Monday, February 28, 2011

Art As Islands

"Television is becoming a collage - there are so many channels that you move through them making a collage yourself. In that sense, everyone sees something a bit different."
– David Hockney
When I first started painting, my most urgent desire was to attract attention.
I mean this in the most fundamental sense. I wanted my work to impose itself on the viewer, to take up as much of their field of view as possible. The canvases were large, the surfaces glossy and vividly colored. The figures in them were nearly always alone, without context, and reaching out from the frame. It was if I wanted to isolate the figures from a pervasive background 'noise', to strip away all possible distraction, so they might actually be 'seen'.
This suggests several possible metaphors. But the simplest is probably the truest. I was a young woman struggling against shyness and insecurity to be recognised. Over time, the figures became more recognisably 'me', bolder, brighter, but still protected by a hard shell of enamel which enabled me to don and discard disparate identities without giving away too much about my real self.
Tellingly, for almost ten years, all my canvases (and later, timber boards) were custom-built to the same dimensions, 100cms x 150cms, aping the 3:2 ration of a 35mm film negative, a double-page, A4-sized magazine spread or a roadside billboard. The influence of advertising imagery was unmistakeable. So was the product I was trying to sell.
In some ways, I had realised in my work an idea J.G. Ballard described, in an interview with English edition of Vogue magazine, 34 years ago: "We may see ourselves, at the turn of the century, each of us the star of a continuous television drama, soothed by the music of our own brain waves, the center of an infinite private universe…"
The images in my paintings are still largely solitary – and are still, with some recent exceptions, hyperbolic renditions of myself, even when I am using someone else as a model. But instead of reacting to the influence of media on my identity, I am now also interacting with it, if not actually communicating much within it.
Whether in paintings, drawings, photographs or video, my work projects a relentless series of individualised moments that I share with others. These mediated fragments of my experience are inevitably distorted during their transmission, both as they're 'sent' (when I create them) and as they're received (the viewing and interpretation of them), but each remains, for me, an expressive but singular, context-less piece and not an attempt to connect, to be understood.
I am not even sure that 'connection' interests me, although recently, I empathised with Freeman Dyson, the noted theoretical physicist, when he wrote in his review of James Gleick's new book, The Information: A History, A Flood for the New York Review Of Books, that we are drowning in a "flood of information".
As Dyson saw it, "The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness. Information in such quantities reminds us of Borges’ library extending infinitely in all directions. It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland. As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information."
Islands of meaning in a sea of information
. If my works were no more than these, I'd be happy.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Future Tense

Almost from the moment I started painting, I have been aware that most of my ideas have been a response to the pervasive influence of entertainment and advertising media. I grew up with portable radios and color television. I was just six years old when the Apple Macintosh revolutionised the desk-top home computer. I came of age at the birth of the World Wide Web.
My identity, like that of many of my generation, has been shaped more by 'content' than experience and by the time I was an adult, I was addicted to connectivity. I craved, as a friend of mine once put it, "the constant, 'on everywhere' stimulation of fast-flowing data."
My early works were more about the 'surface' of media as it was about its effects: painted in seamless, high-gloss enamel, the cutesy, Japanese anime-like figures of my first paintings gradually gave way to darker, more tightly wrapped characters that looked like me and lurched towards the viewer, threatening, brandishing weapons or simply sneering contempt (the core of my first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery – Ultra Violet One at Brisbane's Jan Murphy Gallery – in 1998) but none were particularly revelatory. They were like frames snatched from B-movies or panels of comic books.
The self-depictions were always, somehow, uncertain, their character and sexuality unresolved. As much as I've always insisted my focus is on popular (read 'mainstream') media's shaping of female identity, it wasn't until three or four years ago that I attempted to get to grips – in my work and in my life – with the trickier, less easily defined subject of my own sexual identity. For several years, my paintings were little more than elaborate experiments in role-playing and superficial social commentary.
When I exhibited the Self Vs. Self series at the John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne, in 2004, my interior conflicts were a brittle tension threatening to fracture the shiney, colourful surfaces of my new paintings. In interviews at the time, I spoke of how I wanted "to shatter these surfaces, to expose what's really roiling in my psyche." I recognised that I was no longer satisfied with reflecting advertising and entertainment's insidious, reductive influence on my – our – sense of self, I wanted to interact with it – or interrupt it – directly.
The paintings I've produced in enamel since Self Vs. Self (specifically Dangerous Career Babes and Big Pin-Ups) are large-scale, conceptual and more consciously critical but they haven't gotten me close to where I want to be. I'm completing them to free myself from old ideas, old media and, yes, old obligations.
I am already profoundly distracted by what comes next.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Art Saves

