Saturday, May 29, 2010

Head/Space

After three days away from my studio, I'm feeling in some disarray. There is a heap of emotional stuff swirling around me that I can't ignore but in the midst of it, I'm beset by an intense desire to immerse myself in work. I haven't felt like this for a while.
I miss my new studio. It's an unimpressive, makeshift space – its rent reflects this – but my needs are minimal. There's a clapped-out sofa covered with a sheet to sprawl across in uninspired lulls and lots of high wall-space onto which I can stick works-in-progress, as well as study sketches, reference photographs and notes to myself. There's plenty of floor space for the largest frames, supported by industrial spec' alloy trestles, and the dark, springy timber floor is unexpectedly comfortable to sit on for long stretches.
I've just paid my second month's rent on the space. In four weeks I've produced nearly a dozen pieces there in various media, the best rate of productivity I've enjoyed for two or three years. It seems I work best alone, without assistants, in a room with no view other than my own work – something to remember as the money begins to flow again.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Renewed Originals

At the beginning of this year, I destroyed many of my works – including a few I didn't own – in an act of self-negating despair. Others were lost with the closure of the two studios in which I had worked for the past two and a half years.
Among them were a score of acrylic studies. Rich in colour, with exacting line-work, they were beautifully rendered versions of my most recent series of enamel paintings. In each, the image was reduced to a uniform dimension of approximately 60cms by 40cms on heavyweight, Italian-made, cold-pressed paper.
I was reminded of how much I miss these works when, last month, Melbourne Art Rooms (aka MARS Gallery) included three gallery-owned studies of my early paintings in a group exhibition of works on paper. Priced at $A6,000.00, two were sold on opening night.
Over the past couple of years, a dozen or so other studies, all of them early works, have found their way into the local secondary market, priced between $A4,000 and $A6,500 apiece. However, the majority are held in a private collection in Adelaide.
I have long since given up trying to buy back my favourites.
Several recent requests from collectors have prompted me to re-paint the lost studies for three of my most recent series, Cowboy Babes (2001-2008), Dangerous Career Babes (2008-2009), Precious Blood (2009), and, of course, the new Big Pin-Ups (2010).
I am calling these studies Renewed Originals. Only one of each has been produced in acrylic (the image is again 60cms by 40cms) on a more generous expanse of heavyweight cold-pressed paper. Each is titled, signed and dated 2010 on the front. They are 'one-off' and no more of the same image will be produced in the future.
Given that these are not the original studies – even if they are now the only versions on paper available – they will be offered for a very limited time for a significantly lower price than the current market value for studies of earlier series.
If you're interested in acquiring one or more, please email me for further information, indicating the work – or works – that most interest you. Please note that none will be reserved and all will be sold on a 'first come, first served' basis.
Photo: Three early acrylic on paper studies by Hazel Dooney, from a private collection, exhibited at MARS Gallery, Port Melbourne, in April, 2010.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

No Forwarding Address

I am travelling.
This morning, I put the larger fragments of my hotel-bound life into cardboard boxes and stored them in my studio. The rest I packed into a carry-on duffel bag, along with my computer, a sketchpad and a couple of books (an hour or two lost in an airport lounge is the best excuse to catch up with reading).
I can't help but be bothered by the large amount of work I am leaving unfinished. It'll haunt me until I return but there's little I can do about it. This trip was unexpected, an ill-timed imposition. It couldn't be side-stepped or postponed. I won't have much time to myself until the end of the weekend.
At least being on the move again is something of a novelty. Three months of confinement in a clinic at the beginning of the year has been followed by two months of a different kind of confinement , a circuitous routine – hotel to gym to studio to hotel – designed to ease myself back into an ascetic self-discipline and maintain my hard-won sanity. I feel a slightly giddy recklessness, a sense of having made good an escape, as I make my way to the check-in counter at Virgin Blue's Sydney terminal.
I'll be back in a few days.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hard Core

