Artist Interview: Denise Green - Art Collector

27 April 2010

Melbourne-born painter Denise Green held her first solo exhibition in 1972 at the Whitney Museum Art Resources Center in New York. Since then she has maintained regular exhibitions in Australia, the United States and Europe. She talks to Australian Art Collector about her latest exhibition, Beyond Richter, currently on show in Sydney.

Denise Green, installation view of Beyond Richter exhibition, Liverpool Street Gallery 2010. Courtesy: the artist and Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney

Let’s start with the title of the exhibition, Beyond Richter. What’s the relationship between the work in this exhibition and Gerhard Richter, and why did you decide on this title?

In a sense these [works in the current exhibition] are colour swatches – in other words almost like found colours, the kind of range of colours you would pick up in an art supply store or something like that.

I just thought that given that I’m basing this body of work on that and Richter was one of the first – not the first, Ellsworth Kelly was in there; the Bauhaus people; there were major figures working in that way right at the beginning of the 20th century – that it just seemed nice to be very upfront with acknowledging Richter. He did it brilliantly. But you can rethink it, you can take it further, you can go beyond what he did.

Walking into this exhibition, your use of form and colour are immediately striking. Starting with form, can you tell us a little bit about the arc fan shape you’ve used repeatedly here?

The first influence was from seeing a show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art with two Chinese artists who were working with that basic fan shape.

As I saw the show I thought ‘oh, that’s very curious, it’s such a clichéd shape’. Yet I’ve used it myself. In the beginning it was to convey some idea of openness, and I used a vessel shape in association with it so I was playing with two sorts of ideas about something open and then its opposite, something that was closed.

And I thought ‘well, I’ve used the shape’ and it gave me the sense that I could reuse it, I could do it differently.

Then it occurred to me as I was sort of playing with the outright shape … that it could also reference the rainbow. That was an image that Philip Fisher introduced in his book and he associated it with the response of wonder [and] to nature.

And I thought, well, the rainbow is really a symbol for pure colour and this is an installation based on a play of pure colour.

Right: Denise Green, (top) Quarter and (bottom) Jet, 2009. Silk screen printed paper and pencil on marine board, 2 reliefs, each 7.5 x 15 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney

And colour? Where do you begin when choosing a palette to work with?

I wanted to work with families of colour. I wanted to have the colours so closely associated that it seemed almost like a monochrome … the shape in some of the pieces almost becomes invisible because the colours are so closely related.

That really interested me, to keep it as monochromatic as possible. That was the most pleasing resolution in these individual pieces.

Metonyms run through your work, and in fact metonymy was also the title of your first book. What makes the metonym so fascinating for you?

It’s the best word – the only word – that conveys part of the creative process where you’re not picturing something.

Let’s say artists tell stories. Most artists within a culture are telling either their own story or the culture’s story. In the Western tradition it was always an issue of representing something, telling stories about something, and I just don’t think that it’s the most contemporary way of responding to the reality out there.

Who can really picture the reality of today? It’s so complex. So much of what happens is invisible to the naked eye.

So the metonym is actually a figure of speech that allows an internalised or inner state of mind to be directly transferred into an object, or onto a surface. That’s what I see many, many artists doing.

When I understood the notion of metonymy, I was able to somehow relate it to my own process and it seemed like the easiest way of explaining what my work is about, given that [there is] an abstract vocabulary in my work but there is often a story embedded into it.

How do you explain this process where you’ve got sort of an abstract visual object, visual shape or visual experience out there but nevertheless embedded within that is some internalised state of mind, some inner state of mind?

And so the metonymy is just transferring that inner [to the] outer without necessarily having to interpret or explain it.

Above: Denise Green, Figures in a Feud, 2010. Pencil powder pigment and acrylic on canvas, 203 x 182cm. Courtesy: the artist and Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney

You left to study in Europe when you were only 17 years old. How do think travel has influenced your development as an artist?

There are a lot of opportunities that come along with travel. You become more open-minded through travel and of course I was able to go back to school and have these very formative experiences at that age.

Even though I studied in Paris and then in New York I feel that I was shaped by having grown up in Australia, having seen Aboriginal work, having known that it was not really a part of the whole Western tradition.

At a certain age I really wanted to understand that tradition in more depth. That’s something that happened after I produced work, after I’d shown it, [and] after I’d seen how it had been interpreted by people writing about it.

Denise Green, Horizontal, 2009. Silk screen printed paper and pencil on marine board, 4 reliefs, each 7.5 x 15cm. Courtesy: the artist and Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney

You’re working on a second book at the moment. Are you able to tell us a little about what you’ve been writing about?

The book is called An Artist’s Odyssey. There are three or four chapters that I’ve written and nine chapters by other writers.

I think of the part that I’ve written as a give-back because, for example, I have one chapter on my experiences in New York where I give a kind of overview of the art world through the decades and address the way in which artists have had to manoeuvre in the art world in order to gain access, to have shows or have any kind of critical attention.

So a lot of that chapter is just giving historic overviews and talking about, in a very minor way, my own decisions and my own choices within that context – sort of trying to demonstrate that as an artist you can have a career in all kinds of ways.

I’ve had opportunities to show internationally and I’ve tried to lay out how I actually achieved that, how I achieved museum shows in Europe and in the US, and in a sense hoping that other artists can see that you don’t only have to work with galleries.

Galleries are totally necessary as a support structure, but you can also have direct relations with museums and that can be something that artists can achieve.

In a sense it’s talking about my journey as an artist. It’s called An Artist’s Odyssey because with every career as an artist there are setbacks and all kinds of obstacles but nevertheless you persist and you have to, it just goes with the territory.

Jane O'Sullivan

Denise Green’s latest exhibition, Beyond Richter, is on show at Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney until 6 May. She is also working on a major exhibition for a museum in Augsburg, Germany which will be staged in April 2011. An Artist’s Odyssey will be published by University of Minnesota Press and Macmillan Australia in early 2011.

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