Christchurch artist Julia Holden, in conversation with Petrena Fishburn, discusses her multi-layered painting practice, which encompasses themes of temporality, self-reflection, connectivity, performance and heroes.
Petrena Fishburn: Julia, you are an artist who uses portraiture, why is that?
Julia Holden: I work within the genre of portraiture because I find it very useful for connecting with people and communities. I am not actually a portrait artist in a traditional sense, but portraiture is about people, and I use the genre in different ways for my own ends.
PF: You studied Fine Arts at Elam, University of Auckland, from 2004 until 2007, then you went to Melbourne – to the University of Monash – where you completed your Masters in Fine Arts in 2011. You have also been a finalist in art awards within Australia and New Zealand. One part of your background I’m curious about is your early career in film.
JH: I qualified as an architectural draftsperson and worked in film for about 12 or 14 years as a storyboard and concept artist. I worked on ‘Xena’ and ‘Hercules’ for 5 years and then freelanced for a number of years. I really enjoyed the collaborative nature of film – you are working with some incredibly talented people, all specialists in their field. But I’d always wanted to explore painting, and thought, “if not now, then when?” I went to Elam as a ‘mature’ student, right at the time the school was going through a time of upheaval. The focus was on multi-disciplinary practice, non-objective and conceptual art. There was pressure not to paint and figurative painting was definitely off the table – but that is why it interested me.
While at Elam, I came across the English artist Boo Ritson in 2004. She was producing really striking Pop-orientated images by painting directly onto people. I think I laughed out loud when I saw them, it was so obvious, and I wished I’d thought of it myself! She was approaching it as a sculptor but I could immediately see huge potential for painting. Enormous.
After Elam I went to Melbourne to do my Masters. I needed time to think my own thoughts and work out my position in relation to all these competing ideas. I’d been treating my film career and my arts career as separate things – it was in Australia that I brought them back together. I started applying old-school stop-motion animation techniques to my oil paintings to ‘animate’ them. Their production was something of a marathon.
PF: The Importance of Being (2012) is the animated work that comes to mind. You painted over 1000 paintings for that?
JH: 1000 portraits of Geoffrey Rush.
PF: How long did that take you?
JH: That was a couple of months. He was starring as Lady Bracknall in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Melbourne Theatre Company, which was just a couple of blocks from my studio. I wrote him a letter asking if I could do a portrait of him and included my video of Muse+Painter (2011). Rush does his own makeup and was transforming himself into Lady Bracknall twice a day – a transformation that took an hour. I filmed him, then reduced the material to eight minutes, and reduced it again – breaking it down to its barest actions. This portrait is about the activity of painting: he literally paints himself into Lady Bracknall.
PF: Have you noticed any shifts from your earlier animated works to your current paintings?
JH: There is a change from the earlier work, they have an interior, self-reflexive gaze – like The Philosopher (2012). She is a beautiful woman smoking a cigarette and thinking about who knows what. I painted her about 650 times. Conceptually, that is actually part of the work: I’m using this supposedly ‘permanent’ material of oil paint in a very impermanent and casual way. I painted her portrait, photographed it, wiped it clean, and then painted it again – all on the one panel. I changed panels after every 150 paintings. So now there are actually only 5 or 6 paintings that exist – one of which I left wiped clean. It is like a little ghost image – like the momentary after-image that remains when you turn off an old-style telly.
There’s not a lot of action as such; the ‘action’ occurs in watching the multiple hand-painted images. They play with our perception and understanding of time in relation to different media – photographic time, painting’s ‘cumulative’ time and the ‘present’ time of film. The works are about painting as a practice, as a meditation, as a habit or an addiction. They are a reflection on the passage of time. We like to think of things as being permanent, but really nothing is, as has been very well demonstrated in Christchurch.
PF: Which brings us to your 2014 exhibition at the CPIT ArtBox, its like now…
JH: That was about who was still here in Christchurch at the time. I put a call-out to those in the arts community for a 30 second selfie. Within the 30 seconds, there is a little moment of self-recognition – when the person holding the camera suddenly goes, “actually, this is quite long. Oh look at me, I see you seeing me.” That is the moment I was looking for – that real point of total connection with self. While my previous work was about an interior dialog, the paintings in its like now felt more like a conversation.
