Monday, September 1, 2014

In Conversation: Sam Leach

Composing Common Worlds brings together a very exciting cohort of Australian artists - all of whom work quite prolifically. In the first of our In Conversation interviews we catch up with the inimitable Sam Leach - Archibald Prize winner, Wynne Prize winner and all round highly desired artist of international repute. With his first solo show in Melbourne for a number of years being staged at the Melbourne Art Fair, curatorial involvement with the alternate art fair that he co-founded in 2010 NotFair, work exhibited in the Melbourne Nite Art event, and a solo show at Tinning Street Gallery all showing around the time of his inclusion in Composing Common Worlds, Sam is in high demand on a number of fronts. 

Generously giving his time and his thoughts about his art, Sam answers some our probing questions about the ideas underpinning his beautiful and stimulating work. Get yourself a cup of tea and come with us on a journey into the heart of Sam Leach's art.

Sam Leach in front of some of his artwork in Composing Common Worlds

THG: There’s a lot of science going on in the artworks you have in Composing Common Worlds - 3D printed asteroids, telescopes, paleolithic tools. What draws you to this exploration of science in your work?

Sam Leach: At the beginning of the 21st century science has become a dominant cultural and social force in liberal western democracies and, arguably, the world. Nonetheless, science frequently comes under attack from political interest groups, for example in recent attempts to undermine the science of climate change or critiques of biogenetic engineering from environmental groups concerned with the potential of science to disrupt and corrupt “nature". Yet, as the impact of climate change grows increasingly severe, scientific research is more critically important than it has ever been.

There is an inherent tension between the practice of science and the communication of scientific discoveries to the broader public. While the scientific process requires scientists to conduct dispassionate and objective research, effective communication necessarily requires some emotional connection with the public. This tension is echoed within the laboratory as researchers balance intuition and enthusiasm with method and reason. I am very interested in how aesthetics might reveal these tensions and the paradoxical way that  the detached position adopted by researchers ultimately results in a deeper understanding of the subject with the consequent potential for stronger empathic connection. 

THG: That idea of effective communication of important information is very interesting. Sometimes extremely complex data needs to be translated and made easily digestible which results in a highly refined visual language of graphs and symbols. The abstract shapes, colours and compositions in your work hint at this while also appearing to reference  the language of ‘high modernism’. What’s the process for you in selecting and incorporating these visual elements?

Sam Leach: There are direct influences such as D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s ‘Growth and Form’ which informed much of Richard Hamilton’s early work  and Edward Tufte’s ‘Visual Display of Quantitative Information” which has had a profound effect on graphical representation of data since the mid 1970s. But really the last decade has seen data visualisation expanding rapidly becoming increasingly sophisticated. Large amounts of data which  previously would have been difficult to access and even more difficult to handle is now readily available and relatively simple to work with. This has resulted in some amazing work being produced in the field. It is fairly early to suggest that this is having much of a broader cultural impact, but it seems like there is an increasing level of interest and statistical literacy in the public. Hopefully this will be bad news for vested interests who have historically sought to manipulate and misrepresent statistical information! 

Sam Leach, Hohle fel b (2013)
I think there is a strong relationship between the visual language of high modernism and techniques employed in data visualisation. Many of the painters I admire from the period: Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Sol leWitt were concerned with quite rigorous analysis of the formal properties of paintings, the relationships between colour and form, support and surface, figure and ground, the artwork and the gallery. The works combine methodology with intuition and the best works are really revelations. So I don’t think it is a coincidence that when very talented designers turn their attention to data analysis, an activity which also involves combining methodology, rigour and intuition, the results have share some visual traits with high-modernist or formalist art. 

In my work I combine shapes and forms from both data visualisation and modernist painting with images, often of animals or landscapes but also of human made artefacts. Usually I begin with a specific idea about data which relates to the image, or an abstract painting which seems to relate to an image. However once the painting is underway the internal logic of the work prevails and both the representative and abstract components are warped and changed.  It is fascinating to see how simple forms often match up to and reveal unforeseen aspects of a representative image: a link to an earlier understanding of formalism that did not exclude imagery or content. 

THG: There’s a strong sense of historical influence in your images - you mention the likes of Johns, Kelly, LeWitt, and your landscapes reflect seventeenth century Dutch painting techniques - and yet you’re investigating very contemporary ideas and research. What’s the relationship for you between the historical styles you utilise and the contemporary ideas you explore?

