Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Cooling Off Period

It is summer in Australia, which means it's hot nearly everywhere. In Brisbane, where my studio is located, it's also stupefyingly humid. The moist sub-tropical air hangs over the city like a shroud and breezes are rare. Outside, everything smells cloyingly sweet , a heady mix of frangipani and choisya. Inside my enamel studio, the acrid miasma of enamel fumes takes much longer than usual to dissipate.
This time last year, the city was flooded during what was to become the worst state-wide natural disaster since 1974. I had to move my studio from a tin shed on low-lying, semi-rural land to higher ground within an urban industrial estate. Shortly afterwards, the old studio was inundated. Even at the new studio, seepage from heavy rain and power outages wreaked havoc with my work. But the worst of it was the humidity.
When the humidity is too high, enamel paint becomes uncompliant. It gets tacky and doesn't brush onto surfaces as smoothly as it should. It congeals between brush bristles of any type, stiffening them and causing them to rake rather than smooth the paint. Drying between coats increases from two days to around six. Worse, the surfaces dry to a lesser sheen – a disaster for pieces on which the seamless, high-gloss surface is part of the conceptual point.
Last year, I tried to manage the environment within my studio using a de-humidifier and an air-dry heater. It wasn't successful. The surfaces of everything I worked on dulled anyway. I had to wait another month for each to dry properly before I could sand it back and repaint the whole image. In comparison, the paintings that I undertook a month or two later were completed in a quarter of the time and the finishes were some of my best.
My current enamel studio is shaded and heavily insulated but there's no escaping the humidity. My skin is slicked with a film of sweat. It makes the rubber nose/mouthpiece of my filtered mask slippery, so I have to cinch the elastic strap tighter to try to hold it in place. Within it, my breath condenses in a little pool below my lip, then drains from the air-intake vents. If it drips onto wet enamel, an entire coat is ruined: water and oil-based paints don't mix.
There are no floods this year. The afternoon sky is often dark with thunderclouds but there is less rain. It should be much less humid but it's not. Even on cooler mornings, the humidity is still 15 per cent higher than the maximum recommended for the use of enamel. And yes, thanks to a long-standing relationship with the Technical Department of the enamel brand I use, I have this sort of data at my fingertips.
I expect to be back in the enamel studio at the end of the month. It will still be very hot but I will have to be there to receive a shipment of specialist paint. The brightest hot pinks and shiniest, most stable metallics are made in the USA, and like a lot of flammable, explosive material, enamel paints are shipped by sea. It takes several months. The sole Australian supplier went into liquidation unexpectedly last year – one day, I ordered my usual top-up of supplies, the next day there was no staff to answer the phones – and even without the humidity, this would have caused delays. A further couple of weeks will be needed to unpack the paints, organise the studio and get production back up to speed.
In the meantime, I'm re-building my fitness. When I'm stronger, my brushwork is steadier and I can withstand the physical demands of bending over or stretching out across large canvases for several hours at a time. I suspect the enforced break will improve my last works in enamel, even if I'm looking forward to being done with the medium for good.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Getting Hard

After more than a year of not taking care of myself properly, I've decided to get physical.
A couple of days ago,I started jogging, doing sets of push-ups and sit-ups throughout the day and taking my dog for long, fast walks through the dull but leafy suburban flatlands where I live. This afternoon, I'll begin working with weights and the Schwarzenegger-scale cardio' machines at my local gym, a small, friendly, family-run business where a cadre of serious natural bodybuilders train. I'm also going to swim and learn to box.
I adhere to a strict diet. Every night, before I go to bed, I measure and prepare my food for the following day. The menus are balanced and healthy, devised by a nutritionist. The alarm on my iPhone is set to remind me to eat at five specific times.
I'm tired and sore, very sore, but I also feel really fucking good. Being physical again enlivens me and draws me out of the confines of my own messy mind.
I could do all this gradually, rather than take on such a relentless daily regime. But the process is as important to me as the outcome. The U.S. Marine Corps' boot-camp mantra – Pain is weakness leaving the body – is as much about building mental strength as physical. Hard training demands mental discipline and stamina. To put it in terms only a psychiatrist would use, it changes (therefore reprograms) one's internal dialogue, to encourage self-confidence and a determination to push through inevitable barriers.
The last couple of years have been my worst, strewn with epsiodes of mental illness, a bankruptcy, and my father's death from an insidious cancer. I was forced to return to Brisbane and confront a deeply troubled past. My physical health declined shaprly and last month, I underwent surgery. I'd become withdrawn and allowed myself to grow frail, soft and fat.
The state of my mind and body affect my creativity. Hard exercise and a balanced diet clear the manic static in my head better than any medication. They shape not only my body but also the way I think. The difference will be apparent in my new work.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Fetish Pictures