I had intended to animate the material, but so many people responded. I had 50 people to do and 50 days to do it in. In the end, I completed about 450 paintings in 50 days. The installation was made up of 150 portraits and a small stop-motion animation. I also enjoyed how the show connected people. People would meet and go “I know you from somewhere”, then, “we have been hanging in this exhibition together!”
PF: There seems to be a natural progression between that show and I’m Your Fan – exhibited at Chambers 241 gallery earlier this year.
JH: There is and it developed from that work. I asked my artist friends to nominate a favourite artwork or artist – someone who was like an artistic hero or influence. Together we decided on a particular image to represent that, I painted a version of it on them directly, then photographed the result. There’s a lot of work in the set-up, but the painting itself didn’t take long. Depending on its complexity, it took about an hour. Then straight into the shower for my ‘canvas’ – house paint actually forms quite a skin.
There are two portraits of Audrey Baldwin in I’m Your Fan. We share a feminist perspective, particularly on women’s under-representation in collections and galleries. She suggested Lynda Benglis’ Centrefold, originally published in Artforum in 1974. It is an image of Benglis with a large dildo, highlighting the fact that, at the time, you needed a penis to get featured in the art magazine. Things have changed, but not that much.
For each work I wanted to connect with each artist’s own practice, and Audrey’s body is the material for her works. We decided on Jean August Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque (1814), as interpreted by the feminist artist group Guerrilla Girls in a famous 1989 Metropolitan Museum poster. With the gorilla mask present in the painting, the work portrays Audrey as a fan of the original Odalisque, as a fan of the Guerrilla Girls, and unmasks her as the potential Guerrilla Girl she is. Working with Audrey, I could see potential for creating live performances that subvert painting’s trope of the classical Grand Nude.
PF: Artists often reference other artists in their works, but I’m Your Fan takes this to a whole new level.
JH: Well there are paintings that are so famous they have an aura about them; they are untouchable ‘celebrity paintings.’ Living on the other side of the world, we’d be lucky to experience them in the flesh. Never in my lifetime will I own such a thing, so I thought, ‘well, I can make my own versions!’ I am an art fan, and these famous paintings bring so much into my life. It is a way of acknowledging them, but it is, affectionately, slightly tongue-in-cheek. We are in a continuous visual conversation across time, and it is both an homage and a compliment. Working with local Christchurch artists too, I really appreciate what they do in spite of the less-than-easy circumstances here. This was my way of saying thanks for making me welcome.
PF: You completed two live performances with Audrey, one at the Chambers 241 opening and one at the Lyttelton Arts Factory. Both were recreations of the classical nude. Did you want people to see the process?
JH: Really, the process itself is simple – there is no need to hide that. I just thought that it might be interesting for people to experience it first-hand. There is a lot going on! It harks back to the Happenings of the 1960s.
PF: I heard that students at art school were traditionally taught not to touch the model, and definitely not paint on them!
JH: I think that’s true actually. Life drawing models don’t make eye contact with artists and vice versa. For me, Audrey’s practice is an important part of the work that I do with her. She is not there as a passive model object; she is there as her artist-self. She makes eye contact with the people present, she sees people seeing her, and they witness that. She breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by returning their gaze.
PF: So your current series, The Lyttelton Redux, developed from these works?
JH: When I was working on I’m Your Fan I did a little portrait of my partner, Jeff. He is obsessed with sailing; he sails in Lyttelton at least twice a week; I thought that I would do him as Captain Cook. I was talking with Cheryl Lucas, a ceramic artist from Lyttelton, about how much I loved the image and wanted to do more. This idea evolved into a fundraiser for the Lyttelton Museum. Originally, I thought I could do 12 portraits for a calendar, but this grew into a 26 portrait exhibition. As the Museum doesn’t have a building at present, the works are hosted by Lyttelton businesses. The works are GPS located and discoverable by smart phone. The locator also provides some historical audio material – provided by Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. These portraits literally ‘speak for themselves’. I’m making connections between past and present-day subjects through genealogy, occupation, or just simple likeness.