Sydney Ball Seth Birchall Kanchana Gupta Julia Gutman Gregory Hodge Sam Leach eX de Medici Darren Sylvester
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Sullivan+Strumpf acknowledge the Gadigal people of FRONT COVER: eX de Medici I Can’t Breathe (detail), 2021 watercolour on paper 114 * 124 cm. Photo: Rob Little
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FREE / STATE 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art 4 March – 5 June 2022 Art Gallery of South Australia / agsa.sa.gov.au Principal Donor
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Presented in association with the Adelaide Festival, and with generous support received from the Art Gallery of South Australia Biennial Ambassadors Program and Principal Donor The Balnaves Foundation. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body and by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.
Resilience Ursula Sullivan+Joanna Strumpf
Regardless of the potential dangers and unsavoury consequences that may come with living life to its utmost, like moths to a flame, we persevere. To quote from our interview with the newly appointed Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Suzanne Cotter, ‘Addressing challenges are an everyday part of every museum director’s work’. Similarly, natural and urban worlds endure in even more extraordinary ways, as demonstrated by a suite of arresting new exhibitions explored in this issue. From the intricate hybrid creatures of eX de Medici’s Double Double Crossed to the new realities of Machine Learning explored by Sam Leach, here we see artists united by their ability to adapt and, in their unflinching curiosity, to reimagine the nuances of their varied subjects. We hope this issue will stir, delight and inspire—resilience at its best. Urs & Jo
Sam Leach, Flying Drapery AI Composed Landscape, 2021 oil on linen 50 x 50cm
Seth Birchall: These Loquacious Edges
Kanchana Gupta: Beyond the Limits of Matter and Technique
Sydney Ball: True Colours
eX de Medici: Double Double Crossed
Gregory Hodge: A Stitch in Time
Sam Leach: The Machine and Me
In the studio: Julia Gutman
Darren Sylvester: Set My Soul Free
Last Word: Suzanne Cotter
Quick Curate: Resilience
Seth Birchall: These Loquacious Edges Immersed in nature, writer and friend, Nathan Hawkes ponders the primal intensity and uncanny familiarity of Seth Birchall’s evocative work. By Nathan Hawkes
Exhibition: Seth Birchall, The Garden is Watered, April 28 - May 14, 2022
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Seth Birchall Fortunes Can Change, 2022 oil on canvas 152.5cm x 121.5 cm Photo: Leyla Stevens
Recently I was lolling on the balcony of a small complex of composting toilets in a national park waiting for my son to finish in the bathroom. While I was waiting and looking out through the trees at the moon nearing fullness I wondered ‘why do I see Seth’s paintings so often when I’m immersed in nature’? I’ve stood there in the dawn light too and in the midday sun. It’s a beautiful structure set amongst a rich array of foliage, drifting gossamer spider webs and the humid surging thrum of insects; a whip snake navigating leaf litter, the drone of the ocean and the perforated horizon line. I caught my mind happily oscillating between what was before me and the veiled overlay of paintings I had seen for years in Seth’s studio. ‘What are you putting in these? Retinal glue?!’ is a terrible, terrible joke I’ve been meaning to crack out on studio visits but thankfully seem to always forget. But I stand by the basis of the joke—they stick. Incidentally this national park oscillatory experience wasn’t a one off.
Seth ushers trees right to the front. They press themselves up against the surface of the canvas and stand in streaming verticalities or gnarly webs of interlaced limbs but almost always between us and a billowing light cascading down upon lacustrine landscapes. I am inclined to agree with Daegan Miller when he says that ‘we turn to trees when we are lost’. Similarly I am in agreeance with the ‘Greeks’ in Roland Barthes’ note that ‘according to the Greeks trees are alphabets’. These paintings are an orientating experience, not only do the trees in them provide the artist with a formal structure for painterly experimentation, they evoke times spent immersed in a deep and varied signary where happiness arises from the transitory cloudscape or the evanescent relay of bird calls. Times when our cerebral screen-lit world is deferred and things begin to make sensuous sense. We recalibrate to our less frantic, some might say ‘better’ selves. There is a line of the late dance critic Edwin Denby’s that strikes like an arrow deep into the trunk of a Birchall tree: ‘Art takes what is an accidental pleasure and tries to repeat and prolong it. It organises, diversifies, characterises’. Many of Seth’s paintings have their genesis in a cumulative reservoir of pleasurable times spent in nature and the task of producing a painting is instigated by the subsequent desire to recall, build and convey these pleasures and an essentially ebullient, relaxed atmosphere. The studio too is abounding with accidental painterly pleasures; surprising chromatic ones, formal, gestural and tonal advances that one attempts to repeat, refine and variegate. Seth is what could be regarded as a studio painter. What you see on the stretched polyester hasn’t been painted en plein air, before the subject, amidst the drone of mosquitoes under the trumpeting sun but rather under the barely resonant thrum of fluorescent tube lighting. This geographic dislocation provides the requisite conditions for the specifics of the place to dilate and for the residual atmosphere to rise up and take precedence. And whilst blissful moments in nature and their concomitant emotions and atmospheres may be the impetus for beginning the work, once it is underway the initiative must be ceded to paint and its intrinsic qualities as well as its raw openness to experimentation. For the painter, incremental painterly victories and innovations are exhilarating, they are the enticing flares amidst the labour-intensive periods of rigorous persistence and attention.
But let’s sit before the finished work. The wooded aperture through which we look is a translucent orchestra of hypervariegation, languid linearity and the hustle of scrubby paint. The intersecting branches of the gnarly trees frame the high-key gauzy tumult of sky, dividing it into unique turbulent cells. Light is a palpable presence. It is as if in the words of Virginia Woolf ‘the air were full of ridges and ripples and roughnesses’. Every window from the woods has its own unique mouthful of sulphuric yellow and lilac blue. It’s an uncannily comfortable place this; specific and general at once. There’s a notable primal intensity but at a mellow clip. Light snakes along tree limbs as the hazy beams penetrate the thicket. Eden is back and this time everyone is welcome. Hospitality is a quality some artists naturally suffuse their works with, likely an extension of their character and Seth is a prime example; even the titles have dad-joke reverberations that make you smile and put you at ease. One title that comes to mind from 2020 ‘wait, that looks quite beautiful’ has the unassuming gentleness of a couple looking for a place to pull over the car, or just as likely Seth making a mental note during the process of painting. When I come to them brimming with worldly concern they are a seat by a window. But I wonder too if this making comfortable isn’t partly a decoy ensuring the agitation and splendid shock of the paint can awaken us even more brightly. In his Arcade Projects Walter Benjamin lamented that we ‘have grown very poor in threshold experiences. Falling asleep is perhaps the only such experience that remains to us (but together with this, there is also waking up)’. In my view these are threshold paintings. From the location and its metaphoric implications to the preference for liminal times of day; the very paint itself is a mounting ferment of activity. The light wheeches around the canvas like wind whipping up the surface of a lake; it beckons breathlessly to us and yet somehow the atmosphere is one of suspension and repose. This is a pretty humid coupling. I want to leap into the sky! But wait, those loquacious edges! Light scouring at the margins of leaf and limb produces complex painterly eddies that adjourn our passage from one space, from one bough, one frond to the next, slowing us ri(iiiii)ght down and causing us to pay attention and to take pleasure in the between. Amid the escalating urgencies of our present day in which we race towards everything and nowhere, where high-contrast is preferred to nuance and our daily lives are ruptured regularly by an awareness of our devastating impact upon the planet, works of art are being made and they are invariably imprinted with the DNA of their time; these paintings are no exception. Many of us shoulder a lingering sense of grief or negotiate a nagging despair whilst answering emails , updating social media , doing the school run , the grocery shopping and work . Gah!
