WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT PRESENT
One thing leads into another….
My painting is not part of a specific project as if I’d say: “well I am going to start doing ‘this’”. One thing will present itself and will develop for quite a while….
For instance, since the trip to Berlin [note: Anthony recently returned from four months in Europe], my paintings have become less and less figurative. There is less human presence in my work.
I have done a lot of figure in the landscape:
My MFA exegesis was called ‘landscape invention’ : I had an ‘every-man’ figure and basically the landscape was represented through the use of atmospheric imagery like clouds. It was about the interaction between humans and clouds. And from those, which were drawings, essentially, paintings kind of followed-on from that basic theme.
Since Berlin I have thought about the landscape more and started leaving the literal figure out of it. Increasingly I am looking for more motives that represent the human in the landscape, without human being.
I am interested in the absurd and I am quite passionately interested in the environment. That informs my thinking as well: not that I want to be overly politicized in the work but that is what I am coming from.
For instance these little hands paintings: they look like trees, but they are people. They are like ‘stuck’ in the landscape: they are protruding, they are presence. Not necessarily benign but that is where it is going presently.
There is no over writing thesis when I’m doing the work, the images come that way, something will come and spur something else. They are like day dreaming. Images come and go: when I’m in the shower, or any time.
It caught me the other day that I have been doing this since I was quite young, this kind of surrealist theme. Not that I think of it as being surrealism: that seemed to be unfashionable when I went to art school. But there is that kid of surrealist vent to what I am doing. And I have always been interested in entropy and the melancholy of things coming apart: When I was 10, my primary school invited the ‘talented’ kids to celebrate the centenary of the school by painting aspects of the school. And I chose the incinerator building.
I was thinking the other day that I should contact that school and ask if they still have the painting in the library. Years ago they sent the picture of it to my parents when I was overseas and I don’t know what happened to it. But it would be nice to get hold of it and get a sense of the timeline.
I often think that in a way you kind of make the same painting, again and again and again. There is a thread that is part of you that caries through. Obviously our interests and knowledge change but you I think that if you look at a pictorial timeline I think you can find something that runs through everyone’s work.
So yes, it would be nice to get hold of that little incinerator building painting.
AP: any idea why you pick that subject for your painting at the time?
As a ten years old, I don’t know. It just appealed to me. It was probably because it was dirty and cranky and out of place and everyone else was painting beautiful trees in front of sandstone buildings. The pictorial kind of chocolate boxy thing didn’t interest me, but this industrial, decrepit thing did.
Maybe also because it wasn’t what everyone else was doing as well!
AP: so basically you are not working towards an exhibition, a deadline, you are just letting the work develop.
Yes…These have been exhibited in September and I have been asked to put a few in a group show next month at the Queen Street Gallery. So, I am not stressed about working towards a show in a gallery…
The galleries seem to be decrepit, or going broke, not doing any work and charging too much money for commissions, not doing any work and expecting co-payments….
So you think: what’s the point! ….it is probably not the right time to invest a lot of money in an exhibition.
I have sold a drawing yesterday, and another one the other day, so people are buying things. But to frame 20 or 30 drawings for a commercial gallery is not really worth it at the moment.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ART PRACTICE IN RELATION TO THE LANDSCAPE?
What is your preferred exposure to the landscape? plein-air? memory? These are not paintings of specific landscapes…
They are memories of places. They are also ‘digested’. You wouldn’t be able to pick the place necessarily where I painted from. Occasionally they are inspired by a special location but it is hard to pick and it doesn’t really matter.
I realised something when I was in Germany: I found that some shapes I started drawing there were also in some much earlier works. These shapes came back again.
AP: Do you use photographic material?
I take lots of photographs of landscape, which you may have seen on Facebook. Urban landscapes. I am interested in incursions between the man-made and the natural environment. I don’t go en ‘plein-air’ for painting much but I do go out and take photographs. I go out in the bush, and just hang around.
