A series of questions Alexandra Lawson asked Tarn McLean during the lead up to her exhibition at ALG. – March 2017
How do you think about paint as a medium, as a physical body?
Paint is a varied medium. I certainly don’t have a technical grasp on the application of all the varieties (watercolour, gauche, acrylic) as I choose to use oils and raw pigments including ochre. That said, it’s the flexibility of pushing oils and their slow drying time that allows me to layer the way I need to. There’s a necessary sensuality associated with painting with oils. The physical push and pull of the oil and dusting and rubbing of pigment combined with the smell of the gum turps and linseed oil, I find grounding. As preferred media they give me the time and space to search out what it is that I am looking for. They ask, even demand, but in turn give me the time to give back. Paint is light that fills space and it is the medium of paint that allows me to place colour, in its most reductive way, to ‘see’ where I am at.
What is your relationship to paint and ochre and medium? Do you see them the same way?
What is it that you love about ochre?
As a child I spent time growing up in Gove (Northern Territory) and although my memory of the experience is lived mostly through faded photographs, I found its magnetic energy again in my late teens and then again when I chose to follow my husband to live in the Queensland Outback where I stayed until my early 30’s. Your use of the word ‘love’ is significant. It was in this geographic location and during this time that I found the space and groundedness to bring two children into the world. Surrounded by red earth and blue skies, no neighbours close by and a mail truck visit twice a week was my reality. Earth’s elements connected me to place, ahead of any social connect or interactions with people. The outback and its red earth was my everyday and my everything. The dirt, the drought, the heat and the smell of rain spitting hesitantly on its dry ground became my infatuation, as much as it was my frustration and fury. There’s something about its smell and texture and its power. You come to understand through days and seasons that you are such a small part of a complex universe. Ochre is the grubby, insignificant ‘thing’ that pulls me. It’s bigger than me. Its ancientness continues to form and pull. It insists daily.
Your PhD referenced painting and history and its location. Could you explain where painting is for you now and where your work fits within that?
Painting has such a big and long history, perhaps the longest of any visual language; think Cave Painting, painted ochre onto bodies for tribal dancing and ceremonies. It seems to be a most instantaneous way to communicate. Past the mediums of crayon, pen or pencil a child can brush colour pigment on to a picture plane, making marks and personal gestures that seem to afford a freedom of expression, more than any other medium. Its technology hasn’t changed so much over thousands of years, yet its humble attributes continue to challenge the user and its viewer. To place one colour next to another changes the reading of the work and therefore its possibilities are infinite. Place that potential and those ideas amongst digital media and the two find a way to co-exist. Today artists have access to a myriad of technologies, and the singular focus of medium associated with the Modernist painter no longer exists. It’s one for all and all for one. Choose your medium and conceptualise your outcome.
I use paint as a chosen medium, but I also choose to incorporate digital technology, video, installation, textile design and other forms of artistic output, including operating an artist run space and holding dialogue with other painters. All these processes are informed by my studio painting practice. It is the ontologoical investigation that takes place within the canvas support that allows me to conceptualise other forms of making and having that sit beyond the traditional frame. Now my work is playing a game of looking back, looking forward and looking at the technologies that sit in front of me. Amongst a visual climate dominated by mass images that saturate the windows of my iPhone and iPad, this computer, even my car windscreen, I need to find some kind of stillness. Its like the fourth dimension calls. The division of plane fascinated the Cubists who held still the fragments of space. I lay down layers of paint as a way to ‘suspend’ time, to move beyond the past and the present, settling into the absoluteness of now.
Amongst the entourage of visual information delivered by digital technology I choose to persist with the medium of paint. Unlike the fast paced nature of witnessing multiple images through a screen or window, it is paint that I choose to connect with the viewer and share an experience. While painting is informed by its own history, it also has a fresh clarity, potentially providing a window that is unique and original, but also quiet and still. These attributes are hard-up being found in other technologies today. It’s a traditional medium that stands alone; it is what it is. It cannot be manipulated by its audience yet continues to exists as a visual dialogue amongst other new media that delivers content on pre-prescribed demand.
I love that you’re a designer and an artist. Do these things reference each other? You are designing space and time, or do you see it as completely separate?
