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Interview: Paul White

Capturing civilisation's leftovers

Posted by Lara Chan-Baker

Australian artist Paul White has been exhibiting his artwork throughout Australia and the US for almost two decades. Capturing the uncanny silence of deserted vehicles, his long-abandoned and unwanted subjects are portrayed with a sophisticated intricacy and haunting beauty, describing a stillness that is both eerie and wistful. Following on from his last body of work that focused on decaying automobiles and graffiti covered delivery vans, his latest exhibition ‘Wasteland Wanderlust’ is currently showing at Metro. We had a chat with White to talk about the exhibition, his creative process, and his fascination with all things transport.

Did you consciously decide to become an artist, or is it something that just happened naturally for you?

I guess it’s just something I’ve always done. As a kid I was always drawing. All through school, it was just what I did and what I’ve always known to do. So it was just a natural thing to go from school, to art school, to being an artist.

What is it about these abandoned relics of our civilisation that you find so compelling?

Well they’re symbolic of time passing. It’s about change and how things move on. When I first started thinking about this stuff, it was inspired in part by going to this ghost town in California. It was a ghost town that had been abandoned at some point, but all the belongings were still there. So it was symbolic of a point of time that has passed, and you see how things have moved on since then. So I guess it’s thinking about how time just moves on, how things change, and how things transform.

Do you work from life, from photographs, from imagination, or some other method?

To date it’s always been from photos. I have a database on my laptop of all these images I’ve taken, so I just work from the screen.

Do you have a strong personal connection to your subject matter?

I think so. Rather than taking photos off the internet or anything, I like to go out and take the photos myself, to be there, and to be the one to take them. As well, a lot of it comes from the suburbs where cars were a big part of growing up. Cars, planes, and trucks came with being a boy. It’s stuff I’ve always been into and looking at the decay of those things is like looking into growing up with them and then moving on myself.

Tell me about your exhibition at Metro and what went into producing the collection?

I did a trip to California and Arizona in August/September last year. I had previously lived in LA and have been back a few times, I even studied over there. My previous show at Metro was about wrecked cars, cars in wrecking yards, graffitied vans, and other stuff like that, and it seemed natural to move onto this. I knew of these locations in California and Arizona where there were all these planes and stuff, so it seemed like the logical thing was to work with this imagery.

When I did the trip, I planned it out so that I’d go each day to these places. Some of them aren’t places you can just go and explore freely, to get access to some of these locations I needed to make some actual connections by calling people and over the internet. Eventually I just went over and I spent three weeks driving around. I just did this massive loop – LA through Mojave and over through Arizona, Phoenix and Tucson – just taking photos the whole time. I got thousands of photos and I had to narrow it down to the fifteen images in the show

How do you do that? How do you pick one photo over another?

It’s kind of impossible! I guess you just trawl through them and some of them pop out at you. There’s hundreds more works in there really, but I guess some just stood out to me. This show is showing a bit of a cross-section of a lot of the different things I saw, between the planes and the trains and the motorhomes.

You’ve shifted your focus somewhat from cars to planes/trains. Why is that?

It seemed like the logical thing to move on to these other vehicles and I didn’t want to produce the same show again, I wanted to take it somewhere else. With these works I’ve tried to incorporate some of the landscape into the image as well, so there might be some mountains in the background or grass around the object to kind of put the objects a bit in their context, rather than the total negative space of the paper.

Do you think you’ll make another shift in the future, and do you have any idea what that progression might be?

I guess it’s always progressing so I’m not sure just yet where it will go. I think there’s still a lot in these images. I’ve got so many images to work from so I think there’s still a lot I can do. I am interested in this idea of the landscape as well. In the past I’ve looked just at the man-made object, being the car or whatever, and now I’m interested in the landscape around them as well. That landscape over there is very epic, the Californian desert in particularly. Maybe that idea of nature versus man-made things might be interesting to explore.

Your fascination with cars/trucks/planes creates a sense of recurring childhood or boyhood in your work. How does your upbringing influence your art?

Growing up in the suburbs, cars were not only a necessity but also a pleasure. I grew up going to car racing and watching cars. Members of my family have always been into cars so growing up I was just into that too. It was a fun thing as a teenager to have hot cars to hoon around the suburbs in. That’s kind of why I went to LA,  because it’s such a car focused place. There it’s all about the car and moving around with the car. The vehicle has been a recurring theme throughout my life.

You’ve mentioned that you spent some time living and studying in the US. How has that impacted on your work? What do you think are the key differences in your work before and after your time in the US?

