Laura Skerlj interview

"I have started to imagine an in-between zone where the wilderness and the home collapse into one another." Artist Laura Skerlj talks about paint, poetry, nature and the sublime.

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i. Studio shot
ii. Studio shot
iii. Collapsible Valley, oil on canvas, 183 x 656 cm, 2011
iv. Fool’s Gold (ocean), oil on board, 35 x 40 cm, 2012
v. Journal
vi. Installation view, Victorian College of Art, Melbourne, 2011
vii. Studio shot

All photographs © Laura Skerlj 2012

Tell us about the places you've lived - where is home?

Home has been a few special places.

I grew up in a valley in Northern New South Wales. The house is wooden and has an eccentric character. Rooms have been attached randomly as it has been passed between owners, and the walls are full of photos and artworks. In that part of the country the plants are muscular and leaves are as big as plates. There is this mammoth gum tree that grows on the bank of a dam at the front of the property where a whole menagerie of animals, birds and insects live.

Homes since my childhood have included a sprawling house in Brisbane on the top of a hill. My friends and I had whimsical parties there, and spent lots of time drinking and dreaming on the verandahs.

Similarly, Lisbon in Portugal felt special. I spent only a month there on my travels, but the alabaster streets, the melancholy of the sea and warmth of the people was something that felt much like home.

For the past year I have lived in a little flat in St Kilda. The inside is white and retro. The carpet is covered in bouquets of roses, the kitchen fixtures are bright orange and the bathroom is lolly-pink. It’s just a short walk from the beach. Everyone here has a dog, and the boulevard reminds me of what I imagine California might be like. St Kilda is really theatrical—I love Luna Park’s big smile and all the art deco architecture. I have always wanted to live here. It definitely feels like home.

Did you grow up in a creative household?

Yes, I am very lucky. My mother is a painter who loves colour, nature, fabric and craft. She sewed us toys and clothes when we were little, and was always encouraging of creativity. My brother is a musician, and plays in a rock band. Even as a kid he was completely motivated to make music. He’s a creative force, and very inspiring.

What are your favourite memories?

Swimming in the ocean, watching the sunrise from Mount Nemrut in Turkey, long car drives at night with the windows down, finding Berlin.

"I tend to make a lot of haphazard experiments in order to figure out the workings of an image."

Tell us about your work.

I am a painter primarily. My relationship with paint is imperfect and exploratory and something I continue to learn from. The materiality of paint can be unpredictable, and the most exciting moments in a work often occur just through play and not knowing. Those are the moments I love most, and the ones I want to work at harnessing. I guess it’s a process of allowing the imperfect elements in a work to exist without trying too hard to take control of them.

However, the process of thinking about a painting usually comes through drawing, collage and (more recently) sculpture, which I make as a form of tableaux for my painted work. I tend to make a lot of haphazard experiments in order to figure out the workings of an image. My studio is a disaster zone full of chopped-up, scrunched-up, sabotaged bits of images that I stick to the wall until I need to use them for inspiration. Formally, the work usually ends up large in scale, and predominantly in oil paint. I am in love with colour.

The subject matter for my work so far has centered on the wilderness. For me, the wilderness is both a construct and a very real and vulnerable ecological state. It’s a place to mythologise, but also an uncontainable place that is rarely visited by those who live in cities. Recently I have been researching the sublime landscape in art. I think the notion of a sublime experience in nature – as something that is attractive due to how beautiful nature can be, yet terrifying due to its force and immensity – translates well to the contemporary experience of the natural world. Perhaps the less we physically interact with the wilderness the more we tend to fantasise about it. In a time when ecological decay is obvious, this mode of a deferred experience adds to its sublime quality.

"Perhaps the less we physically interact with the wilderness the more we tend to fantasise about it."

On a material level, I am excited by how painting can conjure an impossible, or metaphysical, pictorial space. Lately I have been imagining a space where the boundaries between the external world of the wilderness and the internal realm of the architectural interior collapse. I’ve always been interested in our need to keep a part of nature for ourselves at home. That might be flowers, potted plants, photos or scenic paintings – there is consolation in keeping these objects close to us. With this in mind, I have started to imagine an in-between zone where the wilderness and the home collapse into one another. I’ve been photographing and collaging images of geological matter – like thunder-egg crystals, gold and mountain terrain – into the spatial arrangement of architecture, and am now working at making them into a new body of paintings.

Why do you use the colour palette and the materials that you do?

Colour is really important to me. For the past few years my palette has tended to be high key, but more recently I have become interested in how moments of intense colour might interrupt a more subdued image. I guess for me the colours found in nature tend to get confused with the colours found in the technological world. I love nature, and love to be in it, yet I spend so much time viewing the wilderness on a screen. There is something strange and supernatural about this experience and how it affects my understanding of ‘natural space’, which I think is something you can see in a lot of contemporary landscape painting.

Writing is important to you also. Does it form part of your painting process?

Some of my ideas are triggered by the visual and some are triggered by language. I like that you can build something like a painting out of poetry. I often find that when I read my imagination is more free to think about how an image might be constructed than when I am looking at other pictures.

"I like that you can build something like a painting out of poetry."

As far as writing is concerned, my journals are full of notes, unfinished poems and lists. In the past I have more conscientiously made poems and stories but at this point I write as a private way of thinking about my experiences and the visual things I want to make. Poetry exposes the core and periphery of something at the same time. I love how a poem decisively includes and leaves out information to form an abstract of what was seen and felt. This incompleteness, yet simultaneous attention to certain details, reminds me of how we experience and remember the world.

Do you think that the impulse to mythologise nature is ultimately destructive?

There is a definite destructiveness in mythologising anything, as it stops it from being tangible. Historically, pictures were made of the landscape as a way of declaring ownership of new territory – as a way of saying ‘I was here first’. This was a colonial act and dispossessed indigenous people. There is also a danger in that idea of deferral too – of only experiencing the wilderness through the internet or television and not realising that an environment is a real place and that ecological decay is actually occurring.

However, I imagine we will always mythologise things that we can never fully understand. Humans have always made up stories about nature and particular landscapes so that when you go into them you carry with you a sense of the fantastical. I enjoy that feeling of going into nature and feeling overwhelmed with a sense of something larger than yourself and your world, no matter how childlike that may seem.

What inspires you?

Imagined architecture, poetry, geology, colour, music, mountains, myths, painters.

What's next for you?

I am currently making work for some upcoming shows, completing my Masters degree, and travelling to India over summer.