Friday, March 18, 2011

(Im)patient

I have been in bed for the past week with a kidney infection. Loaded with antibiotics, bloated from litres of water and cranberry juice, all I've wanted to do is curl up under the covers and feel sorry for myself.
Instead, I've painted. The humidity has finally subsided enough for me to re-start some long-delayed works on paper. With an off-cut of MDF board on my knees and pillows supporting my back and shoulders, I've been able to finish several pieces in acrylic and gouache.
I don't bother with clothes, just a silk dressing gown. I sip soda water with strawberries and pretend I'm just being louche instead of ill. I get up only to go to the toilet or to open the door to a DHL or Fedex courier, to whom I hand packages containing finished works to deliver to collectors interstate and overseas.
Despite the griping pain and nausea, I'm happy. For me, being productive makes up for a lot.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Art In Hard Data

I am not, by nature, competitive. I detest the idea of pitting art and artists against each other in competitions. However, I'm always keenly aware of where I stand against other artists of my age when it comes to the monetary value of my work.
The secondary market created by auction houses is generally regarded as the arena in which the desirability of an artist's work is translated into hard currency. The prices achieved by individual works are not just public, they are tracked globally and widely publicised.
Auctions are about as close as the traditional art market gets to transparency. Which is not to say that the trading is always fair. Artists, dealers and collectors often try to manipulate prices by ramping but it's an obvious strategy that courts a nasty crash when the ramping stops. Before I left the traditional gallery system, a well-known Melbourne gallery proposed a deal in which they would ramp my prices at auction in return for cheap works and exclusive representation – I refused.
I have never sold my own works at auction. I don't buy them back either – a tactic used by more artists and galleries than you'd think. Dealers call it support and it helps maintain parity between the prices achieved at auction, which are public, and those promoted by the gallery in the primary market. In the commercial world outside the art market, it's called price fixing and is against the law.
In 2004, when I was still in my twenties, my career was considered to be over. I had given up art. I had yet to realise that what I really wanted was not to give up art but to give up the traditional gallery system. It wasn't until a year later that I decided to take an entirely different approach to promoting and selling my work. In 2008, the first of my works turned up in local auction catalogues, with pre-sale estimates that greatly exceeded the original sale prices.
Yesterday, I came across the Australian Art Auction Records' list of the Top 50 Most Traded Artists By Value across Australian and New Zealand in 2011 (scroll down to the foot of the page). I was listed at no. 41.
Established in 1973, Australian Art Auction Records is "a service that documents historical art auction results and makes them available for users to analyse the Australian and New Zealand art market." Their reports used to be distributed as hard copy and later, on CD. They are now online. Unusually for the artworld, the reports are not subjective. They are just compilations of hard data.
I subscribed, curious to see the graph of sales values for my own work. The history is shallow but my prices trace an acute, vertiginous ascent. In the past three years, 31 of my works have been auctioned for a total gross value of $225,515. These range from photographs and studies on paper to enamel works, mostly small to medium-sized, with values spanning a few hundred dollars to over $17,000.
I'd been very concerned that a large number of unfinished or draft works sold from my bankrupt estate would have a negative impact on the overall value of my work. They haven't. To date, the works of mine that have sold at auction for lower-than-expected prices have all been damaged – as evidenced by the auction houses' own condition reports.
I am fucking thrilled. Of the four women on the list, I am the youngest by far – and one of the very few under 35. But what I am most proud of is that I am the only 'independent': the first artist to create a successful, internationally recognised career, acknowledged by the litmus-test of the auction system, solely by using the web.
I've made no bones of my contempt for the traditional system and I've done what I can to outline an architecture for an alternative paradigm from which other artists can evolve their own strategies. The author
Gore Vidal once observed, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." But when it comes to revolution, the success of one can only bode well for the success of others.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Process Of Change

