A battle with cancer proved to be the catalyst for an exhibition of beautiful paintings by Ngaio Lenz opening at Boom Gallery this week. Ngaio was undergoing treatment for breast cancer this year and says her art provided her with the grounding and therapy needed to tackle the fight of her life. “The process of adding numerous layers and then removing, scraping, scratching and even peeling back into the surface parallels the personal journey I have been on, and my need to tear back layers of myself to discover a strength and resilience I didn’t know I possessed.”
Nature has been inspirational part of her healing journey. As Ngaio explains in the interview below, the solid organic shapes that predominate in her work are informed by her connection to the landscape and the importance of being grounded. The geological forms, resembling rocks or pebbles, give the paintings a strong earthy quality and this is reflected in the titles such as Gems, Pumice, and Earth.
Ngaio’s paintings embody the aesthetics of imperfection. She finds beauty in well worn surfaces that reveal it’s history through marks, stains and discolouration. Using often incompatible mediums Ngaio applies these to the canvas then removes layers to achieve a subtley coloured patina and a richly textured surface.
Fortunately, Ngaio is now feeling well and back to her old self. She is getting on with life and her paintings stand as a testament to her rugged determination and endurance. Based in Mackay Queensland, Ngaio will be travelling to Geelong for the opening of Terrafirm at Boom Gallery this Friday 6 December.
While this exhibition features paintings, Ngaio is also a collage, installation and assemblage artist. Ngaio has kindly agreed to answer some questions here to give us an insight into her art practice. Thanks Ngaio!
What are the main artistic preoccupations that you are exploring? Your work embodies the ‘aesthetics of imperfection’. Can you tell us a bit more about this concept and how you have developed this?
Imperfection for me is far more interesting than perfection. By imperfection I mean the marks of age, of wear and tear and the softness and character that comes with having been used and loved by many. Time gives objects such grace, softness and knowingness. I love what nature does to objects: the sun bleaches wood, the sea smoothes rough surfaces, salt rusts metal. I love the ravages of time on wood and metal. When something is new it is often characterless. I am interested in the stories that objects could tell, the little clues that time, man and weather leave behind.
How would you describe your work in this exhibition and what do you hope the viewer gets from it? Are the round organic shapes a new development in your work?
Organic shapes have been appearing in my work as long as I can remember. The shapes in this series have evolved from the process where a lot of accidental mark-making occurs. I have revisited of the importance of earth and groundedness, and a connection to the environment and the landscape that contains me. I have been battling breast cancer this year, and the painting process has been my healing.
The organic forms have helped me feel a connection to the landscape. The shapes are solid and real, they are about earth and ground, about family and strength, they are about our heritage and the way we connect to our past.
The medical journey I have been on has left me feeling like one of my canvases, I have felt exposed and vulnerable, I have felt as if layers of myself were being peeled back. To cope with what was being done to me I needed to scrape and peel away at the canvases, getting back to what had been hidden, exposing and revealing and making sense of what was before.
What is the main medium you work in and what do you like about it? How do you achieve such a rich textural quality to your work?
I work with a combination of oil paints, acrylics, bitumen, inks and really anything I can get my hands on. I am not precious in my process and I am not gentle or respectful with the materials. That may seem a bit strange to say, but the beginning process is all about just getting anything onto the canvas, and the more the paints fight with each other and react to each other the better. My brushes are never clean and I slop them in and out of containers, and from turps to water and back. I love the way acrylic paint reacts over wet oil paint and the way bitumen paint keeps coming to the surface. The adding of layers in this random way, with thin and thick, dry and wet, oil and acrylic etc. is really just preparing the canvas. The real process for me is about the removal of the layers, in various ways. I take off lots of what I have put on. This also occurs at various drying times. I work to remove paint when it is still wet, and while it is drying, by using various tools from my hands to palette knives, etching tools, rags, sandpaper and wire brushes.
What sort of research and or reference materials do you use? Can you tell us about a typical day in the studio?
