Melbourne-based painter Gavin Brown invited Cult into his vivid St Kilda studio, and gave us an insight into his creative process, colourful history, and the vagaries of the art community.
Doing it like J Words: Michael Magnusson Images: Mia Mala McDonald
50 CULT September 2012
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he work of Melbourne-based artist Gavin Brown is constantly evolving, be that in technique, mood or vision. Long a commentator on popular culture and its excesses, he uses advertising and media as source material to create the compelling collages that form the basis of his artistic output. His pieces are glimpses into private worlds, and a striking statement about the beauty and ugliness inherent in contemporary culture. Brown, who has been called the love child of Paul Gauguin and Frida Kahlo, works in a selfcontained studio, one of many occupied by artists in a sprawling warehouse over a motor shop in St Kilda. Such setups are getting rarer and rarer, especially in suburbs like St Kilda where properties like this usually get soulless apartment makeovers. Leaving the grey concrete behind, on entering Brown’s space you are greeted by a massive canvas depicting an alabaster-skinned woman against a peacock blue background peering over her shoulder – Girl with A Pearl Earring style – at you. The room is alive with colour and pungent with the smell of oil painting mediums, linseed oil and turpentine. Every inch of one wall is covered in paintings of flowers with half hidden faces, birds or jewels. Below them, more canvases lean one against the other to nearly the middle of the room. At the front is Brown’s recent work inspired by Melbourne graffiti art. “This end,” he said, indicating the area by the window where the painting of the white-faced woman stands on an easel, “is the doing part.” The other side, where the wall swarms with magazine cut-outs, “is the creative side.” Over two metres high and six metres long, the massive collage resembles the walls of Joe Orton’s flat in 1960s London, where he was murdered by his lover and that was recreated in the movie Prick Up Your Ears. “I got obsessed with that movie and had my house done once with collage like Joe Orton’s. Down the end is storage for the collage and that’s already building up. There were drawers and drawers of them, things like arms and legs and faces I collect and put in the drawers. I vaguely know where everything is but sometimes it can take a couple of days to find something.”
ON THE CHANGING FACE OF ST KILDA “Down around St Kilda it’s hard to find these sorts of art spaces. It may have been a bohemian area but the other side of town is a bit more bohemian now, I suppose. St Kilda has changed dramatically; there are prostitutes working out the front door. September 2012 CULT 51
And I don’t like the current evolution. The backpacker one. The last space I was in for eight years and was more like Francis Bacon’s studio (famously messy, where some areas were knee deep in paint tubes and painting rags discarded by Bacon). I don’t deliberately set out to have colour all around. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s just something that happens. But I’m not frightened of it.” ART IN THE BLOOD “My mother was an art teacher and my father was a commercial printer and painter. I was born an artist. Art was always second nature to me and what I was always going to do. I remember being asked what I wanted to do when I grew up; I said I wanted to be an artist. No one understood and said ‘what, like work in the National Gallery restoring paintings?’ ‘No, I’m going to paint my own.’ I went to art school at RMIT. I thought that I was going from Frankston into this fabulous world. I thought that it would be creative and encouraging and all that. I thought ‘I'd better make it interesting because it isn’t’. It seems such a long time ago and I was probably not as focussed as I should have been because there was too much happening in the world. There was a big world out there but it wasn’t at art school. There were no great mentors that have followed me through until now. I like individual teachers. There was one, Andrew Sibley, who was really inspiring as an artist and encouraging me to see outside the box. At art school I just refined my skill. Mainly it was just exercises to see what you were capable of, but if you were painting bottles for a still life exercise, he would encourage me to see beyond the bottle. Which was a problem at RMIT because I was always drunk. I used to joke that I wasn’t always too good on a Tuesday morning at art school because I was at Inflation (the famous King Street nightclub) on the Monday night.” 52 CULT September 2012
“I got obsessed with Prick Up Your Ears and had my house done with collage like Joe Orton’s.”
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CLUB KIDS AND LEIGH BOWERY Situated in the heart of the city RMIT had a reputation in the 1980s as being the best arts school in Melbourne. Clubs like Inflation were attracting people like Brown and fellow fashion designer and later doyen of the London club scene, Leigh Bowery. “I knew Leigh Bowery only in the club scene. It was that passing moment just before he went to London, but I had lots of friends in London who knew him too. At RMIT, the textile department was right next door to the printing department so I just started printing my artwork directly onto fabric. One thing lead to another and I started chopping it up to make clothes and wearing them to the clubs. Last year, the Men’s Style exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria had a collection of my work. They have a whole collection now of my textiles and clothing from that era. I was a regular at all the clubs and was offered work at one, Seventh Heaven, which ended up being mine. I didn’t start Seventh Heaven but I certainly put my mark on it. And I just saw that as an extension of my art. Everything I do, like the fashion I did, or the clubs or performing, was always with that art intent. Like all things, that had its time and place and I wanted to take my painting more seriously so I had to separate myself from that world.” A FULL-TIME GIG “It was probably not until the early 1990s that I really got stuck into my art. I don’t feel creative every day but it’s a full time job. I get here before nine and finish around five.
