Sunday, July 29, 2012

Out Of The Shadows

This is my story of the past three years:
I went mad. I went bankrupt. My father died from a particularly aggressive cancer. I went mad again, and not just from grief. I stopped painting. I fell ill. I recovered. I started painting again.
Inevitably, I am different. So is my art.
For nearly a decade, my slick, glossy, colorful enamels have mimicked advertising and mass-market entertainment. They explored how modern women's personalities and ambitions are shaped by pervasiveness of both. In recent years, my work has also experimented with the idea of self-objectification, and the insidious influence of social media on the way we portray the most intimate aspects of our lives to others. This has since led me to try to understand how personal experiences – like illness, death, grief, and love – become the core of a narrative that we try, every day, to edit or re-write.
I have been working on a series of paintings which feature silhouettes of objects that have personal meaning to me. I think of them as shadows from my past. The objects are easily recogniseable – an old motorbike, a horse, a shotgun – and each is captioned by a hand-painted text that is a fragment of memory. Theres is no color and there is very little detail. The studies are matt black gouache on bare, unpainted paper. The finished pieces have a high-gloss, reflective white enamel background surrounding unreflective, matt black. I want the silhouettes to look like a void, as if the objects have been removed.
These are not ironic works. They are the opposite. There's a purity in the lack of colour, the clean lines and pared back imagery. There is a measure of sentimentality, too. The words are thoughtful and intimate.
When we read a good book, we form the characters in our imaginations from the simplest descriptions or exchanges of dialogue. We build our own version of their world. I want the experience of looking at these paintings to be similar: for the words and image to become highly personalised within the viewer's mind: experiences shared with me, then individualised to the viewer's own perspectives.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reading To Myself

I haven't read much during the last couple of years. As my mental health deteriorated, I found it hard to concentrate. Now I'm well, I find myself craving books. The fragmentary pieces I skim online aren't enough anymore.
I have a long list of books I want to buy. These are just a few:
Groovy Bob: The life and times of Robert Fraser
, by Harriet Vyner
Fraser was an infamous and influential art dealer, responsible for introducing the London artworld of the 60s to Peter Blake, Jim Dine, Richard Hamilton, Bridget Riley and Andy Warhol. Described as a "taste-maker, hedonist, lousy businessman, promiscuous homosexual", he lived large, with little caution and brought sex and glamour to the usual art hustle.
Virginia Woolf
, by Alexandra Harris

I am come from a long line of neurotic, insane, creative (and suicidal) women so it makes me feel just a little less alone to read about Virginia Woolfe, who was brilliant, charming, abominable, and utterly mad.
To The River: A Journey Beneath the Surface
, by Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing walked the short length of the Ouse River, in which Virginia Woolfe suicided by drowning in 1941, from its source to the sea. What she brought back was a "passionate investigation into how history resides in a landscape", combining memoir with mythical and historical journeys."
The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images
, by the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

The latest series of paintings I'm developing uses silhouettes of generic objects with intimately personal text describing my own memories and experiences of them. This book offers deeper insight into the purpose and meaning of symbols – and our need for them.
A Road Trip Journal
, by Stephen Shore

In the 70s, the famed photographer took a road trip from New York to California and back again. Along the way, he made postcards of his own photographs of the towns he passed through and inserted them among the other tourist postcards. He documented his journey with American Psycho-like detachment – itemisations of where he stayed, what he ate, how many postcards he distributed.
It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image + Text Work by Women Artists and Writers, edited by Lisa Pearson
The work of poets Bernadette Mayer and the late Hannah Weiner developed in part from their involvement with New York conceptual art during the Seventies. This book includes a work by Mayer called Memory, a thirty-day record of her life at age 26, documented in snapshots and taped narration – what she called an "emotional science project.". Also included in the book is a piece by Weiner called In Pictures and Early Words. It's a recording of her clairvoyant-schizophrenic experiences, transcribing the words that began to appear before her eyes as contorted typography.
Vali Myers: A memoir
, by Gianni Menichetti

Vali Myers was wild. I visited her studio when I lived in Melbourne, and I saw her often around my neighbourhood: a flurry of orange red hair, a tattooed face. Originally named Ann Rappold, she danced for the Melbourne Modern Ballet at seventeen. She then spent ten years in Paris, followed by forty years in semi-seclusion in a wild canyon in Italy, living with wolves and other wild animals (some of them human). I'm not actually a fan of her work but I envy her life and the boldness with which she lived it.
Andy Warhol Portraits
, by Tony Shafrazi, Carter Ratcliff and Robert Rosenblum