How can we wake up? Trees.
Seth Birchall River Composition III (detail), 2022 oil on canvas 152.5cm x 121.5 cm Photo: Leyla Stevens
Seth Birchall The Garden Is Watered (detail), 2022 oil on canvas 152.5cm x 122 cm Photo: Leyla Stevens
Kanchana Gupta: Beyond the Limits of Matter and Technique Kanchana Gupta approaches her artistic practice as she does her corporate career. Whether she’s collaborating with film crews for her video works or industrial painters and steel fabricators to produce ‘paintings’ of everyday tarpaulins, her work is always grounded in conceptual thinking and collaborative processes.
By Lourdes Abela Samson
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Kanchana Gupta pictured in her Singapore studio, 2021. Photo: Shawn Wu
Kanchana Gupta brings into her artistic practice an emphasis on hard work and collaboration that draws from her experience of working as a human resource leader in multinational companies. This disciplined approach, which has enabled her to successfully navigate between the demands of corporate life and her creative pursuits, finds expression in her willingness to take on the physical and technical demands of her painting practice, while concurrently working on the production of a new series of video works. During the first two months of 2022, the India-born and Singapore-based multidisciplinary artist impressively opened two well-received shows, presenting her tarpaulin-inspired paintings at Folded, Pierced, Stretched at Gillman Barracks in January during Singapore Art Week, and her triptych of video works at the two-woman show, While She Quivers, with Dr. Yanyun Chen at the Objectifs Centre for Film and Photography a month later. In Folded, Pierced, Stretched, her second solo show with Sullivan+Strumpf in Singapore, Gupta takes on the aesthetic and symbolic language embedded in the industrial material, tarpaulin. Used widely in construction sites, tarpaulin’s ubiquitous presence in urban landscapes is often associated with notions of temporariness, disposability, and migrant labour. In recontextualising tarpaulin paintings within a gallery space, Gupta consciously challenges the value, materiality, and ‘low culture’ associated with this plastic fabric and subtly alludes to the sensitive social issue of migration and the plight of migrant workers in Singapore. ‘By appropriating a material considered as trash and from the fringe and presenting it in a white cube space’, she explains, ‘I attempt to ask questions about the hierarchy of artistic materials and representation’.1 As in her previous series of paintings in Traces and Residues, Singapore, 2017, and 458.32 Square Meters, Singapore, 2019, Gupta’s trademark process of creating layered paintings out of textured oil paint skins forms the foundation, on which this current series is developed. Consisting of about 50 layers of stacked oil skins, this painting base is first strengthened with a canvas support. To achieve an almost perfect representation of tarpaulin,
Gupta collaborated closely with several industrial partners, including a local printer that screen printed the familiar grid pattern and colours of tarpaulin onto the base of oil paint skins, a tarpaulin shop that hemmed the edges and added the metal eyelets, a steel factory that custom-designed the metal frames, and migrant workers who stretched and hung the works onto the frames with steel suspension cables. While they closely resemble the industrial material of tarpaulin, these paintings which were created through laborious and collaborative artistic processes, subvert the very material that they mimic by embodying notions of labour, materiality and value on the opposite side of the spectrum.
“Gupta strives to take her art beyond the limits of matter and technique: in order to engage critically with meaning, she processes reality and supersedes it” — Savita Apte
Approaching her video practice with the same attitude, Gupta collaborated with film crews in India and Singapore to develop her video series, Production of Desire. Her current presentation at the Chapel Gallery of Objectifs Centre for Film and Photography focuses on the trope of feminine desirability perpetuated by the Bollywood films of the 1980s and 1990s, to question frameworks of femininity. For Gupta, this was a deeply personal project that became a way for her to unpack how this fantasy image of Indian femininity and desirability may have affected the self-image and self-worth of young women of her generation. ‘My current series of video works dissects the construct of this overtly sexualised presentation of the female body
1. Lourdes Samson, “Material to Metaphor,” Folded Pierced Stretched: Kanchana Gupta, exhibition catalogue (Singapore: Sullivan + Strumpf, 2022), p. 45.
Installation View of Kanchana Gupta, While She Quivers, Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Film, Singapore 2022, featuring Production of Desire, 2021 single channel video installation. Photo: Joseph Nair
and probes the agency and empowerment of cinema’, she says.2 Removed from the original cinematic context by the silence and the openness of the gallery space, the sensual choreography and suggestive settings border on the absurd. Gupta adopts various female personas in these videos, from a coy and submissive virgin to an aging woman or a widow who shaves her head to prevent other men from desiring her, and finally, to a modern heroine who confidently meets the camera’s gaze. Gupta underscores that in these narratives, the performer and the camera are complicit in creating the fantasy of seduction that eventually leads to consummation in a few dance sequences. In her deliberate appropriation of this gendered stereotype, Gupta critically engages with the male gaze behind the lens. While recognising the influence of this gaze and the patriarchy within
this narrative, Gupta ultimately reclaims for the female performer the power and agency to determine the way she is portrayed. Both exhibitions reveal how Gupta’s artistic practice is strongly grounded in conceptual thinking and collaborative processes. By approaching her artistic practice as she does her corporate career, Gupta is able to take risks that allow her to expand her practice further and to find solutions to her artistic challenges. Her versatility as an artist is perhaps best explained by independent researcher and curator Savita Apte: ‘Gupta strives to take her art beyond the limits of matter and technique: in order to engage critically with meaning, she processes reality and supersedes it’.3
2. Kanchana Gupta, “The Production of Desire (2021)” in While She Quivers: Kanchana Gupta and Yanyun Chen exhibition catalogue (Singapore: Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, 2022), p. 8 3. Savita Apte, “Hyperreal Ecstasies,” Folded Pierced Stretched, exhibition catalogue (Singapore: Sullivan + Strumpf, 2022), p. 19.
Exhibition view of Kanchana Gupta FOLDED, PIERCED, STRETCHED Gilman Barracks, Singapore, 2022 Photo: Jing Wei
Kanchana Gupta FOLDED, PIERCED, STRETCHED #002 : Blue White Blue (detail), 2021 Oil paint skins with silk screen printing ,Galvanised steel frame, steel eyelets and suspension cable 182 x 202 cm Photo: Jing Wei
Kanchana Gupta FOLDED, PIERCED, STRETCHED #001 : Blue White Blue (detail), 2021 Oil paint skins with silk screen printing ,Galvanised steel frame, steel eyelets and suspension cable 182 x 202 cm Photo: Jing Wei
Kanchana Gupta FOLDED, PIERCED, STRETCHED, Stacked #001 : Red Blue Red, 2021 Oil paint skins and steel eyelets Photo: Jing Wei
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Sydney Ball: True Colours In 2008, Anne Loxely, then the Curator of Penrith Regional Gallery and the Lewer’s Bequest sat down with Sydney Ball, a pioneer of early Australian Abstraction, to discuss his processes and philosophy. The conversation that followed conextualised the life’s work of one of Australia’s great painters, and is reprinted here in the lead up to his exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney featuring never before seen works on paper and a focus on his highly influential Canto series.