I treat it as my job. I have to be here producing something. The show before was just on flowers and trying to make them energetic and vibrant. That lead to this new work. I wanted to do something more urban and used the graffiti around Melbourne as a backdrop for my figurative work. What I find fascinating is the layering on walls where some artist has painted something but then someone has stuck something over it and then someone else and then its weathered and there is that texture. Painting it as an oil painting and turning it into something else is interesting. I’m not a graffiti artist; it’s just that I love that it’s the environment we’re living in. That’s part of our urban existence; you can’t ignore it. I recently went to New York to see what the graffiti was like there and I couldn’t find any. It’s all been cleaned up there. You can find it, but it's right in the middle of the city here in Melbourne.” TECHNIQUE BEHIND THE WORK “A larger painting can take up to three weeks. And once I’ve laid it out, the bit I’m working on will be finished on that day – I don’t come back and work on it the next day. So sometimes I have to go back and paint a face two or three times. I don’t like fiddling with it. The paint stroke has got to be immediate and have some freshness and vitality to it otherwise it can get muddy. I like to leave the actual stroke – the artist’s mark – and that’s a big thing for me. You see a lot of work that is quite refined but I like to see that actual mark. I like to paint fast although I’ve gotten a little more refined, the brushes have gotten smaller, and there is more glazing than before. Sometimes I use models but I mainly use images that I find and can paint them to appear to have depth. Being able to paint from a photo and give it depth is my skill. And when I work like that I throw compositions together and come up with things I wouldn’t have thought of. I keep trying to steer away from doing this but it keeps coming back that this is a great way of working. I’m my own critic. I’m always striving to be a September 2012 CULT 53
< HABITAT > THE INSPIRATION FILES Classical Music “When I paint, I listen to classical music. I find that anything else is jarring. When you are trying to create you are in a zone that tunes everyone out. Every now and again that just happens automatically and that’s when my great work happens.” Paint “I love paint. The palettes build up with paint until I have to replace them. I had a beautiful one that looked like a coral reef. Someone loved it so much I gave it to him. ‘You have to get me another palette though.’ I told him. They get so heavy too. This one is just starting. If you come back in a couple of years, you’ll see mountains of paint.”
better painter. When work goes out of my life it doesn’t worry me because I’m only interested in the next painting. It’s great being in a studio environment and having other artists to bounce off. Funnily enough, my mother still comes up to this day and, because she’s an art teacher, says things like ‘you know that hand’s wrong?’ I pretend she’s wrong but when she leaves, I fix it. She’s a great critic.” THE TROUBLE WITH GALLERIES “Their job is to sell work. My job is to produce work. I represent myself. I feel that if I have a gallery I have the same amount of work as if I represent myself, but they don’t take the percentage from sales. I find the gallery system here quite frustrating. And you’ve got to play the game too. Where is this school they’ve gone to that teaches them to open a gallery? Or is it just a shop? But I think it’s about having a great relationship with a gallery or dealer, and then I’d be right up for it. But personally I haven’t had that and they don’t know what box to put me into. There are a lot of trends in art but this is my journey. You see a lot people doing a lot of similar things but you have just got to be unique. I’m not interested in creating art around issues. I’m not interested 54 CULT September 2012
in the essay – just doing the work. When I see the essay at an exhibition my eyes roll back and I think it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. There’s not a right or wrong reason; it’s all art but I like that people can look at my work and get something out of it. That’s not the go now. You have to read the essay to understand it. I try to have a feeling of the moment so if I saw something painted that disturbed me, I think by the time it was in the gallery that moment might have passed.”
Magazines and Pop Culture “What I’ve been using for a long time and always keeps re-appearing is my work with collage and mass media. We are bombarded by imagery and I use this in my practice. I’ve always cut up magazines and used that as a source. So if I’m stuck, I’ll just play around with collage and things will fall together. It might inspire a whole section of work.”
Older Painters “Lucian Freud. He worked for months and months on a painting but always kept the paint strokes fresh. He’s a painter’s painter. How can you go past those fabulous paint strokes? I’m into older painters at the moment and have been looking at El Greco. I don’t think he was ‘ahead of his time’, but I just think that everyone else just needs to catch up. He was such a modern painter; his work just didn’t look like what was happening around the same time.”