I've been suffering a kidney infection. It's not serious – just painful enough to put me in hospital for a day. Loaded with antibiotics and pain-killers, I am recuperating in bed, at home, where I continue to paint a handful of new studies on paper.
I've changed a lot about my process for these small works, most of which have an image size of around 40cms by 60 cms. I used to think my art was worth more if it took longer to make. In my twenties, I savoured the grind: I saw it as a necessary penance, a paying of dues. I was immersed in the Romantic notion of the suffering artist.
Now, I am ruthlessly efficient. I use different types of paint and by applying them with different types of brushes, I can reduce the time each work takes by up to 75 per cent. Nothing can make paint dry faster but I can work on a handful at the same time – even in bed. I don't even have to stop to replenish art supplies. I order paper and brushes in bulk directly from interstate suppliers that deliver them by courier to my door.
I used to equate working quicker with being too business-like but I realise it has no effect on the quality of the finished work and allows me more time and imaginative space to develop ideas for new pieces. Besides, I went bankrupt a year ago because I failed to accept the responsibilities of managing a very successful career. I don't give a shit if I come across as more business-like these days.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Transit

I arrive in Brisbane on a Saturday evening. The airport is quiet, slow, warm and humid. I wait for my suitcase, overstuffed with mail and new art materials. I'd half expected it to burst, but it's intact.
I think I hear someone call my name but it's just a tour operator doing a roll-call for a group of senior citizens. I watch an elderly Hazel being herded into the shuffling group. They all have the same red bags, all emblazoned with the company's logo. It's like watching my own private nightmare-of-the-future played out in front of me.
I'm not staying in Brisbane long. I'm leaving again in a couple of weeks. These days, the best opportunities I'm offered are elsewhere. Even the process of my
well-organised studio has been disrupted by the El Niño-influenced weather and the increasingly slow response of local suppliers. In recent weeks, the art materials I've needed most urgently have been delivered from inter-state.
I will probably produced the last of my enamels in Brisbane but there's not reason for my work to be done only in one place – or for it to be done here at all.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hiatus

I've taken a few days away from the heat and humidity of my studio in Brisbane, away from the city, its oppressive suburbs, and the ghosts of my past that haunt them.
I'm staying for a few days in a hotel by the sea. The air is cool and at dusk I stand on the terrace and inhale the salt-laden spray that descends on the beach like a gauzy shroud. Inside, my room is also cool, the wide, double-glazed windows shutting out all sound and imposing a restful stillness. The only sound is the tapping of my fingers on my laptop keyboard.
I write in my diary. I read a book – Man With A Blue Scarf: On Sitting For a Portrait By Lucian Freud – and watch a documentary, Lucian Freud: Portraits, on YouTube. Thinking about my future, I look to artists I admire to be inspired by their larger lives as well as their work.
I'll return to Brisbane in a day or so. I have a lot of work to finish. Nothing matters more to me than my collectors, who invest in and support me but I have learned, the hard way, that I have to take better physical and emotional care of myself. After the death of my father, the flood, and a long hard slog in the studio in the final months of last year, I needed a break.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Overexposure