"Art saved me; it got me through my depression and self-loathing, back to a place of innocence."
Jeanette Winterson
I hadn't realised just how corrosive grief could be until this week. Like some dark, insidious poison, it had dripped into my heart so gently that I hadn't noticed – until I was brought to my knees by a sharp sliver of anguish piercing my chest. I cried hard and long, then I became inconsolably angry.
I haven't fully recovered. I still work every day in order to maintain the hard-won routine that keeps me sane. But while my mind and body are in it – it's times like these I'm thankful for the almost mechanical tedium of my technique in enamel – my heart is not. My heart is broken. I am wracked with confusion and ill-formed regrets.
A year ago, I wouldn't have been able to cope. I am stronger now – and much more determined. I bear the pain with as much stoicism as I can muster: no drugs, no drink, no refuge in a lover's arms. I focus on the one thing that has enabled me to survive a decade and a half of an adulthood assailed by psychological and emotional tumult: my art.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Unwelcome Distractions

I am not a 'joiner'. I am not a 'people person'. I am solitary, prickly, and on most days absorbed in my work. I don't like to be distracted. I don't respond well to those who try.
None of this should be a surprise to anyone who reads this blog. And yet I have lost count of how many people email me or worse, ring me up and ask me to do them a favour – as a fellow artist'. None of them qualify as acquaintances, let alone as friends.
The range of such favours can be wide – from lending them money to introducing them to a dealer or helping them to promote a show. It's not enough that I've shared the mechanics of how I've managed my own career on this blog for the past four years. I'm expected to talk them through what I've written because they can't be bothered to read it.
Last year, after doing a series of high profile interviews about my decision to abandon commercial galleries and promote and sell my art using the web, I had a number of calls from artists wanting my support for a sort of artist's union. They didn't get that what I wanted was to burn down the whole archaic, abusive system – not negotiate terms under which I could continue to work within it. Every conversation began or ended with a not-so-veiled appeal to my non-existent guilt for being successful, crude slivers of emotional blackmail meant to encourage me to lend a hand to 'a fellow artist'.
Yesterday was the last straw. I received an email from another total stranger. It read, "Hi Dooney Studio. I'm rebuilding my site and love the clean layout of yours. Could you advise where I can grab this template? Many thanks for helping a fellow artist."
As if.
Many artists and galleries have copied my website since I paid to have it designed and built to my specifications, back in 2003. Frankly, it's a little dated now, if not yet past its 'use-by' date, but I still don't take kindly to someone I've never met thinking it's ok not just to tell me they intend to copy it but to ask me to provide the template.
I don't care if a 'fellow artist' doesn't have the originality, imagination or drive I do to promote themselves and sell their art on their own terms. It's hard fucking graft and damn few are suited to it. I don't see it as any part of my responsibility to be available to help them. I've helped scores of young artists – and others – who have demonstrated that they have what it takes.
When it comes to those who don't, I have a ruthless disregard: Plenty more where you came from.

