me less uptight about protecting the opacity of my studio.
I spent yesterday morning mixing various skin tones for two of my larger-than-life-sized Big Pin-Ups. I dabbed samples on each canvas and let them sit for a few minutes until they darkened. After I had studied and compared the colours, first in daylight, then under warm tungsten lamps, the assistant wiped them off with turps. The process was repeated a few times until I got the colour just right.
I also adjusted the background colours. Each is built up with three to five layers of enamel. Usually, each coat is the same colour and the colour is refined from one coat to the next. Some colours need base coats – for example, I'll often lay down grey before a coat of orange – to make the final coat more lustrous. The base coats are invisible, unless the surface of the painting is scratched.
My favorite – a hot, creamy pink I refer to as 'Dooney pink' – is the one color that can never be used as a base coat. It bleeds so persistently through several layers of colour, even black, that its manufacturer discontinued it ten years ago. I bought the last 50 litres from the factory; now I'm down to the last four.
Painting has been hard graft this week. Monsoonal rains, which flooded nearby rural areas, have imposed a humidity so warm and heavy, it coats every surface of the studio with clammy moisture. Paint dries slowly, so slowly I've had to wait up to sixty hours between coats. My assistant has had several restless nights, waking at odd hours to adjust the temperature and air-flow through the studio and to check paint was hardening without smears or cracks.
The humidity also curls and flutes the expensive cold-pressed paper I use for my acrylic studies. A low-adhesive tape that secures the paper when I paint became too sticky. It lifted the coarse surface of a couple of sheets and tore another when it was removed. I've decided to stop until the weather improves.
It hasn't, yet.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Chop Wood, Carry Water

"Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."
– a Zen Buddhist adage
Several weeks ago, I found a studio space and a very good assistant. I secured a loan from a friend to buy the materials needed. And I drew up a schedule focussed on reducing the backlog of commissions that had accumulated even before my my breakdown at the beginning of the year. It was the start of the most productive period of my life to date.
Over a dozen enamel paintings, ranging in size from 60cm x 40cm to nearly 300cm x 200cm, have now been completed and delivered to collectors, along with a score of acrylics and watercolours on paper. I have devised and produced new works in various media. I have even repaired, refreshed or cleaned half a dozen works of mine on behalf of collectors so that they might be sold in the secondary market.
In between, new opportunites have presented themselves. I have had discussions with three publishers, two in Australia and one in North America, on four different book projects. And, of course, there's Amanda Palmer and the unusual notion of a set of small artworks to illustrate her upcoming album of songs inspired by Australia and New Zealand.
With two weeks left before Christmas and an extended national holiday that combines the usual pseudo-religious/ consumer-driven celebrations with a four-week southern summer hiatus for many businesses – for example, commercial art galleries are shuttered from Christmas Eve until the end of January – I am working 18 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure another half a dozen enamel paintings can be collected by art transporters in time for their last interstate deliveries of this year.
Predictably, it has rained nearly every day, increasing the sub-tropical humidity, both outside and in, and doubling drying times between enamel coats. The air is so thick, you can see the enamel's carcinogenic tint within every particle of moisture. By nightfall, I am wracked with nausea and my eyes are demon-yellow. I shower and scrub my irritated, itchy skin then go to bed early to recover a little so I can work even harder the next day.
I think of it as penance for the time (and works) lost over the past couple of years. But the backlog is shrinking slowly and as it does, my capacity to develop new ideas and new work expands. That alone is worth the price my body is paying.
Above: Big Pin-Up: Miss May, 2010, high gloss enamel on canvas, 210cm x 140cm.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Dreaming Hazel Dooney

There are two Hazel Dooneys.
There is Hazel Dooney the 30-something female artist that lives a hermitic, rigidly routine existence in one of Australia's dullest cities and paints large works depicting sexy action-figure-like ├╝ber-women inspired by advertising and entertainment media.
Then there is the Hazel Dooney who exists as a character in an ongoing online narrative, and whose words and images limn, in discomfortingly intimate detail, another, more intricate and less easily summarised life in which art, art business, memoir, sexuality (and just plain sex), pscyhological trauma, social mobility, family, money and a measure of fame are always in stress and threaten to fracture the glossy but brittle surface of her signature enamel paintings.
In truth, my image of myself has always been, well, indefinite. In some ways, part of the enjoyment I derive from social media is that others are more certain. Some evolve strong relationships with my work because of what they perceive. Others loathe it. On a very personal level, I've opened myself to forensic examination. I've been surprised, not always happily, by some of the resulting analyses of me.
Maybe there's a third Hazel Dooney. The one that exists in others' imaginations. I don't always recognise where it coincides with my reality.
Steph Shields, director of La Trobe Contemporary Gallery, in Morwell, Victoria, has decided to explore this idea. She is inviting submissions for a group exhibition of works inspired – directly or indirectly – by my persona as it's perceived in my art, my blog and my various other online presences.
Provisionally titled Dreaming Hazel Dooney, the exhibiton will open on Friday, 6th May, and run until Thursday, 19th May, 2011 at the LaTrobe Contemporary Gallery, 209 Commercial Road, Morwell, Vic. 3840.
Works can be in any medium, including sculpture, photography, video (of any length) and even performance art and fashion. The content has, simply, to reflect, amplify, interpret or deconstruct any aspect of my ideas, my art, my public persona, my personal narrative or my self that the artist has encountered online. And yes, it can be critical. Or graphically sexy. Or both. Or none of these.
In the first instance, a digital image/video of the work – or works, as more than one will be considered – must be emailed to both Steph (stephshields@live.com) and me before 31st January. The artists whose works are accepted will be advised within two weeks. They will then have to undertake to ship their works to the gallery in time for the works to be laid out and hung/displayed on 1st May.
The logistics and cost of shipping works to and from the gallery is the responsibilty of each invited artist. The gallery will assume no liability for loss or damage. Unless the gallery is otherwise advised, the works will be offered for sale under the gallery's usual terms, the details of which will be emailed in the form of an agreement as soon as the work is accepted for the exhibition.
I have also agreed that the gallery might display works that were given to me as gifts from online acquaintances as part of the exhibition – I've written of several in previous posts – but these will not be offered for sale. Also among the works exhibited will be a few sketches and photography I have made in collaboration with artists and models I've met via social media.
Above: Me,
aged four, daydreaming (and posing, as always), in Newcastle, New South Wales.