In late 2007, the largest exhibition of erotic art in the UK, Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, was described by the respected institution which mounted it (so to speak) as being about not about sex but "boundaries of acceptability". This didn't stop an English critic Jonathon Jones writing about his sexual response to it in The Guardian newspaper.
It's not often that a respected critic admits that sex in art has anything to do with sexuality. But Jones had the late art historian, Kenneth Clark to back him up: "No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals." Jones goes on to describe Picasso as being "the most sexual artist there ever was".
Picasso was intensely sexual in his art and life. For him, sex and art were inextricable. His lovers were his muses and he often had several at once. It's as if every new art work began with a sexual relationship, resulting in a large body of work that was inescapably erotic. But Picasso has never been dismissed as an 'erotic artist': in the encoded langauge of art insiders, the term 'erotic' is often dismissive, even derogatory. Especially when the artist is a woman.
Like male artists who sleep with their model-muses, my art is entangled with my sex life. My libido and 'creative energy' are the same thing and I feel it even when my subject matter isn't sexual. I have a rudimentary tattoo near the base of my spine, a reworking of the eliptical shape of an atom symbol into the shape of a butterfly. Done when I was young, it marks the origin of a faint vibrating hum between my spine and my pelvis that is at its most intense when I am fucking or making art.
Most critics and curators are discomforted when an artist talks about sex and art in the same breath but they begin to squirm when that artist is a woman. Talk about it too openly and you risk not only accusations of being exploitative but also horrid abuse. Take this example in the comments section of my blog:
"Don't pretend you haven't traded on sexuality when it suited you - your work and blog is littered with it and you revell in it. On top of that, you clearly manipulate a substantial segment of your collector base with images based on sexualised themes, sell them the source Polaroids and you're quite happy to bank the cheques."
And yet it's long been accepted that male artists' sexual desires, incited (but only partly satiated) by their muses, influence their creative drive. As Jonathan Jones notes, in his article about the Barbican exhibition, "It was said that Raphael so adored his mistress - and loved sex - that a patron had to install her in his house in order to get Raphael to finish his frescoes there."
The term 'erotic fetishism' was coined by French experimental psychologist Alfred Binet to explain the behaviour of people who were turned on something other than the human. He divided it into 'spiritual love' (which is not about religion but a desire based on ideas) and 'plastic love' (a desire for physical objects).
For me, being excited about art is exactly the same feeling as having a raging libido. For me, both begin with art not a person. It doesn't often work the other way round; I don't get ideas from sexual attraction or sex. I suspect that Picasso's and Raphael's raging sexual desires were incited not by their so-called 'muses' but by visions of the art they would make (regardless of who they were trying to seduce).
The assumption that an artist is aroused by a muse or lover fits with a conventional notion of human sexuality. It also neatly equates their creativity with procreation, fitting it into a religiously inclined 'natural order' – first comes a desire for a person, then a desire to create (whether its new life or art) – and a church-bound moral edict that its ok to fuck to procreate but not for pleasure.
To be turned on by art (with sex only one part of satsifying that arousal) is, by definition, fetishistic. But I embrace it. When I am not making new art, my libido wanes. When I am, my libido is high. My sexuality is not just inextricably linked to art, it's a by-product of it. I suspect that it was no different for many other artists, male and female, who – as it were – came before me.