Once, women feared exposure of their sexual desires and impulses. Those who were bold enough to express them were derided, outcast, punished or even declared insane. In the late 19th century, women's sexual frustration was diagnosed as female hysteria – a quarter of all women were said to suffer it – and treatment was clinical masturbation by a doctor, sometimes aided by Heath Robinson-like machines, until orgasm brought relief. In 1873, the first vibrator was used for this purpose at an asylum in France. Today, sexualised images of women are used to sell every kind of product. It's a strategy designed to provoke in men a desire to possess, in women a desire to emulate – which is to say, we girls want to become the objects of other people's (and our own) desires. Up until the latter half of the 20th century, almost all photographers, art directors, advertising agency and corporate marketing executives who devised how imagery of women was used to sell things were men.
Not any more.
Contemporary women understand the power of their own sexuality and objectify and exploit themelves before men – or other women – get the chance. We're starting to enjoy the liberation of being in control of our bodies but contrary to old-school feminism, being in control doesn't necessarily mean saying no. Confronting what we are not 'supposed' to be – sexual, provocative, dominant, perverse – broadens the scope of possibilities to shape our own identities in any way we want instead of choosing from the limited options men prefer to create for us. It enables us to live more open, expressive lives.
I'm often criticised for objectifying other women and myself, mostly by older women who subscribe to the outdated idea, promulgated by the first wave of 20th century feminists, that objectification is inherently degrading and/or manipulative. As another artist wrote about me, somewhat prissily, recently:
"I sometimes question if she is selling art or herself? Does she need to put these images of herself out for the world to see? Is her art good enough to stand alone without her hands down her pants at the end of the blog?" My answer to all of these is... yes.
We live in a culture where everything is owned and everything is selling something. Names, letters, colours and symbols are trademarked and copyrighted. Within this context, to objectify oneself is to to declare ownership of oneself and one's own image. Self-objectification doesn't create great work or success – if it did, then entire generations would already be acclaimed and wildly successful – but it does associate one's own image more powerfully with whatever it is one does. However, to imply that my success is related to self-objectification is simply a gripe posing as petty, moralistic censure, an anachronism rooted in a centuries-old disavowal of women who voice, let alone act on, their desires.
As an artist, I use sexually explicit images of myself to explore myself. I don't draw or photograph myself nude or having sex for fun: it can be but more often, the process is confronting. Whatever I might look like in the final image, the uncovering of my body, and with it my psyche, is a rigorous test not just of my commitment but of my ideas. As the subject – and sexual object – as well as creator, I risk fallout from my public self-exposure, not the least of which are being reviled by other women. Rather than 'selling' my art, it puts all that I've accomplished with it at risk.
Many other artists, male and female, have explored pornography. Sam Taylor-Wood and Matthew Barney have made short, pseudo-pornographic films using actors they directed at some remove. Thomas Ruff has manipulated pornographic photographs downloaded from the internet. But noone has actually stepped across the invisible line that separates artist from subject – a line that, ironically, ensures the artist can do nothing but objectifying someone else. Yeah, Jeff Koons posed, stiff-dicked and starry eyed, in a series of unabashedly pornorgraphic images and sculptures for Made In Heaven, casting as his partner Ilona Staller, a former pornstar and Italian parliamentarian – soon to be, for a short while Koons' wife and the mother of his child – but as in most of his work, the graphic sex was simply a way to idealise Koons himself and commercialise his physically possessing his then most prized object. Attaching his emerging art stardom to Staller's own as a sex symbol in Europe – where, as La Cicciolina, her celebrity was greater in the 70s and 80s than Jordan/Katie Price's today – Koons got to play out an utterly conventional male fantasy of becoming famous and fucking a porn star in his very own movie. Staller, who was far more transgressive than Koons, an elected politician who continued making porn films while in office, was reduced to a prettily dressed, fake-orgasming, Barbie-esque prop.
What I do is different. The women in my work are not well-known. When I cast them as my models – they are never my muses – it is their role, inevitably, to be objectified. No matter that as I draw and photograph them, I try to delve into their thoughts and feelings: I am still doing no more than exploiting their phsyical attributes as every artist has with their models for centuries. But the moment I enter the frame, the moment I insert myself not just as an artist but an actor in the mis en scene, the dynamic – and meaning – of what I am doing changes.
It becomes more intimate and personal, no longer a simple image but an intricate, if baggage-ladened, psycho-sexual narrative.
Whatever I am asking the model to give me – and to risk, in terms of her sexual and psychological open-ness – I am asking of myself. And I go further, eschewing make-up and making no effort to mask the natural toll my 33 years, not to mention working with toxic materials, have wrought on my body. I am objectifying who I am as an artist, as much as I am as a woman but it's not an idealised version like Koons'.
In exposing myself physically – by posing and 'acting' with the model – I am inserting myself not only into the images but the ideas I'm interrogating in order to understand them more directly. I'm creating a narrative derived from real rather than imagined experience and interpreting both as a performer and 'director'. More than mere self- objectification, the performance is the core of the art, at once liberating and instructive. Nothing is hidden.
What's the value of all this as art? I have no idea yet. And that, too, is part of the point.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