Every morning I set several alarms to go off within minutes of each other. I sleep hard and I wake even harder. Zombie-like, I crawl out of bed, pull on lycra pants and a tank-top I wouldn't normally be caught dead in, and stumble to the gym.
It's occupies several floors of a glassy, mid-city tower. It's almost always full of people with 'ripped' bodies and well-defined muscles slicked with sweat. I don't look at their faces. If it's dark outside, I watch the ceiling-mounted TVs while I work out. Otherwise, I stare out the vast windows to a clichéd Sydney skyline: the coat-hanger silhouette of the Harbour Bridge, the blue waters of the harbour, the shell-like arches of the Opera House.
During the first few weeks there, I improvised my work-out based on an old exercise program. Now I employ a trainer, a stern Eastern European who coaches professional athletes and competes for his country. He is military-like, tough – in manner as well as appearance– and technically proficient. He uses the term maximum efficiency a lot. He is skeptical about the height of my goals and the commitment required.
I don't blame him. The majority of his clients tell him what they want, then drop out because it demands too much of them. I told him that I knew it was a matter of proving my commitment through action, not words. That's when he agreed to take me on.
I've become soft and weak over the past few years. I felt it most acutely just before my breakdown at the beginning of this year. During my stay in hospital, my body became bloated – and my mind like sludge – thanks to several different cocktails of drugs prescribed as 'experiments', none of which did much apart from make me even weaker.
I started working out as soon as I was discharged from hospital. I didn't want just to regain my stamina and lose weight. I wanted to transform my whole being – to become as formidable, energetic and uncompromising as the women I so often paint. Already, the visible changes to my body are proof of my consistency and discipline. And as my body grows stronger, so does my mind.
I didn't bother explaining this somewhat metaphysical perspective to the trainer. I told him what I wanted to look like – noting specific metrics like weight, body fat ratio and chest, waist and hip measurements – and he told me how to achieve it. The rest is up to me.
As it is in everything.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Practice And Performance

I let myself into the studio through the back door of the building. It's stained and grey, almost indistinguishable from the wall. I walk up several flights of dank, unlit stairs – the building's fire escape – and unlock another door. It's dark inside except for the soft green glow of an exit sign. Once my eyes adjust to the dimness, I make my way through the maze of makeshift studio partitions to the space I rent.
I flip on the lights, unlock my door and after I enter, lock it again behind me. Stripping off my clothes, I change into dirty paint covered jeans and a t-shirt. The room smells of acrylic and the musty calico I've stretched over the internal windows, so no-one can see in.
There's hardly ever anyone else here.
Half the floor is covered in industrial cotton drop sheets and stencils laying flat to dry. I sit cross-legged on the other half, on bare timber boards, amongst jars of paint, a bowl of water, brushes and a scavenged foot stool that I sometimes use as a seat. Paintings on paper are taped straight on the wall to keeping them taut.
Sounds from outside punctuate music from the radio: sirens, screeching tires, breaking glass, thumping techno-speed metal from an underground nightclub. I prefer being here at night. There's no-one else in the building – no telephones, doorbells or sounds of hip graphic designers talking about their pitches. It feels like my own private universe, small and warm, an oasis in the chaos of people running amok in the inner city. It's safe, solitary, but I don't feel adrift from the rest of the world.
I haven't painted for a long time. Before I went to the clinic, I destroyed half a lifetime of work. During my ten week stay, I managed (with much angst, and a lot of tears) one very small, decorative watercolour. I couldn't deal with anything more complicated or precise.
Painting – particularly my hard-edged enamel work – is a barometer for my psyche. It requires confidence. The block colours and incredibly exact linework leave no room for interpretation or error. A misplaced mark is not an intriguing flaw but an ugly deviation that has to be painstakingly corrected. Sometimes, I have to begin the work again.
It used to be the less confident I felt, the shakier my hand. But not anymore.
Yesterday, I painted for sixteen hours, from late afternoon until dawn, working on a number of acrylic studies. The first six hours were hard. I spent every one of them pushing through old anxieties, reminding myself to focus on doing, instead of analysing every thought and action. I forced myself to sit still, to focus and to paint quicker, in smooth confident strokes. To my surprise, it worked. I am much better (and faster) at what I do than I had ever realised.
My training regime at the gym has made me stronger and fitter. It has also increased my physical and psychological endurance. I am recovering my precision. Something I didn't expect – but for which I am grateful – is that the discipline of my actions allows me to think more freely about art and ideas.
My attitude towards my own skills has changed. I realise that an artist is similar to a classical musician: drawing and paintings skills are like an instrument and one has to practice every day. Honing my technique over the years has helped me to express more, in more ways, and improve not just the performance – the act of painting – but the fluidity of expression between mind and hand.
Imagination without skill amounts to very little. Acquiring, developing – and keeping – that skill is a matter of discipline and routine.
My enamel and acrylic paintings will never be quick to make – I'm incapable of slapping any old thing together – but the satisfaction I get from being able to do them better and with considerably more speed is a kind of epiphany, a dusting of unexpected but hard-earned grace.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Displacing Identity