Exhibition: Sydney Ball, Colour and Form: Works on paper from the Estate 1965-2017, May 5 - May 21, 2022
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Sydney Ball Canto XII, 2003 screenprint 77 x 77 cm (framed) Edition of 30 plus 1 artist’s proofs (#10/30)
Sydney Ball Attica Yellow, 2013 watercolour on paper 80 x 120cm
Anne Loxley (AL)/ In your notes for the Ford Foundation Scholarship application (1964) you wrote: ‘It is my intention...to further develop my personal expression and maturity of style. My previous year has been the study of pure colour as a structural and spatial unit, with its own capacity for motion’. How do you feel about that now? Sydney Ball (SB)/ That hasn’t changed over the years, with the exception of moving to a rural area where I wanted to use landscape as the basis for the work. The whole colour field area that I have been concerned with since 1963 has been a summation of those early words. I decided to go to New York and study with Hans Hofmann; I liked his teaching technique and his view that you needed to eliminate the unnecessary and concentrate on the necessary. It wasn’t until getting to New York [in 1963] and seeing solo exhibitions, especially at the Museum of Modern Art, that I wanted to eliminate the peripheral marks and concentrate on the colour itself. AL/ What was important about those first classes at the Art Students League? SB/ I got to New York with a lot of works I had started
in Adelaide and carried on working. A couple of these were like landscapes. They had a horizon line, sky, land, an inflection of a figure, which was broken down into a more abstract shape, and inflections of the field. Every Tuesday night at the League, Theodoros Stamos had a class criticism where students would talk about their work. I’d shown in group shows, never had a solo show and I’d never had criticism, so I lacked confidence to be able to talk about it. I set the works up and Stamos said: ‘Not bad. I like that one, I like parts of that one, I don’t like that one’. He gave me confidence as an artist. He put one of the works on its side and said: ‘It changes the whole nature of the work; it’s no longer a formal landscape, it’s an abstracted painting’. There was this band corning down and the inflection of the field on the side. Just putting it on its side was a total change in what it could be. I thought that was much more interesting. That’s where the Bands developed. AL/ What did Stamos give you besides confidence? SB/ While Stamos was more of an abstract expressionist, he still had strong colour content. He introduced me to a number of other artists who were also involved in abstract
expressionism but who, like Mark Rothko, concentrated on colour, on the finer points of colour exploration, on ideas that could be expressed solely through colour without an image. AL/ When I first read Donald Judd’s review of your first solo exhibition, I thought it was ungenerous, but on reflection ‘fairly abecedarian’ is quite promising.1 SB/ Compared to some of the other critiques in that magazine, I thought it was a very good review. ‘Abecedarian’ means ‘learning the alphabet’. It was quite true; I was learning the alphabet of colour painting with the imagery of the early vertical band paintings. That’s one of the reasons I finished off that series because I needed more out of a painting than it being a reflection of thousands of other younger artists that were working with colour, verticals and horizontals. I wanted a more personal statement. AL/ How did you get from the Bands to the Canto? SB/ One day, I saw this print with an elliptical mount, and I thought that another shape would contain the verticals and make them slightly different. I tried at first with a colour lithograph and the verticals were too suppressed within the ellipse, then I thought of a circle. I was reading Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto’ poems and I saw the series content within that framework. I was also interested, through Stamos’s concern with Japanese and Chinese calligraphy and mark making, in the circle as the symbol of infinity. It gave me the ‘ongoing-ness’ of that series that I stayed with for a number of years. AL/ When the Canto were exhibited here, two words that recurred in the criticism were ‘optical’ and ‘kinetic’.
SB/ Both were wrong. I was after more than the opticality of painting; I needed that sublime quality where you know there’s something else happening within the work, which is not just optical—perhaps like great music where you hear a piece and it comes together so well you know it was perfect, the essence is there. AL/ But your Ford Foundation notes stated your interest in colour’s ‘capacity for motion’.
SB/ I didn’t go out of my way to make an optical painting. Two words that I’ve always thought were of prime importance are ‘what if?’ What if I do this? Back in Australia, I made up about four kinetic boxes, one in plastic, which was painted, and three perspex ones, but because I didn’t have the ability to pay for and investigate glues, I didn’t go on with it. I felt that if I wanted to make a construction it would be a more natural process. And it wouldn’t be kinetic; it would be a three-dimensional placement of an object. AL/ In 1968, on seeing a number of works from your Persian series, John Coburn described ‘a vigorous grandeur that seemed to burst beyond the frame’.2 SB/ In New York I saw artists like Barnett Newman, in whose work the large field wasn’t just contained within the parameters of the rectangle, it expanded out. I still like that expansion attitude. Jackson Pollock had it, and the other great exponent of course was Claude Monet. His Waterlilies just grew; gave you this lovely sense of this pond expanding, this field with beautiful waterlilies. By taking out the horizontal line, that line which made it a landscape, he threw up the background into this magnificent area of paint, so the pond area was very frontal. There was the lovely activity of the hand, but it was flat two-dimensional painting. AL/ What would you say to McCaughey’s observation that the unity of the Modulars was based on ‘incongruence’?3 SB/ Instead of making the natural format of a rectangle or square, I wanted to bring the negative background of the wall in as part of the painting; I wanted the outside space to cut into the painting. It’s what Caro did. He used the negative space as an active field.4 With most of the constructions, I wanted that ground to become an active part of the painting. AL/ Can you talk about the quality of light in colour? SB/ Morris Louis had a much softer light to the colour. It didn’t have the intensity of a Ken Noland, where it was rich saturation of colour. With Helen Frankenthaler the paint saturated through the surface and crystals formed on
1. Donald Judd, ‘New York Exhibitions: In the Galleries’, Arts Magazine, May-June 1964. p. 42. 2. John Coburn. The -60s Look’, The Canberra Times. 4 July 1968. 3. Patrick McCaughey, ‘Sydney Ball and re Sixties’. Art and Australia, vol. 7. no. 4, autumn 1970, p. 337 4. British sculptor Anthony Caro, b. 1924
Sydney Ball Westfold Wall, 1976 screenprint 80 x 120cm, edition 15/25
the back of the canvas, so when she reversed the canvas and used that lovely delicacy as the main painting, that was very informative. I tried it out with the Link paintings actually and it didn’t work, so I kept to the frontal surface, but I used a very rough hessian and tested the process of working with a softer colour. The Link paintings are very much New York colouring. When I realised that I wanted to go from the Link paintings into the Stain paintings, I wanted to work with a much richer field. I was influenced by Ken Noland’s application of strong colour and was interested in using it to its utmost light intensity. Bringing the Stains back to Australia, I had to repaint several of them because they were very much understated once I’d stretched them up in Sydney; they were too soft to hold up. I think that was one of the reasons why I decided to use the spray enamel—I had a lot of the cans of the spray enamel paint left over from the Modulars and I threw those onto the surface to increase the luminosity. AL/ Can you comment on your choice of oil, acrylic and enamel paints, their application and their effect on the surface?
SB/ I initially used oil because that was the way of working at the time; acrylic was in its early days and I didn’t understand what it could give me. Then I saw how acrylic colour could be used, how much more intense the colour was, how much more luminosity it could give, and acrylics became the norm for my work. The Canto and Persians are similar in style, in that they were flat areas of colour. The Modulars were separate images that became one overall painting joined with screws. Then I became more ambitious in the construction and went into glider plywood and enamel finishes which had to be sprayed in car spraying booths to get that lovely shine, so there was a change from the luminosity of one part of the shape to the flatness of another. With the second period of Stain paintings, I decided to make the whole surface opaque by using a very, very dense surface. Monet changed the way he worked in series, the type of mark that he made, whether it was a more open or closed off area. Pollock mostly manipulated paint with sticks and a process of working brushes, but I wanted that whole release in the process of throwing paint, moving it around with the big squeegee on the end of a handle. There was no brush involved, just the throwing of paint onto the surface. The use of the spray enamel gave me those differences I needed. It was the same with the Modulars—[moving from] the spray enamel surface to the matt-ness.
