Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Conversation: Juan Ford

In a recent unofficial poll on the social media page of a well-known Australian art critic, the answer to who is Australia's best realist painter threw up the name of Juan Ford from a multitude of respondents. Juan's self-portrait was featured on the front cover of the Archibald Prize catalogue this year and his work is driving an increased fever of interest from overseas collectors - as well as major arts institutions and private collectors in Australia. 

Beyond the spectacular nature of his imagery, and the sheer mastery of his technique, Juan's artwork grapples with some of our contemporary culture's most pressing issues and concerns. There is a philosophical weight to his work lurking below the surface beauty that offers serious contemplation to the curious mind. Taking time out from his intense studio activities, Juan discusses the ideas in his art, his working processes and mountain biking as inspiration.

Juan Ford with his sculpture The Synesthetic (2014)

THG: What seems to strike most of our visitors is the incredible realism of your painted images. A significant number of people believe they are photographs at first and you can hear them audibly exclaim ‘oh wow - look David, it’s actually a painting!’. What’s behind your efforts to present your images with such verisimilitude?

Juan Ford: An obsessive, perfectionist personality? I only apply that aspect of my being to my work, and let real life to be free from such impositions. I also just want the experience of looking at a a painting to be as extraordinary as I can make it. It's my gift to the viewer.

THG: That’s an under-represented idea I think, in art. That really at the core, the artist is actively wanting to connect to the viewer. There’s a genuine joy in that. In Composing Common Worlds We have three paintings of yours that depict different native plants wrapped up in red and white striped fragile tape. They are potent images full of ideas about the way we treat our environment, a mixture of consumer-driven destruction and culturally-driven protection. But when sitting with the work for some time they end up feeling more like portraits than landscapes or still-lifes. Do you think the character of the artist finds itself represented or infused in the things they make or the images they produce?

Juan Ford: I do intentionally make the paintings portrait-like, and they do observe some of the characteristics of portraiture. In fact they're very self-consciously a mash up of the 3 most uncool aspects of the 'Australian art canon' (whatever that is exactly, I'm still trying to work it out). These three aspects being no-go zones for contemporary art practice: Figuration, botanical illustration & landscape. Mash them together and you have something new.

Juan Ford, Entwine & Implode (2012), oil on linen (c) Courtesy of the artist
Naturally the paintings I make are a reflection of my personal being somehow, but they're not really a portraits in and standard portrait format. I prefer to think of them as standing in for the human figure more generally. However the paintings do reflect my views on where we stand in our ecology, how we relate to 'nature', and ask questions about whether there really is any difference between what we deem 'natural' and 'human'. Personally I think this destination exists entirely in our heads, but we act out as if were not the case, with serious ramifications.

THG: We’re excited to have a sculpture of yours in the show too. It’s one of the most popular pieces with people drawn to immediately and responding quite audibly. You’ve shown some terrific sculptures of late in Bendigo, Melbourne, Langwarrin and Fitzroy, in various galleries - how do you see the relationship of your sculptural work to your more widely-known painting practice?

Juan Ford: The sculptural work I've been making over the past 3 years is the result of a long-standing interest in sculpture and installation, and the fact that I just like to build things. I was doing so much painting, all day almost every day, that it all reached a tipping point. I had to dive and break the mould that was forming around my practice. In doing so, it just washed over my practice, like a king tide, changing everything and leaving behind interesting new bits.
So it began as an imperative, to explore other creative shores; to keep my mind and practice active and unpredictable. I loathe predictability in my art; if it doesn't surprise me, how can I expect it to bewilder a viewer? 

Juan Ford, The Synesthetic (2014) (detail)

Since then, constant application of installation and sculptural media to various projects has generated a force that now moves as if by its own volition. I often reflect on how my art works are the distilled results of thought, will, and bodily interaction with a medium. The medium itself is part of the thought process. I'm trying to say that the whole artistic process for me involves thinking beyond mental confines, thinking with the body, through time, with the medium, all together at once. This is why I don't exactly know what I've done until well after the fact, when I can consider it all in a more detached manner. 
So when I change the medium, the process on thinking through a mind/body/medium interaction is altered. Inevitably I all arrive at different results. I think that if my sculptural work were some simulacrum of my paintings, that would involve stylisation, it'd be somehow dishonest.

So while the resulting sculptural artwork is unpredictable, it is arrived at through a similar process to that which generates the paintings. It shares common concerns with my painting, and hopefully they subtly emanate in all the work, in spite of their physical/visual difference.

THG: Your work clearly engages with nature as a subject, and often builds a tension between a wilderness of natural growth and an imposed cultural control/influence. I’m thinking of plants wrapped up in tape or covered in paint, broken up trees screwed back together. How do you engage with nature and the wilderness? Is it through source material like books and film, or do you get out of the city to be in the wilderness, or do you find the wilderness within the urban context?

Juan Ford: I try to interact with wilderness directly, on a weekly basis. I go mountain biking in the many spots around me and beyond, and have been doing so in one form or another since I was in my early teens. It started off as simply riding a bmx through bush trails with mates when I was young, having no idea that we were a preempting a whole coming subculture. Now I ride on slim windy bush trails, to experience nature and feel my being in a completely different way.

I look forward to being hypoxic at the top of a climb, to speeding through sections on the very edge of my ability to concentrate, to just survive in the experience. Sometimes it begets thoughts of art, but most of the time I'm unable to think of anything beyond what I'm immediately doing. This is really important to art making.

While I have always interacted with wilderness, throughout riding, camping, hiking, bushwalking, it took over a decade to figure out just how to incorporate it into art, without being clich├ęd. I tried in art school, and it just didn't work. I just needed to stop trying and just be. Then it came.

I live on the outskirts of the city, near the Yarra, in bushy surrounds. I find nature here. I often go well beyond the city and of course find nature there. I can now read the paper, have a conversation, or go to a hardware store; I find nature there also. We are a product of natural forces, and even though we try to delineate between us and wilderness, there is no difference. How we affect it affects us; in this sense there is no 'it' or 'us'. We can choose to poison, or augment our collective selves accordingly. And we do.

In reading, I've been influenced by Arne Naess' principles of Deep Ecology. He was a true pioneer, and now more relevant than ever.

Juan Ford, Rock'n'Roll (2012)
THG: Your paintings must take you an awful lot of time to complete. Get up close to your work and you can really see the care and diligence in the most minute of detail - insect infestation on a single leaf on a tree, the way light passes through opaque plastic tape and reflects off its rumpled edges. There’s a level of precision evident in your work that’s not easily achieved by putting a liquid substance onto a surface with a hairy implement. You’ve clearly got a strong work ethic and a focused studio practice, so how do you discipline yourself to maintain the attention you need to make your work?

Juan Ford: Before I began to study art formally, I was taking a break from an electronic engineering degree. I have a techy brain, but hated the way it was being fashioned into a small component in a large machine. Creativity was crushed in this field, which is a shame. That said, I learnt a lot, and was subjected to a brutal work and study load. 

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