An Intimate Distance: conversations with artists during lockdown
#1. John Scurry talks with Alexandra Sasse.
Caulfield North. 16.8.21
Your solo exhibition for next month has been postponed until February 2022. How has life been for you under rolling restrictions?
Luckily it hasn’t impinged in a desperately negative way, just a lot of small personal injustices. There is a certain feeling of powerlessness to change anything, and a discomfort for those seriously affected by the pandemic. With life under lockdown, now number six, I am just thinking day-to-day. Modest pleasures. I am fortunate to be able to work from home and admittedly stick my head in the sand a bit.
I can still get on with what I am doing, making pictures, for better or worse as it were. Perhaps it’s a way of trying to stay balanced, and putting the catastrophes going on around us into the background. Which sort of takes me back to when I started out and the question of what is meaningful or worthwhile. One eventually comes to the conclusion that meaning is the activity itself and what eventuates from that is ultimately in the hands of the viewer.
You mention meaning. Has the content of your pictures changed? How do world events affect your work?
It’s difficult to articulate these nuances. I have always liked depicting things and depictive imagery. I work very much from picture to picture and assume a coherency via the “how” of what is depicted rather than the “what”; something to do with the hand writing and a way of seeing. For me, to find meaning in looking, to prioritise the eye, however unfashionable that may seem, is fundamental.
When working toward a picture the question arises, “is this a credible proposition?” The same question is asked in making music. [Scurry has recently released a second volume of original tunes to international critical acclaim]. It’s creating links and constructing forms. Finding an appropriate tempo and rhythm, performing it and hopefully giving it an independent life.
As to world events, I think certain secondary imagery such as photographic references have played a role in juxtaposing elements in pictures inferring another realm. But there is no overt attempt at commentary.
How does your work fit into the broader cultural landscape?
Pass… I never consider such things as having a place or seeing myself in some sort of cultural schema. However, I might say that, at any given time there is always a panoply of differing styles, practices, genres, fashions and philosophies in mutual co-existence. It reminds me of the word “’contemporary” which now seems to mean one particular prevailing dominant moment in 21st century art driven by a massive international market of mega dealers and auction houses. For myself, apart from taking an ongoing interest in all that, I feel quite removed from it.
I am living now, responding as I have done, to individual moments prompted by diverse interests. When you are making pictures, you are conscious of other artist’s pictures. You live in a world of pictures, there is some sort of coherence. There are many works from across the centuries that speak to you, and they to me are alive and fresh and relevant regardless of their era.
I remember in the early 1980’s, an eminent art critic from The Age commenting to me on a particular representational painting of mine at Powell St Gallery that “the talent is greater than the style”. Meaning that, this has already been done. This wasn’t an uncommon attitude and one felt almost apologetic at times for not being current.
Have you always had a sense of being an outsider?
No. I am aware that stylistically I have generally seemed to be at odds with whatever has been seen to be of critical value or attention at the time. From early on, while I was interested in figurative and representational painting, most were looking at and imbibing abstraction and conceptual art. I went to England in 1967 for nearly a year after one year at art school. While I was away looking at historic works in the Tate, the very influential Two Decades of American Art exhibition came to Melbourne and other capitals. It had a significant, almost overnight effect on the Australian art and art schools and I think opened up a new generation of younger artists ambitiously looking to a broader international context.
What happened after abstraction?
I recall the early 1970s as being very geared towards influence of American abstract expressionism and then by the arrival of conceptual art. There was a new sense of a young national spirit emanating from the Whitlam era, that regenerated the arts. I am no historian but I think around the 80s to early 90s things changed in that there was no dominant trend or movement save the notion of the juggernaut of what is now called contemporary art. There was a growing politicization of art via academe, which now seemed to be more in the service of theoretical content, driven by social theory, feminism, issues of identity and post colonialism, French Theory and so on. At this stage as well, art schools were in flux and were being absorbed into universities which also brought significant changes to long standing studio-based teaching and experience.
What was the impetus for the return of figuration?
I think perhaps it is cyclical. There is, it seems, always a “New Figuration” or a “New Abstraction” being paraded somewhere in the world. For some, figuration has never gone away, (like painting which was declared dead several decades ago). If you look at what is now termed the “School of London”, or the “Madrid Realists” plus many other instances of individual artists, it’s clear artists have been working continuously in this vein here and elsewhere. On a personal level my interests have always been in representational painting and imagery and the “how” of paintings, rather than the “what”.
What is important to you now?
Basically, to get on with my work which is primarily painting, and retaining a belief in the value of it. For me it is a day- to- day thing to attend to. It’s quite simple really and the lovely thing is that there is always, (hopefully) something to work from. And there are many kindred spirits if you like, in the background.
I have no agenda, save that of giving each piece my full attention. Work makes work. The greatest anxiety is quite often what to do next, but the next always arises and with it, its own demands.
At the moment with the pandemic, we can only plan for the next day within our limited locale. Everything becomes subject to that immediate future. At a certain age you accept that this is what life is for me at the moment and determines what I am capable of doing. The options narrow or get more concentrated but not in a negative sense. They are formed into a particular trajectory and at the moment that trajectory keeps me busy.