5. In 1976 Ball bought 10 hectares of land at Glenone.
AL/ How did the move into your expressionist phase occur? SB/ Lynne Eastaway, my then partner, and I used to go down to Merimbula for the summer holidays, and we’d go out drawing. There’s a beautiful beach just before Eden in the National Park with cliffs coming right down to the sea edge and I’d do studies of the headlands. It’s always in the back of my mind to continue with a series at some stage, just the headlands. I was getting all this information about the landscape, and I wanted to see what was there for me in the painting process. I thought of Monet and his cliff faces. I wanted to get back to making a mark with a brush, to use those images that were in the land, in the way lizards and other animals would leave marks in the sand. I needed to include the figure. AL/ And then shifting from expressionism back into abstraction? SB/ I became interested in the deconstruction principle: the setting of this square, angled house in the environment is a natural deconstruction situation.5 It’s like the first landing [in Australia]. For the first time the right angle was brought into Australia, and that was the moment of total change. My house in the landscape emphasises the start of the destruction of the Australian landscape, no matter how nice the house is. The series I wanted to do was a background of the organic landscape; the main image rectangle was to do with how tree clumps and sections created shapes. The shape started off small within the context of the ground, and then I tried blowing it up in scale and it worked. I was working in oils, and I wanted more colour in that central shape, so I shifted to acrylics within the rectangle. Then I tried painting the ground in acrylics and it lifted the colour. Gradually I began taking out the organic growth in the ground and got to that stage where I blew up the whole image and it was in acrylics and that set the pace of Structures 1. AL/ What is the origin of the shapes in the recent Structures? SB/ I wanted a shape that nobody else had worked. I chose abstract architecture. Somebody, like Mies van der Rohem all of a sudden says: ‘Why are we covering all that internal steel work with bricks and concrete? Why don’t we get that internal steel work to the outside?’ That thinking expands on itself and other processes need to change. It’s
Sydney Ball Canto XIII screenprint 77 x 77 cm Edition of 30 plus 1 artist’s proof
not the structure that is important to me, it’s the abstract thinking, which takes it from that point and enlarges it into an area, which again expands on itself. AL/ Do you destroy much of your work? SB/ The only ones I destroyed were the Totems on Ancient Ground series (1982-83). Coming out of that colour period into the expressionist area I went back to making a mark, and some of those early works weren’t as successful because I hadn’t reached the natural way of working that I wanted. In the change from the final Stains into the expressionist works I made small paintings to consider how I made the mark. There were a couple of close moments with the Stains. There was a 14-footer, and it wasn’t working, and I got so angry I picked up a bucket of paint and it went ‘whoosh’ on the work, which was leaning against the wall, and it ran and it just worked beautifully. There was another 14- or 15-footer that I got frustrated with and ripped off the stretcher and folded up into small sections. A couple of weeks later I thought, ‘God, what have I done to my poor kid?’, so I unravelled it and it was a lovely painting. I spent a lot of time getting all the creases out, and it ended up in a museum. AL/ Can you talk about your practice of working in series? SB/ Artists need to not only visualise what’s happening in their work at a particular time but to keep on expanding that vision. I’ve always known when a series is coming to an end, although in hindsight I wish I’d continued on for a few more Canto, to make them much bigger. I was working in my mother’s back sunroom—I came back pretty skint from New York the first time, and I had to sell my life insurance to pay for the first show at the Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, so the scale of the work was limited. AL/ Regarding your titles, some artists with your practice would have called each work Untitled.
SB/ It’s my frustration at not being a poet. I came through the Beat period, and I knew more about the New York poets than the American painters. One of the reasons that convinced me I should go to New York in the first place
Sydney Ball in his Oxford Street studio, Sydney, 1975. Image courtesy the artist, the ABC, and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.
Sydney Ball New Journeys, 2013 watercolour on paper 80 x 120cm
“Artists need to not only visualise what’s happening in their work at a particular time but to keep on expanding that vision. I’ve always known when a series is coming to an end, although in hindsight I wish I’d continued on for a few more Canto, to make them much bigger”.
was that I was enthralled by Dylan Thomas. I thought the paintings were worth much more than being called Painting One or Painting Two, so I tried to think of words which would link by association. AL/ How do you see the profession of being an artist? SB/ I highly value it as a life experience. Very early on somebody asked me a similar question, and I said that if I didn’t paint my toes would curl up and I’d die. I still feel that I need to paint to express how I feel. I can’t do it through words. The older you get you accumulate more medical problems that make it difficult to do other things, but I can still paint and, hopefully, I’ll be able to keep on painting for some time. I’m sorry that I didn’t start earlier. There are other areas I would have liked to be involved in: anthropology, archaeology, and history, something to do with the investigation of humanity. I guess, I can do that through painting.
Exhibition: Sydney Ball, Colour and Form: Works on paper from the Estate 1965-2017, May 5 - May 21, 2022
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eX de Medici: Double Double Crossed
By Kelly Gellatly Kelly Gellatly
eX de Medici Raytheon (Crime is a System) (detail), 2021 watercolour on paper 114 x 124cm Photo: Robert Little
Exhibition: eX de Medici, Double Double Crossed , May 19 - 11 Jun 2022
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Angela Tiatia at home, 2021 Photo: Kieren Cooney
Since its emergence in the late 1990s, the concept of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has held particular sway in contemporary pedagogy, and initiatives to address the so-called ‘STEM Crisis’ have greatly influenced political and educational agendas globally. While the comparatively late arrival of the ‘A’, for Art, in what is now STEAM, brought the important role of creativity to the table in a welcome acknowledgement that STEM was not enough, the concern remains that the ‘A’ is an add-on, enhancing the way in which STEM is taught, but not valued for the significance of its contribution alone. Accordingly, within the realm of Art+Science collaborations, and in exhibiting contexts, this often results in the instrumentalisation of art for the science and work that is sadly, not great art. Yet the division between the arts and science is a relatively recent phenomenon and the history of both disciplines is replete with individuals who consciously played, tinkered, experimented, created and worked across the two, with someone like Leonardo da Vinci becoming something of a poster boy for the possibilities of art and science coming together in harmony.
The extraordinary work that has developed from eX de Medici’s now 20+ year involvement with the Entomology Division of the CSIRO’s Black Mountain Research Facility in Canberra working with the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC) is a welcome antidote to wellintentioned Art+Science arranged marriages, resulting from a personal interest in and passion for science and scientific research and its connection to present-day geo-economic politics. The artist first met taxonomists and evolutionists Dr Marianne Horak and Ted Edwards during her initial period as an Artist Fellow at the Institute (a Fellowship which eventually extended from 2000 to 2012). Over time their relationship evolved into one of true collaboration, where de Medici’s work imaginatively encapsulates the scientists’ study of Microlepidoptera (small moths) while also communicating the broader political shifts and environmental impacts that close research of and comparison between these specimens brings to light. As de Medici has explained:
eX de Medici Walter Raleigh x Ned (We come in Peace) (detail), 2021 watercolour on paper 114 x 124cm Photo: Robert Little
“… It was a case of not having any particular interest in the field but connecting to thinkers and getting carried along on their rivers of compulsion and obsession and applying that to my own concerns. Weapons come with their own genealogies, timelines and migratory spread, as do the insects. It took some years to get a grip on yet another new discipline, that of scientific description, before I could apply it to my own ends. It must be noted here that scientific illustration is also an exploration into miniature precision. Tattooing had prepared me well for that”.1
1. Margherita Dessanay, “ex de Medici”, Elephant Magazine, 1 April, 2014, https://www.sullivanstrumpf.com/assets/Uploads/Dessanay-Margherita-eX-deMedici-Elephant-Magazine-Issue-18.pdf
eX de Medici East India Trading Co., 2021 watercolour on paper 114 x 124cm Photo: Robert Little
2. Correspondence with the author, 9 January 2003 as quoted in Kelly Gellatly, eX de Medici: Soft Steel, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2003, p. 19. 3. The first part of the project was Double Crossed, which was exhibited at Beaver Galleries, Canberra in May 2021. 4. Notes provided by the artist to the author, 21 February 2022. 5. “APT 5 / eX de Medici discusses her work and ‘The Theory of Everything’”, QAGOMA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EjQ-R0V1lc As the artist has said of the moths: ‘… They turn to dust. If you blow on their scales they just puff off. They are utterly delicate.’
