Tuesday, 26 November 2019

2019 Moran Prize finalists talk

On Sunday I went in the car to Oxford Street, Paddington, to hear two artists talk about their entries in the Moran Prize, which is awarded every year for portraiture.

First up was Oliver Watts, whose ‘Steering for dream (Ben Storrier)’ was on the wall near the front door of Juniper Hall. He said it is a “blue” painting. He likes the dusty gouache effect you get with acrylics, the kind of effect David Hockney achieved in his 70s paintings. Watts also likes the work of indigenous artists, who often use acrylic. He has been committed to acrylic for the last 10 years and signalled for reference to the work of Merlin James, a Welsh artist. Using acrylics is also cheaper than using oils, because you can use a smaller studio as you don’t need to make allowances for oil in the wastewater.

At the end of the talk, Watts made special mention of the Australian artist Max Meldrum who, Watts said, is underrated. Watts’ grandmother had studied under Meldrum.

The painting he was talking about on the day I visited Juniper Hall has a nautical theme, and Watts recalled paintings of his own with a maritime theme that were hung in an exhibition held in June at the Chalk Horse Gallery, which is in Darlinghurst. His kind of work pays out, he said, on the figure of the heroic sailor. He underscored the intent of his remark by pointing to Greta Thunberg sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with what he called a group of bloggers, all of them eating vegan food. “They are the new pirates,” he quipped.

The notion of masculinity in his work on show at Juniper hall is, he said, about it being in a state of anxiety. “A man reading a book in a boat sailing on autopilot”: this image could sum up his ideas about contemporary masculinity. He had deliberately picked an old genre to work with and the bottle of scotch in Ben Storrier’s boat – Watts went out on the boat with his subject in order to capture images to use while painting – is part of that play of ideas. “Not bad to go out for one day and get one image” to use, he added. The red towel and shirt were actually what Storrier wore on the day, and this ideally feminised his subject, making him more suitable for the artist’s purposes. Storrier wore the sombrero as half a joke. “It ended up looking like a halo,” said Watts. “When you increase the size what seemed like a joke on the boat turns out to be serious.”

He mentioned what he called “this weird tension” in the painting and noted what he called “a bit of a weakness” in the drawing. “I tried to keep a little bit of that first sketch. I don’t want it to be too serious.” Pointing at the lower right-hand side of the large canvas he indicated the suede cushion that had been on the boat and that had had water marks on it.

He then made some comments about the composition. “My paintings fall away from the frame if they’re not framed.” He had had this canvas framed for the prize entry. “It’s more finished with a frame.”

In the photo above Watts is holding the mobile phone to take a selfie in front of his painting. Alex Thorby is wearing a blue shirt and is standing to his right, next to the doorway.

After 30 minutes of listening to Watts and of asking questions, everyone moved into a different room and put down their chairs to listen to Thorby talk. Her painting is titled ‘Artist Dick Watkins’. Watkins is an Australian abstract expressionist who uses gestural brushwork and bold colours. 

Thorby started by recounting how the portrait came about. She used to walk her son to school past Watkins’ house. On the front verandah there were brightly-coloured sculptures. She asked someone who lived there about what she had seen, and learned that Watkins is her neighbour. He is held in high esteem in the art world. “Who am I?” she asked, rhetorically and for effect, adding that Watkins is, however, “very down to earth”. His wife is in her 90s and still drives. Watkins habitually starts painting at midday and paints all night. He doesn’t need daylight and is an avid reader.

Thorby works from life. She said that the immediate experience with the subject “gives you an energy”. “You discover things about their personalities.” They did 15 sittings or more. His favourite chair, where he sat for the sittings, rocks back. Thorby asked him if he would put a painting of his on the wall but he didn’t want to do that. Thorby says her study was “quite loose”. The two of them initially talked about things, but Thorby needs to concentrate when painting so Watkins put on jazz to listen to while he sat silently. There is no daylight in Watkins’ studio; he works under fluoro lighting. 

The first attempt at a composition didn’t work and Thorby repainted the whole figure, painting over the top of the first draft. In all, the work took over a year to complete. She said she likes Francis Bacon’s spaces in his works, compositionally speaking, and pointed to the tins of paint at the left-hand side of her painting that help to frame the figure near the centre of the canvas. “Your brain will finish things for you,” she said, so she left some areas unfinished. She used yellow in the background in order to get, she said, the same feeling as though it were a white room Watkins is sitting in. Pointing to the palette on the right-hand side of the work, she pointed out that Watkins doesn’t use a palette when he works on his own paintings, but she does. 

As her painting was taking so much time, Thorby said Watkins told her: “Just do what you’ve got to do.” He loved the portrait when it was finished, Thorby said. “Danger is his philosophy.” Thorby’s portrait is shown below.

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