Collective Conversations / Sam Leach
As we knock at the door of Sam's house in Brunswick, we are welcomed by the man himself finishing off a sandwich from lunch and also greeted by his two little naked and excitable girls. What a refreshing first impression - Sam the family man, relaxed, friendly and at home.
We are shown through the house to his studio, which is bright, organic and paint spattered - which he assured me is from his girl's artistic efforts. As we begin to get started - in between Mark photographing Sam on the paint-splattered floor - the family cat jumps up on my lap and the conversation begins...
Sam the Man...
A day in the life of Sam >
What does this look like?
I pretty much get up with my girls in the morning, and we have our breakfast and our running round and I'm usually in the studio by 9:30ish and pretty much work through until 5ish as solidly as I can - there's plenty of interesting distractions like girls running around the house and things that come up but that's all nice stuff. Then give them dinner and a bath and I'm usually back in the studio at around 8:30 till say about midnight. So I do that as many nights of the week as I can and of course there's meetings or shows that I need to go and see.
Creative outlets >
Have your creative outlets changed over time?
Yes they probably have a bit, I originally thought of myself as a writer, that's the direction I thought I was interested in going. I did do quite a bit of drawing but I never took it too seriously, the art teacher's at school didn't seem too impressive, so they didn't really help inspire me. The whole scene of arts back then to me seemed to be the scene of the Sunday market, hippy drippy stuff that I didn't really want to be involved with. I'd had no idea about contemporary art - my idea of art was something that happened 500 years ago and 100 years ago in Paris and that was really it. Art wasn't something that seemed particularly vital too me and I dropped it at school as early as I could and concentrated on other things, finally deciding to do economics.
From economics to painting >
How did you make the switch?
Even though I chose to pursue economics I still kept drawing and painting on the side, and probably when I was about 19 or 20 I did a big trip to Europe and saw a whole bunch or contemporary art in the museums there and all of a sudden I thought - Aaahuh that's interesting! I didn't understand it at all, so I set out to try and understand it - and it hasn't really stopped from there. It was intriguing to me as to why I was having that response, as I had no grounding whatsoever in that sort of stuff - clearly there was something there that I needed to find out about. So it was this experience that made contemporary art actually seemed vital - in the literal sense - alive.
Does your work involve much traveling?
Yeah I do a bit, when there's shows Internationally, last week we were in Hong Kong for The Art Fair which was a lot of fun, and then tomorrow I'm going up to Darwin for a show there and then there's China in September, London in October, then back to Beijing in November. So yeah there's a bit of traveling, and I like that. It's been great this year as it's the first time the girls are old enough to come with us, which is nice as it's more fun going with the whole family, but I don't mind going solo. Any more than a few days without them is a bit much, but I'm going to be away for a couple of months this year which is a bit daunting but it's also an exciting trip.
The Prize >
How does it feel to be the 3rd Australian artist to win the Archibald and Wynne prize in the same year?
It's a good feeling, it's really lovely winning prizes, you get that recognition for your work and all that sort of thing. I think while that particular statistic about being the third person to win both prizes is nice - as it's great to be mentioned in the same sentence as Whitely and Dobel, but at the same time you always think well those guys are famous for their work, and winning those prizes isn't central to defining who they are. It's nice to win and that's great but it's not really central to the work. But I don't want to sound churlish because it was really very exciting to win. You have to resist the temptation to sit on that achievement and not really push yourself - the important thing is to keep pressing forward and developing my work and challenging myself and all that sort of thing - you don't want to say wonderful... done.
Not Fair? >
Tell me about your involvement in 'NotFair' which you have organised to coincide with the Melbourne Art Fair.
It's a project that a couple of good friends (Brodie Higgs, Tony Loyd and Ash Crawrford) and I are putting on to run parallel with the Melbourne Art Fair from the 4-8 of August. It all started when a really good friend of mine, Tony Loyd and I went to the Frieze festival in London a couple of years ago and when you go to those events it's great, as there is usually a lot of other events going on at the same time such as opening shows, satellite fairs and other peripheral activity - it makes the whole city become quite exciting. So to us it seemed like this would be an interesting thing to try and do something similar with the Melbourne Art Fair.
Brody Higgs owns an art residence in Fitzroy called Wardlow (http://www.wardlow.com.au/), which is a huge warehouse space where he brings in foreign artists to do residencies. We managed to convince him to let us use this space, which is right down the road from the Art Fair - the idea being to get artists who we think should have a higher profile together for an exhibition, to co-encide with the Melbourne Art Fair. Focusing on artists that are under-rated either commercially or critically and who aren't getting as much recognition as they deserve. That's not to say that these are all people that are totally unknown, some of them are doing reasonably well, but the quality of work is such that they deserve to be doing even better.