de Medici’s intricate watercolours of these tiny subjects (the largest of which is 14mm across) literally conjures them ‘into existence’ for both the scientific community and wider world, as many remain unclassified, and are thus denied the recognition, study and inter-species connection that being formally named provides. In a further entwining of personal and scientific concerns, the artist’s longstanding interest in the symbolic and actual power of weaponry has led to her conceiving of guns themselves as ‘species’, with the evolution of each species having a very particular purpose that is reflected in its design. There is no room for error when the aim is to overcome, maim and kill. ‘The gun is an abstraction of power “loaded” with potential violence’.2 As someone who leaves her studio reluctantly, and when there works at stretches of 16 or so hours a day, the rhythms of eX de Medici’s life weren’t particularly disrupted by the choking smoke that engulfed Canberra in late 2019 and the subsequent covid lockdowns of 2020. However, they did somewhat hinder the artist’s love of international travel, enabling her to concentrate for an extended period on a major two-part project based on her work at the CSIRO. The second part of that ambitious project is Double Double Crossed.3 The eleven moths within the exhibition are de Medici’s Frankenstein creations—their bifurcated bodies bringing together two genetically-related specimens from New Guinea and mainland Australia.4 Despite the fact that some moths might live for only two hours and are the physical embodiment of the smallest moments of time,5 the species from New Guinea also speak in terms of geological time, forming part of the ancient evolutionary map of Gondwanaland bridges between northern Australia and the islands of New Guinea.6 In de Medici’s work however, our comprehension of this passage of change over a vast period of time is brought sharply into the present through her disturbing and somewhat macabre transplantation of contemporary weaponry into the space where the animal’s tiny abdomen would be; exploding scale and filling the ‘place of reproduction and classification’ with ‘various scientific methodologies of destruction’7, biological/societal control (Viagara and Anxious, both 2021) and environmental impact (Greenhouse, 2021, Plutonium (Fission), 2022 and Nerve
/ Fission, 2021). de Medici’s hybrid creatures are at once beautiful and monstrous harbingers of a near-future of our creation. As she has said:
“Two sciences, one examining the deep time of the complex evolution of life on our planet, the other of accelerated brief development of that which violently takes and poisons life: ammunition schematics, cluster bombs, depleted uranium/ fissile reaction, weapons manufacturers’ logos, greenhouse gases, molecular WMD, Prion disease of the brain (‘Mad Cow disease’ for example), and molecular representations of corporate-designed drugs of addiction and psychosis management”.8
6. These species were selected from Horak’s historic fieldwork in the region during 1972-73 collecting unclassified Tortricidae [micro Lepidoptera]). Notes provided by the artist to the author, 21 February 2022.
7. Notes provided by the artist to the author, 21 February 2022. 8. ibid.
eX de Medici Hybrid Warfare (Testosterone x Coal/gas drill), 2021-22 watercolour on paper 114 x 124cm Photo: Robert Little
The final punch of Double Double Crossed is the triptych comprising two large-scale gun portraits—elaborately wrapped and tied like sickening presents—and the moth image East India Trading Company, 2021. The first gun composition, Elizabeth x Mauser, 2021, with its elaborate flourishes of red and pink ribbon, cloaks the Mauser used by Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie (1977) (in a nod to contemporary moves toward the colonisation of space) in the fabric of Queen Elizabeth I’s dress from the iconic Armada Portrait, 1588, of which there are three versions (Collections National Portrait Gallery, London, National Maritime Museum, London, and the Woburn Abbey Collection, Bedfordshire). An extraordinary iconographic feat the sees the transformation of an individual, and a woman at that, into a symbol of power, the resting of the Queen’s hand on the globe at the lower left of the painting, with her finger pointed towards America, says everything of her ambitions for the global expansion of Empire. The second gun portrait wraps bushranger Ned Kelly’s flintlock in the fabric of the doublet worn by Sir Walter Ralegh (or Raleigh) (1554 – 1618) in a painting of 1588 (Collection National Portrait Gallery London).9 Ralegh spearheaded the Virgin Queen’s expansionist agenda, playing a key role in England’s colonisation of North America. This later became the complex network of power, domination, corruption and slavery that was the East India Company, whose banner unfurls from the abdomen of the moth at the centre of the triptych. Together, these three works collapse time, historic and not-so-imagined future events, linking the past, colonisation, and national mythology—essentially, how we re-frame and justify our collective (ab)use of power—with where we have landed today; seemingly hellbent on our own rapidly approaching destruction and taking everything on the planet down in our wake.
Kelly Gellatly is a curator, writer and arts advocate and is the founding director of Agency Untitled.
Exhibition: eX de Medici, Double Double Crossed , May 19 - 11 Jun 2022
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9. There are actually three versions of the Armada Portrait. The remaining two are housed in the collections of the National Maritime Museum, London and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire).
A Stitch in Time
In 1888, Van Gogh made numerous paintings of the landscape in Arles using multicoloured, lozenge-like marks that referenced the woven surface of fabrics and tapestries. During this period, he had studied the colour theories of French chemist Michael E. Chevreul who was the director of the Gobelins Tapestry Manufactory in Paris and had developed a method of intensifying the brilliance of colours by means of contrast.1 Van Gogh tested the effects of different combinations of colour based on Chevreul’s theories aided by a box of colourful balls of wool that he referenced when making paintings.2 Recently, I have been looking at The Hunts of Maximilian, a series of 4.5 x 6-metre tapestries displayed in the Richelieu wing in the Louvre. Woven in Brussels in the 1530s, they came into the collection of Louis XV of France in 1665. The original drawings for these tapestries are attributed to the Netherlandish painter Bernaert Van Orley (1488-1541). Depicting hunting scenes in the Soignes Forest on the outskirts of Brussels, each of the twelve tapestries are dedicated to a month of the year. The landscapes represent the changing seasons and architectural details of the surrounding areas. In the foregrounds are figures dressed in elaborate costumes riding on horses accompanied by dogs hunting deer and boar. Looking closely at the details of these tapestries has played an important role in the development of my new paintings. Scanning across their surfaces one can trace subtle shifts in tone and texture achieved by the weaving together of different coloured threads, along with the gold and silver that was woven within the picture plane. Up-close, in the details, these tapestries reveal a microcosm of visual information and studying them has helped me develop new painterly strategies.