AP: you “feed” your mind with indirect images that you reconstitute, somehow ‘re-digested’ in your work? …
Yes. And sometimes I reference something more directly: like this little painting down here which is kind of developed around the idea of the gardens of stone and the protests about the coal mining.
Also, there is a park in Berlin, a children’s playground, and the surface shows this blue, rectangular play area, and a waddling pool that is empty, so that has been included as a pictorial device, just because I liked that. Again, a man-made incursion against the natural environment
AP: So you don’t have these photographs lying around when you work?
I tend not to, but I can reference off my computer if I want to. I have been looking to a lot of the pictures I took while I was overseas lately. So no, I don’t reference them in my paintings but I do look at them…. I do like to look at them.
AP: What is you medium of choice (if any) and how does it influence your work?
I go through ‘patches’ of doing a lot of painting or doing a lot of drawing. I find it difficult within a day, to go from one to the other. My mind is either going to making these kind of marks [pointing to the wall of drawings] or these kind of marks [paintings].
I use a variety of medium: pastels, and gouache, watercolour and charcoal and etc….at the moment my mind is playing with oil paint.
AP: When you draw…obviously you develop the same kind of imagery, yet not the same…they seem faster, more immediate. Do you do series? How do your drawings develop?
One drawing will become a springboard for another drawing. And one day becomes a springboard for another day. And you are right: they are a lot quicker. Again, being removed from reality, you can play around with the pictorial elements rather than worrying about the foreground, middle ground, background idea of space, etc. They tend to be a little more abstract….
I think for me there is great deal more possibility for abstraction in the drawings than there is in the paintings for the moment. I still have a sense of realism in the paintings whereas the drawings allow me to be quite free….and flat… and abstract the forms a bit more.
Yes it is still my concern. Pinned in all my work is this concern about the human and the environment. There is still always a human presence implied by a man-made form or more literally with a figure.
AP: Are you exploring the intimacy between the human and the surrounding world, or our dependency on it … or the impact of the human on the landscape?
I think what I am usually looking at is more a ‘distance’ between the human and the natural world without setting a dialectic like “I am telling a story”…but it seems there is always that distance….they don’t ‘mesh’ overly happily, but at the same time there is no gnashing of teeth and angst, it is just that there is that distance and I have the feeling that it’s probably because we are at distance from ourselves and our environment. It is not happy, bucolic and pastoral.
FIGURE OR NO FIGURE IN THE LANDSCAPE?….
AP: You have started talking about this already but could you develop a little further and come back to the reason why the figure appeared in the landscape and how you are using it when it is present, what it means to you?
When the figure came into the landscape? ….I can show you a painting of that time: I had an exhibition at Irwin in 1990; I think it’s probably my first ‘mature’ exhibition, and I was doing a lot of figure in the landscape. They were quite dystopian, I guess… and they have been there since. So it’s been about 23-24yrs.
The ones that don’t have the figure… I have been playing around with not having the figure. And making them…. a bit less personal, and a bit less driven by human identity. So motifs like “the glove” or the plastic shell, a kind of Venus sandpit. That talks strongly about the human but without a person.
…When you have an actual human figure, people wonder who the hell that is.
AP: and particularly wondering if that is the painter…
Yes. Exactly. To make a figure painting anonymous is quite difficult. So in the most recent works the human presence is less literal.
COULD YOU TAKE ME BACK TO YOUR EARLY YEARS AND WHAT INFLUENCED YOU TO BECOME AN ARTIST?
AP: Where were you born? Where you born in the country or urban environment?
My father was a soldier. So we moved around a bit. A lot of my family were country people and my father’s family comes from St Arnaud in western Victoria. My father was an apprentice to become a cooper. But he ran away and joined the army under-aged and went off to war because he didn’t want to be a cooper.
So there are many people in my family who live in the country and still have property there.
I remember when I was 6, dad was transferred to Melbourne and we had the “married “quarters on this property ….kind of outskirts of Melbourne, at Maribyrnong, which is now almost inner Melbourne, near the river. And behind was a CSIRO research farm.
