Q&A with Rodney Pople - Art Collector

The artist Rodney Pople with ceramics works in progress at the Thin Shed Studio in Launceston for Endangered exhibition July 2016 at Despard Gallery. Courtesy: Despard Gallery.

Rodney Pople of Despard Gallery and the Australian Galleries speaks to Emma O’Neill about his latest works, being labeled as “controversial” and the changes he has seen in the Australian art world.

The works exhibited in your recent show Endangered speak to both the loss of endangered species and the local politics of Tasmania. How was the work received?

Like most of my exhibitions, the audience was quite polarised. You know, the work I produce is generally received with interest and then those who want to be challenged get more involved. My exhibitions do generally get mixed reactions, some get involved while others tend to - not dismiss it - but they just don’t want to be challenged. The people who want art to be more than just pretty images tend to gain a lot from it.

Dr Bob Brown [former Australian greens leader] opened it. He was marvelous in the sense that he turned up early and engaged with the work. He found that the works were - in his words - “the good, the bad and the ugly,” which I thought was a good comment. He is passionate about endangered species and he also fully understood the politics of the work. So, he was interested in both levels.

Can you tell me about the works that were exhibited?

There were three strands to the exhibition: ceramics, oil paintings and watercolours. The ceramic sculptures looked at endangered species, playing on the idea of hunting trophies. They were mounted in the way they would have been displayed in country clubs and aristocratic homes. Despite this, I wanted them to be full of life and not look like stuffed, dead animals. This was challenging but it meant there was a humour about them. They couldn’t just be dismissed as stuffed creatures. They have to be seen face-to-face so that the presence of the work can be felt and the layering can be seen. The same can be said of the oil paintings, which are elaborately framed in gold.

What drew you back to the your roots as a sculptor recently in both your exhibition Endangered?

I have created three-dimensional pieces on and off since I began as an artist. However, I haven’t always exhibited my paintings and sculptures together. Last year, I did a show in Sydney that had both paintings and sculpture and I found that the two-dimensional works enhance the three-dimensional. For this particular show [Endangered], I worked in ceramics, which I also hadn’t done in about 20 years. I like the tactile feeling and how they contrast the paintings. In Endangered, the paintings were freehand as I thought the better interacted with the sculptures.
Gallery view 'Endangered' solo exhibition by Rodney Pople at Despard Gallery, July 2016. Front: Rodney Pople, 'Trophy Wall', 2016, ceramic on timber base, 70 cm diameter. Back: Rodney Pople, 'Endangered (Bushwalkers)', 2016, oil on board, 100 x 120 cm

Your oeuvre expands across painting, sculpture and photography, but you have developed a special digital technique that blends photography and painting. Can you tell me about this?

I have been working to perfect the medium for 10 years. I have worked with Warren Macris, a master printer, for eight years. Together we print photographs (mine or ones I have permission to use) on heavy Belgium linen and then I paint over top with oils. Here, the photograph meets the painting and the painting meets the photograph. The linen represents a tradition in painting and harks back to the paintings I love. It is a medium that took a long time to perfect. I have a good control over it now and it is something I have put a stamp on.

Do you focus on one medium for extended periods of time, or do you regularly switch between them? How does each serve your practise?

I move between the blend of painting and photography, freehand painting and sculpture. This helps to keep everything fresh as the mediums bounce off each other. All my works deal with regular themes of hypocrisy, but I approach these themes differently with each medium. I find that with sculpture you can distil the energy more easily than with painting when you may need a bigger area. A sculpture can say a great deal with two lumps of clay.

In the thirty years that you have been working as an artist, how do you think the landscape has changed for visual artists whose work engages with politics?

In the time I have been working I sense that the political landscape has been tightening and becoming increasingly conservative in the big brother time. We are in very extremely conservative times. When I started to create art it seemed to be more encouraged to challenge the status quo. I don’t feel it is encouraged today. This might have something to do with commercialisation of art. I feel that art has two roles. It has to be beautiful and of its time. The art I like challenges the viewer and is of its time.

I overheard Cindy Sherman at her current exhibition during an interview and what she said resonated with me. She was saying that she couldn’t stand making beautiful pictures; if she did she would be bored. I also can’t stand paintings that don’t say anything. I feel that artists have softened a lot, though that is a very general statement. Because of the commercialisation of the art world, young artists are more concerned with selling their work and it stops them from engaging with challenging subjects.

How do you feel about being labelled as controversial?

I have never considered myself controversial. I have tackled some difficult subjects, but in this day and age it takes very little to be controversial.

Manet, Picasso and Bacon were all labelled as controversial in their day. In 1865, when Manet’s Olympia was exhibited in salon it caused an outrage because it was clearly a painting of a prostitute. They had to hang it high, so that patrons wouldn’t damage it. Though it did a lot of harm to Manet’s reputation, it is now displayed in Musée d’Orsay. In its day it was extremely provocative. My point is that art has to controversial in its time so it says something about that time.

If they want to call my art controversial, there is nothing I can do about it. When I did my
Bellini 21c series in 2010 at the Australian Galleries, I upset so many people. But many of the people that I upset hadn’t even seen the show. The same happened The reactions were an interesting testament to the power of art.
Gallery view 'Endangered' solo exhibition by Rodney Pople at Despard Gallery, July 2016. Front: Rodney Pople, 'Trophy Wall', 2016, ceramic on timber base, 70 cm diameter. Back: Rodney Pople, watercolours, 68 x 87 cm (framed)

As a casual teacher and lecturer, you come in to contact with aspiring young artists. How do you feel the Australian art world has evolved since you began studying?

I go enjoy coming into contact with the younger minds. The Australian art world has become much bigger, it is produced so many designer and product artists that the place is swamped. I feel that it is more difficult for younger artists, but they need to be challenging dealers and the status quo more than they are. I encourage artists to take more risks in the early stages of their career. It is now or never. You are only young once.

Did you have a mentor, yourself?

I briefly had a mentor. He was my teacher and a Czech filmmaker in Tasmania called Dušan Marek. He was wonderful as I never really got along with any other lecturers during my undergrad. He really encouraged me. Without him, I may well have been lost. We encouraged me to leave and go overseas. I stayed in touch with him until his death in 2015.

What is coming next for you?

I have an exhibition coming up March at Australian Galleries. It will include ceramics and painting, I will be travelling for a bit before returning home to prepare for this exhibition.
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