Oil on linen
140 x 160 cm
How did growing up on a farm shape your subject matter and the way you paint?
Our family’s fruit farm is in Galston, about an hour north west of Sydney. The landscape motivated me to make imagery: not just site-specific landscapes, but also objects such as tractors, roosters and flowers that were representative of the landscape.
The farm has had a huge affect on how I paint because of the rigorous physicality of life there. We all grew up helping out on the farm – getting up before sunrise, picking fruit, performing the daily tasks – and I think that I’ve been inspired by the tactility of that environment as well as the tactility of things on the farm. All the textures and the colours that exist not only within the natural seasons of the farm, but also the things that are affected by those cycles and seasons have been really important: machinery that’s had its day; tractors left to rust in the environment, re-forming into something else… they become representative of years of labour, but also years of environmental change. So colour, form, texture – all come out of that environment.
Even the breaks that you have when you’re on a farm, the tea breaks; they’re time to contemplate. It’s always been a place of contemplation for me. When I drive through the gates, I’ve always got a sketchbook and pencil in hand. I’ll walk around for hours discovering new things, or old things with fresh eyes: flowers might be blossoming, fruit ripening, I might discover a newly abandoned machine – those things are invaluable to an artist’s practice, and highly stimulating to the senses.
What led you to first paint roosters in the early 2000s?
When I lived in Thailand, roosters were part of a rural conditioning I saw there. A lot of the men weren’t heavily involved in the actual farming practice – the women performed a lot of the hard labour, the men spent lots of time breeding cockerels for fighting.
There was something really quite humanistic about the cockerels; I was drawn to them. I returned to Australia with lots of sketches. Then I started observing more closely the roosters back on our farm and on a friend’s farm and I was kind of fascinated by the way they strutted around and watched over everything, and were puffed up by their self-importance; but they were also glorious and nurturing as well. There was a certain regalness to their stance.
You often talk of your roosters and tractors being a play on traditional portraiture.
Yeah, both have characteristics which are representative of humans.
Some of the roosters are representative of people I know; sometimes they’re named after musicians, family members or friends.
The tractors have their machine-y qualities but they are also personable – some look like tired tractors, some look gallant, some just make me smile with their cheeky human-like characteristics – headlights posing as eyes and grills looking like mouths. They remind me of human characters who worked on the farm. I titled the early ones after my Dad’s brothers, and after my grandfather – Popsicle.
The interesting point of entry to the tractors was my grandmother gifting my father a set of ceramic tractors and him letting me borrow them to work from and me feeling this kind of energy flow from these very beautiful objects. The toy tractors triggered a sentiment that became the catalyst for a new body of work.
Why do you keep returning to roosters and tractors as a subject matter?
I’ve always come back to them because it’s like coming home. Over the last 10 years I’ve done a lot of travelling, and have been fortunate to enjoy a number of art residencies overseas. Even during those residencies I have found myself gravitating towards rural life – riding out to the country in Thailand on my motorbike; or in the Greek Islands, going up into the mountains and passing all the roosters on the side of the road.
I just seem to gravitate to these subjects; I feel a strong connection with them. Even in America in a small country town on the way to the Grand Canyon, on the fourth of July, I came across these big tractors at a tractor meet. They were there in their glory, with the tractor owners standing proudly next to them.
These paintings and their subjects are always being reinvented, there’s always a new rooster with a new character, or a different make or body type of tractor. They’re not always directly from my farm or my upbringing any more, but it’s a subject matter that’s very close to my heart.
Explain why you’ve titled this exhibition The Heartland.
This exhibition is made up of subject matter close to my heart; the subjects have come from my rural umbilical cord, so I felt The Heartland was a fitting title.
What is your usual process, painting a new show?
I generally start by deciding on a subject that will form the basis of a body of works. For example, if I decide it’s going to be a landscape show, I’ll seek out the location. Usually my routine would be: in the morning I go out into the environment, draw the subject in the state it’s in, come back into the studio, start assessing the drawings, maybe meditate on that a bit in terms of where to start.
Depending on the subject, I might begin with a whole group of canvases of various sizes, which allows me to launch straight into the painting process with all the reference points there in front of me – the drawings, the photos. If I’m not feeling the right energy and want to work out some ideas, I’ll start with a small work. Otherwise, I plunge straight into a large canvas.
The preparation and mixing of the paint is a very important part of my practice. I mix up coloured paint piles on a large table, usually a discarded door. The consistency of the paint is very important to me. My partner has likened it to a baker preparing his icing ready to ice cakes. This is my meditation time, I am subconsciously preparing for the attack on the blank canvas.
I tend to have a slow warm-up, and then it builds into a crescendo. That’s when you let go and just do it. In a lot of the paintings I obviously use quite a lot of paint so there’s a combination of laying down coloured grounds, mixing huge quantities of paint and applying it with palette knives, brushes or often cake-icing knives – pretty much anything I can get my hands on.
It’s a layered approach: I might paint quickly, and then I might scrape it off and the next day I start again, which leaves a pentimento of the previous day’s work and you just kind of build it that way.
How do you arrive at abstraction?