Tapestries of this size required enormous resources and large workshops of skilled craftspeople. This series took approximately sixty weavers three years to complete. In the mid 1500s, around one third of the population of Brussels worked, in some form or another, in the
1. Brüderlin, Markus, et al. Art & Textiles : Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art from Klimt to the Present. Hatje Cantz, 2013 p 143 2. Ibid. p 143
Gregory Hodge work in progress (detail), 2022.
manufacture and sale of tapestries. Amazingly, in 1797, most tapestries held in the collection of Louis XV that contained gold and silver were burned to recover their precious metals. For reasons unknown, The Hunts of Maximillian, were spared. I have been experimenting with a range of different textural painted marks that emulate meticulous woven surfaces. By layering fast drying acrylic paint applied with various adapted tools, the up-close surface of my paintings reveals the fluidity of the material and the speed in which they were made. An ongoing part of my practice is to generate source material by making coloured pencil drawings and digital collages. My recent drawings are rendererd using intersecting directional marks to mimic the appearance of warp and weft. My drawings and collages combine cut-out fragments of my own photographs of tapestries, landscapes, plants and interiors with gestural painterly marks. Translating these collages and drawings into paintings brings further complexities and distortions to the compositions as the representational elements are obscured. In my new works, there is an interplay between my systemic rules of mimicry and moments of more intuitive freedom as decisions take place in the process of painting. The stacked layers oscillate between optical trickery and nuanced painterly expression. The variation of textured organic spaces, with crisp and defined masked edges, further disrupt literal readings of the representational imagery. In The Hunt of Maximilian series, each scene is framed by an elaborate border. This framing acts as a decorative device and emphasizes the drama playing out in the scenes. In my paintings, trompe l’oeil trims act as an important pictorial strategy. Painted territories are contained within these frames while gestural marks not bound to the systems of the weave underneath, hover like loose threads, draping fabric or ribbons and appear to project out into space, defying logic, in a moment of baroque theatricality.
“When the weavers weave those fabrics…A grey that’s woven from red, blue, yellow, off-white and black threads, a blue broken by a green and an orange, red or yellow thread are very different from plain colours—that is, they vibrate more and make whole colours look harsh, whole, and lifeless beside them”.3 Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, Thursday, 30 April 1885
Exhibition: Greg Hodge, Jul 21 – Aug 13, 2022
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Gregory Hodge February 2022
3. Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, Thursday, 30 April 1885 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, inv. nos. b442 a-b V/1962
Gregory Hodge Studio Drawing 2 (detail), 2022 pencil and marker on paper 29.7 x 42 cm
Artist unknown, The Hunts of Maximilian: August (Deer hunt at the “Patte d’Oie” lakes (detail), 16th C., tapestry, 4.57 x 6.82 m, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: Greg Hodge
Gregory Hodge Studio drawing 1, 2022 pencil and marker on paper 29.7 x 42.0 cm
Gregory Hodge Studio drawing 3, 2022 pencil and marker on paper 29.7 x 42.0 cm
Exhibition: Greg Hodge, Jul 21 – Aug 13, 2022
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In Greg Hodge’s Paris studio with works in progress, 2022
Sam Leach: The Machine and Me
For the past few years, Wynne and Archibald Prize winning painter Sam Leach has been experimenting with Machine Learning, the much-hyped branch of Artificial Intelligence that gifted us facial recognition, self-driving cars and deep fakes. Pulling back the curtain, he reveals how he uses this technology and why, despite the dire warnings of—everything will probably be fine.
by Sam Leach
The term Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become a shorthand marketing slogan, and is routinely used as a more sexy, exciting, and investor-enticing way to describe Machine Learning (ML) applications. ML is really a subset of AI, but in the last 5 years the field of ML has grown at a breathtaking pace, with natural language processing, facial recognition and object detection models becoming ‘must-have’ commercial tools. ML is a new tool for visual artists and a key area of visual research. Artists like Hito Steyerl, Trevor Paglen, and Anna Ridler are making work that uses ML to question and critique the use and applications of these technologies. In the last few years, some of the most important advances in ML have involved analysing and producing images, a significant development for visual arts and artists. Newly developed, they are making surprisingly convincing pictures that have never existed in the world before. There is an important contribution that artists can make to society by using imagery produced by and about ML, to examine and contextualise the operations of ML and artificial intelligence. ML has made valuable contributions in other areas as well. In health, for example, it has been successfully deployed to assist in analysing diagnostic scans. Or, in urban planning, where finding optimal solutions in complex multi-parameter problems is yielding promising outcomes. All of these applications lead inevitably to dreams of a glittering future utopia, but there are significant hurdles to contend with.
Sam Leach Langur in Satin, 2022 oil on linen 102 cm x 77 cm
“There is an important contribution that artists can make to society by using imagery produced by and about machine learning, to examine and contextualise the operations of machine learning and artificial intelligence”.
First, ML uses a lot of data. But where does the data come from and who vouches for its quality? The act of harvesting these massive amounts of data remains squarely within the purview of a small number of multinational corporations. Most of us, including most independent researchers, will never have access to the large datasets that belong to these multinationals that drive the most influential algorithms. In 2018, Kate Crawford and Trevor Paglen collaborated on a project to analyse one of the most frequently used databases ML—Imagenet. It contains millions of images labelled and sorted into categories, which is a task performed manually by low-paid workers. With a dataset of this size, quality control is nearly impossible and it is known that the standard of labelling is poor. Paglen and Crawford’s research revealed that the labels used were highly problematic and included racial and sexual slurs. Work has been undertaken to improve this dataset since Paglen and Crawford’s collaborative project, but the original version remains in use in many ML models for face detection, object recognition, and other vision and image-based processes. Second, ML uses a lot of power. It is estimated that training an average ML model generates around 300 tons of carbon. That is the equivalent carbon footprint of flying from Sydney to London and back 60 times. At a time when the climate is centre stage; many question the justification for this use of resources. Finally, we must ask, how does ML know what makes a good solution to a problem? We know that ML can be used to find optimal solutions to complex and
Sam Leach Landscape with Relaxing Woman and Jetty, 2021 oil on linen 240xm x 180cm
“Humans understand images as complex, multi-layered and packed with symbolic meanings, emotional resonances, and personal memories. Machine learning, by contrast, does not take any of this into account, but what it does do is suggest aesthetic connections and parallels in images.”
multifaceted problems. ML is already being used in architecture and urban planning to suggest design solutions to maximise the public benefit from projects that human architects unaided by ML may never have considered. Even so, public benefit is a slippery concept that is likely to be influenced by those specific members of the public who control the model. The City Brain project is an initiative implemented in several cities in China using data from facial recognition, CCTV, traffic flows and many other data sources to train ML algorithms and make decisions on urban planning. The online retail company Alibaba operates this system. So, how do we feel about retailers making decisions about urban planning, as well obtaining and manipulating so much data about the population?
All datasets are ultimately developed by humans. In the realm of ML, ‘non-human’ is often understood to refer to just technology. Nonetheless non-human animals and plants also have a point of view. The French philosopher, Bruno Latour, called for a spokesperson for the non-human to be a fixture in the world’s parliaments. Humanity, he argues, does not make sense without a non-humanity, and so if we move into a future increasingly influenced by ML, we surely need to think about how we can bring our non-human biological cousins along with us.
Sam Leach Polar bear suggested by machine learning, 2022 oil on linen 50 x 50 cm
“These models do not presume to understand the images they generate, nor do they try and depict a specific object or scene, but rather they propose arrangements of pixels that have a probabilistic relation to each other. It is this absence of judgment that might allow us to see visual connections in our images. Indeed, it is a pressing question whether this quality of ML will consolidate and obscure our inherent prejudices or help to expose them”.