In the past, my work did shift quite a bit in terms of materials and mediums, but this was around the time I was at art school so I was doing a lot of different things. I guess it was after I came back from LA the first time that I started just doing drawings, around 2003. I’ve pretty much been drawing in this style since 2004 or so. Like I said, my practice before was so much about trying out different mediums and different ways of doing things and drawing was an attempt to strip it back to the bare necessities of art making. Pencil on paper is the simplest way of creating something. Since then it’s been an attempt to refine that and to make it as perfect and obsessive as possible. I’m just really trying to fine-tune this way of working in an age where everything’s digital. I relish in the idea of just having the pencil in my hand and seeing where I can take that.

I can imagine the process must take a lot of patience and concentration to complete and could be almost meditative. What appeals to you about the medium you currently work in?

Yeah it does become like a meditation sometimes. It’s a real test of patience and I think that’s also a reason why I started doing this kind of work. It was almost like an attempt to slow things down and an attempt to create a space where time stands still. Time stands still in the drawings themselves, but it also stands still for me when I’m making them because it’s like everything else around is kind of blocked out you’re just there in this space creating this thing. They do take a long time.

Your work is so intricate. On average, how long does it take you to complete a piece from start to finish

The larger works take up to 180 hours or so. This entire show took about 1,200 hours to do the fifteen works.

Tell me about your creative process – how you go about forming an idea for a new work, and deciding where to go to take your photos?

Well I had known of this landscape and had some experience with it, and it seemed like the fitting place to take my work. The previous show, from wrecking yards, went back to my youth and spending time in wrecking yards myself. In the end I’m just intrigued by images that are interesting to me, images that are open to suggestion, and images that have a story.

It must be an eerie feeling seeing these wrecked planes all abandoned. It’s something you don’t get to see every day.

It is kind of strange seeing something in this state that at some point moved people around and had such a purpose. Especially a plane, to see it on the ground. I was able to climb up into some of these planes and to see a plane that’s got no seats in it or half the seats missing is quite surreal and bizarre. It made me feel a bit like a kid, full of wonder and adventure. It’s quite uncanny when you’re taken to a different place with this familiar thing and begin seeing it in a different light.

You have a formal education in visual art. How important has that been to your career and how much value do you place on that?

For me it’s crucial, but not necessarily for practical skills because practical skills I taught myself. I guess just on a conceptual level, to be at art school and to be around a group of artists is helpful. I’ve been fortunate enough to have great mentors who’ve shaped my conceptual development. I feel that the conceptual side of things is as crucial as the actual image. I like to make images look good, but I like them to have some background and to have some conceptual framework to them as well.

Do you find out much about the stories behind your subjects before they were abandoned, and if so, does this influence the final work?

In most cases, not really. In some of those cases I was guided through some of the locations, but in other cases I’ve just been left to my own devices to wander around. In those military plane graveyards, it’s especially clear what purpose those planes had served, one which was quite destructive, and it’s clear what those things have been involved in. It makes it even more interesting that they are now just sitting there on the ground left to decay. I don’t have so much of the story of what happened to my subjects but I guess that’s part of the intrigue – that you get to wonder what happened there, where it had been, or who was involved.

The business side of art can be challenging. Do you find it difficult to market yourself as an artist?

I don’t know. I guess that is a big thing now, especially with social media. I’ve always just made the work and I’m fortunate to show with a good gallery. I’m happy now that they look after a lot of that stuff for me. In the end, I just keep making my images. It’s good with blogs, like Acclaim, it’s a good way of getting your image out there. We live in a world that’s very image based and so I’m interested in that as well, as an image maker, to get the image out there and have people see it.

What would you say has been the top highlight of your art career so far?

I’ve had a few highlights. Winning the Metro prize in 2010 was a big one. A real big one was getting a Samstag scholarship in 2001, which enabled me to go on this journey of living in Los Angeles. It enabled me to live there for a couple of years, and study too, so that really helped to form a lot of my interest in this type of imagery. Living in LA fulfilled a lot of childhood dreams. I grew up watching bad TV that was produced in LA and when I was able to go there, it was almost like it was so familiar because I had grown up watching these shows like Chips and LA cop shows and I was kind of able to live that out.

Where do you usually create your work? What’s your studio environment like?

I just work at home. Being a drawer I don’t need a massive studio necessarily, so I just work in a room at home. I like doing that because I’m always here. It means I can work until all hours and I don’t have to go anywhere afterwards. It gives me a bit of freedom.

What are you currently working on?

Well I’ve only just finished working on this exhibition so I’m just having a bit of a breather. I’ll just be concentrating on this show and from there on I’m not sure. I’ll probably continue with this imagery, I think there’s a lot to work with still.

I have to know, what’s your ultimate car?

[Laughs] to be honest, I don’t really know. I have a Torana SLR 5000, and that was always my dream car. I appreciate a lot of different cars, but I’m definitely into the 70’s style muscle car. As primitive as they are, there’s something kind of basic and thrilling about them. There’s no computer technology involved, it’s all raw horse power.

Check out more of Paul’s work over here.

‘Wasteland Wanderlust’ is running at Metro Gallery until the 8th September.

 

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