It’s certainly not intentional; it’s something I’ve learned to accept as part of my process, a beautiful part of my process. The way I work – where paint and materials interact with each other on the surface – I don’t have control over the level of abstraction. I’m fascinated by it, more than anything, and I don’t really want to control it. Accidents happen; the challenge is then to decide whether they’re good or bad accidents: which ones to keep, and which ones I have to let go.
Have you always used thick paint?
I never really experienced paint when I was young. I loved drawing – from scribbles to more refined drawings. After school I studied horticulture and landscaping, working mainly in the construction side of it – concreting and using wet materials; and then on the farm I was always doing something that had texture to it.
So when I had my first opportunity to paint at The National Art School in first year, it was so instinctive to squeeze out a lot of paint. I remember looking around the class thinking, why isn’t everyone doing this? Isn’t this what you do? My lecturer at the time came up and said, one thing’s for sure, you’re going to be a painter! And I asked: how do you know that? He replied: I just know from the way you’ve approached this.
I sent myself broke all through uni, but all I wanted to do was buy more paint. All the painters that I was attracted to used lots of paint: Willem De Kooning, Philip Guston and Frank Auerbach. On the one hand, it seemed a very masculine thing to do – the big bravado of paint; but it was the sensuality, the sensitivity of the material itself that I was deeply attracted to – its fleshy qualities, with colours melting and moulding into each other. And the more I was seduced by the material, the more I wanted to use it and sculpt it onto a canvas.
How do music and poetry find their way into your art?
With the roosters in particular, I often title them after musicians that I admire. I grew up on the farm listening to artists such as Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin, and their lyrics made sense to me. I think it was the loneliness that I responded to.
When musicians talk about their lonely place, or even when musicians or poets like Pablo Neruda talk about finding love in life or finding love in nature, to me that makes sense: they’re all searching for something. Through language or through music or through image-making, they find a connection with the world.
Pablo Neruda is now influencing my work because the more I read about the way he saw the world, or his love of the landscape, it stimulates me to want to paint. And I start thinking about the beautiful things that exist in this world. And the beautiful reasons to paint something, to make an artwork.
And whether or not a rooster is perceived by someone else to be a beautiful animal, to me it is. It’s regal, it’s handsome, it’s got all the characteristics of something worth painting, beautifying; I love the shape of their red floppy combs and wattles.
Are you one of those lonely artists trying to find ways to connect to the world?
I’m like a lot of artists: I can lose my faith, I can sometimes feel I am losing the fabric of who I am. Johnny Cash lost his way too, but he went back to the land, to the people who nurtured him and he came through as a stronger person and as a person more connected to the world. And he found his own religion, expressing a religion through words and the environment that meant something to him. That’s what I find when I’m working.
I’ve seen hardship and I’ve also seen people work their way out of it and that’s what I sometimes feel I’m doing in the studio – working my way out of tough spots in my own head, and in my life.
What would you like a viewer to take away from your work? What’s important to you?
More and more I think my language is about my environment; it’s about things that exist in my environment; it’s about representing a personal iconography. There’s a certain humour in the way that I work these days, for example: approaching a portrait of a rooster using the beautiful, traditional format of a 17th century portrait.
I like the fact that people might sense the humour and they might be seduced by the paint as well. But I don’t set out to deliberately direct my audience.
I start making a work about something because I’m just generally fascinated and stimulated: it might be a rose that I’ve seen growing or it might simply be the way shadows fall under trees at different times of the year. The stimulation starts at the drawing stage – making line drawings in pencil, and I find the rhythm of the drawings relates to the rhythm of life and it becomes this thing that you see, that can translate into paint.
To me, in many ways, art is representative of where I’m at – sometimes you make scratchy work because you’re in a scratchy place. It’s a good gauge for me to know where I’m at as a person and it’s actually about being true to myself. I don’t think I’ve ever swayed away from making art – be it in difficult times or pleasurable times – they’re equally valid. It’s just something that I feel I have to instinctively do.
Where do you hope to see your art heading?
A gallery director once asked me what I ultimately want to achieve out of art. And I replied that I’d love to be able to sustain my own practice. It’s really important, because I come from a farming background, and if I could paint every day, if I could work fulltime like I did in horticulture and on the farm, and be able to sustain it, I’d be very happy. Fortunately for me, I have been able to do that for some time now.
I would one day love to see my work hanging in the Metropolitan Museum – isn’t that every artist’s dream?
What is the ultimate compliment for you as an artist?
I’ve had the experience of overhearing people’s comments at exhibitions, and even had some people come up and express how they felt. Someone once said my painting is like eye candy, they wanted to lick it; someone described it as “seducing”. One lady was saying how she felt it was uplifting and intoxicating to walk into a show with images using so much paint and so full of great energy.
Because I’m often in the lonely pursuit of making work, when I get out there and talk to people, it reminds me that we all want to be made to feel alive. When someone decides to acquire a work because every single day they’re going to look at that to make them feel alive, that’s pretty exciting. It makes me think: that’s why I do it. It’s the best reminder of the power of paint and painting.
When I make work, it makes me feel present; it makes me feel intoxicated by all the things that exist in the world, whether they’re bad things or good things.
When I’m painting something, and it’s working, I feel connected to this world.