Sam Leach: I think the paintings of the 17th century have something quite significant to tell us and we still haven’t quite worked out what it is. If I abandon my reasoning stance for a moment, I have to admit that I experience a strong emotional reaction to the paintings that I cannot adequately explain. Thousands of books and PHD dissertations have been produced trying to figure it out.  I think there is a connection is between the emergence of modernism as we understand it in the 17th century and the zenith of modernism in the 20th century. The scientific revolution of the 17th century shaped the way the world was viewed at the time, just as changing world views at that time created the conditions for the scientific revolution. We see this world view emerging, especially in the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century.

Painted landscapes are no longer backdrops for religious or mythical parables, but rather bring the non-human world into focus. Still life paintings begin to emphasise a world made up of individual and unique objects, any of which might be available for study and contemplation.  The refutation of hybrids and the separation of the world into something that is nature and something that is social is essentially modern and this is the impulse found in minimalism and 20th century formalism. 

Sam Leach, Axes (2009), detail
THG: Tools/instruments appear throughout the works we have in Composing Common Worlds - Palaeolithic axes, vulture bone flute, telescope. I see this as a reflection of your own use of paintings as objects. You approach your paintings like tools or instruments, incorporating objects and sculptural parts with paintings, presenting paintings in grid formations like units and also allowing the thick surface of the resin on your paintings to build up a sense of object-ness. How do you navigate the tension between painting and sculpture or do you see this division as unnecessary?

Sam Leach: I think the division between painting, especially representational painting, and sculpture is critical. As a viewer, we move between the virtual space inside a painted image and the physical space of the gallery.  The resin surface does emphasise the quality of the paintings as physical objects occupying space in the gallery and also marks a physical barrier between the image and the gallery. So while it is possible to see the painting, it is impossible to directly touch the surface. With the sculptural works, by contrast, there is  certainly a physical object occupying space which can be touched and handled. Even when the sculpture is itself representational, as with a model of an asteroid, there is no equivalent to the mental projection that occurs when looking at a painted image. Abstract painting is slightly different since there is no illusion of space (at least in the works I have in this show), although they derive from data visualisation so still have a representational quality it is symbolic rather than iconic.  So with the works that combine abstract painting there are two types of symbolic representation at work but only one we can really touch or put in our hand.

As you point out, tools are a very central concept in these works. This stemmed largely from Heidegger, especially by way of Graham Harman’s reading of him, and the concepts of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. Most tools are, ready-to-hand, so we use them without theorising or aestheticising them. However when they are broken, or perhaps displayed as a sculpture, they are present-at-hand. Things cannot be both at the same time, so humans (and for Heidegger this is only for humans) can experience the world as a transitioning between the two. Harman expands the idea to non-humans and objects, which makes the universe seem a much richer place, with objects having agency and experiencing each other: bring on panpsychism!

Sam Leach, Vulture bone flute (2013)
THG: On the topic of non-human, animals commonly find their way into your art - in this show we have two mouse deer making love, a bird’s foot with a telescope, a vulture bone flute and a horn. Given that there’s a lot of cultural content in your work, with rich philosophical undertones, what’s behind the inclusion of animals?

Sam Leach: Non-human animals have been very important in my practice. In a sense our relationship with non-human animals goes to the heart of the strange paradox of science. Early scientific experiments were often shockingly cruel to non-humans (and indeed humans). The mechanistic view of the world as articulated by Descartes - the whimpering of a kicked dog is no more than the squeaking of cogs in an automaton - seems to give permission for indifferent treatment of non-humans. But over the course of several centuries of research and increasingly sophisticated examination of non-human animal behaviour we have come to recognise that there are very few differences between humans and non-humans and the level of empathy and respect has significantly increased. The recognition of the reality of animal’s experience and point of view opens the way for an ontological flatness that I think is both appealing and important. We should understand that the world is not contingent on human thought, technology does not just benefit or disadvantage humans but also has benefits and disadvantages for non-humans. One of my favourite devices in recent SF was Charles Stross’ lobster AI: scan a lobster brain, get a learning engine! Why not give the non-humans a singularity?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Artist in Residence EXPRESSION OF INTEREST: deadline Friday 26th September, 2014

Town Hall Gallery is seeking expression of interest from artists to undertake an artist in residence program for two weeks in early 2015 as part of the Place Making <Making Place> exhibition. 