My recent portraits are clearly infuenced by Andy Warhol, Alex Katz and other Sixties' artists. Surprisingly, this book is the first comprehensive survey of Warhol's portraits, with more than 300 works from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England, by Keith Thomas
I've always been fascinated by the belief in, and fear of, alchemy, magic and witchcraft in England and the rest of Europe. I half hope it might make a comeback in the twenty-first century.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Muse, Me

When I was younger, I used myself as a model and noone else. In the last few years, others have begun to populate my work.
I am looking for a model now. I find myself studying each person I meet – especially if they're Asian or African – assessing the angularity of their faces and the proportions of their bodies (I don't really care about height or weight). I have an aversion to conventional. 'white bread' prettiness: I like faces with flaws. More than anything, I look for an attitude. I'm drawn most to women who are strong, smart, curious, experimental, and yes, sexual, but who are not yet fully 'resolved'. Painting someone is a process of self-exploration and many of my most successeful sitters have used their time with me in the studio as an opportunity to explore themselves. The best results happen when the assumptions of both subject and artist are tested.
Needles to say, that can be too much for most people.
Sometimes, I approach women on the street or in cafés or bars. Sometimes I put up a poster. Mostly, I get emails from people who have seen my work. I'm always explicit about what I might expect of them. I don't ever use the word 'fun'. I ask a lot of questions. If I like the answers, I'll organise a face-to-face, usually somewhere other than my studio. I take a few snapshots, I write copious notes. If I think someone has what I'm looking for – and they're game (many lose their nerve very quickly ) – I ask them to visit my studio.
Potential sitters pose clothed and naked for me. I photograph them with both digital and Polaroid cameras and make quick sketches. I'm interested in the different ways people bare themselves, so I photograph them as they undress. I used to be hesitant about touching their bodies, but these days, I impose myself without hesitation – to reposition a limb, twist a torso, or tilt a head. Physical contact connects me to the would-be sitter, closing the cautious distance that new subjects often cling to for a sense of security. It also agitates any suppressed feelings the woman might have about being objectified. Sometimes, it can also create a sexual tension.
The more intense the experience, the better the result. By the end of a shoot, most are exhausted. Then I make lunch and we talk about the experience – it's a conversation that sometimes continues by phone or email for a couple of days afterwards. This is also part of their contribution to the work, and in many ways, its even more intimate than the actual posing.
Sometimes a session fails. Someone who might have been bold and eager when we first met becomes suddenly nervous and rigid, as if the reality of the moment is more than they can handle. Some blanche when they see my drawing table littered with drawings of body parts or graphic Polaroids of other models. Some find the process too discomforting and want to stop. A few misinterpret my intentions and assume that we're going to fuck – or worse, think it's an opportunity for platonic female bonding, of sharing secrets and giggling. Many back out before they even get to the studio.
Occasionally, I come across women who make the whole thing a breeze.
Several years ago, I had a studio close to the infamous Walking Street, in Pattaya, Thailand. Of all the women I have painted, the local bar girls (and transexuals) were the most curious about how I went about it. They asked smart questions, looked through my work and offered their opinions as they flicked through the many art books I had lying around. A handful passed by several times a week, sometimes late at night, to cook spicey dishes, talk, and to pose. None ever asked for payment.
A young Korean woman who agreed to model for me at my beachside studio in Sydney moved (and talked) like a laid-back Californian surfer. Deeply tanned, with dyed blonde hair, she'd gaze longingly at the waves just outside the studio's floor-to-ceiling windows as she contorted her petite muscled body for me. In the pictures, it came across as a sexy languour. At the same studio, a boney, bird-featured, saxophone-playing Japanese who posed several times (albeit with cooperative but utterly vacant detachment) somehow became, for a time, the third point in an odd sexual triangle with my boyfriend and me.
Like male artists in the past, I've had my share of tangled relationships with the females who have posed for me. The process of photographing, drawing or painting someone is intimate and revelatory. It can also be unnerving (and yes, seductive) for the subject. My focus flicks without warning between them to the 'object' I am making. I imagine that for the other person it might be like being adored one moment, ignored the next. It can forge a bond – but just as easily fester with resentment. At its most successful, it can be a liberating experience for the subject: they get to see themselves through the eyes of someone else, and often, discover more (not less) than they had expected.
What I want out of it is much simpler: I want to make good art.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thank You, Lisa