"I woke up thinking about how badly I want you to bang me," the message on Facebook read. It was from a beautiful American woman, six or seven years older than me, with whom I'd been exchanging notes about art and other stuff for about a week. She had mentioned once in passing that she was straight.
Her frankness surprised me. It also got me hot. (Those last five words are less forthright than they might appear.)
In my art, I explore how modern female identities respond to the ambivalent, highly sexualised visual narratives of advertising and 'mass' entertainment. The attributes of my paintings are designed to coincide with our expectations of 'mass' media – high def', glossy, larger-than life, with expanses of vivid colour – and in most of them, I cast myself as an idealised everywoman of indeterminate age, lean, sleek, and attentively accessorised.
Nothing in them is filtered through the decaying signals of late '70s feminism. Nothing is politically correct. And just as in the thousands of images that flood our cognitive bandwidth each day, nothing is quite as it first appears.
My various identities – woman, artist, agitator, sex object, to name just a few – are entangled with not only my art but the words, my own and others, that encircle it. It's hard, even for me, sometimes, to separate them. What might start as a provocation within the work can just as easily evolve as an expression of something more intimate and personal – or degenerate into a joke.
My 2008 exhibition of photographs, PORNO, was an example of this. With the acceptance of hardcore pornography into the mainstream – young starlets starved of attention releasing their own sex tapes, a famed Italian fashion label running a full page ad in Vogue featuring a model's pubes shaped to resemble its logo – I surrendered the detached observation of the artist to become a performer, photographing myself masturbating and having lesbian sex.
It was intended, in part, as an ironic piss-take. But it came across to many as documentary, even when I made it plain that half the images were, in fact, intimate snapshots taken by anonymous friends of people I'd never met – lovers, spouses, sex-workers, and adult performers. I'd simply 'recontextualised' them within my own fictive narrative in much the same way we acquire and reconfigure imagery we come across online.
As I wrote in A Few Words About PORNO, "I decided to 'curate' these images and include them with my own work: I refined and reprinted them and in so doing, ‘appropriated’ them to form part of my own critical experience of the new porno’ aesthetic."
PORNO
turned into a something of a traumatic, risky mind-fuck. It upset many people's perceptions of me both as an artist and as a woman. Inevitably, many made inaccurate assumptions about my sexual identity, which is, as so many describe it on Facebook, 'complicated'. But the images were like a photographic Rorschach test: they revealed more about those who viewed them than about me.
I've grown more comfortable with the constant, subtle shifts of position and identity demanded by my art, writing and public persona. I'm told they can be confusing, confronting or contradictory. They're meant to be.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Enlightenment