Town Hall Gallery will hand over Gallery 2 to three different artists to re-home their studio for a 2 week period. Whilst working in the gallery, each artist will come to terms with how their environment informs their practice. Will their work change direction when being created within the gallery environment?

Viewers will have the opportunity to see the art making process up close and personal! Artists will have the opportunity to play in the gallery space!

One artist (or collaborative pair) will be working from the gallery space during the following time slots:

Studio 1: 10 January to 25 January, 2015
Studio 2: 26 January to 8 February, 2015
Studio 3: 9 February to 23 February, 2015

An artist fee of $1,000 per studio time slot will be paid prior to the exhibition.

Artists will have access to the ‘studio space’ from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday and 11am to 4pm on weekends. We don’t expect artists to be in for the entire time if they choose not to, however we do expect a minimum of 4 hours each day.

Artists will be required to:
*   Bring in their own additional equipment for art making. Town Hall Gallery will provide tables, chairs, drop cloths, lighting as well as assistance to install work on walls during the period.
*   Answer questions and interact with gallery visitors while in their studio. Gallery staff will always be on hand in the gallery to assist as well.

How to submit your EOI:
*   Please provide a full CV and up to 8 images of your current art practice.
*   Provide up to a 2 page concept on why you believe your studio would be of interest to the general public. How do you think your practice may change by being ‘on show’ to gallery visitors? Does your work talk about ‘place’?
*   Please provide 2 professional referees who know your practice and your commitment to the visual arts.

Please note that successful artists will be required to sign a Residency Agreement prior to payment of artist fee.

** EOI deadline is Friday 26th September **

EOI’s must be addressed to:

Placemaking Project
C/o- Town Hall Gallery
360 Burwood Road
Hawthorn VIC 3122

Questions can be forwarded to Senior Curator Mardi Nowak at or 03 9278 4626.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Everything is Connected

In selecting the artists and artworks for the current exhibition 'Composing Common Worlds' we have been mindful of how the art sits in the gallery spaces and how it relates to each other. First and foremost, this is a show about the art of these artists. Sam Leach, Juan Ford, Stanislava Pinchuk (MISO), Cameron Robbins, Laura Woodward and Hanna Tai are some of not only Victoria's finest art talents, they are without doubt world-class artists. 'Composing Common Worlds' is a testament to the caliber of their work and a way of bringing together a cohort of artists that focus on exploring ways of navigating a place in the world and the broader universe.

Laura Woodward's Five (2014). Photo by Jim Lee (c).
In presenting any selection of artworks in a space there is a relationship that is established between the artworks, in the 'empty' spaces on the walls and the 'unoccupied' spaces on the floor. By positioning particular works next to each other, by facing them off against each other across the room, or by spreading works throughout different rooms, you can draw out these connections.

Therein lies an important aspect of this show. We recognise, primarily and most importantly, that each artwork is an individual and unique work. That it is, itself, a composition of parts - made up of ideas and materials that have been carefully composed, arranged, crafted and refined to achieve a particular feeling and effect. And we recognise that through the act of presenting them collectively in the gallery we are building another type of composition. If we do this carefully and thoughtfully the hope is that we can amplify the inherent ideas in the works, draw out some of the finer elements and make clear connections across artists, across mediums and between the concepts in play. All the while maintaining the integrity of the individual artwork.

Stanislava Pinchuk's Galaxy (Aerial Map of violence in the Maidan) (2014) at left
Juan Ford's The Synesthetic (2014) at right (obscured by the concrete pillar)
To illustrate the point, let's take a look at a couple of examples. Firstly, Stanislava Pinchuk's pin-prick drawing Galaxy (Aerial map of violence in the Maidan) (2014) and Juan Ford's sculpture The Synesthetic (2014). In selecting the positioning of these works in the gallery there was a couple of factors that led to the final choice. Firstly, Juan Ford selected the sculpture's location in a thoughtful awareness of the way in which people move through the gallery space (a nice reflection itself of the theme of the show). Tucked in behind a concrete pillar The Synesthetic is hidden to audience members as they first enter from Gallery 1 into Gallery 2. Only once you are right in the middle of the space do you see it, and more than a few people have jumped with shock when they first notice the figure there. Stanislava Pinchuk's artwork has then been placed next to the sculpture because of a content alignment. Galaxy (Aerial map of violence in the Maidan) is a map of the movements of protesters and militia, together with riot-related events that occurred in Kiev, Ukraine while the artist was living there, all garnered from media reports in real-time. 

