Ahead of our evening with world-renowned artists Polly Borland and Tony Clark, we spoke to them about their latest work, as well as their long-term friendship and collaboration. They met as part of Melbourne’s avant-garde art and club scene in the 1980s, and have maintained a friendship across continents and decades.
Clark has exhibited prolifically since the early 1980s, with regular solo exhibitions in Australia and Germany, including solo presentations at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne and the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Polly enjoyed a successful career as a portrait photographer for publications including The New Yorker, Vogue and The Independent, shooting everyone from Nick Cave and Cate Blanchett to Queen Elizabeth II, before focusing on art projects. Recent exhibitions include solo presentations in New York, London, Madrid and Melbourne’s Centre of Contemporary Photography. The long-term friends are both presenting solo exhibitions at Sullivan + Strumpf later this month.
You’re in Australia at the moment ahead of a solo exhibition at Sullivan + Strumpf. Where are you based these days?
I shuffle between Sicily and Germany. I actually grew up in Italy, so I have a longstanding connection there. At the end of the 1990s, I bought a small house in Syracuse, which is a notable historic city in Sicily, and then I got another place in the country nearby. At the moment I’m in Berlin quite a lot, and have been lucky enough to set up a studio near Dusseldorf.
So you can work wherever you find yourself in the world!
Yes, that’s the idea. It’s funny, because in the old days, I used to paint in hotel rooms and stuff like that. I never had a studio, but now I have three. I’m doing ok!
Does your regular travel influence the scale and medium that you work with?
I’ve actually started doing quite a lot of large-scale painting on unstretched canvas, so that’s one way of solving it. I really like trying to do things in all possible scales, so I work at postcard size, up to paintings that are several metres high. My aim is to be able to be comfortable with all those options, and to adapt. But it’s not really driven by the studio in the sense that if the studio isn’t big enough, I’ll paint outside.
Can you describe the work in your upcoming show at Sullivan + Strumpf?
I’m continuing a series that I started in the 1980s, Clark’s Myriorama. It was initially an idea for an endless series of interchangeable landscape panels. I’ve been doing that on and off for a very long time, and for this show, I wanted to take that idea full circle. To, as it were, contradict myself by fixing the composition with these paintings. The panels [from Clark’s Myriorama] were originally 9 x 12”, whereas these new paintings go up to three metres in height.
Recently I have worked with a dance performance artist, Shelley Lasica, and made a number of backdrop paintings for her. I’ve been interested in this idea of the backdrop for some time, so I am also proposing the Myriorama as a design for a backdrop. Deliberately looking at landscape imagery as backdrop imagery, so to speak.
In both of these branches of the idea, I have introduced ‘feigned frames’, which reinforces the fixing-in-place. It’s a convention that comes from old master painting. The backdrops have an introduced architectural element to signify the proscenium arch. I’ve been working with these ideas for a long time, but I really feel I have nailed this particular idea with this show, and I’m very happy about that.
This work will be exhibited alongside an exhibition of new work by Polly Borland, and you two go back a long way. How did you meet and start to work together?
I’ve known Polly for thirty-something years now. I was in Melbourne for twenty years or so from the late 1970s. We met in the 80s, and then she went to London and I eventually went there too. I was educated in Italy and then in England, where I got my degree in Art History and almost immediately came to Australia looking for a job. Within weeks [of arriving in Melbourne] I’d met Roland Howard, John Nixon, Nick Cave and Howard Arkley…really great people who supported me enormously. I had missed out on art school but was in this wonderful, open environment which really helped me to get started. It was amazingly good luck. In retrospect it looks quite dazzling in terms of the people that I was lucky enough to encounter, including Polly. She was more part of the club/fashion scene than I was, although we did actually meet in a club. She did probably the best portrait of me in those years.
Can you tell us a bit about the work for your upcoming show at Sullivan + Strumpf?
The series is called Not Good At Human and when I started, I hadn’t been photographing people for a while. When I moved to LA [in 2011], I made the series Wonky and Pupa which were mostly abstract, using weird soft sculptures that I had made. I really wanted to get back to people.
I started photographing my son. We played around with costumes, and I didn’t really want him to be recognisable, but you can tell it’s a young person. The move to LA was a very difficult transition, and I wanted to record him and do something together. The title came about because a friend of mine described himself as ‘not good at human’. And in a lot of ways I realised, Louie is an incredible human being but there were a lot of kids and adults that didn’t really get who Louie was. So I decided to use that turn of phrase as the title of the show.
Louie was 13 when we started making the photographs two years ago, and I thought we’d continue until he was 18. Then we would go through all the photos and let him work out which photos were ok for a book. Eventually I realised that there was a show in that body of work. I started seeing similarities between photos I had taken of Louie, and photos I had taken for the series Bunny . So I started combining photos of Gwen [from the Bunny series] with some of the photos of Louie. I’ve done a lot of experimentation in this body of work – there are tapestries, lenticular prints, collages and an image that I’ve drawn on as well.
Is it right that this will be your first Sydney solo show?
I exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in a show curated by Natasha Bullock [We used to talk about love, Balnaves contemporary: photomedia, 2013]. Before that I was in a group show many years ago – like, 25-plus years ago at what used to be the Sydney Photographer’s Gallery on Oxford Street.
I took a long time to acclimatise myself to Los Angeles after living in London, but I feel reenergised now, and more able to focus on my work and what I am doing with it. I haven’t lived in Australia for so many years, and it seemed stupid that I hadn’t shown in Sydney and didn’t have a gallery there. I had a good experience at the AGNSW, then this opportunity came up, so I just thought, it’s a no brainer!
Could you tell us about your collaboration with Tony Clark?
Tony and I have known each other for thirty years and we are very close. We’re doing a body of work where we are flipping what we usually make, and the work will be collated into a book. We are both taking photos of trees and painting portraits. I’m not known for trees, or for painting, and he is not known for photographing. We’re not working on each piece together, but we are collaborating on the idea and the book. I contacted Dan Rule at Perimeter Books, and he loved the idea. It’s a work in progress.
Join Contemporaries for an evening with Polly Borland and Tony Clark at Sullivan + Strumpf on Thursday 24 November, 6:30pm. Enjoy an exclusive viewing of their highly-anticipated solo exhibitions followed by an intimate Q&A with the world-renowned artists.
A limited number of tickets are available for this event.
Purchase tickets here.
Feature image: Tony Clark, ‘Sections from Clark’s Myriorama’, 2016, oil on canvas board, 8 panels, 30 x 180 cm (overall) 2