So that's the whole purpose of holding this event, to try and promote these people 36 artists in total) and also to introduce the audience that's going to the Melbourne Art Fair to this additional range of artists. When you work professionally as an artist we do find out about events that are sometimes difficult to hear about - things that are happening in artists studios and perhaps a little more underground - so it's a way for us to try and bring some of these things that are out there, to more people's attention.
The hope for us is that in two years time the artists we put in our exhibition will be exhibiting in The Melbourne Art Fair and doing some major things there - so there is no competition between the Melbourne Art Fair and Not Fair, that's the premier league in there, and we are just promoting people who are on their way up.
Contemporary corporate spaces? >
That's where I came to painting from - I was really interested in the atmospherics of space and how those visual cues impact the way you interpret that. Corporate spaces are particularly interesting because they have a mixed message, on one hand to say 'yes we are wealthy' but on the other hand 'we are not extravagant.' There is always a bit of conscious restraint but at the same time you're quite often looking at agdas of polished stone - which is expensive on a domestic scale, not really a meaningful expense on a corporate scale - but that sort of stuff is always in a corporate space, expensive but not showy. The use of cavernous spaces in the most expensive possible places you can put them. City's like Hong Kong are amazing for that sort of stuff because you know how expensive real estate is and how crowded it is and your going to one of the huge banks and you're just in this echoing void, with a couple of little vandero couches tucked away in a corner with no one sitting on them.
Symbolism, dualism and the 17th century >
How does this thinking align with your fascination with 17th century art?
Visually there is a correlation with the style of churches that were being built in Holand in the 17th century, many of the churches were being converted from Catholic churches to Protestant churches by taking out all the ornamentation, leaving these huge spaces. So I was looking at artists like Divit and Pete Sunridam who were painting some of these spaces and to me you could just transpose that over and remove some of the little indicators and say 'hey presto, there's a corporate foyer!.' It fascinated me that the aesthetic was there and it actually reflected a certain attitude to wealth and worldy possessions - in the 17th century just as it reflects a similar attitude now and in some ways that was my route into looking into 17th century art.
Your work is full of symbols - elements of paradox and things to make us draw connections between the past and present...
I don't necessarily set out to try and illustrate these paradoxes, but the connections between the past and present are quite central to my work. I think about modern culture or contemporary culture as a period that starts sometime around the 17th century, which is when a lot of structures in society emerged and aligned society to how we find ourselves now.
When I look back at history, the 17th century makes sense to me and I can relate to it, but if I try and look back to the 15th century or the 14th century I can't relate to it - it seems alien to me. I can understand the text and the ideas, but fundamentally I can't connect.
In a way with my painting I sort of see that entire period (17th century) as being open and still relevant - sort of alive for discussion, dissection and representation. So yeah I try and put all of those things into the paintings, and science of course is a very big part of that. Science is really one of the defining elements of culture from that points onwards - the approach to understanding the world. I think it's really fascinating that -in terms of paradoxes - there is a very ethical and moral side to science, a purity about trying to increase knowledge and yet at the same time it's really rooted in some deeply irrational impulses. There's a lot of personal prejudices and ambition and greed that goes into scientific endeavor, a lot of reliance on intuition, suspicion and even superstition, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's invalid, it's just that those things are still there - in the roots of this system of knowledge. At the same time the system of knowledge works directly against that. I do find that difference very interesting, so in my paintings - especially with the animals - you have this kind of idea of a connection with the animals and there's something about the fact that they are alive and they are interacting with technology and I sort of feel that, in a weird way, technology is an extenuation of life. So its this kind of connection that I try and bring into my work.
Dualism is another concept you explore...
Yes that's the other fundamental thing that I always like to think about - the idea of dualism. In the 17th century you had René Descartes' philosophy of the relationship between mind and body, that always relates to a split between humans and what's outside of humans; nature. There is a split between technology and nature but in reality we know technology is actually a part of nature. Technology shouldn't be seen as fighting against nature or opposed to nature as it's part of it. The animal world will stand to benefit from the development of technology and an increase of knowledge. There are all of these roots of science that are about trying to make people immortal and extend the life beyond the death of the sun, so I think that's good for all of life - it's not just good for humans, it's a good thing for everything that is alive. The concept of immortality applies just as much to a parrot as it does to a cosmos, why not?
The ideal space >
As a painter your work requires a shared space, an intimate conversation if you like, between the viewer and your work. When painting a piece of artwork how intentional is your messages to the audience?
It's an important part of the painting, there are often symbols or illusions in the work - that I think people probably won't recover - but I kind of find the prospect that they might recover it appealing. I think that it's nice to have something in the work so that if someone really wanted to research they would be able to find a different dimension to it. I like the idea of someone living with a painting over a period of time and noticing something new, but quite often that won't happen and that's fine. When I get to meet people in galleries and in shows it's great to talk about all the details - it's nice to be there to guide them through the painting. Some people do come back to me with things that they have noticed over time and even connections that hadn't occurred to me, which is always really good as well. So in some ways having the idea that there's a possibility for these things, hopefully is an encouragement for people to bring a different kind of thinking and approach to looking at the work, but at the same time there's always just the pure aesthetic quality of the work that is just as valid.
So you would encourage people to really sit with your work and contemplate the concepts as well as appreciate the aesthetic?
Yeah definitely, or even come back to the work - I like to produce something in the work that will deliver something over a long period of time. The average time people spend looking at a painting is 7 seconds, so I always think you want to have a delay.
The ideal space to view your paintings?
Tate Modern, MOMA or Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum in Berlin! Those would be the ideal places. What I find interesting about working on paintings and especially on a small scale is the possibility for people, in a sense, to project their mind into the space of the picture and that's been quite an important turning point for me as a practice. Previously I was working with real space and trying to make work that altered people's perception of the real space, having a genuine physical relationship with the work. But then to actually try and fix that, so instead of having that physical relationship, you're actually doing it more mentally. In theory it shouldn't really matter where the works are showing, in some ways it's like the old computer monitor and obviously the scale of the work is similar to that or indeed an A4 sheet size, so when you look at those the environment isn't as important. You have to stand up close to the work, rather than with a larger work you need to stand back to take in the work in its entirety. So this can achieve a more intimate experience.
It does occur (this consideration of space) when I'm putting on an exhibition of my work, because then I'm thinking about how the works relate to each other and then the space does become very important, because people are going from one painting to another through the space looking at the paintings. So when it's in that larger body of work the space becomes really important.
Inspirations in a layered world >
As a designer there is also a need for people to appreciate the concept as well as the aesthetic, there is a layered meaning to the work.
That's exactly right, it's a mark of good design if you can get that experience - we live in a world with so much visual stimulation, it's important to get that message right. When I was studying my undergrad that was something that I found really intriguing - I'm not really a rural kind of guy - so in the environment that I was in (city) I was always looking at things that had been built, designed and planned and that changed over time - if you don't make a conscious effort you never see it. It would be impossible to walk around and notice all of that work, you would go crazy.
"A layered world..."
So my work was all about making little interventions in space, all about a detail or sometimes you notice a repetition of a form in a space - just to go around pointing out those little details and recognising that it's a layered world. Working as an artist is a way for me to be able to engage and think about these things, which otherwise is really difficult to notice. For example you pick up a book, but unless you do something to actually think about it you kind of miss a whole layer. The same thing with walking around spaces of architecture unless there's something to make you think about it I would tend to miss all of the nuances. Then if we stop we have a reason to actually process this information, and a whole lot of extra stuff can come out - it's very rewarding thing to do.
Design is mass-produced - like or dislike? >
Design is mass-produced, painting as a medium is a one off and unique.
Like or dislike?
I like it! Mass production is absolutely fantastic. I know that sometimes people get a bit worried about it, especially the mass production of images, but to me that's not something of a concern - I kind of enjoy the ability to access all this information and material. I mean of course when you think about mass production it's hard not to think about the surplice and over-production of materials - whereas I'm fairly optimistic - but on the other hand, economically speaking efficiency is a bloody good thing. Which is why I think we should embrace and celebrate that.
Gone are the days of 'on the shelf' Encyclopedia's and long days spent in the Library...
Embrace or disgrace?
There was a book that came out recently called 'The Shadows', which reflected a concern about people having the tendency to use Google and Wikipedia etc. and not research as deeply into things, like they used to when reading books. But I think there's something really good about people being able to do these little bits of micro research - dipping into stuff on a regular basis. It's now so easy to look things up, whereas before there was a barrier because it was harder to access.
Designers play the middle ground >
Designers work to a brief, artists don't - how does this effect the world?
I was just reading Pierre Bourdieu the other day (I got his book when I was studying my undergraduate - I thought 'The Rules of Art' was a good place to start - but it turns out it's not about the rules) and he has a map of space where in one side you can have high economic capital and on the other a low economic capital and you lose autonomy (the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, uncoerced decision) as you move towards the high economic capital. In one sense you could say that commercial design work moves into that area of having a high economic capital where you can lost some autonomy, because you need to work with clients, whereas art presumably goes the other way, but in reality it's not really that clear cut. There is plenty of art that is produced that has a high economic capital and design that goes the other way as well. And also there's nothing to say that commercial process can't result in outcomes of great artistic integrity, it's not that it's impossible to do. It's very possible and you see it all the time. You always see examples of really great design and there's been many times where I see pieces of design where I just think wow that's really good I wish I'd thought of that for a painting... 'Oh well, it's in an ad now.'