What we hopefully build between these artworks is a connection that amplifies the characteristics inherent in each one. Pinchuk's work brings out the political undertone in Ford's work. Ford's work brings out the human, bodily element inherent in Pinchuk's work. Both works reinforce the representational nature of each other - a mannequin standing in for a human, a drawn map standing in for human actions. And yet both play off the bodily character inside each work - Ford's sculpture activates the body of the viewer by inducing a very real bodily response, a shock in the belly or a sense of uncanny unease which makes looking at a map of violence seem more physically affecting; the implied violence of acts of revolution and protest in Pinchuk's drawing infuse Ford's sculpture with even more menace.

Laura Woodward's The Return (2014) at left (detail of)
Sam Leach's Telescope (2014) at right
Let's take a look at another example, something that aligns more visually than conceptually. We've positioned Sam Leach's Telescope (2014) at the end of Gallery 3, next to Laura Woodward's The Return (2014). This positioning puts two works together that have visual similarities and allows for each to reinforce the other. Leach's painting shows scientific apparatus while Woodward's sculpture looks like a scientific experiment at work. The nature of the sculpture helps to reinforce the realism of the painting by amplifying a sense of the physical reality of the equipment portrayed. The painting helps to reinforce the scientific character of the sculpture by amplifying the historical trajectory of the enlightenment ideals begun in the seventeenth century (and infused into the work by Leach's style of painting). 

Within Leach's painting you'll also notice a small bird's foot. This integration of the organic into the mechanic is also evident in Woodward's sculpture through the flow of liquids and the vibrating of the tubes. Both works appear highly technological in content and yet both exhibit hints of the organic. Working together in the space through their adjacent spatial relations, they collaboratively reinforce this characteristic.

This is just a couple of examples, and hopefully provides an insight into the nature of the exhibition. Let us know what connections you see too - there's plenty of relationships in play in Composing Common Worlds. Over the next few weeks we'll be bringing interviews with the artists as well, so stay tuned for more insight into these terrific artworks directly from the artists themselves.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Common Composure

Tuesday night saw us launching the sixth major exhibition in the main galleries, 'Composing Common Worlds'. With a selection of six of Victoria's most exciting artists it was bound to be a great event, and we had a wonderfully engaged audience turnout. On the back of an eventful week for the Melbourne art world, with the Melbourne Art Fair, Spring 1883 and NotFair all going on over the previous weekend, there was a lot of art fatigue around town. Nonetheless, we were very pleased to see a full turnout, with many patrons keen to get a closer look at the likes of Sam Leach who was very popular at the Art Fair.

All photos by Jim Lee Photo (c) 
With a host of works to look at, from sculpture to video, drawing to photography, and painting to tattoos, people have been spending lots of time in the gallery. Curated to inspire an awareness of relationships across artworks in each room, the three gallery spaces each have their own characteristic feel.

Juan Ford, Sam Leach, Cameron Robbins, Laura Woodward
We are honoured to have these world-class Australian artists generously include their work in this exhibition. It was a rare opportunity too for our visitors to talk directly with the artists and probe them about their working methods and their ideas. As part of our programming we've included a panel discussion with the artists, open to the public, where you can hear more about how they go about making their art and ask them questions directly. This will take place at the Hawthorn Art Centre, 18 September from 730-900pm (more details here). Cameron will also be running a kids' drawing session with Assistant Curator Dr Kent Wilson on 6 September.

The show runs until 12 October - so come along and check it out!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Proffering Launched

At City of Boroondara we're blessed to have an absolutely terrific team of volunteers giving their time to help the running of Town Hall Gallery and engage with our audience. Volunteers are a critical part of many cultural institutions, and beyond that, a very important part of the broader economy. It was a delight for us to discover, with each new addition to the THG team, that we have an unusually large cohort of practicing artists. Almost everyone makes art.

An admirer of works by Parisa Taheri Tehrani.

This month, at the Quest Hawthorn Community Project Wall, we are able to bring you an exhibition featuring 10 of our talented volunteers,with works by Parisa Taheri Tehrani, Sujata Rai, Creature Creature, Amanda Lugg, Chloe Mann, Frankie Katz, Cassandra King, Elishia Furet, Jessica Cooke, and Laura Harding. Among the group there is a diversity of age, experience and education; a variety of approaches, styles and content; but what is consistent across the participants is a high level of artistic talent. It seems you can barely move in Boroondara without stumbling on an artist in the community.