A Simulacrum Of My Self

"Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant."
– J.G. Ballard
I've been intrigued by the web as an art medium from the moment I first experienced it, late at night, at a Queensland University computer lab in the latter half of the '90s. I barely knew how to turn on a computer then but I understood that even at a modem speed of 28.8kbs per second, it was going to be a great way to reach inside a lot of people's heads.
My ideas about how that might be done were pretty conventional. I figured everyone would understand each other more easily through words enhanced with pictures, without the distracting 'personality' of individual wetware. I couldn't wait to 'transmit' – how anachronistic that verb sounds now – my art and writing together so that others might understand exactly what I was trying to achieve.
Of course, I was overlooking the fact that individual interpretations of words and images vary wildly according to the disparate, complex factors that affect an individual context of understanding (and identity): from upbringing and education to local culture and belief systems. Roland Barthes described this in his short essay Death Of The Author, over forty years ago, now such an art school theory favourite that you can read it free here. He argued that a creator's role is to produce and neither to explain nor to try to control the response to their work. It's the reader (or viewer or istener) who gives it meaning through their individual interpretation, which will only ever be a skewed reflection of what the creator had in mind – if that.
Even if people understand the concept of a work, their interpretations and deeper, emotional responses are always at a remove from the creator's. Technology has enabled us to replicate and synthesize at the touch of a button, resulting in a popular culture in which appropriation and 'sampling' are the norm. We can adapt and reinterpret an 'original' work – or mash-up several at once – then 'curate' an individual experience of the result. We have begun to do much the same with the personas we assume online: elemental to social media is the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to choose what bits and pieces we like best then repackage them in a new 'identity', which is really just a psycho-social avatar, no more real than the thumbnails people choose to 'personify' themselves.
I used to think that making art was about controlling an individual's experience of a work – largely through their 'real world' impressions of it. Now I think it's about providing the context within which an individual can evolve their own imaginative experience of both the artwork and the artist. I can control the making of the artwork, I can craft my public persona, but once both are 'distributed', either online or off, it can and will be reworked, reconfigured and re-distributed, often as a by-product of someone else's online presence.
In recent years, as my work and my persona became widely distributed, I started to fuck with both myself.
I don't think anyone really bothers to reconcile the disparities between our online and offline personas. Social media has changed the web from somewhere we go to explore the world to somewhere we go to explore the alternative possibilities for ourselves, to experiment with new identities and once we find one we're comfortable with, to promote it. We want our online personas not to be an extension of our 'real world' lives but something different, something infinitely more absorbing – for ourselves and others – and sexy.
We are now answerable to our online personas – we are loved, loathed, celebrated, derided, partied with, fucked, fired, married and divorced, sometimes even murdered because of them. We are also increasingly obsessive about them. We want to craft and distribute our own online personas (then reinvent them from time to time) and we want to control others' perceptions of – and interactions with – them. We also want to appropriate what we experience and like of others' personas. But while fucking with one's online identity IS a kind of liberation, it empahsizes that whatever we see and experience of each other online is not actually reality. Ultimately, in social media, stability, predictability, understanding and control – the sense of knowing who we are and with whom we're interacting – are illusory.
The documentary-like photographs I've posted on Tumblr might be excerpts from my daily life or simply staged to resemble them. Unquestionably, they are 'real' – as opposed to digital artifice – but does that make them authentic? Or rather, more precisely, authentic as what? As excerpts from a visual diary, as works of art? Even the reality of my sexuality as 'evidenced' by my photographs is elusive (yes, I have fucked women but my long-term relationships have all been with men). Posted haphazardly in small groups, in no chronological or narrative order, there is too little information for the images to be 'read' accurately beyond the somewhat lurid information each contains.
Nothing will dissuade even the least imaginative viewer from making stark assumptions about them – or me: hell, it's impossible to avoid when confronted with photographs of a woman who is a well-known artist fucking (and being fucked by) another woman. But as an artist, what I'm really fucking with is my self, or, rather, my online self. I've cut myself loose from the cautious, conforming impulse to self-censor (the new method of societal control) and at the same time, cast-off any sense of 'responsibility' to portray an online persona that is 'accurate', let alone socially viable.
Taken together, the writings and images I publish online are an early experiment in a new form of performance art, which interrogates, almost hourly, the evolving and possibly confounding split between an artist's real self – and real work – and their virtual edifice. It challenges the viewer - who might also be a 'follower' or 'friend', depending on the particular jargon of the platform – to figure out which is which. This is, in part, the challenge of a forthcoming group exhibition, later this year: titled Dreaming Hazel Dooney, it will focus on various artists' perceptions and interpretations of my virtual persona. Ironically, the exhibition will only further skew, obscure, complicate or reinforce the murky relationship that persona has with reality.
As J.G. Ballard once put it, "I treat the reality I inhabit as if it were a fiction—I treat the whole of existence as if it were a huge invention."

