What is my Personal Reality?
Updated: Aug 6
An artist I know said to me recently that 'an artist’s challenge is to record one’s reality.'
This prompted me to think about the 'personal reality' that I express in my art.
I thought I'd start with something I made when I was very young, in the hope that in its naivete it might reveal hints of a world view that I can trace in my later work.
It's a plaster relief I made in my last year of high school, aged 16. I called it 'View out of an exam room window'; I probably sketched it during a particularly boring exam. It's the first thing I made of which I consciously thought, 'this could be art'. It hasn't survived. Here is a sketch from memory:
'View from an exam room window'
Acrylic paint on plaster relief on board
Approximately 70cm x 100cm
1973 (Redrawn from memory, 2023)
Why did I think I had made a work of art? I think it's because I felt I had expressed my emotional state or worldview in a form that was 'good enough' to be on a gallery wall. I won't argue the artistic merit of this work, but it's worth examining for clues to my 'personal reality'.
The window is a small opening in a featureless, colourless wall (white painted plaster in the original - like a fragment of a real wall). The view outside is abstracted into a group of colourful rectangles. The window (freedom, harmony) is small. The wall (prison, chaos) is large.
That's how I felt in that exam room at 16.
The world outside is depicted with simplified colours and shapes: a rectilinear red building, wavy green trees, a yellow window, blue sky, the moon. I remember liking the way the window frame facilitated the abstraction of reality like a camera viewfinder and how the window glass distorted the scene so that adjacent parts didn't quite line up. The result was whimsical, fanciful, idealistic.
There are twin desires in this childish work: to evoke a situation, and to depict the contrast between 'real' and idealised reality.
Although the subject is not shown, the situation was me being trapped in that exam room. The contrast is the disjunction between what was important to me (beauty, truth, action, feeling) and what mattered in an education system based on rote memory, procedural accuracy, and unquestioned authority. I disliked high school intensely.
An interest in individuals caught in situations continued into my later work.
Man in arcade, Florence, 1979
Gallery visitor #10, NGV, 2010
Heat struck girl, Knossos, 2017 (detail) Forest Man, 2012
The idealisation of landscapes through simplification and abstraction is also something that has continued.
Sunset, Capel Street, 1981
What do these pictorial desires say about my worldview? My strong sense of individuality is connected to a sense of 'foreign-ness' I have felt since childhood. Not quite alienation, but an uneasy 'fit' with my surroundings, like being in the wrong place. From an early age I experienced feelings of disassociation and detachment; at school I daydreamed a lot and lost focus during class; I spent much of my childhood 'in my own head'; to my classmates I was the 'absent-minded professor'. I also experienced (and still do) jamais vu: unlike deja vu, this is the sensation of experiencing something as if for the first time, even though the thing is familiar. I have experienced, for example, the eery sensation of looking at a chair and not understanding what it is yet being fascinated by its odd shape.
I assume these experiences are a mix of innate traits and external experiences. I may have been born with an extremely self-conscious nature, while my disassociation may result from childhood trauma. I accept them as aspects of my neurodiversity.
There is a connection between these internal experiences and way I see my surroundings. My sense of detachment means I tend to see the world as a stage set, a construct of planes, shapes, and colours. The sense of being isolated within a world with a cardboard-cut-out insubstantiality is the crux of my world view.
My experience of the world may seem remote and unfeeling, but this is not so. The world may be suspect, but as the subject within it I am infused with emotions: fear, anticipation, joy, pain . . . I find great joy in the world of things and people; the world is marvellous and strange, full of mysteries and shadows, but moments of revelation as well.
Intense feelings, detached observation, strangeness, and beauty; I think this worldview is evident in numerous works:
Bridge, Mildura, 1973 (8mm Movie still)
Backyard, Hobart, 1975
Sanctuary of Apollo, Cyprus, 2017
I feel that my worldview is well expressed in the works I created around 2016 and 2017:
Tire tread, Millewa, 2016
Pearl, Pooncarie, 2016
White Stone, Cyprus, 2017
The landscape is a blurred and painterly, obscure, unreal. The objects are centred, sharply focused, details heightened and lighting dramatic. The objects are at once familiar and strange. People have said that the 'intensity of searching' in some of my works moves them to tears. This captures my subjective experience, my 'personal reality'.
However, I think these images are 'good 'not simply because they express the way I see the world. I think that art has meanings and purposes beyond the expression of 'personal reality'.
Hopefully, I will explore those ideas in a future post.