City of Boroondara Mayor Cr Coral Ross
A wonderful turnout, listening to Mayor Cr Coral Ross' opening launch speech
We were honoured to have the Mayor of the City of Boroondara, Cr Coral Ross, officially launch the exhibition with a wonderful speech acknowledging the valuable contribution made by volunteers in our community. There's a similarity between volunteering and being an artist, in that both activities require you to give of your time and energy, to proffer your services, in an attempt to contribute to the culture you live in. You are not guaranteed of financial reward but you often hope that your contribution improves society in some way, and that your efforts expand your own potential for development or connection. 

The show will be open every day and run until 6 September. Well worth a look, as it features some very talented young artists, some artists who have tremendous bodies of work, and others who have exhibited around the world!

Work by Creature Creature
Work by Elishia Furet

Another bumper crowd at the launch

Friday, August 8, 2014

Last Days and First Days

After a terrific response from our audiences, and a run of eight weeks, 'Re-writing the Image: Text as Art' comes to a close this Sunday. If you haven't had a chance to see it in the flesh, you've only got a few days before it ends. Featuring artists from as far afield as the USA and Austria, and artists as close as Glenferrie Road, we've had our largest visitor attendance to the gallery. But soon the walls will be reset, the artworks sent on, and preparation made for the next exciting installment.

Benjamin Forster, detail of Ghosts (24/07/10 - 28/06/13), (2014)
While this exhibition reaches its last days we have a brand new exhibition just starting at the Quest Hawthorn Community Project Wall. Proffering features the works of the Town Hall Gallery volunteers - the wonderful team of people who dedicate their time and energy to assist in the daily running of the gallery. Many of the volunteers are artists themselves and this is an opportunity for them to exhibit their talents in the very gallery they generously offer their time to help function. The official opening is this Saturday and its open to the public - so you're invited. Festivities kick off from 2pm, with the show launched by City of Boronodara Mayor Cr Coral Ross. All catered and assisted by the generous support of our partner Quest Hawthorn.

Proffering includes the works of:
Parisa Taheri Tehrani, Sujata Rai, Creature Creature, Amanda Lugg, Chloe Mann, Frankie Katz, Cassandra King, Elishia Furet, Jessica Cooke, and Laura Harding.

Here's a sneak peek of what to expect:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In Conversation: Janine Polak

We Should Speak in Code (2014), white vinyl lettering on glass, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist.

Janine Polak was born in 1983 and received a BA in Studio Art and Economics from the University of Virginia in 2005, and was awarded an Aunspaugh Fellowship at UVa the following year. In 2008, she earned an MFA from the Yale University School of Art, Department of Sculpture. Her work, which combines sculpture, photography, drawing, and printmaking, is concerned with the metaphysical experience of human emotion. She has exhibited throughout the US and in China. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at Purchase College, SUNY.


Tell us about yourself, where are you from?
I was born in Nebraska, but grew up all over the US, as my dad was a Navy doctor. Virginia, however, feels like home - it's where I went to high school and college, and where my parents still live.

How would you describe your work? What materials do you use?
I work in all sort of materials and in many different ways. I make collages and take photographs, but I really think of myself as a sculptor, working in plaster, wood, fabric, clay, found materials, etc.

If you could collaborate with any other artist, who would it be and why? 
Maybe Jessica Stockholder or Jim Hodges (both are former teachers of mine who I admire immensely) or Haim Steinbach.

Detail from We Should Speak in Code (2014), white vinyl lettering on glass, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist.

What inspires you?
I am constantly looking at things around me in my daily life - the way a broken telephone pole rest on a barrier, or a child's sock falling down their leg, or the condensation on the side of a cold glass of water.

When you’re creating art, do you listen to music or work in silence? If so, what is the soundtrack to your creativity?
It varies from day to day. Sometime I need complete silence, but I mostly go between listening to public radio/podcasts and music.

Where can people find out more about your work?

Detail from We Should Speak in Code (2014), white vinyl lettering on glass, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist.

What’s next for you, any big projects coming up?
Nothing specific that I'm ready to share, but I'm really into ceramics at the moment.

What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring artist?
Work hard - your work is the most important thing.

We Should Speak in Code (2014), white vinyl lettering on glass, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist.