Storm water drain, O’Connor, February 2022
Mixed media on canvas,
52cm x 52cm x 4cm
It was a busy January for the family, but not at all for the business. Fortunately, business is busy now. The downside of all that busyness business and business busyness is that it requires me doing business related stuff and leaves no time to finish paintings. I’m not complaining, it’s great being busy, I just have a lot of paintings to finish.
One of the best things about the painting master class I did in January was that over the week of the course, I started eight new paintings in quick succession. I remembered through doing the course that this is the way I work best when I have room. Start fast and finish slow and always have several works on the go (so that I don’t overwork one painting and fuck it up). Varying the intensity of the way I use paint changes the nature of the gesture: I like using fast and intense brush marks at first; more considered, slower, and thoughtful mark making to finish.
I find it hard to leave a painting to sit. I can’t leave it alone. Especially if it’s not quite right. I want to ‘fix’ it (which never works). I keep circling back to it, bothering, and fussing with the poor thing in a state of frenzied agitation. This isn’t useful, so if I have another painting to go on with, it really helps. Experience tells me to contemplate and then take action, not just take action, which is my natural response to most problems in life. “Just do something”, I say to my bewildered 17-year-old. “It doesn’t matter what”.
Another thing I relearnt during the painting class was how much I like collage. I love the way that sticking random items on a surface, creates another surface and change my relationship with that surface and an image. Collage acts as a filter between me and the image that I am using. It’s like a personal lens that abstracts slightly and removes the image from being entirely representational. It shifts my focus away from photograph and onto what’s happening on the canvas in front of me. Collage is a device that changes my mindset from what I’m trying to represent, to how I want a painting to feel. A subtle, but important difference. You’ll be seeing a lot of collage in these next paintings.
In this painting of an O’Connor stormwater drain, I’ve used collaged cardboard (the throwaway packaging from around the canvas) to make the drain. I’ve used the cardboard because (interestingly to me) the cardboard has the same look and surface quality on the canvas, as the concrete of the storm water drain has in the landscape. Wastepaper to direct the path of the wastewater painted down the middle of the landscape. Concrete is functional but is not designed to be aesthetically pleasing. But the drain defines the landscape, both visually and functionally (by formalising the natural water course). Overtime, the look of the drains softens as they are enveloped more by the surrounding landscape. And that is what I tried to do with the paint over the top of the cardboard, integrating the surfaces so that the cardboard is no longer a slap on the surface of the canvas, a man-made gash across the landscape, but part of the landscape. A central part of the painting, the landscape and the community.
‘The drains’ were part of my childhood growing up. ‘The drains’ were mysterious and off limits, a hangout space for those who were somewhat marginalised and didn’t have their own spaces like teenagers and homeless people. I remember seeing signs of habitation in the drains, mattresses and empty cans of dog food. I once saved a man from drowning and/or hypothermia in the drains (so I tell myself, he was drunk, had fallen into the drain and passed out. I woke him up and helped him to move out of the water). Bike paths always run along the stormwater drains as well, so any time spent riding around Canberra gives you a lot of experience at drain watching. I’ve seen young men kayaking down flooded storm water drains in moments of joyful and risk taking enthusiasm.
And it’s not just me with drainage experience. Stormwater drains have a place in popular culture. A trope symbolic of urban space and decay– people and cars racing and chasing in the LA river (the large storm water drains that replaced/displaced the river in Los Angles). I’m thinking of Terminator and Grease here, but I’m sure there is many more recent examples.
The storm water drain pictured is still central to my daily activity. I’m always in the drains with the dogs meandering around and keeping out of the way.