Monday, November 16, 2015

In Conversation: Bronwyn Watson

Bronwyn Watson is an emerging artist based in Melbourne, Australia. She has an Honours degree in Fine Arts from ACU and her artistic practice examines notions of the self in contemporary culture through photography.

Gallery & Curatorial Assistant Marion Piper recently chatted to Bronwyn about her work which is currently on show at Town Hall Gallery in the exhibition Likeness.


[MARION PIPER]: Hi Bron, let’s kick off this interview…

Can you tell me a little about your artistic practice? What’s your main thematic focus area at the moment?

[BRONWYN WATSON]: My artistic practice.. I'm developing a motto as of late.. "just play." I tend to over think things and I've found through trial and error (much error) that a bottom-up approach where I just give myself 'stuff' to work with and just get into it when I'm a bit overtired or silly results in the most interesting work, because when I'm tired or silly I don't over think like I usually do, I just get on with it. I mean, a whole lot of thinking does happen, and I make decisions well in advance of the act of taking the photos, but I like to give myself a bit of space in which to just muck around. The editing process is a bit the same. The strongest works usually come together in a flash (sans a bit of time spent on refinement once they're already essentially done), whereas the ones I spend hours agonising over never see the light of day.
WATSON, Bronwyn, Choreographing Frida (2014), photographic print, 110 x 110 cm, courtesy of the artist.

Main thematic focus.. That would be self. From a few perspectives/lines of thinking: firstly, as an emerging artist I'm still coming to grips with what it means attempt to make a career in the arts, in terms of what I like making, what I'm good at making, where I fit etc. I've always really liked the tradition of artists painting themselves, whether it's the self-portrait in all their finery (or hospital bed if we're talking about Frida Kahlo), or the artist at work, and I think I'm just trying to join that tradition in my own way. 

Then I'm also coming from the perspective of exploring my identity in terms of psychological growth - I'm trying to figure out what it means to allow myself to merely be, both the good and the uncomfortable parts of my personality, in terms of being human and making work. This resulted in the use of super vibrant colours for these recent works, and also the specific colours used. 

And then there is narcissism. I think I wrote in my thesis last year that I'm a bit narcissistic and I guess I'm still exploring that. I don't talk much but when I do it's usually about myself, so if there was ever doubt of me being a bit narcissistic there's the proof. That, and the several thousand selfies I've taken in the last couple years - no really. I tallied up the photos I've taken for these works and last year's and it's around the 3,600 mark now. Have I taken more selfies than Kim Kardashian? Who knows. 

A secondary focus I've always played with would be the act of creeping people out. I've been doing that a lot longer than I've been making work about myself. I've always liked, and liked to make, work that draws people in, then creeps them out to the point that they want to look away, but can't. Like Ron Mueck's hyper-realistic sculptures - the huge ones at least - you get close enough to see pores and hair follicles and it's kinda gross but really captivating. Patricia Piccinini too.

WATSON, Bronwyn, The Pause (2015), Inkjet print on Hahnemuhle cotton rag paper, 100 x 100 cm, courtesy of the artist.

[MP]: That’s an incredible amount of Selfies! 
The works you’ve made for Likeness are very striking - they are heavily layered and each layer is rendered visible, but only as it blends with another layer. 
Can you walk me through some of the technical process of creating one of your photographs? 

[BW]: Haha just a few hey! 

Yeah, it's pretty important that the layers talk to each other and blend together well. As for my process, sometimes I feel like it's effortless and hardly takes any work or time at all. That's not true at all though, I just have a short memory - a fair bit of time & energy go into these works, not all at once but building up over time. 

With each work, usually a few at a time, I make a lot of decisions early on and go about setting the scene, sourcing costume and makeup, buying silly lengths of fabric. Spotlight should love me! 

Then at some point I get to conducting my shoot. I focus best late at night because I'm really easily distracted. I think it also works best for me then because I'm too tired to overthink about how silly I look pulling shapes and faces in front of my lens with my little camera shutter remote. So then I shoot for hours until I'm either too tired to continue, or feel like I've got quality material to work with. 