Like everyone else, I love surprises. This morning, I was delivered a package from the American professional artists' model, Lisa B. Byrne. Inside the brown box were various presents wrapped individually in contrasting shades of pink tissue paper.
I opened the card first. It was a candid and touching personal note. Then I unwrapped the first present to find a couple of cool hand made stickers: one urged me to 'Fuck Racism' in Southern Gothic script. Others contained a hot pink 'To Do' list (pictured above) designed by Lisa and printed on thick card, a cool Montana paint pen in Dooney pink, and a beautiful monochrome print of Lisa herself, posing nude.
I saved the best for last. It was shaped like an oversized bon-bon, wrapped in tissue and tied at each end with glossy black ribbon. Inside, I discovered a roll of shiny black bondage tape by Booty Parlor. According to the product description, it's a "strong, non-sticky cling film". I tried it. It was soft and smooth, like silk, and adhered to itself. I'm going to use it with my boyfriend when I see him next. Of course, Lisa will be invited.

Location, Location

It's no secret that I hate Brisbane.
I hate its torrid weather. I hate the angular drawl of its inhabitants and their near-enough-is-good-enough attitude. I hate their overwhelming sense of self-entitlement. Everyone harbours the smug certainty that Brisbane – and nowhere else – is the real embodiment of the Australian Dream.
Oh, and I hate the lack of art supply shops (and the lack of art).
I'm itching to leave but for the next few months, I can't. I have several commissions to finish and a series of new works to get started. I have to rebuild my health. As badly as I want to be eslewhere, my best course of action is to stick it out here.
My life right now is monk-like, an extended period of solitude and confinement. I sleep in a single bed, in a room in my late father's house where I also work. I don't go out. I don't fuck. I don't even speak to anyone often. When I do, it's to collectors who are scattered around the world. Every evening, I walk to and from a women-only gym. Four days a week, I walk to and from my enamel studio, a few miles away. Walking rests my eyes and clears my lungs. Twenty-four hours a week is the most I can handle of my studio's carcinogenic, acrid fumes.
I have enough supplies (ordered from wholesalers in the USA) to finish my commissions. By the time I run out, I'll have accomplished enough to be able to take the time I need to move overseas. In the coming weeks – when work at my studio has progressed further – I'll begin travelling again and interacting with the art world.
I miss the life I used to lead but I am reasonably content. My work is progressing and that's the most important thing to me. I long to live in a place I might love – just as I long for a (ir)regular sex life – but in the end, what I'm doing with my art is a lot more compelling than where I'm doing it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ties That Bind

I have few friends. I have acquaintances in the art world – curators, auctioneers, dealers, other artists – but they know little about me outside of art. Few have met me in person. None has been to my studio or home.
I keep most people at a distance.
My relationships with my collectors are different. I have known some since my first self-produced exhibition in 1997. Most I have met since 2005, when I turned my back on the traditional gallery system and set about developing direct contact with those who had a genuine interest in my work.
All my collectors have my home phone number. I take calls from them any time between 6am to midnight, seven days a week. I call most of them myself at least once a month. When I lived in Sydney, on a high cliff top directly above the Pacific Ocean, I opened my home and studio to them, prepared sumptious lunches, and hung out for hours with them and talked. I've visited many in their own homes.
My largest collectors know as much about me as my own family – and I trust them more. When I was in a psychiatric hospital in Sydney, collectors were among my few visitors. At my lowest ebbs (and there have been too many these past couple of years), their belief in me sustained me and helped me to re-build. Most have a good understanding of what I am doing, and why. Even when they don't, they have faith in my choices.
I make art as a way to process my perceptions and experiences. However, I have learned that the artwork itself – and the experience of it – belong to s
omeone else. And that can bind me closer to them than any conventional friendship.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Second Act

