Tom Polo interview

Sydney artist Tom Polo chats to us about disappointment, anxiety and other things to chuckle about.

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i. GESTURES AND MISTAKES, Gertrude Contemporary 2012
ii. Fleshy, acrylic on canvas, 30cm x 25cm, 2011
iii. Somebody Once Told Me, acrylic on canvas, 78cm (diameter), 2011

All photos © Tom Polo 2012

Your work is often based on anxiety and self-deprecation. When did you start to play with these themes in your work?

I’d say my work is based on extended acts of portraiture but deals with themes of failure, anxiety, expectation and humour. So, for me, they are more ways of conveying meaning about the human condition of both myself and others.

Humour and comedy have always been things that I enjoy so it was natural that they slipped into my practice quite early on, particularly self deprecation in early figurative work before more explicit ways with text. Humour is a coping mechanism as well as a tool for entertainment. For this reason I believe anxiety and self-deprecation go hand in hand.

Recently you had an exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary employing various mediums. Can you tell us a little about the show?

The work for Gestures and Mistakes was created onsite, directly onto the walls, over a three-week install period. It became an investigation of painting as a time-based installation, of the gallery as a specific site – or stage with a backdrop – for smaller works and performative tasks to exist within. My role as the artist was to perform in the exhibition space, where the paintings (as objects) and gallery audience became my props in the work. The process explored the accumulation and erasure of gestures over a period of time with no distinct visual outcome planned, meaning expectation played a key role. During the exhibition and in my absence after the opening, gallery staff and volunteers became part of the work by adding their own gestural marks to the walls or following a set of instructions to renegotiate the position of objects within the space. 

"Humour is a coping mechanism as well as a tool for entertainment. For this reason I believe anxiety and self-deprecation go hand in hand."

The objects in the gallery, collectively titled PAINTINGS/PROPS/PERSONAS, operated on multiple levels. As painted portraits they sat anonymously throughout the space, reminiscent of participants in a seminar or actors on stage. As props they became placards or signs. Finally, when taken by a gallery visitor and placed over their face, the works became masks or personas and hid their identity, despite, perhaps, the defeated expressions of the paintings revealing their truth of character. The objects became more significant when questioning who the real audience was in this situation, and who was in fact, looking at who.

The final component of the installation was a large wall panel painted with the phrase TRYHARDERTOTRYLESS in neon text. Reminiscent of homemade signs, billboards or cinema screens, the work’s contradictory statement about effort contrasted with the laborious wall painting and a sentiment echoed throughout the installation, reflecting the continuous accumulation of gesture – when was enough enough?

In 2011 you undertook a studio residency in London. What projects did you work on there? Did they have an influence on 'Gestures and Mistakes'?

Working in London was a real highlight. The best part about being there was the access to galleries and collections you’ve only ever seen online. There was always a new show to go see at galleries like Gagosian or White Cube as well as The Saatchi Gallery, The Serpentine and of course, The Tate. Tracey Emin’s survey at the Hayward Gallery has stuck with me. It was the first time I really felt like I understood her practice properly. 


"I'm constantly looking at the tension between clarity and obscurity in the paintings I make and even more so in their display and installation."

Whilst I was in London I had the chance to hold my first solo exhibition outside of Australia, titled Disappointed With Many People And Things at ACME Project Space. For this exhibition I made my first neon work, which was exhibited alongside new paintings and a painting performance on the opening night. This exhibition was the precursor to the project Disappointed With Everything staged at Grantpirrie in Sydney upon my return. Both of these projects definitely had an impact on more recent works.

Some of your work is very literal, especially when using text, yet your portraits are more suggestive. What is the relationship between the works? 

It's all intended to work together. I'm constantly looking at the tension between clarity and obscurity in the paintings I make and even more so in their display and installation. There's an uncertainty and self doubt that lies thematically and pictorially in the figurative works especially but again this is contrasted with moments of confidence in visual mark, immediacy of painted gesture and off-the-cuff motivating slogans of the text works.

What are you currently working on?

I’m back in the studio after a little while, which is really great. I’m working on a small series of paintings for a group show later in the year in Melbourne. I’m also in the process of curating an exhibition about anxiety that will open in Sydney in August. I’m working with a great group of artists from Australia and abroad, so it’s quite exciting.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

Not much actually. I find that when I’m in the process of making I prefer to look at visual material – exhibitions, images in books and online.

Most of my reading at the moment is via art blogs and websites like Contemporary Art Daily and artist monographs. I was recently reading a huge amount of self help material as part of my Masters of Fine Arts research, which is now complete.

What are you inspired by day-to-day?

Making good pictures. And comedy.