I am not a 'nice' person.
It used to bother me that I wasn't. I used to worry about what people thought of me. I pretended to be friendly, easy-going, nurturing and kind. It was unconvincing so I stopped.
I have few user-friendly attributes. I am aloof, self-centred, intolerant, demanding, uncharitable, moody, impatient, irritable, and unyielding. I am not good at small talk and team-work. I'm a difficult friend.
I'm amoral, ambitious and vain. I'm rarely satisfied with my lot.
I can be a careless and inattentive friend – for that, I'm sorry – as well a selfish lover. I rarely love myself. I'm estranged from my parents, brother and most of my old friends and I'm spiteful towards my enemies (it doesn't take much to become one). I don't forgive.
I'm often mad, in every nuance of its meaning. A lack of rationality isolates me. If I wasn't an artist, I'd have a hard time holding down even the most menial job.
My art doesn't make me 'whole' either. I am rigorous and uncompromising in every aspect of it. I leave no margin for error. I drive myself to the edge of exhaustion to fill every hour with its making and marketing. Like a monk-ish ascetic, I labour on my feet as a penance (or a facile expression of sacrifice) – it takes endurance – but there's no satori at the end of it.
My talent doesn't excuse any of this. Neither does my success. The only thing worthwhile is that I don't waste either of them. Talent doesn't often bring happiness and a deeper understanding of the world to its possessor but it can create both for others.
Which is to say, I am not a 'nice' person but I redeem myself when the potential of my talent is fulfilled.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Look At Me, Again

I'm often attacked for being a ruthless 'self-promoter'. It's a dirty word in the arts. There are others: a gallerist once described me (with obvious disdain) as 'pro-active' and recently, an older artist called me (in a rejected comment on my blog) 'sleazy'.
In the art world, getting behind your own work in the same, unrestrained way that film-makers and rock musicians get behind theirs is taboo. Gallerists, curators, critics and art dealers denounce it as 'selling out' and 'crass' (or worse, if you happen to be Damien Hirst), if only because it further weakens their grip on the power to determine what is good art – and more, what's good for us.
The web enables artists to side-step the traditional, filtered (or 'curated') system to deliver their work straight to a receptive audience, an audience empowered to think for itself. The artist can communicate directly and in detail to this audience and develop a dialogue with it. They can turn it into a knowledgeable fan base that might, over time, help sustain them both emotionally and financially.
Ironically, the same individuals who castigate me for being a 'publicity whore' – and there are as many artists as dealers among them – complain that their work doesn't sell.
Of course it doesn't. Usually, it hasn't been exposed to the right audience. The problem with galleries is they expect the audience – which, in their mind, is always the same 300 people and worse, belongs not to the artist but to them – to turn up at their bricks-and-mortar premises. But anyone with a rudimentary understanding of modern marketing can tell you that in the networked information age, you have to take your brand and product to a virtual forum – populated not by a faceless mass but a 'million-fold audience of just one' (as Creed O'Hanlon described it) – and let the audience engage directly with them, in their own way.
This is, if anything, the polar opposite of old-school hype: it is not about broadcasting loud, intrusive, showy, one-way messages but about creating easily navigable, customisable points of access to information and images that people can process or explore in their own time, then encouraging them to re-distribute these to their friends.
I don't understand those artists who try to corral their rights and prevent anyone reproducing their images without permission (or, worse, payment). Promotion is most successful when there is memorable content. If people can download that content – which, in the case of my paintings, is not the same as the actual, real world work – and share it, they become partners in your marketing and communications strategy. And you sell more.
An artist's work might be thought of as inaccessible – it might be too refined, self-indulgent, highbrow, repulsive or obscene – but if enough people get to see it, then the odds are that a percentage will relate to it and respond. Sub-cultural outsider and punk rocker G.G. Allin led an army of fanatical fans, despite the fact that his music was poorly produced and his live performances involved rolling in and eating feces and attacking audience members. He found the fans he had because he focussed only on reaching those who were open to his anarchic persona.
We can each find whatever we're interested in online, no matter how arcane, along with others with whom we can share it. We don't need the elitist curatorial inclinations of traditional galleries and art institutions to collect, redact or interpret anything for us. Apart from anything else, they're too bloody slow and their language is obscure if not entirely unintelligible.
They're not nearly as smart as the artists themselves, who are using the web to regain independence – and attention – on their own terms.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Artist As Salaryman