I have been painting in high gloss enamel for seventeen years now, nearly half my life.
My first works in the medium, undertaken when I was just a teenager, were intended as 'anti-paintings', their smooth, seamless surfaces devoid of brush strokes or any other apparent evidence of human touch. My signature was stamped on them like a brand, as if to emphasise their 'roles' as products. As an artist, I viewed myself as both producer and product. I happily objectified myself in my work.
For a time, when I was in my early 20s, the women in my enamels (or, rather, the women I pretended to be in them) were unlikely ideals, hyper-stylised and unencumbered by imperfections. They were always pretty, their poses frozen in 'perfect moments'. The 'contexts', such as they were, were intentionally superficial, the surfaces shiny and ever-new, like advertising images or fashion layouts in glossy magazines.
This was intentional. For much of the past 100 years, advertising has shaped female identity, defining they way they should be seen and desired: women have learned to acquire power from their appearance. My early enamels reflected my contradictory responses when such power (in the form of good looks and desirability) were pressed upon me as a young woman.
My earliest paintings were designed to be reproduced in the fashion and lifestyle publications they mimicked – the proportions of the frames matched those of a double-paged spread in an A4-format magazine (or a billboard). Which is to say, they were intended to work themselves as advertising. As I noted above, both they and I were 'product'. They were also designed to be easily consumable. Brightly colored, candy-coated, and glib, they were 'pop' in all the obvious ways.
But they were also troubling. Easy to access and absorb, to a point, looking at them too long could make one uncomfortable. Men always looked away from them before women, maybe because they recognised that they were being played – that what they were really looking at was a lot more critical and political than they'd bargained for. They had been encouraged to look without self-awareness or shame through decades of all the wrong messages from mass media and advertising but now they could see themselves reflected in these brittle, glass-like surfaces, too-vividly-tinted mirrors held up to their prurience and smug assumptions.
Two later series played on this further. Dangerous Career Babes was an unsubtle throw-down to the post-feminist Noughties, taking hyper-mediated, hyper-productised, power-dressing, but ultimately play-acting 'independent' women to task for the shallow depth of commitment to their own progress. The Big Pin-Ups that followed a year or so later were my last gasp of frustration: portraits conceived at a remove from their subjects, who were all idealised, larger-than-life-sized, slightly-too-obtainable playthings, smooth-skinned, sexually pliant, and pretty vacant.
For years, I kept my work impersonal, even if it included my own image: the art as product, devoid of meaning, available to any (or no) interpretation. But now I have grown up. No longer a teenager or an angsty twenty-something, I care less about how identity can be 'coerced' by media and advertising (maybe I know, too well, who and why I am). I like ambiguity but I've grown out of saccahrine prettiness, even when its suffused with irony.
I am not abandoning my hard-edged painting style – even if I am, increasingly, doing other things in other media. I still like its crispness and craftsmanship. But I want it to change as radically as I have changed in these past several months. I want it to deliver more – from less.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Home Is Where My Art Is (Made)

I returned to work in my enamel studio, today, for the first time in three or four months. I had missed it more than I expected.
I've moved often in my adult life, but since my late teens, a studio has been one of my few constants.
There have been several of them but they've all been set up the same way: aluminium trestles, industrial metal shelving, heavy canvas drop sheets, house painter's brushes. And frames, lots of frames.
No matter the location – whether it's underneath a house or in an industrial facility – they've always looked similar. They've also
smelled similar. Most of the time, it's the sickly sweet, acrid reek of enamel fumes but once that's dissipated, there's the pleasant, almost rural whiff of canvas and cedar.
It doesn't take long to slip back into routines I've been practising for more than two-thirds of my life: sanding surfaces with fine paper; wiping with a tack cloth to pick up the dust; mixing paint, then applying it in long even strokes; washing brushes and re-shaping the wet bristles so they dry as if new. They're more familiar to me than sex.
I've adjusted my weekly schedule so that I spend four days painting in enamel, then three days working away from the fumes. This more reasonable level of exposure means I can continue using the medium while remaining well. I'm still finishing a number of commissions, which will take me until the end of this year.
A handful of portrait commissions renewed my interest in enamel after I'd decided to give it up completely, a couple of years ago. Maybe, just maybe, I'll continue with it once these works have been delivered.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Girl, Working

One of my study paintings is to be sold at Lawson Menzies Quarterly Fine Art Auction in Sydney on Thursday, 16th August, at 6:30pm. Titled Study for Saint Shaniqua of Compton, the 59.6cm x 49.5cm image is in gouache on 100 per cent cotton paper. The pre-sale estimate is $A2,000 to $A3,000.
Study for Saint Shaniqua of Compton
is one of a small number of similar works I painted in Thailand, in 2008, during a period I had a studio in the heart of the seaside capitol of sex tourism, Pattaya. I abandoned the series but kept the studies for reference purposes. The only reason this one found its way into the secondary market was because I was bankrupted and the Insolvency Trust auctioned all my studies and sketches to pay creditors.
Seeing this painting again after a few years, I can see how the ideas within it evolved to become the
Big Pin-Up series . However, it's raw and unrefined and if it had not been seized, I might have destroyed it. I'm glad I didn't get the chance. It's fun, sexy, and offers a glimpse into my creative process at the time.
Study for Saint Shaniqua of Compton can be viewed at Menzies Gallery, 12 Todman Avenue Kensington, NSW, Tel: 02 8344 5404, from Thursday 9th to Thursday 16th August, 10.00am to 5.30pm daily.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Seven Year Bitch

