Amber Wallis studio visit and interview
We pay a visit to artist Amber Wallis at her sunlit home studio in the hinterland near Byron Bay.
Interview by Casey Hutton
Photography by Jarvis Archer
Published November 2013
ii. Amber Wallis at her studio
iii. The Watchers/Guardians, 2012
iv., v. Studio
vi. Plein Air Bangers, 2013
vii. Buddhist Orange/Banana diptych, 2012
viii. Work in progress (detail), studio
ix. Work in progress, studio
Studio images © Jarvis Archer 2013
All other images © Amber Wallis 2013
What are you up to today?
I just walked the dog down a country lane – it’s 7am. I will do some work for my mother-in-law and, while I'm seeing her, have a beach walk with the dog. Come home, do more work. I can't do any painting today because I'm out of medium and I am completely moneyless. I should get my drawing gear out of storage and do some drawings. I might tinker around the garden this afternoon – we need to build another vege garden.
Last year you moved from Melbourne to the Byron Bay hinterland. Why the move, and how has the change of scenery affected you and your work?
We moved to be closer to my partner’s family as I am essentially an orphan. We moved for surfing and nature and the change itself. We moved to hopefully be able to afford to live a different kind of life that involves more creativity, nature and travel. Being city-bound became stifling and expensive. Really, the main pull for me was an overwhelming desire to walk along the beach most days – I think that is reason enough to move. We miss the music and arts scene and our friends dearly though.
I think in a way it has hindered my art practice for the time being. We have moved a few times and I have been studio-less, so I'm looking forward to settling in more so that I can dedicate more consistent time to painting. But it has made me work on the veranda and in my garden and work anywhere just to get the art done... you don't need much to make art other than desire.
“It’s about hard work and a struggle with the canvas to find that thing — that elusive magic....”
The energy of your paintings has been referred to as lustful, wild, even drug-fuelled. How would you describe your own work?
I don't think it’s actually any of those things – essentially it’s a lot more boring. It’s about going into the studio every day and trying to find yourself, or trying to create something that is your own and not an amalgamation of all your favourite artists. It’s about hard work and a struggle with the canvas to find that thing – that elusive magic – and trying to be better at what you do.
You go through different stages in your life and maybe you reference different things, like sex or nature, but really the core of yourself is the same and I'm just trying to actually push beyond that crap and find something deeper that surprises me.
It’s a hard task. I'm much more aware of the process of art rather than the outcome.
The titles of your works and exhibitions (Dark Gully/Sex Drawings; I Fuck Mountains) signpost their sexual overtones. How important are words in your practice?
I think there was a period where I was very sexually focused in my drawing practice and it moved into my painting only slightly. Words always have multiple meanings to everyone. Dark Gully was actually where I lived and ‘I Fuck Mountains’ was actually a song title by The Pink Mountaintops and my old flatmate in Canada. But they did represent an overarching theme of sexuality prominent in my life at the time.
The irony was it was actually a time of a lack of sexuality; it was a desire to be sexual. I was caring for my dying mother at the time and I was very aware of life and death and my inability to be a young sexual woman. I was instead a carer for the dying.
My own words are not so important to my practice but they are, as you say, just signposts – they help the viewer maybe glimpse into the themes rattling around my head during the creation of works. Hopefully one day the images will speak louder than the titles. I do like to read, and other people’s words are vastly more important than my own.
“You go through different stages in your life and maybe you reference different things, like sex or nature, but really the core of yourself is the same.”
How do you think your work speaks to the wider tradition of landscape painting, particularly in Australia? Is it a dialogue that's important to you?
I think the landscape is just a vehicle to paint – it’s a default that I am trying to break out of. The landscape provides solace and space, and is generally somewhere where the bullshit can just fall away. So I think that's why the landscape has been my vehicle of choice; it allows my painting to try to emulate the feeling of landscape. It’s essentially an open slather of space where anything can happen; it allows me the space to explore the uncanny and have absolute freedom.
Portraiture is just too static for me. I don't want to be locked in to the finite. I am much more interested in the abstract.
I don't really know how my work speaks to the wider tradition of landscape painting in Australia. I think only time will tell, and it’s not really that important to me. I want to paint things other than the landscape and challenge myself in other ways, and I have a long way to go to get better at what I do.