So my brother and I used to go and catch yabbies in the dam and go around everywhere.
Then in our early pre-teens we lived in Northern Sydney. We converted our bicycles into what we now call mountains bikes and we use would drive down the paths, the creeks, down to Lane Cove National Park and we used to leave at six in the morning and return at six at night and we’d catch lizards and turtles and I remember belonging to a ‘Bird Society’ when I was a kid.
I kind of have this long interest in the natural world.
It’s is interesting because being a kid in the seventies, a lot of our teachers, in primary school in particular, encouraged us to think that way. It was a very positive time for environmentalism. And I was lucky to grow in these times and be encouraged to think about pollution and what was going on in the world.
So here you go!…I had not thought really about this in a long time….but there is this long commitment and interest in things environmental….yes, there is a deep, long commitment to an interest in things environmental.
AP: something that you really deeply care about stemming from a very early exposure to the landscape when it wasn’t yet as fragile as it is now…
Yes, and not as fashionable.
There was certainly a lot of concern back then for water or air pollution: it is then we started talking about the “smog” and species were going extinct but not to the degree that they seem to be going extinct now.
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL CONNECTION TO THE AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE? How? Why?
I am obviously Australian. Having said that, there is no gum trees in what I do…there are trees but they are just trees. So it is not especially an Australian landscape. I don’t see these [pointing to the works on the wall of the studio] as being specific to Australia, they could come from anywhere.
AP: yet sitting here, surrounded by your paintings, I feel there is a deep sense of Australian landscape:
You are right in saying they could be from anywhere, yet there is a strong feeling of sadness and isolation, which is something I perceive in the Australian environment, in the bush?
I think I have an international view of landscape. But I am Australian and that comes through in the work, as far as I can tell. It’s like “think internationally but act locally” kind of theme.
HAVE YOU TRAVELED & USED OVERSEAS LANDSCAPE AS A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION? How did this influence the work?
In the three months we spent in Berlin last year, it probably took about two months to work out what I was trying to do. We went to the Venice Biennale and to Prague and Tokyo, saw all these Museums and works at the Biennale, and here I am back in Berlin…. were I was nearly 30 yrs ago. And I am thinking “geez, had this changed”, and trying to re-acquaint myself while looking at new things.
SO it took nearly two months before I started making drawings that I felt comfortable with. I am drawing things that are about the place. So I needed that time to feel comfortable with where I am.
Hmm, I could have but I probably wouldn’t have. They are products of being somewhere else. They are still a produce of me looking in the way I look at the world, and the way I kind of ‘seek out’ things in the landscape, like the incinerator building or roadside constructions, like in my photographic ramblings.
So these drawings are very different to where I was going before I went away. I think I was heading somewhere different, for instance like in this painting I was doing just before I left.…Going away kind of pushed me ahead and coming home I find that these new works are quite different to what I was doing just prior.
AP: Can we stop on this idea for a moment: what triggered what you perceive as being different?
Do I know what triggered it? Do you mean technically or just the imagery?
AP: the whole thing; do you think it is the feeling of being in a foreign place or perhaps the shapes brought in by being physically among a different type of architectural structures in Germany?
I think that in some respect, being in a foreign place kind of liberates one to think differently. You are leaving a lot of your ‘history’ behind…what I mean is you are not encumbered by what you’ve done this much. So I don’t think these drawings would have happened had I not been away for four and a half months last year. They are very much influenced by being away.
Having said that there are elements in there that are coming back: we talked about these ‘funny stacks’….these ‘tower things’… visual devices that I have used in the past, but going away has brought more of this to the surface and produced a slightly less literal landscape.
….I had a student here last week and I had pulled out a few paintings to show the difference between what I am doing now and was doing before [Anthony is displaying a number of works to show me]
See these were from last year, and those from the year before. So yes, they have shifted…and I was ready for it. Some of these paintings from last year came from out of these drawings. They are very different to these drawings [pointing towards the Germany drawings].