I've been out of the traditional gallery system for seven years now. However, I've still sold a small percentage of my output to – but not through – a handful of established art dealers. Sometimes they've bought for their own collections. Most times, they've bought to resell.
My feelings about this are mixed. I like money as much as the next person but too many art dealers I know are inclined to undervalue their relationships with – and over-estimate their importance to – the artists they represent. So I've always dealt with them at arms length: when they called me, I accepted that, unlike collectors, they weren't really interested in what I was doing. They were all about what they could make off me. I was careful not to step into their bear traps or to provide them with too much fodder for gossip. I took as much of their money off them as I could.
I looked on it as an uneasy truce.
And then I got a call from an art dealer right after I'd posted a blog entry about being admitted to a private psychiatric clinic. He wasn't calling to tell me to get well soon. He just wanted to cut a deal.
"Would you be interested in doing an edition of prints of your early work?"
He had approached me with this proposition before. It was not his idea, he said, but an anonymous business partner's. Together, they'd produce cheap giclée prints in large editions of all my early work. I'd be paid a small fee in exchange for the high resolution print-files and my time signing all the prints. He refused to tell me how they intended to market the prints. As he saw it, it wasn't my concern.
I refused: "You've asked me this before and I said no. Nothing's changed."
"I just thought you might have changed your mind," he said.
It was only much later, I realised that the dealer had just read that I was in a psych' ward. He'd figured he'd try on this rancid, fast buck' idea again in the hope I'd commit to it while I was out of my mind.
I should have seen it at the time. Whenever I've been ill or down or my luck, an art dealer has always appeared, as magically as a twisted fairy godmother, and tried to take advantage of the situation. Not long after I was first diagnosed with bipolar, I was offered a contract for long-term representation that would have made everyone except me a fast buck, while screwing my reputation and the collectors who supported me. You can read about it here. I've always said no to these kinds of deals. It's part of why my career has lasted this long. But I admit I have let such people continue to scavenge at the perimeter of my 'business'.
Not anymore. Maybe it's my new-found sanity. Maybe it's a renewed care for my self and my art. But I am not taking calls from fuckwits like this ever again. I will save my energy – and limited resources of good grace – for the serious collectors who value my art (and me) beyond their estimate of its investment value.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

I unpacked a portrait of myself today. It's a painting by an American artist named Phoinix. He created the work for the Dreaming Hazel Dooney group exhibition in Victoria, last year. I've hung it on the wall of my office.
I don't know Phoinix well. We've never met, never spoke spoken in person. We've only connected online, and even then, not often or in great depth. And yet, in this portrait, he has unquestionably located a hidden me, and re-interpreted it within the context of a simple tattoo of I have on the inside of my left arm. It's a text, written in Latin: the translation reads, In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies on her own wings.
Looking at Phoinix's portrait makes my skin itch. It's like catching a glimpse of my reflection unexpectedly. It reveals more about who I am than I'm comfortable with.
As Phoinix sees it, I've painted myself into existence. It's a bold thing to assert about someone you don't know well – that they've completely invented themselves. The pack of wolves of my imagination have become, in his, a lone wolf with my face, a metaphor for an outsider. In the central figure, the eye colours are exact. So are their shapes, right down to one being slightly more open than the other. The bones of my face are accurate in ways that I at once like and dislike. The halo recalls those used in old religious icons and my own early paintings.
Phoinix titled the work, Icon. Having painted me as someone – something – brashly self-created, he suggests that all icons are self-made (even if part of the deal is to behave as though it's a recognition bestowed by others).
I relish the immodesty of hanging this painting in my office. I stare at it often, curiously studying how a stranger sees me. Inevitably, the parts that make me want to look away are the same that make me want to look again and again. They are the parts that reveal something about me despite myself.
Joan Didion once wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live". Our stories are fabrications about ourselves, based on who we want to be, rather than who we are. Phoinix's portrait is an antidote to these. Created without any direct contact with me, no sitting, no conversation, it is an external view, uninflected by the stories I tell myself and others. It is a picture of the self that I haven't been able to dress up or conceal.
I realise, all of a sudden, that a portrait is an opportunity to be confronted by the reality of oneself. In viewing it, the reality can be studied and over time, accepted. Which is to say, some truth can enter the fiction we tell of ourselves.