Adam Lee (AL): Amber asked me if we could have some sort of impromptu conversation as opposed to me just asking her questions. To give some context, Amber and I have had this strange, ongoing conversation with each other as two painters, but we've only ever met in person today. We’ve talked on the phone, and it's been one of those dialogues where you just write a message every now again and bounce things around with somebody else. Then we had this beautiful but strange experience. Amber posted some photographs of some works on paper that she was making that I thought were absolutely beautiful. Up to that point we had talked about doing an exchange, or a painting of one another's painting, an old school sort of swap. And Amber posted one of the photos and very kindly said that it had been informed by some of the work that I made.
The painting that I then got from Amber in our exchange was loosely based on the initial image she sent. The painting now sits next to where I sleep. So, in the night time, when I'm disturbed, I reach out. It's very tactile and it has this very natural feeling to it. And then I made a painting…
Amber Wallis (AW): You did a watercolour based on that painting…
AL: That's right. Yes.
AW: And then I showed him where I got the reference material for my painting and the drawing I had done. And I said, 'oh, you can have it. But, oh, no, it was someone else's'. And then yours had gone to someone else.
AL: It's slightly blurry (laughs).
AW: So there's actually, like, four or five works we have both done that are related to this one image that we've both gotten from different sources at different times, which would be lovely to show.
AL: We were talking the other day about appropriation, which I always thought was just a nice way of saying stealing from people. But appropriation can be one of those beautiful things where, at least for me, I took that image because it resonated and it gave me a starting point. But then the work became its own thing, and I think that happens a lot.
AW: I think in this day and age, with Instagram and painting, with all art—you grab, you transfigure, you move things around and the painting comes out. But I think it's so nice to ode and honour, especially as contemporary painters, our peers and where that reference material comes from. I think if there's a dialogue around those influences, especially in the titling (I think Adam you titled one AW or something like that?), that it then supports that dialogue rather than negate its presence.
AL: And it also diffuses the idea that the works come out of nothing.
AL: They never come out of nothing. They're always informed by something else. And part of the struggle as an artist, I think, is to embrace that as a natural way to work.
AW: Exactly. And I think that transmutation happens when you are alone in your studio and then you're faced with the thing. That's when you come out, and that's when change happens in terms of technique or technicality, all those other aspects of working that are floating around shift.
AL: I was listening to John Frusciante, the guitarist who's played on and off with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers over many years, and he was being asked about one of their most well-known songs, and he just openly said, 'Oh, that just comes from another song'. He literally just lifted the song and then made it his own. But everyone seems to do that. You take something as it gives you somewhere to start, and then you bring something of your own to it. So that's been our natural connection.
AW: One thing I wanted to ask you about was structure. I know that's maybe a boring technical question, maybe it's interesting for some, but I think structurally, I'm quite interested in how you work. I look at your works and think, 'is he grabbing Renaissance triangles or spirals?' I think we both have a bit of a flat picture plane. We both chuck in abstraction, we both chuck in figuration. We don't have a huge amount of perspective. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. And what we both deal with is the ‘other', as in the spiritual or the things that you can't quite grasp. And I'm quite interested how you work with structure. For me at the moment, I've got these voyeuristic curtains, shapes, openings, and I wonder if that’s something that you deal with as well?
AL: In terms of how the painting is built, I used to usually have one image or a few images that I thought 'that's going to give me a painting' and I would almost make a painting that was of the photograph. And after a while I realised how stagnant that was for me. So now I try to embrace the fact that every one of the paintings is going to be different. What worked for one is not going to work for something else. And once you embrace that, it's really liberating. But what I think tends to happen is a whole lot of things that feed into the process and if I can just find something that gets me started then the process takes over. What gets me started could be words or a collection of images, that said the painting is not based on something that's static, it has a whole lot of moving parts. For a long, long time, I have no idea what the hell I'm doing until it starts to feel like it's locked itself in. How are your works started?
AW: I think like most painters, we actually all work pretty similarly and I think it’s kind of basic...
AL: Don’t tell everybody that (laughs).
AW: If we come back to how a technical aspect shapes a painting, I find working on raw linen is incredibly different to working on primed canvas. The raw linen is tricky because you've only got a couple of coats before it changes. So, if I'm working on raw linen I'm really approaching it like a drawing. In terms of all the different processes that go into a painting—raw linen offers multitude of different option in that you can only work it so much before you lose it. It just turns into a surface, then you lose that softness. You can only do about three layers.
Another reason I started to use raw linen was in direct response to having my child and so it became about time. Particularly when you don't have time. I found working on the raw linen meant I couldn't overwork—one bit did one thing, another bit did another, I can only really do three layers. When my daughter was young I could only be in the studio for such short jabs. I had to make every line count. And for me, that was a huge turning point in the way that I work and the way that I paint.