So, I have my material which I backup in triplicate to my computer, my external HDD and my sister's computer. The thing about working digitally is that computers do like to fail for no reason occasionally and I'm terrified of losing works and shoots! 

WATSON, Bronwyn, Caravaggio's Brunch Pics (2014), photographic print, 110 x 110 cm, courtesy of the artist

I trawl though my files, taking note of those which catch my eye and seeing which other shots might best pair to make an interesting image. This bit is either really time consuming or quick as a flash. When I find a few images that talk to each other well, they kinda snap into place effortlessly, the image essentially makes sense and just needs some refinement. After that it's a process of scrubbing back and erasing bits I don't need to let things on lower layers that I do need show through. I repeat this process and end up with a number of iterations of works from the same shoot. Some are crap and will never see the light of day, but I needed to see them resolved. Others are just okay, but not awesome. Finally, there are usually a couple resolved works from each shoot that I'm really happy with. 

[MP]: I had a feeling your work was quite labour intensive involving a number of specific steps, but wow! How did you stumble upon this way of working (the layering, following your gut when making decisions, etc)? I can draw comparisons to artists like Cindy Sherman, but are there any other artists who influence what you do (in either content or process)?

[BW]: How did I stumble upon this way of making? Well it just kinda developed. One thing I was trying to do with my selfie works was have all the faces show through at once, so I had them all stacked on top of each other in Photoshop, mucking around with different opacities to find the best balance. I think there's a lot more 'mucking around' in my process than I'd like to admit to. Lots of trial and error. But I'm okay with it, it fits with my current mantra of "stop overthinking it and just play." I was finding though with this method that I was losing the lower faces and I didn't like that, so I started cherry picking the elements I had to work with to make interesting images that contained enough faces/facets. 

WATSON, Bronwyn, Frida's True Selfie #1 (2014), photographic print, 110 x 110 cm, courtesy of the artist.

As for artists of influence, definitely Sherman. Process mostly, my work is different from hers at least in that I'm in them, or most of them, on purpose. Have I mentioned I love her? Otherwise, I've always been fascinated with anyone that can make their medium walk that line between hyperreal and actually just plain surreal. I loved Dali since I was introduced to him in high school. James Gleeson's grotesque images shocked me but were weirdly still beautiful, there's at least one on show at the NGV at the moment and I'm incredibly keen to see this work I"ve been dreaming about in the flesh. Cannot wait. 

And it might be cliche but I've always loved a good oil painting. The one currently stuck in my head is one by Reubens, The Apostle Paul (c.1615). It's captivating. I was standing in front of it recently completely taken in by how much the figure seems to be in front of the canvas instead of painted on it, and to me that's just surreal. Caught in a staring match with a still image is an interesting place to be and in my opinion, is what makes an amazing portrait - painted or otherwise.

Also Frida Kahlo. She paints her pain and I admire her moxie.

[MP]: I can definitely see those influences in your work, particularly the play on the surreal nature of the ‘gaze’, it’s almost nauseating in some of your images!

I guess to wrap things up, do you have any exciting projects or exhibitions planned for 2016? Also, if readers want to find out more about your work, where can they go?

[BW]: Nauseating is a word I like to hear! Haha.

As for next year, I am in the midst of working that out actually! I want to say that I'm moving toward showing these works and actually taking my mentor Catherine Bell's advice and showing last years too, and I'm not saying that I don't want to do that, but really all I'm thinking about right now is making more pictures. I don't think I'm done yet, I still wanna dig into these vibrant pop colours, and multiple faces and figures have always had my curiosity so I'm not done with those yet either. I'm having fun, I guess I'll stop when I've had enough. Maybe I'll pull a Cindy Sherman and never stop taking photos of myself. Who knows!

Likeness is on at Town Hall Gallery until Sunday 20 December, 2015.

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