My new studio isn't a patch on my old one. It's smaller, in a mid-city space shared with other artists. I haven't had time to set it up properly so it's neither comfortable nor efficient – nothing more than three and half walls and a paint-stained floor. Nevertheless, my first two days at work here have been very productive.
I stick to a routine. I plan each day in detail, taking care not to crowd the hours so I'm able to complete each task I set myself. I limit my time in the studio – and with it my exposure to carcinogenic enamel fumes – to no more than half a day. I spend two hours at the gym afterwards. Whatever's left, I leave free for meetings or hole up in my hotel room, where I draw, catch up with phone calls and correspondence, or conceive new work.
I used to measure a successful week by the amount I crammed into it. The trouble was, too many ended with little if anything actually done. Now I look to the long haul and an accumulation of small successes that, over months, add up to substantial accomplishment.
It's not particularly romantic. The time management and attention to mundane detail can feel like the daily grind of a regular office job. But I bear in mind the words of Gustave Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Reminder To Myself

"You do not have to believe in yourself or your work. It is not your business to determine how good it is, how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. But it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly to the urges that motivate you.
"There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, the expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through another medium and will be lost. The world will never have it."
Martha Graham

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Trusting Tedium

When I left the clinic, nearly a month ago, I had to re-build the basic structure of my life. Only in the past couple of weeks have I been able to focus on making art again.
I'd fallen out of practice. My hand was rusty, my eye imprecise. It took hours of disciplined drawing to regain my self-confidence.
Now I'm ready to return to the studio. In a funny way, I've missed the dreadful miasma of enamel fumes. But I've resolved to be more careful about how I manage my exposure to them, just as I'll have to manage how I divide my time between creating new works and re-making those I destroyed when I went crazy at the beginning of the year.
I'm not going to rush anything. There's an awful lot to do, from building a number of new timber frames for enamel paintings to laying out a 'mechanical' but still hand-made process to produce a large number of the
Yes/No Stencils. The only way to get though it all is to to plan each step.
It can be a tedious exercise. But I've learned that if I'm going to be productive as an artist, a chaotic, passionate intensity is useful only when it comes to conceiving the work, not making it. It might not be true for everyone but for me to think of it any other way is tempting disaster.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

(Un)Bound

Sometimes I work on an idea for a painting and nothing comes of it. If I'm unlucky, I might convince myself that the idea is strong enough to sustain a series of paintings. Then I'll work on it for a couple of months, developing it into scores of drawings or small acrylic on paper studies.
I can't tell you why an idea doesn't work out. Maybe it isn't enough of an idea to begin with. Maybe I take the wrong approach to it or I forget what interested me about it in the first place. Maybe I'm just easily bored. Whatever the reason, I end up with a pile of diary-like notes, reference photographs, sketches and highly finished drawings and paintings for which, to my mind, there is no further use. When I was younger and dumber, I used to burn them, partly driven by of an urgent desire to cover the traces of what I couldn't help but think of then as my inadequacies as an artist. Now I'm smarter. I consign the material to an archive box.
The idea for Bound first came to me shortly before I undertook the Sex Tourist installation for Metro Gallery at Art Melbourne '07. I imagined a handful of very large enamels each depicting a solitary woman of indeterminate race bound in some way within an otherwise empty space. The trappings of fetishized sex – blindfolds, gags, limbs tethered with intricate, kinbaku rope seizings and knots, heads and bodies sheathed within constrictive latex 'geek' outfits – were designed to draw the prurient eye into an ultimately discomforting metaphor for contemporary women still 'bound' by media-reinforced male expectations of them (and surprisingly ambivalent about notions of empowerment).
The trouble was, as the works grew in scale, they were never more communicative and convincing than the first simple outline drawings. These were composed with painstaking rigour using a fine, black felt-tipped draughting pen on a torn-off square (no more than 30cms x 30cms) of heavy, cold-pressed paper. They were intended only to define the areas of colour between black outlines in the final enamel paintings. Nevertheless, in their stark simplicity, the drawings expressed nearly everything there was to my idea. There was no need to enlarge and paint them.
I've held onto the drawings for a month or so, trying to figure out what more I might do with them. Now I've decided to sell a few at a time to those who follow my work online, many of whom can't afford my watercolours let alone my large enamels. Each will be priced at $A500, including taxes, post and packaging.
The first, pictured above, was offered via Twitter and Facebook, late last night. It sold within 12 hours. The next will be offered on Saturday evening.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Razor's Edge