Monday, February 14, 2011

No Map Where I Am

Over the past couple of days, I have been discussing with Lytlewode Press, in Melbourne, the possibility of turning the 30 or so pen and ink drawings of The Flesh Eaters into a limited edition book. A small but well-regarded 'private press', Lytlewode Press specialises in publishing original graphic prints, photographs by artists or of artists, and artist’s books containing original graphic prints and photogaphs. The project looks as if it might progress quickly. The New York-based writer and film-maker, Amos Poe, has agreed to write a preface and there will also be a lengthy Q&A with me, both of which, I hope, wil argue the notion that these works are more than mere erotica (or, worse, arty porn'), that they confront the dillemmas and contradictions inherent in a woman depicting explicit sex, especially sex in which she is an unembarrassed participant, as an element of how she expresses herself.
In different ways in all my work, I explore the insidious influence of media, advertising and mass entertainment on female identity. Most recently, I've been curious about the messy, uncontrolled spill of what geeks and tech' commentators refer to as 'user-generated' content into popular culture, from personal blogs to amateur porn.
As an artist, my job description is very different to a journalist's: I don't have to be dispassionate or detached. Quite the opposite. I've opted to insert myself not just as a creator but also, in a limited sense, a character into the content flow, deliberately objectifying myself, allowing my whole self, including my 'inclusive' sexuality and its various expressions, to be visible and public, so I can better explore the still incompletely mapped territory where prurience, art, technology and issues of identity converge.
As Amos himself wrote to me, a couple of days ago, "I find your perception, your work, extremely strong, especially as you take control of female imagery, put yourself on the line as it were. This brave and risky move is what defines your work, in my view, as avant garde... a step beyond Cindy Sherman, let's say. Your sketches are not overwhelmingly beautiful, but invite the viewer inside their own heads; seen as a series, it is an abstract motion picture that engages the viewer to feel."
I have yet to distill where this is going in terms of a coherent body of work. It's probably a sign of a new-found maturity that I'm resolving my ideas more slowly, more patiently, using the traditional forensic instruments of the artist – pencils, dip pen, ink and lots of paper – as well as a digital camera.

Friday, February 11, 2011

War And Getting A Piece

Having announced my decision to give up painting with enamel by the end of the year – a story covered nationally in the Australian press – I am now eager to complete several outstanding commissions in the medium.
I've been labouring over study drawings for three more Dangerous Career Babes. A few days ago, I finished one of them. Commissioned by a prominent Sydney business-woman, The Ninja, traditionally, a shadowy figure, cloaked head-to-toe in black, is wraith-like, partly naked and wrapped in subtle shades of ivory that throw into relief the blood spray and bolt of crimson fabric that bisect the composition. In the background, rendered in matt ivory on a high-gloss ivory of the same shade, 'war' is declared in heavy gothic kanji – a reflection of both this blog's catch-cry, Art Is War, and the ruthless, cut-and-thrust reality of finance.
I'm pushing myself to complete two more before the end of the month: The Stockbroker and The Roller Derby Jammer, both for collectors in Hong Kong (where so many of my recent works end up, these days). In my new enamel studio, work on half a dozen other enamels at different stages of completion is on hold until the temperature and humidity moderate a little and paint surfaces cane be kept free of moisture. At least I benefit from a little more time away from enamel's sickening vapours.
My father's decline and death early in the New Year made it impossible for me to deliver the watercolours Amanda Palmer wanted to project at her widely publicised Australia Day show, last month. However, a tongue-in-cheek portrait of her, painted in enamel on canvas, has turned up inside the cover of her latest album, Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, which made it to no. 25 on the local ARIA charts.
One of my early sketches for her song, Map Of Tasmania, took a bit of liberty with Amanda's new husband, the best-selling author Neil Gaiman, and depicted him giving her head. His hair, re-imagined as a map of Australia, hovered over (or should that be 'hoovered'?) Amanda's bush, which was every bit as unruly as the not-so-small island state across Bass Strait. I gave the original, in watercolour on paper, to Amanda as a gift but a digital copy has been distributed widely on the web. I suspect it's only a matter of time before it's sold as a poster.
In the meantime, I'm thinking about selling the acrylic on paper studies (image size 43cm x 60cm) I did for Amanda's enamel portrait. They're not cheap but if you're interested, please email my studio.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Under Exposed