I see my profession as a designer quite separately from being an artist. Through my design work I am constantly problem solving for a market. So by designing handbags, wallpapers, textiles for interiors and silk dresses, I consider the combination of aesthetic knowledge with trend. These deliberations are paramount for exchanging goods for dollars. I need to eat, feed my family and put a roof over our heads. As a painter, I am lucky that I wake in the morning and go to work in a studio, design beautiful wares, applying my instinctive and educated knowledge of colour and its applications as a way to make ends meet. That’s where being a designer and an artist begins and ends
On the flip side, the longer I have an arts practice, the more painting becomes more challenging; through my design I pay far more attention to details such as function and aesthetic, but as an artist my canvas and pigment insists on my communicating conceptual intention. The need to suspend a work in time takes up all of my energy. I paint to discover and understand my space and place; to see what it is that I am trying to see, like finding a new truth in a new day. These outcomes can only be planned and mentally mapped through to a certain point, then, as my first painting mentor Dr Irene Amos insisted, I need to ‘take my head off, leave it at the door and just make it happen, without ego’. This way (for me) new things happen both on top of the canvas and also beyond it. Intentions are expanded beyond the frame into the design of space and architecture. Within my arts practice the client is not considered, rather the viewer is challenged. Understanding these differences between art and design provides the necessary tools to play each game.
What is it about painting that keeps you coming back to it?
Aside from the afore-mentioned process of identifying my time, space and place, I return to painting as a way to hopefully discover something new. I read and see colour like a musician hears sound and reads music. There’s some kind of discovery or truth to my reality that resides in both the act of painting as well as ‘seeing’ coloured pigment. Also the history of painting; its apparent death I find so intriguing, like how far can I push this practice to show that this is so very far from the truth. It’s the challenge of quietly manipulating the ancient medium in a small, dedicated room where there is no contact with the outside world, and finding new beginnings and challenges each time. As restricting as the finite parameters of the rectangular frame and the nature of paint is, ‘doing’ painting is equally the most liberating yet challenging act I could engage with.
The other reason I keep returning to painting is for the comradery with fellow artists. Being a part of a system that is bigger than me but where I am welcome and understood gives me a sense of belonging. We remain dedicated to the language of reductive painting, but the most awesome part about it is each brings an individual aesthetic to the table. There could be ten painters who make a yellow monochrome painting and no two will be the same. We are all painting our truths. I’m in the right place. It’s like a calling. I’ll never be alone, not as long as I face up to the daily challenge of doing my best to contribute to painting’s history. It is through paintings’ humble existence and association with fellow painters that I find a special kind of time; suspended, graceful and insistently still.
Do you see space design and architecture as painting? Or how do they reference each other?
I have always needed to architecturally explore space. As a child I would explore the edges of the page with wild scurrying of pushing brightly coloured textas, or finding the perfect shaped stick that I could attach a string to and use as a fishing line. There was always something to discover and make and see and do, like exploring the edges of my existence. These explorations have never been fixed on one medium, but I find they need to be anchored in some way before they can develop. Like a rhizome plant, you can cut away the stem and new shoots will form and develop, but they all come from the one source. So as far as space design and architecture are concerned, the way I consider them is directly informed by my painting practice. For example, if I’m currently focusing on painting towards the Colour Series of works then I am occupied with how colours change and shift when placed next to each other. These ideas don’t remain being explored within the picture frame alone. After experimenting with any number of outcomes (within the frame), I look to see what can happen to the design of space and architecture if I apply the same conceptual intentions. These other spatial outcomes mirror newly informed versions and possibilities of what I have been painting/exploring inside the frame; they act as other modes of painting. Once these processes of exploring are exhausted I return once again to the canvas. The possibilities are endless. There’s always a return.
What ideas are inherent within the body of work that you're showing at ALG?
I have three different ideas that I explore through my painting practice. They each deal with colour and the possibilities of spatial arrangements. For example the Monochrome Painting series deals with seeing single colours layered on top of each other. The Colour Series investigates the shift that visually occurs once colour is placed next to another, and the Shaped Paintings are concerned with how colour changes when positioned in different angles in space. The works in this show deal with Monochrome Painting, or what I call the ‘ground works’. They deal with their own history as well as the basic principles of painting such as colour, texture, shape and form. By utilizing these attributes I am searching for a certain kind of truth. Nothing is hidden, but rather through layering colour and revealing the canvas there is a kind of undeniable engagement that takes place. I hope to suspend the work in time, holding the viewer’s attention through manipulating an almost primitive technology. The works don’t necessarily need a framed support structure or sealing mediums, they are complete through their associated materiality. They don’t ask to be swiped or zoomed in on nor screen shot for later viewing, they just want to be experienced for their autonomy and for the potential ideas they hold.