AP: I find the Germany works quite dark, in comparison to the older drawings…
Yes…. Well, Germany was….dark.
I really liked the light in Germany, I love European light. It really appeals to me. I like that kind of melancholic, low, soft light. So these….started influencing paintings that were slightly “fresher”.
This one is called “circle works”, there is a figure with a box on the head walking in circle. You know, circle works is what we do with utilities, in Australia in the bush…
AP: is there a sense of mortality induced by the figure in your work as well?
Yes I think that is present. Again without trying to be melodramatic: I try and make beautiful things, I don’t try and make them dark and morbid or depressing. But yes, there is a sense of mortality, a sense of absurdity and melancholy.
We were talking about distance before and I have a have a wall in this work and a house and the person has a barrier between them and the house and the box on the head…
AP: These particular elements in the work, is that something you had planned beforehand or does it develop and they appear as you work?
Hmmm, I did a few little drawings, they had the figure and the box on the head…
I was saying I have a house in Blackheath. When we first bought that house I was really intrigued by the bush regeneration methods and how they put little turquoise bags over???? So I did a few paintings with these.
And to stop erosion you have these sorts of mesh fences that they put through the landscape. So I did these kind of barriers in the landscape.
These works were much more literal than these new paintings that still have human inference but much less literal.
AP: these works here are very different: could you talk about how they came about in the development of your art? (note to Anthony when choosing image to illustrate this text, we were looking at the small landscape with tower / mountain and the horizon)
That was in 1997. I finished art school in 82, and when I finished art school I won a scholarship and went away for two years, came back and had an exhibition. My first exhibition was all figurative and another one.
Then I had this period when I wasn’t sure what direction I was going into. I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to paint.
And I started playing around with a landscape that would start from a horizon line, break it up with shapes that had that tower form, incursion in the landscape. To me they had, and I think they still have, a great sense of aesthetic. But they are still “things” in the landscape. They are still breaking up the ‘ideal’ landscape.
There is that alizarin crimson incursion on the right hand side of this painting, and it is a simple abstract element into the composition again. These ‘discs’…god know where they came from that I put people and cars on… again they are some kinds of geometric incursions…
Because it’s a circle and it’s on the ground, it kind of is a human thing, without having to say it is. They are nice pictorial devices to play with.
Strange enough when I did my MFA in 2009, there were a bunch of drawings of my eerie man walking around, almost digging himself into the ground walking around.. so this disc has now found its way into my work, the circle became a disc. And then you will see smoke rings that I was doing with my eerie man. The landscape became a cloud, and then the cloud became a smoke ring, and the smoke ring is kind of indicative of humans together.
It is interesting how some simple elements can be recycled and reused… I am not really thinking: “how am I going to do this?”… they kind of make themselves known….
AP: what about the recurring “cloth” in your paintings?
The cloth…..The cloth is because I like it.
….come on, they are fun to paint!! [laughs] But also they are like shrouds…
See, in this one called “camp site”… it relates to “ grey nomades” : these old people going camping. Then, at the same time, the cars are covered up: like these campers who go camping but kind of protect themselves in their campervans. So they are covered up.
But it is also the last thing that they are going to do….
……….Well I don’t really want to tell a story, not a literal story, but that all come to mind. So theses cloths here are kind of like shrouds, in a way, in a Christo way.
Similarly in these latest works, the gloves are wrapped hands, it is protected, but also isolated, it’s a barrier. Same idea with the tent: it is a wrap, a protection, but also a barrier…
AP: And the clouds?
The cloud is multi meaning to me. But in my work it is a man-made thing. It is so evocative of so much: Beside the fact that clouds are beautiful things, they are potent in storms but also can be formed from pollutants.
I also like the idea of the chemtrails: especially in Europe skies, especially in winter skies and you see all these chemtrails from planes, amazing geometric abstract patterns.
So that’s the clouds. The clouds are another metaphor for humans interacting with the natural world.