Friday, December 03, 2010

In My Room

I have a small room of my own in my father's house. I work there on the days I'm not at the studio. There are a desk, a chair, and a futon laid out on a bare timber floor. There's a crude timber bookshelf with too many books on it. Strewn in between are storage boxes, files, a half-packed overnight bag, more books and my computer. It has the careless messiness of a teenager's bedroom. And it's where I do some of my best work.
I spend nearly every day in a large, open, concrete-floored shed, at the edge of a semi-rural town an hour outside Brisbane. W
ith an assistant, I work on up to four paintings at a time and struggle to suppress the nauseating effects of long exposure to enamel fumes.
When I return to my room and shut the door, there's a sense of solitude, of everything slowing. I sit at my desk to draw, write or surf the web. I sprawl across the futon for business calls or (too infrequently, these days) to read a book. It's a private space. Noone, not even my boyfriend, visits me here.
It's not somewhere I fuck.
If I work late, I sleep on the futon. I always wake early in the morning, when the light is still an aqueous grey with no heat in it. Sometimes, I surrender to a sleepy but insistent rush of longing and make myself come. The tension pent-up from a day hunched over a sketch pad or computer keyboard recedes with the first breathless press of pleasure. And afterwards, I sleep again for a short while, dreamless.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Over Exposed

Until this year, there was very little of my work in the secondary market. My large enamel paintings were closely held by collectors – they still are – and only a few of the many smaller studies in enamel on canvas or acrylic on paper I did when I was younger had found their way into the hands of dealers or auction houses. Between 1998 and the end of 2008, fewer than a dozen of my works went under the hammer at auction.
Then, at the end of 2008, Dangerous Career Babes: The Aviator, a large enamel on board painting, sold for $A32,701 at Christie's sale of Modern And Contemporary Australian And South African Art in London, a then unheard-of price for my work. Over the next several months, a number of older – and, frankly, much lesser – paintings turned up in the catalogues of local auction houses, with reserves that exposed greedy expectations of 1,000 per cent profits and more over the original purchase prices.
I was thrilled, at first. Then I had a nagging guilt that only a few of these works were of a quality that matched the more recent output of my studio. It was as if my work had been so tightly held for so long – and then as now, I exhibited new work rarely – that collectors were willing to buy anything.
In some cases, they were. Paintings with cracked or scuffed paint, warped stretchers, torn canvases and splintered boards managed to find buyers. As much to discourage the value being put on these damaged works as to insulate myself from the pain of seeing just how badly they'd been treated, I ignored requests to assess works or to quote for their repair.
Earlier this year, following a long hospitalisation, I was forced to petition for bankruptcy. My assets, including all my artwork, were placed in the hands of the Insolvency and Trustee Service (or ITSA) , a government agency responsible for the administration and regulation of the personal insolvency system in Australia. Wisely, ITSA brought in the Sydney auction house, Lawson's, to assess the value of several dozen drawings (mostly sketches for larger works), reference photographs, and unfinished small paintings in various media and to handle their disposal at auction.
Over the past several months, these pieces have trickled into low-profile monthly sales, to be snapped up by bargain-hunters.
I fret about the value of my work. I feel the weight of responsibility for the many collectors who have invested in it. But my large enamels dating after 2004 (other than the ubiquitous Cowboy Babes) are still hard to come by and increasingly expensive. When earlier works turn up in major sales, their estimates are cautious but not ungenerous, given the temporary 'Dooney glut'.
Last month, one of my paintings was passed in for the first time – i.e. unsold – at Menzies Art Brands' end of year auction of major Australian contemporary art in Sydney. However another in the same sale achieved its estimate.
On December 15th, Menzies will hold a similar sale in Melbourne, with two more of my works included in the catalogue. Pearl: Soul Eternally Lost, Soul Eternally Saved, dates from 1998. Measuring 105cm x 147.5cm, in high gloss enamel on canvas , was first bought by a former boyfriend, the musician (and Regurgitator singer and bassist), Ben Ely, and its pre-sale estimate is $A9,000 to $A12,000. A smaller work, Career Babe: The Surf Life Saver (Resized for Easy Consumption), from 2002, also in high gloss enamel but on board, 40cm x 50cm, has an estimate of $A3,800 to $A4,500.
The works can be viewed in Sydney from today until Sunday, 5th December, 11am to 6pm, at Menzies Gallery, 12 Todman Ave., Kensington (Tel. 02 8344 5404). They will then be shipped to Melbourne, where they can be viewed from Thursday, 9th December to Tuesday, 14th December, 11am to 6pm, at Menzies Gallery, 1 Darling St., South Yarra (Tel. 03 9832 870).
Above: Holy Flash, high gloss enamel on canvas, 76cm x 101cm, recently sold by Art Nomad.