This interview with Dr Oliver Watt – the head curator at Artbanks – was conducted by Sarah Josie, as part of a four-part series of interviews related to artists, arts spaces and infrastructure in New South Wales.
What was your defining moment as an artist?
I think it’s hard to define. I don’t think there is a defining moment as an artist because it’s an ongoing practise. I think you do just have to keep on going, really. If you say when did I start being an artist. If that’s part of the question. I was quite serious about art history and painting or drawing when I was 12 or 13. I think I won my first prize when I was 11 which was with the daily telegraph with Parker’s in the rocks. So Parker’s gave me a voucher so that was a defining moment I guess. They thought that I was an artist at that point. I’ve always gone to Parker’s after that but I think the major thing about art is that you have to keep going. Each show builds on the next show.
Having said that I think I did go to art school later. Because I did Art history and other things first. I only really did complete my MFA at SCA relatively recently. I do think that Art School is a good gateway to a practice and that you meet some new people and you see other professional artists in a different way in a very collegiate way and something that doesn’t have the restraints of the commercial market. I think it’s definitely worth doing and I wish I’d gone earlier, but I don’t regret not going. I think doing a degree or doing an MFA, or whatever, can be a good moment to reassess your work and to move forward. Having taught in art schools too, they’re very useful places to sort out your ideas and can create moments of growth that you can be self-critical on. I think that research degrees whether that be MFA or Honours or a PHD can be good moments to reassess where you are.
Did you try other disciplines before you got into painting?
I definitely have always been a painter. I’ve always enjoyed painting and maybe also coming strongly through art history I was always looking at painting or looking at image making in that way, so I’ve always had a strong sense of painting. Towards the 2000’s and late 90’s, I did try other mediums such as photography, performance, narrative performance, and videos where I used lots of actors. They brought a lot towards the storytelling. I think storytelling has always been an important part of my practise but recently especially through the MFA I think I really focused back down on painting as the medium I like to use for storytelling and narrative and what I’ve learnt from the other mediums has come through to painting I think. I still use actors. I still collaborate in that way to set tableaus before I paint them, and I like the collaborative process of setting the scenes. But then I do also like to paint and work with that long tradition of painting and just recall things in that way.
The longer I’ve been painting the more peculiar the medium is and I am beginning to not be embarrassed about the long history that I am painting or drawing and I think that is part of contemporary painting and drawing. It reminds me of poetry. I think a lot of contemporary poetry is fantastic, but it really does draw on a long tradition and you are asking, in poetry’s case, the reader. But in this case, painting, you are asking the viewer to bring quite a lot of knowledge to painting. Obviously, my paintings are not for everyone. I think you do have to have some kind of education in painting, but I am becoming less and less worried about that. I think it’s a very peculiar thing to do to paint but I am happier with it.
What was your first exhibiting experience and how old were you?
I think the first real exhibiting experience I had was with Half Dozen which was an artist run initiative that I started with David Tae, Dougall Phillips and Jasper Knight in about 2003. For me it was a very steep learning curve because at that time I wasn’t at art school. This art history guy came and then the art school would come to view the work. I wasn’t that stressed because I was so young but in hindsight it was quite a big thing to do. I probably showed too early. I think that’s another reason why art school is good: you can test things with your peers before you go out. I think I did make some mistakes exhibiting. Then my first commercial gallery show was also a very supportive gallery that I am still with, which used to be called Helen Gorry Gallery and then it changed into This is No Fantasy in Melbourne. One of my first commercial gallery shows got reviewed in Art in America by a reviewer who had just happened to be in Sydney and Melbourne at that time. I was just talking to Locus Jones about that, because he was the other show. He was the Sydney show and I was the show in Melbourne that got reviewed so that was very positive for a commercial gallery, too. The big painting from that show got bought by Art Bank – where I am now working – which was great encouragement. So, it’s sort of interesting, because I think the ARIs give you a lot of freedom and a lot of peer support. But, it is interesting that for painters, if your artwork suits the commercial galleries, it is worth moving at some point. It can have different sorts of support and encouragement which is worth going through as a process of refining your work.
How did you start your own gallery? What advice do you have for those who aspire to start their own galleries?
I think there’s different reasons to start a gallery, but I think you’re asking about artist run spaces. We did start the gallery to show our work and our friends work. You start anywhere and that goes for all art forms. If you’re a curator you can show anywhere, be it in your kitchen, in your lounge room. I think that a gallery can be started anywhere. It’s just that real estate prices are so expensive. That’s what we did at Half Dozen. Half Dozen was more of a parasitical model, so we just used other people’s places and actually UNSW is very supportive of that. So, we used Ivan Doherty’s gallery during the summer holidays because no-one was using it. We’d use spaces that people weren’t using over the break or whenever we could find a break and that ended up a point where Half Dozen helped for a gallery for six months while they were in between directors; we just put on shows just to keep things ticking over so that they could go for more philanthropy and things. So that was our model. We couldn’t afford anything so we just waited until the space became available and put it in and that was quite successful. The interesting thing about ARIs is when to get out. When to say no, I’m not an artist...We ended up starting Chalk Horse. We were interested in supporting artists in that way. For others there are so many artist initiatives that I know that a lot of great artists have started and been involved with. You can spread the load, that’s a way of doing it. Or the First Draft model where they change the directors every two years. I think there are good models where you keep on moving because if you are an artist, you don’t want to be stuck as a director of a gallery necessarily.