WHAT ARE YOUR INFLUENCES? WHO DO YOU THINK HAD AN INFLUENCE ON WHO YOU ARE AS AN ARTIST?
When I was six, my grandmother gave me a book on El Greco and I really like El Greco. I think going to Rome I also saw a lot of Jericho, which in a way I can connect to my work. Beckmann also has always been a bit of a hero….
When I first went abroad in 83, I spent a lot of time in northern Germany and saw a lot of German renaissance works. There is a kind of nasty edge to the German paintings that appeal to me…
But it really changes…
From the top of my head, I also think of Goya, or Titian … and many other contemporary artists.
WERE DO YOU LIVE? DOES YOUR USUAL LOCATION AFFECT YOUR PRACTICE OR HAS IT BEEN CRITICAL IN THE EVOLUTION OF YOUR ART?
I am geographically schizophrenic because I spend half my time in the mountains and half in the city. So both have an effect.
I walk a lot and many of the “flaneur” photos I post on social media are taken when I walk. Since my return from Germany I’ve called them “shanks’s pony” which in old Australian means walking.
I walk a lot, I walk from our house in Sydney to the studio, mostly. When I come from the mountains I come by train but instead of reading for instance I spend a lot of time looking…looking at people, looking out the window, at the landscape. So it is both.
Also being in Blackheath, I see a lot of clouds and things, and mist, a lot of the time. There is that wonderful northern European mist that is kind of dark.
AP: I suppose it must deepen your understanding of each of these places, by constantly shifting your point of view. You must also be surrounded by two kind of population as well, and you travel between the two.
Yes… you know when you travel abroad, it is almost cliché to say but you think about your country and who you are and where you come from. So in a way, it helps me see things fresh:
When I come down from the mountains I see Sydney afresh again. And then when I return to the mountains I see them afresh also. So I suppose I don’t become complacent as much as I could.
…because there is so much we walk past and take for granted….
This space I have here is much bigger than the space I have to work in at home. This space here is a much better painting space. It is also away from home so I don’t have so many domestic interruptions.
But the paintings kind of work from both places: it is not like, when I am there I am making those works and when I am here I make these works. I take little ones, like these ones on boards and I start painting up there and then I take them back here and I finish them. So strangely, I am not having that disconnect I had when I was in Berlin where it was just such a huge shift. I’ve got my head around being able to do that kind of work from both places now.
But I got to the point now where I have almost duplicated all of my materials! That has been really nice too…So it is the best of both worlds really.
AP: We are coming to the end of our conversation, and I have one last question that you may like to use to conclude and summarise your thoughts….
IN CONCLUSION WHY THE LANDSCAPE?
I think it is the thing that has been at the forefront of my thinking since I was a kid and it kind of makes sense:
That is where we live, and for me it is a metaphor for the human existence, the human in the landscape. It is where we are, so it makes sense to me to talk about that.
I digress slightly sometimes, as I have certain paintings looking a bit like a still life in landscape as well, which is some kind of funny turn it’s taking.
If you take portraits: there are some extremely fantastic paintings that transcend the idea of representing a person, but generally portraits don’t seem to have any meaning once that person is gone.
Landscape seems to have a great sense of meaning to humans. We have to acknowledge that we seem to need some kind of relationship with the landscape. I am interested in figurative painting and in these the figure is often more interesting when in the landscape. These are the more interesting works, to me.
AP: Do you think that the landscape is the link between us (human) of today and others in the future or the past, and that someone looking at a landscape today finds it as relevant as it was when it was painted? It is like a continuous link between the human of the past and the human of today?
I think so. Stylistically the representation of the landscape changes but it there is always something that you can relate to, even looking at a historical painting of a landscape.
So yes, there is a line, there is a continuum and there is a constant. And it is universal.
So that is probably why the landscape.
When he is not teaching at the National Art School, Anthony Cahill shares his time between his Sydney and the Blue Mountains where he lives and paint. His work has been selected