Your experience with designers >
Have you every worked with a designer or a design studio before?
No not really, some of the galleries have catalogues designed but they have a fairly set style that they have to stick to. In fact I do remember when I worked in the tax office we worked with some designers who designed some forms, which was quite an interesting challenge getting everything to fit nicely on the page. As I was on the client side I'm sure I was very annoying and because I was studying art at the time and I probably considered myself to have a bit of an eye for composition!
Differences between art and design >
In your view what are the main differences between art and design?
Well I think probably one of the major things for me is that design is often intended for reproduction and while there are artworks that are made with that specific intention, as an artist I'm making physical objects. There are images within the physical objects that do get reproduced and that's all fine, but at the end of the day there's just one painting. I don't really think you can give a clear definition of the differences, it's one of things that I know it when I see it.
Social media - embrace or disgrace >
Everything is open to interpretation even more evident now through social media and blogs - Do you embrace or disgrace this movement?
Ah yes the ever-growing treasure chest of opinions that is the internet. I do welcome the openness, but I don't really read many blogs actually. Especially not blogs about me, because the blogisphere is just horrible really. Especially articles and newspapers and the commentary that appears afterwards - I don't really like to look at it. However there are also bl ogs and websites that are producing some really interesting stuff. So for me I tend to have a few blogs that I pay attention to and the others I don't worry about. I think at the moment there is a whole wrong-ishness about blog culture, overall I think it's a good thing to have open discussions and debates but it's also a new thing and it will probably take some time for it to emerge into a clearer thing.
I think that at the moment a high level of anonymity is a bit of a problem, I certainly feel, (especially in the past year when I don't feel as anonymous) that when I write stuff for the public sphere I am now quite conscious of the fact that I'm putting everything out there and I'm attached to everything that I'm saying, so in some ways changes my approach to how I present my thinking. I do think it's great when people have discussions and get fired up about stuff - especially when it's art, brilliant! That's what it's there for it's supposed to excite people.
Facebook yay or nay?
Yeah I'm on Facebook, but I don't really post anything on it - it's a useful way of having a network. Everything that is going on there being published so if you don't want something to be published don't put it on there!
Artists websites >
How important is having a website as an artist?
It's really important, not so much for sales, although maybe some artists can sell through their website, but certainly for people wanting to find out about the artist's work - having a statement up there so people can get more of an insight into your work is really valuable. I know that when curating work for the Not Fair exhibition, we had to speak to a lot of curator's for suggestions for artists to exhibit. Artists were coming in and we didn't know anything about their work - so naturally the one's with website made it to the top of the list, simply because it was easier to access information about them and their work. An artist that has a website also gives us a sense of the commitment the artist has to their practice.
Some artist websites unforunately are horrible and you can get no sense of what the work actually looks like. On the other hand sometimes the design can go too far and it's almost too much, so you feel like you don't need to visit the work at a gallery. If the design is too good, the artwork itself doesn't reflect as high a standard and seems a bit pale in comparison with what's going on around it - you need a bit of balance there.
There are the pro-forma websites like Saatchi and My Art Space, and they are good for an instant network, but sometimes can feel a little bit stale or something, as if your looking through cubicles.
What approach have you taken with your own website?
I have tended to go with something simple to let the work stand on it's own, and not to have too much of a personality or a brand for me as an artist, that was important.
Online environment Vs physical space?
It doesn't worry me seeing my work produced online, it's a good way for people to see my work, but of course the work itself is a physical thing. It only really becomes an artwork with the viewing in the physical presence of the work itself. Reproducing an image of it is fine and it's a great way for people to get a feel of what the work is going to be, but sometimes people can get a little bit confused between a reproduction of an image and the work itself.
The legacy you hope to leave >
What is the legacy or mark you hope to leave behind?
That's a really hard question, there's no good answer to that! It's like that problem where you always imagine yourself looking back over yourself when you're dead - there's no way of avoiding that scenario. So my really ideal thing would be to never die and to be immortal that would be great - but apparently we can't yet do that! So the only thing I can think of is to just keep thinking and increasing my understanding, and if other people find that interesting, that's great! As a legacy if I've made some good paintings that's great, but it doesn't really worry me if I'm known for that actually, I could be completely forgotten and my paintings could vanish and that's fine, it really is. The last few years I've been lucky enough to spend time in the studio - thinking about the things that I find interesting and making works about it, and it's a very privileged thing to do. If I could keep on doing just that it would be great. It's important to have people that can just do that out there just thinking about things, questioning, having ideas and not necessarily having to put them into some application. So I've decided that could be me and if I can keep on doing that, that's the kind of mark I'd like to leave.