In June, I will present an exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf surveying my own research into ML. Humans understand images as complex, multi-layered and packed with symbolic meanings, emotional resonances, and personal memories. ML, by contrast, does not take any of this into account, but what it does do is suggest aesthetic connections and parallels in images. I train ML models with datasets of images, most of which are photographs, illustrations, and my own paintings. These models do not presume to understand the images they generate, nor do they try and depict a specific object or scene, but rather they propose arrangements of pixels that have a probabilistic relation to each other. It is this absence of judgment that might allow us to see visual connections in our images. Indeed, it is a pressing question whether this quality of ML will consolidate and obscure our inherent prejudices or help to expose them. My exhibition will present some outcomes of this painting led analysis of ML, an ongoing series of experiments using painting and ML, manipulating the dataset and nudging the algorithms in different directions. It is an iterative process between ‘me’ and ‘the machine’. The algorithm has made images that look like oil spills, ghosts and polar bears, images suggestive of the darker side to AI. Visitors will also be invited to test an ML system trained to detect polar bears. By presenting the system with an image or standing in front of its camera, it will calculate how confident it is that a polar bear is present. Playing in this way with ML, exposing its processes, flaws and shortcomings we can prepare to understand better the coming world. Exhibition: Sam Leach, Everything Will Probably Be Fine, Sam Leach They are a Polar Bear, 2022 oil on linen 50 x 50 cm
Jun 23 - Jul 16 2022
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In the studio
Harriet Reid (HR)/ Tell us about your studio? Do you have a studio routine or ritual? Juila Gutman (JG)/ My dog Tabitha wakes me every morning at 6:30 and we get a coffee and go to the park to see her friends. It’s useful for me to take this time to be out in the world to collect myself before I descend into my studio chaos. I usually have several works going at once, from big, finalised tapestries that need to be hand-sewn together, to early sketches of works to come. I try and bounce between these different stages each day to keep my eyes and ideas fresh. In the early stages, I like to work in silence, so I can focus entirely on the work and feel iterative. Once the composition is finalised and the process becomes a meditative action of sewing things down, I tend to get engrossed in an audiobook or the entire archive of This American Life (Big ups to Ira Glass, unspoken studio muse). HR/ You recently purchased an industrial sewing machine. How has that changed the way you work?
JG/ You know that car Fred Flintstone has? The one he ‘drives’, but with his feet? Turns out I had been trying to sew with one of those every day for two years. I recently upgraded to an industrial machine. It hasn’t changed my process necessarily, but my studio-mate can confirm that less aggressive and audible curses come from my corner now.
Julia Gutman in her studio, 2022. Photo: Simon Hewson
Julia Gutman in her studio, 2022. Photo: Simon Hewson
HR/ Are you selective about what donated clothing or textiles you receive? JG/ I take everything. It’s hard to know what colours and textures are going to come in handy until the exact moment that I am running around like a maniacal scissor-hand looking for them. HR/ Do you ever run out of fabric, or go searching for a particular colour or texture to complete a piece? JG/ Things got a little hairy when I was working out of my bedroom a couple years ago. I would be searching for an orange scrap and my favourite jumper would start to beckon from my wardrobe… I try not to control my materials too much, but there are some things I know I will always need, big bedsheets and backing fabrics and extra denim, so I tend to drop hints to people in my life in passing, so they know that I’m looking—in case they do a clear-out. It’s amazing how many forgotten tablecloths, sheets and towels people have lying around. For a recent, very large commission I had to go searching for big green scraps and ended up inheriting some billiard table felt, which sent me on a bit of a research spiral. HR/ What has inspired you in the last 6 months? JG/ Siri Hustvedt’s new book of essays, the Royal National Park, old photos of my grandparents, Jewish dad jokes, Julio Torres’ comedy special My favourite shapes, love triangles, Faith Ringgold, the curly girl method, the colour yellow, iso with my four best friends in a three bedroom house which quickly descended into group therapy (the perils of living with a psychologist), my sister’s unborn baby, pickled red onions, peach ice (if you know, you know), bell hooks, avocado dye, sea salt on both chocolate and on skin, the sound of a mechanical pencil scratching paper, the hum of my sewing machine, shell shaped pasta, tan lines, juicy tomatoes, friendship as romance, and Tabitha and Olive the studio dogs. HR/ Do you find it difficult to work by yourself? JG/ I don’t. I really like getting lost in the world of the work. It follows its own logic and can be as difficult as I want to make it for myself, so I never get bored. I work through all my feelings and the more complex issues I am grappling with at any given moment—it’s a compulsion to make it, so the work becomes a sort of self-directed therapy.
Julia Gutman studio sketches, 2022. Photo: Simon Hewson
In the studio: Julia Gutman
I make an active effort to stay as social as possible outside of the studio—living in a share house makes that easier. I do feel the need to balance out the solitude with a lot of community. I take teaching gigs whenever they come my way and make sure to have a lot of friends come by and visit. I like to talk through my ideas with both artists and people with less of a specified interest, because depth and accessibility are equally important to me. Sometimes a friend will come in and pose, or just sit with me and sew, and I think it gives the work a really embodied sense of intimacy. I also share my space with another artist, so there is this inherent sense of collaboration that arises even when we are working on distinct projects. Our research and interests start to blur together—we exchange books and give each other a lot of feedback which is really beautiful. HR/ How do you overcome obstacles in the studio, in your work? JG/ Just keep working. I’m not great at planning or anticipating what I’ll produce in advance. I figure if I just show up every weekday and work, I’ll get where I need to. I’m much more practice driven than goal oriented. Some days I’ll just embroider a little, or make a shitty drawing, and other times are more prolific—all you can do is show up and do the work and hope for the best. After several years of balancing a job alongside my practice, it honestly feels like such a privilege to get to make my work every day. I try and keep my weekends really separate, seeing friends, hiking, swimming, dancing, cooking with an abundance of herbs, eating a lot. It helps that the work is so tied up with my day-to-day life, so time out of the studio feeds back into my practice. HR/ What’s one piece of equipment/ machinery that you dream of owning and why? JG/ I actually really like how low-fi the work is. My sewing machine is amazing, but there is something so alchemic about being able to tell a story with old clothes, a needle and thread.
Exhibition: Julia Gutman, Muses, Jul 28 - 13 Aug Julia Gutman in her studio, 2022. Photo: Simon Hewson
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Darren Sylvester set my soul free
A truly multidisciplinary artist, Darren Sylvester is also an unashamed fan of pop music. His love of the genre is sincere and fanatic, to the extent that, in 2008, he spent four months producing and performing an album of pop songs, teaching himself how to sing, play guitar and drums, record and mix.1 Having previously paid homage to Kate Bush (You should let go of a dying relationship, 2006) and The Carpenters (I was the last in the Carpenters’ garden, 2008), he cites significant admiration for the 1960s American girl group The Shangri-Las, alongside Morrissey, the singer and lyricist from the 1980s British indie band The Smiths, for the way in which their upbeat, catchy music shares stories of pain and tragedy with us. Morrissey once said that he has ‘a dramatic, unswayable, unavoidable obsession with death’.2 The same could be said of Sylvester, whose work—across photography, sculpture, video and installation—presents much like a shiny pop song, with a polished story, direct and to the point, yet simmers with levels of complexity that do not shy away from the undeniability of our mortality.