When you started Chalk Horse did you have a bit more money behind you at that time where you could start it? Did you have help?
We never used backers in those days. I guess the market was more buoyant as well. Before the Global Financial Crisis there was a lot more interest in art buying. So, a decade ago it was easier and then in 2010 it did slow down. Some work was selling and there were patrons who would help by buying work. I mean the support came from people in the art world that knew. We did also get Australia Council funding because at the time they seemed to go back to a more project based model. But ARIs used to get more support from the Australia Council, the state government and City of Sydney. So that kept us going for a while too.
So you got sponsors on board.
Yeah. I guess in the end, the way to keep it going was to become properly commercial. And that is a sort of death of the Artist Run Initiative. Because now it’s not an ARI anymore - it’s more commercial. In a way Chalk Horse from the old days is not the same as the Chalk Horse now.
How did your zeal for the Harry Potter series originate and why did you choose to draw parallels between JK Rowling’s world and art [in your lectures]?
I think you’re responding to some of my lectures here where I would use Harry Potter as an example. The first reason I talked about Harry Potter was because I knew everyone would know it. When you’re lecturing your trying to find a shared language that you can talk about. So, you always pick movies and books that people will know so that you can start a discussion and you can try to find things that you assume people would know. I guess 100 years ago people would discuss the Bible or things that everybody would know but in such a contemporary world it’s harder to find things that unify people. Harry Potter was something that 90 percent of people sort of knew about but the other reason is because I am very interested in images. I think I use Harry Potter and JK Rowling because I was trying to extend, especially in an art school context, where you’re not just directly talking about art history: you’re also talking about images and pictures. Especially in contemporary art, there’s a lot of different sorts of image magic, or the power of images from a disciplinary point of view came out of visual studies as an extension of art history.
I think that JK Rowling is a very good visual theorist. She has paintings that move, photographs which are like videos. The way we relate to portraits is like we are talking to them, so she has these magical portraits. I think what she does is she takes our response to images that are actually real. I think it’s true, the way we look at a portrait as somebody that you speak to for advice and support. In her magical universe she is able to show that that’s how we deal with images. Another thing in art history that we don’t really talk about is that magic or a soul being in an object, like a horcrux or something. But I think that people do think like that. So, someone like WJT Mitchell in Chicago, he had an exercise that he would give to his students at the beginning of a visual studies course which was to bring a photograph of your mother and everybody would bring a photograph of their mother and then he said cut out they eyes.
Oooh that’s freaky.
His point was that on one level, it was just ink on a page. You know it’s just ink on a page and you know it’s just an image that you can print out gain on the printer if you needed to but people find it problematic to cut out the eyes of their mother. But why do they? Because there’s a magic in the image almost as if their mother’s soul is in that image. Maybe that’s how some people respond to photography: maybe there’s more to that than we are willing to admit. I think that JK Rowling is good because she extends in a magical way how we probably do respond to images. I think she’s been very thoughtful about how we respond to video, moving images, photography, paintings and she has such a big world with Harry Potter that she has a lot of different sorts of things. Little photos, Big Photos, Big Spectacles, paintings on the wall. There’s a lot of different things that she’s responded to. I think that JK Rowling is a very good visual theorist. She has paintings that move, photographs which are like videos...I think it’s true, the way we look at a portrait as somebody that you speak to for advice and support.
What is your advice to small gallery owners who are struggling to keep their galleries going?
That’s a difficult question. The commercial gallery sector is difficult, although it is important to give that support to artists. Not all artists need commercial support, they can get it curatorially. But I guess it’s up to the dealer too. I mean David Hickey made a really good quote in the 70’s: “If you couldn’t sell a jar full of air, then it wasn’t worth being a gallerist.” I think the gallerist has to have their own vision. Whether that’s conceptual art or video or whatever, and then they just define their clients. The one thing I’d say about galleries is that you shouldn’t probably be going for a broad audience. I don’t think that’s the trick, because you’re not selling Coca Cola. All you need is four main big patrons and you can run a small gallery. You just have to really get yourself out there and meet people. But I think the interesting thing is that a lot of people do want to support the arts in that way, that they do want to be supportive. So, you know if the gallery is in Penrith, or wherever it is, I’m sure that the local community don’t want to see the gallery fail. People that like art would be interested in the community that the gallerist is trying to build.
This piece was produced in collaboration between Framework and Arcadia