I think so many painters are essentially drawers. What people see is the paint, but I'm fundamentally a drawer, it’s just that I paint. I think the way I approach primed canvas now is very different, in that I approach it the same way as raw linen. You can see that there's only a layer or two on these works. And what has happened with being a parent is I can't thrash something out. I spend a lot more time looking because I don't have time. So the paintings have been changed and operate differently in response to life circumstances.
AL: You mean you spend longer looking at them?
AW: Yes, I do. Because I have to make the time count, because as we talked about, if you're limited to a school hour or a daycare or something like that, you have to be there and you have to work. And that doesn't mean thrashing something to a point of killing it. For me, it means doing something that's considered to get what I want across with the least amount of paint.
AL: But the looking is integral. It's taken me so long to figure this out, but the looking is just as important as when you're actually applying paint. I used to tell myself I wasn't actually working unless I was physically painting, but now I paint less and look more. It's a strange thing.
AW: I think so many painters, the older they get commonly come to that understanding, asking 'what is it that I really need to do?' And if you really need to thrash something out, you know that's what you need to do.
AL: What you're talking about brings me to something that I've been thinking about with your paintings for a long time, which is the idea of tenderness. it is funny that we sometimes look at something like tenderness almost as a weakness in painting but I think it's such a strength. I'm talking about tenderness on a number of levels. Like when you talk about painting as a mother, I also bookmark my working day with the time I have with my daughter, so we're very similar in that sense. But tenderness also in terms of what you're talking about carries that sense. I think the work perhaps comes out of the everyday experience of things like family.
AW: Maybe this is where I experienced it differently, I think when I had my daughter, I realised that if I didn't get better at my practice I was going to drop out and I was going to lose it. And I knew that I had to get better. The other thing I knew was that I was up against men. And what I decided was if Ben Quilty (and I love Ben Quilty’s work) is doing big, thick gestural painting, how do I do the opposite and be just as strong? Because that's the feminist side of it, right? How do I go up against a masculine gestural abstraction? And for me, it was through doing the opposite. It was working so light and so gently—which I deem as a feminist practice—and working on a material of raw linen, which is, again, a feminist materiality. I see it as a direct, conscious decision to go up against a lauded masculine painting style, of gestural abstraction. I think there was a very conscious decision to be tender. And I was talking earlier about a stillness and a gentleness and a femininity within the stillness, even if the subject matter is complicated. And I think I strive for stillness in them. And I think you have a stillness and a tenderness too, a calm rather than an aggression.
AL: And the tenderness carries through with your work in a number of ways, working on raw linen there's an immediacy to the work. I like that you talk about it being more like a drawing. If you look at that picture Yellow Awning it's definitely more like a drawing than anything else. It's such a gutsy thing to leave all that space and think that's enough. A reproduction of the work is not going to convey the fact that the painting shifts in its surface. I admire that because I don't know if I have the guts to do that. It's either laziness or guts (laughs).
When I came in to see the show yesterday and as I was thinking about your work, my mind started to think more about music, as someone that listens to a lot of music. It is like an album that's got these works that are like songs which are layered and they took a lot to come together and they're exalting. And then there are paintings that have a simplicity to them that carry just as much weight as the other work. And to get the relationship happening between those different ways of working is really challenging. You seem to do that really well. I learned a lot looking at them, and it makes me think about the way I make paintings. Maybe I don't have to actually work that part so much for instance.
AW: Maybe you can see it and let it be what it is.
AL: Like the small section underneath that bank there (in Gentle Yellow Threeway). Absolutely beautiful.
AW: That's where I'm trying one approach and realising it's not going to work, but it stays (laughs).
AL: It's a rare thing. For some reason, I wish it wasn't, but I think there's a lot of artists who figured out how to make a painting, and they keep making that same painting in a sense. I'm not criticising that, it is a different way of working, but that's not really what I'm interested in doing.
AW: I like the resonance between something that's moving and something that's quiet at the same time. I like that space between and I think we both work in a space between that isn't quite graspable, or may appear as many things all at once. They could stem from the past and be of the future, and be abstracted and be about colour. And it doesn't have to be something that's really obvious and clear. It can be something that is a multitude of different facets.
AL: Which is what you do. When I look at your paintings, sometimes the titles give a little lead into what the subject matter was or what the starting point was, but they're obscured, so you're not entirely sure what it is. And it could be a number of different things. And that's the beauty of the work and its impact. There's an ambiguity there that I think you traverse really well.
AW: I don't like it to be obvious (laughs)
AL: You're navigating that so beautifully.