Today, an anonymous writer – the ones with something ugly to say are always anonymous – took me to task for using a quote from a 2006 edition of the Australian Financial Review that read, "Hazel Dooney walks the razor's edge between respect and celebrity in today's art world."
The writer correctly pointed out that the key part of this quote was contained in an essay that I wrote. They called me "sleazy" for offering it as an unattributed quote among others on my home page.
In their haste to cast an aspersion, the writer ignored – or didn't care – that it was also the headline chosen by the newspaper's editor for the 3,000-word article. It was he, not I, who judged it a perfect summation of my career position as far as his business-minded readers were concerned. The entire article has always been accessible from the Bibliography page of my web site as well as in three entries on this blog.
Of course, I haven't hesitated to take advantage of the quote. At the time I put in on the home page, I'd forgotten that the headline was derived from my own words but I don't think that would've stopped me. It's no secret that I'm a tireless self-promoter when it comes to my art. However, I've tried neither to deceive nor conceal my authorship of the article. To call me sleazy – especially from cover – is not only gutless, it entirely misses the mark.
Oh, and I deleted the comment. As I wrote
here a couple of months ago: "I am open to critical remarks about my work or me. I've published many here over the past three years and I will continue to do so. But if you're not willing to identify yourself, if you do it anonymously, I'll just trash what you have to say."

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Thinking Through Another's Skin

I've been drawing, painting and photographing the human body for nearly fifteen years but when someone I don't know well undresses in front of me, I still get a momentary, complicated rush of embarrassment, prurience and reserve. I haven't yet mastered the detached, clinical regard of a physician – or a coroner. It takes me a while to get comfortable with studying another's body – which is why I've used my own so often as reference for my work.
As I wrote
here, a few days ago, I've wanted for a long time to use someone else as both the phsyical and psychological subject of a work. I've considered enlisting friends or former assistants but my various ideas cried out for someone (or something) unfamiliar.
Yesterday, I photographed a young, long-limbed, part-Indonesian girl. I met her for the first time only the day before, when I approached her on a busy city street to ask if she'd be interested in modelling for me. I suggested she look through my work online. When we spoke on the phone later that day, she admitted she was nervous but ready for anything.
At my hotel room, she slipped out of her clothes in front of me without any shyness and lay naked on the bed.
It took time to get at not only what I was looking for visually but something more, a sense of the character that was driving the not entirely coherent narrative in my head. I shot for two hours, on low res' dgital and 35mm film, pausing only to ask her to change the angle of a limb or twist her torso. My demeanour was ruthless, almost predatory – hers sensual, relaxed and open. We chatted about boyfriends, sex and what foods we liked in the minutes it took for me to change a film or check an exposure.
I wasn't expecting to come away with much that was usable from this first session. I was still feeling my way around the edges of an idea and it will take more time, more encounters, to figure out what it's really about. I might yet discard it to explore something else. Only when I begin to make drawings from these and other photos – and only when I've worked my way through several – will I be able to assess whether the disparate fragments I have in my head are coalescing on the page.