To me, your paintings feel loose and instinctual, but there is simultaneously a sense of control in your use of line and colour. What is your process for conceiving and creating a work, and knowing when it's finished?
Thank you, they are loose and instinctual.
My process is fairly fluid and I wish it had more intellectual thought behind it but essentially I just start. Pick up a brush and a colour and start. I let the painting dictate the outcome mostly. Sometimes I will go into a work (particularly a drawing) with more of a plan or theme or general layout but they are few and far between. It’s generally an instinctual process that has no rules.
Works could be finished at many stages of their being but I try to make it finished when it doesn't bore me or it’s not obvious to me – when I know I have pushed myself a little further to try to do something different within my own practice. But even then, visual habits are hard to break and it’s a constant challenge to change your habits while still maintaining your own artistic language.
“The landscape provides solace and space, and is generally somewhere where the bullshit can just fall away.”
Can you tell us some of the artists you admire?
Gareth Sansom, Amy Sillman, Rhys Lee, Wassily Kandinsky, Cy Twombly, Kristin Baker, Tracey Emin, Colin McCahon, Ben Quilty, Ken Whisson.
You started out studying photography. What made you switch to painting?
I wanted to switch in the middle of my degree. I realised I couldn't tell the stories I wanted to tell with the photographic medium.
Essentially, art curriculums in Australia are such that you can't really change majors (which seems very stupid to me – art evolves and you should be able to evolve your practice, especially when you are learning the ropes) so I just stuck it out to finish my degree. I ended up photographing my drawings and making drawn animations and large, fibre-based prints of drawings. I ended up doing well and the work was really beautiful but I had zero support from a conservative photography department that didn't want you to think outside the square in photography.
It was a relief to go to VCA for my postgraduate studies and be free to draw and paint and discover my voice as an artist. But I also think that regardless of what you study in art the language is the same, and I learnt about the language of art and that is what is most important.
“I think as a kid I was afraid a lot, a keeper of secrets, yet smart. I was waiting to get older so that I could escape and live my dreams.”
Where did you grow up and what were you like as a kid?
I grew up in New Zealand on Waiheke Island and Great Barrier Island then moved to Ponsonby. It was an interesting, fairly loose childhood with hippy parents.
My time with my father involved hippy living, outcasts, heroin, drug running, no electricity, bartering for services and food, general neglect, freedom, abuse and scary circumstances, mixed in with fishing and boat living. Time with my mother was secure yet loose, creative, free, fun and at times opulent. I was always a kid in an adults’ world. There was a lot of falling asleep under tables at bars.
I think as a kid I was afraid a lot, a keeper of secrets, yet smart. I was waiting to get older so that I could escape and live my dreams. I'm lucky I escaped, am educated and made it out – so many didn't.
Can you tell us about your upcoming show in Sydney?
I will be showing new work at Gallery 9 in Sydney from 6 to 30 November 2013.
You mentioned you admire Tracey Emin's work. What do you find interesting about her work?
What I really respond to in her work is her drawings and their rawness. I love her lines, or maybe I like that, actually, she has poor lines yet they are filled with her essence. I love the seeming simplicity of her work yet her ability to push her scrawls to have weight and great importance. She gets to the essence of things in a beautiful, uncompromising way.
I feel like I am stuck in some kind of complication within painting, and her drawings seem to me to be a great distillation of things. It reminds me to get back to drawing and not let things get too complicated.
Can you pinpoint a time when you became conscious of art? Were you exposed to it much when you were young?
I was always surrounded by art. My mum was a ceramic artist and shared studios with other artists, dancers, etc, so my early life was waiting around the studio. I was always advised to never do what she did but rather get a job and marry well. She did not want the same life for me, which for her represented being a single woman, single mother, hardship, poverty and a constant compromise between art and commercialism. It took me a long time to begin painting as a consequence, and it took a long time for her to acknowledge my practice.
It's interesting that you mention exploring the uncanny… Can you talk any more about that aspect of your work?
I guess for me painting is quite a battle. Trying to get away from the familiar and the obvious is important to me. I think initially my painting was naturally 'uncanny'. I would just create fairly free from associations and allow the viewer to just kind of read into work what they may; it came very naturally. It is getting harder and harder to be so unassociated in my practice and harder and harder to paint that way. But the idea of the uncanny is still very appealing, whether I practise it or represent it as elusive.