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

In Heat

As I wait for the last of the summer heat and humidity to subside and my studio to dry out a little more, I've been keeping busy with a number of other projects.
A few months ago, I began a conversation with Robert Littlewood, the founder of Lytlewode Press, a small, specialist publisher of limited edition artist's books and prints, about adapting one of my longer blog entries, 100 Things You Still Don't Know About Me, posted in four parts in August, last year, as well as a series of small erotic drawings, The Flesh Eaters, as books. More recently, we've been exploring a series of screen-prints based on my enamel on canvas, Big Pin-Ups.
I have also been having conversations with other publishers, in North America and Australia, to whom I've proposed writing an biography of one of my recent portrait subjects – derived from the entertaining monologues with which he kept himself (and, too often, me) distracted during his several sittings for me – and redacting the more personal posts from this blog to create an autobiographical daybook, illustrated with sketches and photographs.
I'm re-educating myself as a photographer. I have written often about how I have used the medium as a tool in my drawing and painting but with a little time on my hands, I've immersed myself in it, photographing myself and others with an obsessiveness that has ended up with several hundred, perhaps thousands, of high resolution RAW files loaded into portable hard-drives, waiting to be 'processed'.
I'm still not a fan of 'art photography' – the photography I like most is documentary, visceral and unretouched: the grainy, early 35mm black and whites of Robert Frank or Larry Clark, or the enhanced colour dyes of William Eggleston's discomfortingly glib still lives – but the medium goads me to take risks and abandon self-restraint in a way that drawing doesn't. Its immediacy strips away my instinct to censor myself.
New and not-so-recent images of models I've worked with, the sex I've had with some of them, and of me at work in various studios are being posted daily, in no particular order, on my new Tumblr presence, if only because I think they underscore an intimate, confessional narrative that runs through my art. I like their randomness; they're like frames 'grabbed' from a movie of another, more secret life.
Some snarkers, including a couple of female artists who should know better, have accused me of using the sometimes lurid perversity of these images to objectify myself, to generate notoriety, to attract more attention to my art and myself, but they're just wading in the shallow end of the altogether murkier, more complex pool from which these images have emerged.
I still write and draw. Loose leaves of paper, covered in blotted scrawls and scratchy, ill-formed lines, spill from my desk onto the floor. I'm not sure what will come of it all – at times, the volume and disparate-ness of everything I'm working on overwhelm and I feel like I'm losing my grip – but I savour the sugar-like rush of inspiration. I want more.