83.5 x 63.5cm
CEAC staff member Kyla Mackenzie interviews Viky Garden in the lead-up to her Summer School class ‘It’s All About You’ in January 2011. Click HERE for a full description of Viky's class & enrolment details.
KM: How long has your work been preoccupied with autobiographical element and the figure – referenced from yourself?
VG: There’s a self portrait on my wall that was in my fifth form art folder – that’s going back almost 35 years now….
KM: Your recent works, from 2009 and 2010 are quite different in effect. Rather than frontal portraits with exaggerated features, in the works from ‘nature/nurture’, a young girlish figure in black-silhouetted profile features in various allegorical scenarios. Did anything in particular spur this approach?
VG: I’m forever noting things in my workbook, drawing compositional sketches etc., because I’m always looking for new ways to represent the figurative within a narrative context. When I drew the silhouette, I knew that it would add more abstraction and ambiguity (even though it’s still my profile). The initial idea came from a profile in Arabesque (2006), which I adapted into the Passenger series (2009). While playing with ideas for Nature/Nurture (2010), I drew inspiration from the Pahiatua girls from Any Given Day (2002). I enjoy having a large body of work that I can constantly reference, and from which develop a unique language and individual set of motifs.
KM: You have explored younger 'selves' previously in self-portraiture, such as ‘Seven”. What does ‘girlhood’ mean for you?
VG: It’s a very, very vulnerable time, a time of absorbing and grasping ideas, of innocence and fragility. In Nature/Nurture, I have been exploring notions of merit and value, juxtaposing youthful innocence against the implicit presence of societal violence and sexualisation, so it was crucial to use a very young protagonist for this series to give emphasis to vulnerability, impressionability and the potential for corruptibility.
KM: What do red lipsticked lips mean for you?
VG: Lipstick is face-paint, a feminine tool. I use it in a number of ways, partly to convey or accentuate sadness, irony, and artifice, but also to suggest individual projection and power.
KM: Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes. Does this have any relevance to your own repeated use of your face and body in your works?
VG: Not at all. If an idea is strong, I’m like a bull at a gate. It’s more about how to use her than me.
With regard to her. I start a composition that has a portraiture element to it - I include myself within the context of the narrative. In the process of doing that, the portrait becomes more a figurative element, a slight disassociation that somehow allows both intimate reference (subjective 'the me') but also universal resonance (objective 'the her'). Which is why when other women (in particular) when viewing a painting, often see themselves.
I don't think they're buying a portrait of me. I've had experiences (one in particular) where two women came to one of my shows and one woman broke down in front of a painting. It wasn't because she saw me, she saw herself.
All the paintings become 'my girls' - when I see a work I've not seen for a while, I think, god, isn't she lovely!
KM: I've heard that 'good' models are hard to find. The artist's face is often the most convenient subject and talking to yourself is optional... Do you ever get asked to produce portraits of others?
VG: Talking to myself is mandatory, not optional. I have been asked to paint commissions, however, painting someone else would mean interrupting a process that I have worked at for nearly twenty years. When I am painting, my mind is already working out how to move and expand (or reduce) the idea – so I’m already prepping the next canvas in my head and have worked in this way for years now - very much to the exclusion of all else. I’m rather protective of the way I work because ideas are fragile things and often the strength of a body of work is in the continuation of various thematic threads. It is very difficult to apply or impose these personal thematic strains on someone else, someone with their own set of expectations.
KM: You have gained a strong following, particularly over the last decade, and your works have a depth, truth and integrity. Is painting for you, as Australian painter Brett Whitely put it, ‘a difficult pleasure’?
VG: Very much. It’s a difficult pleasure on various levels. I live in a city that has a high cost of living and I paint full time, so I’m dependent on my work selling. The compromised lifestyle isn’t something I’d recommend in a hurry – not when you consider that inspired work has to come from it. Facing a blank canvas is daunting enough, then comes the time - the very alone time – of creating art. When it works, it’s a moment of personal celebration.
KM: As a young painter, you were tutored by another painter, Vivian Lynn. She later became Lecturer of Drawing and Design, Schools of Architecture and Design, Victoria University. Did anything about her approach encourage your own hard edged painting style or did that evolve much later?
VG: Vivian tutored me for five years during my mid-teens. I am immensely grateful for that time with her. They were formative years and I was in the best of hands. Her dedicated, disciplined and focused approach is a constant inspiration to me. An artist for nearly sixty years, Vivian’s work is as topical, relevant and vital as when I first met her. I began painting when I was 27 and my practice is drawn primarily from my time with her.
KM: Who are some artists and or artworks that have impacted on you and your work in some way?
VG: Many artists and artworks have stopped me in my tracks. Shani Rhys James is a Welsh painter who also uses herself within a narrative framework. Marianne Kolb paints dark figurative studies that I sense are autobiographical. I’m also very passionate about the work of Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash. Their work has a high level of emotional intelligence, more feminine in expression than masculine. The sculptural work of Beth Cavener Stichter is inspiring. Another artist who greatly impresses me is Valerio Adami. My work is vastly different to his, but I completely understand his use of line and colour. His sense of composition is flawless.
KM: How do you recognise long-term potential and drive in the work of students and emerging artists?
VG: If someone is able to articulate thoughts visually, devoid of superficiality (unless that’s their intent and they express it well), then that’s a good place to start. Much depends upon motivation, discipline, good fortune and good timing. I am very interested in subtext (which I apply to my own work), and I look for it in the work of others. I’m attracted to art with conceptual depth, a sense of mystery and modesty – these are a few of the things I look for that speak to me about the inherent individual quality of an artist.
KM: Your paintings are instantly recognizable as yours. How do you encourage others painting their self-portraits to find their own iconography and painting style?
VG: I think if I can get others to feel relaxed with what they are trying to do, then something will come of it – perhaps not even in the week that we have together. That’s fine. The pressure can be immense, a blank canvas can be intimidating, let alone a mirror in unflattering light. I simply want students to realize that painting is a process, and that observing oneself for long periods can be very rewarding.
KM: What are your thoughts on University art schools?
VG: This is a difficult one for me to answer because I didn’t have the opportunity to attend an art school. However, after twenty years as an exhibiting artist, I’m aware that had I been in the class of so-and-so or under the tutelage of whomever, it would have been very handy for dealers, funding councils etc., enabling them to more easily contextualise my work. It’s a privilege to be able to spend time within an arts facility, and to build up one’s practice without the pressure of exhibiting each year and having to make a living.
KM: Your upcoming class on self-portraiture, ‘It’s All About You’ at Corban Estate Art Centre in Henderson, runs from 17 to 21 January 2011. Teaching painting must be quite a contrast to the solitary activity of painting in your studio. What are your thoughts on this?
VG: Yes, it’s vastly different. I please myself in my own studio, so the discipline of having to achieve something within a strict timeframe is going to be interesting.
KM: You have taught in this capacity before – what do you most enjoy about guiding other painters?
VG: I love seeing people quietly bloom. It can be very poignant. Unlike still life or landscape painting, the trust and courage required to approach this type of self-examination cannot be underestimated. Seeing what one is capable of can be very revealing, but it can also be a very rewarding experience.
KM: What sorts of ideas and approaches should your students bring to their class in January?
VG: The only thing I would suggest is to leave the Greek chorus of nay-sayers at home. Everyone will come with their own ideas, aspirations and hang-ups, so if I can get on track with each person and support and encourage them, then I’ll be more than happy, and hopefully they’ll enjoy what they’re doing and not feel it’s an examination.