I don’t research other than the constant taking in of stimuli, I am addicted to design magazines and blogs, I love instagram and the connection it gives me to other artists, designers travellers. I am a fossiker and finder of things. I am always making things: little assemblages with found objects, baskets, vessels from chicken wire and clay. I collect things I find on the beach, discarded bits from boats flotsam and jetsam, and fragments of paper, metal and wire. Everything I find inspires me to make something and I play with the placement of objects and things. I live on a beach and have many trips in our boat to islands offshore where I find weathered pieces of other peoples lives. I am fascinated in the imagined stories of objects. My finds inform my work, as does the landscape around me, the beach, the water, pebbles, trees… I never stop making, drawing, doing with my hands. There is never enough time. My studio is my sanctuary. I listen to radio national, sometimes music, and spend most of the day frustratedly adding and taking away paint. In between I carry on with domestic tasks, but there is always a basket to weave or a collage to fiddle with in between layers of paint. My impatient nature has developed my painting process, because I can never wait for the paint to dry, so I don’t, I just jump back in often too soon. I have made myself sound like a hoarder and you may imagine my space is a mess, but I place things intentionally, and I like order in my interior space.
Who or what provides inspiration for your work? How has this shaped the course of your work?
Inspiration for my work comes from nature, my collected objects, flotsam and jetsam, from the design world, from architecture, from my travels and from the amazing landscape around me. Artists that have inspired me are Rosalie Gascoigne, Robert Rauschenburg, Giorgio Morandi, and many incredible Australian aboriginal artists. I love the uniqueness of Australian aboriginal art and its connection to the landscape.
Can you tell us about any challenges in your art practice?
The challenges for me are mainly dealing with isolation as an artist and the good and bad that comes with living in a community that is not highly interested in art. I think that artists in cities have a much better support network. I really don’t have that. I often have a sense that the people I meet in my daily life have no understanding of what I do and no appreciation of art. As far as my practise, the challenge is to slow down. I have to pace myself, but I enjoy the daily battles I have with the paint.
Have you ever made an artistic pilgrimage? If so, where did you go and why?
I have never made an artistic pilgrimage but always seek museums and galleries when I travel. I love the Tate Modern in London, and the Guggenheim in Venice.
If there was one piece of artwork you could have in your collection, what would it be and why?
This is the hardest question… how to choose? It would either be Robert Raushenbergs’ painting and collage Plate 47. What an incredible artist he was. Or maybe I should go Australian, in which case I would love to own a work by Rosalie Gascoigne titled Skylight because Rosalies’ art has inspired me so much. Or I could hardly go past Brett Whiteley’s Woman in the bath 2 – those colours, that drawing style, such abstraction!
Which is more important – aesthetics or conceptualism in art?
I love this question. I think that aesthetics is the basis for the art that matters to me. I want to be moved emotionally by art; a concept can’t do that for me, but an aesthetic can. I may not understand fully what an artist’s conceptual intention is, I will respond to the work if it moves me, what it means does not always matter to me. Incredibly clever concepts don’t necessarily mean successful work. The viewer may have an incorrect understanding of the work, in which case doesn’t that render the artists work less meaningful if his intention was to inform a concept? While the work that was purely for aesthetic value has merit if the viewer likes the work. Of course there is power in a work with a strong concept if it can inform the viewer.
How long have you been painting/creating, and has there been a highlight in your art career?
I started seriously painting about 15 years ago, but my creative journey is long. I started collecting things as a child, broken china, a feather, a pebble, a stone… it always was a connection to nature. As long as I can remember colour mattered to me, and I was always, even as a child redesigning my mothers’ friends homes in my head. I always made things and taught myself to sew. I have always arranged objects, and styled rooms. Every exhibition has been a highlight, I love seeing my work hung, it’s a real thrill.
Have you always been an artist? Or what did you do before becoming an artist?
I had an interior styling business for 10 years, I found more and more often that I was not interested in achieving the perfectly matched interior spaces that clients expected, and I thought that people’s homes should reflect their personalities and experiences rather than the current design trends and colours. More and more I realised I was more interested in the artworks in a home and my own style became more parred back and monochromatic, to allow for artwork to be the star of the show. I realised that I just loved art and I started experimenting more and more with paint, then collage, assemblage, basketry…
Did you ever pursue a formal art education?
I studied visual arts externally though didn’t quite complete the degree, then managed to go on to complete a Masters in Contemporary Arts through UTAS.
What’s next for you? Is there anything in particular that you would you like to explore in your art?
I am working on a series of self portraits for an exhibition next year at Artspace Mackay. They will be stripped back and scratched silhouettes of myself. Some are on my Instagram site and also my tumblr site. I will be making a really large installation for this exhibition of little collected and made objects hung in a large silhouette shape (approx 5m x 7m). I can’t wait to put this together. I have started a new series of paintings called “balance” and I am also working on a series of hand built pots.
For more information visit Ngaio Lenz’s website www.ngaio.com.au.