I've always produced a lot of visual material, from photographs and rough sketches to digital illustrations, collages and small paintings. Very little of it goes further than the floor under my desk.
Occasionally, an assistant, worn down by my repeated requests to find a particular image from the myriad scraps of paper and photographic proofs I discard during the course of figuring out a new work, will take it upon themselves to organise this material into meticulously indexed files. It still ends up strewn around the studio.
For many years, I cared little for what I regarded as valueless by-product. Then, in 2006, a friend came across a plastic garbage bag filled with Polaroids I had taken (as references for my enamel paintings) stuffed at the back of a cabinet beneath my kitchen sink. He sifted through them to select the handful that were exhibited as part of my Venus In Hell solo exhibition at MARS Gallery, in Port Melbourne. Two years later, I assembled a collection of sexually explicit study photographs I had taken of myself – and which others had taken – to create another exhibition at MARS Gallery, called PORNO.
Since then, there has been a small but not insignificant market for my study drawings and photographs in Australia. Encouraged, I began uploading excerpts from my sketchbooks to the visual archives on my web site. But most of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of photographs I've taken over the years, using Polaroid 600 and 35mm negative film, as well as an assortment of digital cameras, remain hidden away in filing cabinets, drawers and hard drives.
Many of the images are of nude women or sex acts. In a reckless moment, last year, I published a few on my Facebook page and within a couple of hours, the faceless, middle-American censors there had erased my presence. Several have also been published on this blog but I am conscious of dulling the attention of my readers with too much distracting tits 'n' ass. While I made an exception for a few of my favorite monochrome images from PORNO, I'm hesitant to include photography in the substantial body of artwork currently archived on my web site.
That might change. In the meantime, a visual 'notebook' on Tumblr, with no words other than captions, focussing on my 35mm and digital photography – no Polaroids, sketches or paintings – felt like a better option. Reassured that the platform tolerated images that many others wouldn't and that I had more than enough material to sustain it for a couple of months, I devised a stripped-to-the-bone slate grey on white design, a simple title – An Artist's Notebook – and a week ago, started uploading images.
Take a look sometime.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Sitting

Some time ago, I watched a documentary about the great English painter, Lucian Freud. It was an odd film not least because Freud himself made no appearance in it, other than in several still photographs. There were only his studio, his gnarled, fleshy portraits and his sitters: friends, former lovers , fellow painters, like David Hockney, and his many children, among them the accomplished sisters, Bella and Esther Freud, and Rose and Susie Boyt.
The film traced Freud's relationship with his subjects and, more abstractly, the portraits he made of them. For someone who takes as long as I do to finish a work, it was reassuring to discover that Freud's painstaking dissection of his subjects –
during which he labours for several hours at a time to get the paint exactly as he wants in just a few square inches of a large canvas – involves as many as a hundred sittings over a year for a single work. Each is made bearable by Freud's charismatic presence, clever conversation, imaginative cooking and champagne.
I'm not much good at small talk so, for a long time, I've relied only on myself as muse and model. This changed after I spent three months in a mental hospital, last year. A psychiatrist there suggested I was spending a little too much time focussed on myself. I started look for young women who might be willing to pose for me.
My process is very different to Freud's, not least because it eschews some traditional aspects of the relationship between artist and sitter. I get to know my subjects from a distance. Sometimes acquaintance is initiated via social media, then explored further by phone and email. I don't offer much about myself. Instead, I ask a lot of questions: the best models are those who are neither discomforted nor confronted and who respond without trying to figure out the 'right' answer.
By the time I meet them in person, I already have a good sense of who they are – and what I want to extract from them for my work.
On the other hand, I'm never quite what my models expect: "She welcomes you, quite calmly and happily, as though she were, well, normal," one wrote, recently. "You kind of don't expect it because she's so cold and steely feeling in her virtual world. I was even surprised at how she had dogs – for some reason I never pictured her with pets. You would assume, from her texts, that Hazel doesn't smile much. This is far from the truth."
Yesterday was my second meeting with a model who cared so much about working with me that soon after we'd met for the first time, she began sending me long, well-written, starkly confessional emails, sometimes one or two every day, so I might learn more about her. In person, she was just as fearless. As we chatted and looked through some of my recent drawings in ink, she started to undress. Naked, she sprawled across the futon I use as a daybed in my study and waited for me to tell her what I wanted her to do.
Nothing needed to be said. I picked up a camera and went to work.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Flesh Eaters