Sylvester recently presented three standalone works as part of the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State, which, taken together, ruminate on the transience of life. The first, Transformer, 2020, is a steel archway with cool, blue neon lights that flicker as the viewer passes beneath. A fantastical portal to nowhere, the sculpture appears as if it was stolen from the set of a
science fiction film centred around a spaceship. Séance, 2021, the second work, is a large-scale photograph depicting a group of people seated around a table, their eyes closed and holding hands, in a moment of collective reverie. The final work, Kite, 2021, features a kite suspended from the ceiling that traverses the gallery on a mechanical circuit. Rather than a graceful flight, a series of spokes jerk the kite around its track, such that it resembles a conjured spirit trapped in its ascent. Sylvester creates with a deft, uncanny touch: in the images and scenes he fashions we, the viewers, inevitably feel as if we are witnessing events or experiences encountered or lived previously. This is by no means an unconscious strategy—the line between reality and fiction is always intentionally illusory. Sylvester draws upon our common lexicon of emotional affect, absorbed through popular culture, yet his staged photographs, made from self-constructed sets, reveal the artificiality or unreality of any felt sentiment. Take for instance the four large-scale photographs included in Sylvester’s latest solo exhibition, Dear Diary, whereby the artist handmade and photographed scenes of sunsets, cityscapes and clouds lifted from anonymous, aspirational Instagram posts. Despite the uplifting intent and new age energy of the source material, a deep melancholy and sense of loneliness permeates these flat, lifeless, washed-out images. Infused with existential yearnings and desires, this latest photographic series is indicative of the way Sylvester’s work cuts through the advertising, entertainment and self-promotion we consume.
1. Artist profile, ‘Darren Sylvester’, 2019, https://artistprofile.com.au/darren-sylvester/, accessed 27 October 2021. 2. L. Brown, ‘Unhappy birthday’, The Guardian, May 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/may/22/morrissey-50-biography-len-brown, accessed 27 October 2021.
Darren Sylvester Triple S Space Rocker, 2021 birch wood, upholstery foam, kvadrat maharam danish wool, rubber, paint 180 x 60 x 90 cm
It is interesting in this context that Dear Diary also features two custom-built rocking chair lounges, Triple S Space Rockers, 2021, that mimic a Balenciaga sneaker in form. Around the same time that Balenciaga wiped their Instagram clean, Demna Gvasalia, the fashion house’s artistic director and arguably the most influential person in fashion today, commented:
Sylvester’s work more and more speaks to the individual’s transportive powers and, with this in mind, his space-age chairs become another vehicle for escape.
“I think social media is boring, and dangerously addictive for some, as well as super manipulative. We need to find new ways of using it that is less harmful for society. The freedom that it ‘suggested’ originally is now governed by algorithms and commercial interests”.3
This text was originally published in the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State exhibition catalogue (4 March - 5 June 2022, Art Gallery of South Australia) and has been revised by the writer on the occasion of Darren Sylvester’s solo exhibition, Dear Diary (31 March - 23 April 2022, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney).
Patrice Sharkey is the Artistic Director of ACE Open, Adelaide.
TO SEE AVAILABLE WORKS BY DARREN SYLVESTER,
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What Gvasalia and Sylvester are highlighting to us is how the past two decades have been some of the most visually rich (but profoundly numbing) in history.
3. Rachel Tashjian, ‘Balenciaga Couture Is the Death Knell of Influencer Culture’, GQ, 8 July 2021: https://www.
Darren Sylvester Séance (detail), 2022 six lightjet prints, 240 x 480 cm, unique, edition of 3 and single lightjet print, 90 x 180 cm, edition of 3
Last Word: Suzanne Cotter, Director, MCA
Newly appointed Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Suzanne Cotter chats to Alex Pedley about her plans for the venerable institution and contemporary Australian art more broadly. By Alex Pedley
MCA Director Suzanne Cotter at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (2022). Featuring artist Brook Andrew, Warrang, 2012. Image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Anna Kučera
Last Word: Suzanne Cotter, Director, MCA
Alex Pedley (AP)/ You have led institutions in various cities and countries around the world, having grown up in Australia, does your new appointment coinciding with a ‘homecoming’ of sorts feel different to previous directorships? Suzanne Cotter (SC)/ Returning to Australia to take up the role of director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia (MCA) would be a milestone in any museum director’s career. Being Australian-born and having grown up here, my appointment is infused with, dare I say, a certain life poetry. AP/ What are your greatest passions or drivers when taking over leadership of a major institution? SC/ Ensuring that art, artists and their presence in our world and as part of everyone’s lives, drives everything we do. If the content is good, the rest follows. AP/ How would you describe your relationship to the Australian arts scene, and what you bring to it? SC/ As a relative newcomer to the current Australian arts scene, I would like to think that I can bring fresh perspective on what is being produced here, particularly in relation to artistic production elsewhere in the world. AP/ What distinguishes the Australian arts from other places, pre- or post-pandemic? What is uniquely exportable about Australian contemporary artists?
SC/ I think what is happening across arts sectors in Australia reflects what is happening in other parts of the world. Financial models are under pressure: artists, performers, musicians and cultural producers find themselves in even more precarious situations because of cancellations and postponements and a move towards even greater digital engagement due to the pandemic and concerns for the world climate crisis. Australia is, however, also a privileged country in that there is very clear public support and appreciation for the arts and a recognition of its importance for communities—and as a reflection of who we are as a nation. Australia also has enormous potential to contribute even more than it already does to world conversations in which Indigenous thinking and its expressions through art are becoming increasingly important.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (2020). Featuring artist Lindy Lee, Secret world of a starlight ember, 2020. Image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Anna Kučera
Last Word: Suzanne Cotter, Director, MCA
AP/ You are uniquely placed to advocate for contemporary artists on an international stage, any major international partnerships on the horizon you can tell us about? Building on or beyond the Tate and the MCA’s various partnering institutions? SC/ It is a little early to share news after just over 2 months in post, however, there is the ambition to build upon the MCA’s impressive history of international partnerships. Watch this space! AP/ What do you consider are some of the major challenges ahead? SC/ I am still in the early phase of euphoria about leading such a brilliant institution. Addressing challenges are an everyday part of every museum director’s work— we gain great satisfaction from responding to them with intelligence, passion and creativity. Keeping an eye on the reason we are doing the work we do, to bring art and the ideas of artists into the lives of as many people as we can inspires and guides us. AP/ A favourite moment since taking the role? SC/ Arriving by ferry to the MCA and MCA team members coming to welcome me in my new office in early January in the midst of the Omicron wave in Australia. Their warmth and enthusiasm were exhilarating. AP/ Something you have missed, and something you will miss now being back in Sydney? SC/ I realise that I have missed the cosmopolitan nature of this city and, it is a trope but true, the easy-going nature of people and expressions that I remember from when I was younger. My current favourite is: ‘I had a seagull’s breakfast (a sip of water and a look around)’. I am too busy thinking about the present and what we might do in the future to have time to miss things from the past.
MCA by night (quay side). Image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Brett Boardman Photography
Resilience Tim Silver Untitled (Trauma #9), 2014 72 x 60 x 22 cm edition 2/2 $15,400
Jemima Wyman Haze 4, 2021 hand cut digital photos 61 x 95.5 cm $4,500.00
Karla Dickens Keep Smiling II, 2021 mixed media 22 x 52 cm $4,400
Adeela Suleman All Hell Let Loose, 2020-21 Found vintage ceramic plate with enamel paint and top coat with lacquer 12.5 x 16 inches USD$8,800
EX DE MEDICI 19.05.22 - 11.06.22
KARLA DICKENS 16.06.22 - 16.07.22
SAM LEACH 23.06.22 - 16.07.22
GREGORY HODGE 21.07.22 - 13.08.22
JUILA GUTMAN 28.07.22 - 13.08.22
Sam Leach Cow with sculpture AI Composed landscape, 2021 oil on linen 50 x 50 cm
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