The floodwaters have receded but the clean-up continues. In suburban streets close to the Brisbane River, sodden, muddy refuse and ruined furnishings are piled high on the sidewalks, awaiting collection by city workers. Far to the north, Hurricane Yasi is wreaking havoc on tropical coastal townships. Although its effects are less apparent here, the air is hot and humid.
There's still too much moisture to work on enamel paintings. In any case, the temperature inside the windowless studio, even with a high-powered fan blowing, is around 35ºC. I've sat at home in my air-conditioned office, drawing with an antique dip pen and black ink.
I'd intended to work on studies for the final six of my twelve Big Pin-Ups but the first couple of sketches took me somewhere different. I filled a sketchbook with spidery outlines of entangled limbs, splayed genitalia and stringy hair, diaristic fragments of my own sexual history traced from the surface of my skin. Most were small, no more than a few square inches in the middle of a a 12" x 16.5" sheet of textured cold-pressed paper. A few can be viewed here.
A week has passed. I'm still drawing
. Scores of images carpet the varnished timber floor: engorged cocks, fleshy labia, curling tongues and scratched or blotted ink interpretations of ejaculates, spittle, sweat and smeared make-up. In most, the faces are obscured – except, in a handful, my own. It isn't always easy to tell whether the writhing, contorted bodies are in ecstasy or pain. I'm not sure I know. When my sexuality was still shrouded in uncertainty, inchoate, intimacy, like desire, was sometimes fleeting and not every penetration wanted; sometimes, too, freedom was found in breathless constriction and a mind-numbing orgasm brought on with violence.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Thrill Is Gone

I've decided that the large enamel paintings I'll complete over the next several months will be my last in the medium with which my reputation as an artist has been so closely associated for the past decade. I've taken an extended break from enamel several times before. Now I've commited to abandoning it completely.


Last month, my father died of multiple myeloma. It is an aggressive cancer that can be directly related to "environmental factors, including job-related exposure to metal, rubber, wood, paint, solvents, leather, fertilizers, pesticides, or petroleum products." Witnessing the rapid, agonising erosion of Dad's physical capacities underscored the risks I have taken for too long, with too little protection.
Enamel's acrid vapour is toxic and potentially carcinogenic. I also work with solvents and chemical drying agents. On an average day in the studio, I suffer breathing difficulties, nose-bleeds, nasty skin rashes and blisters, and burning eyes. I've persisted, ignoring the likely long-term damage to my health.
One of my favorite artists, the German sculptress, Eva Hesse, died at a similar age to me after stubbornly refusing to stop using latex and plastics in her work. And three years ago, I wrote with candour about the risks I accepted working with enamel, quoting a chilling summary of likely ill-effects from a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
"Eye and throat or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness, and vision problems are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some chemicals. In professional painters who are exposed to high levels of paint vapors for long periods of time, some chemicals in paints have damaged the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Some chemicals cause cancer or reproductive and developmental effects in laboratory animals."
I'm done. About a dozen enamel paintings already commissioned will be delivered over the coming months. I will also complete a handful for myself, including the final works in two series, Dangerous Career Babes and Big Pin-Ups.
By the end of 2011, my studio's enamel output will have stopped for good.