Simon Blau is a softly-spoken, Sydney-based artist. The affinity between his paintings and the philosophy of Krishnamurti is a curious parallel that finds expression in his conception that paintings are a symbol of the workings of the mind. ARTIST PROFILE spoke to him in his studio.
WHERE DID YOU STUDY?
I went to the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) and got in, really, by default because someone dropped out. I ended up staying five years, I enjoyed it, and it was the Whitlam period: free education!
You went on to have 14 solo exhibitions with Stephen Mori, from 1981–2003.
At Stephen’s there were a lot of interesting artists – Narelle Jubelin, Tim Johnson and Euan Macdonald. It was a good vibe, the atmosphere was intense, it’s hard to describe it. I don’t see myself as intellectual, but it was pretty intellectual at times! It kept you on your toes thinking about the nature of art, what you’re involved with, and why.
Your work has gone Figurative–Abstract–Figurative.
I exhibited semi-figurative paintings to begin with, and then did more hard-edge work. I don’t see there’s relevance in pigeon-holing ‘abstract’ or ‘figurative’, I’ve always moved between both, it’s all art. For me, painting is important, in that sense of ‘making sense of things’, however you want to do it. Anti-hierarchy is important to me; it’s not just about the ‘thing’ in the painting. I had this period where I was cutting the corners off paintings, then trying to salvage them. In my mind it was an act of revenge on my thoughts about the art world. It was like self-harm.
Your 2017 exhibition had some stand-outs, such as Lift Off.
That combined being literal with something essentially abstract. I was thinking about North Koreans firing rockets; the bottom section is the flames. I was aware it was very obtuse, but I was still happy with it.
I have a strange fondness towards horses, their innocence appeals to me. People make horse suits and put them on as a way of saying something! I think that’s funny. They’re political paintings in a way, like the North Korean one; juxtaposing this horse with the idea that the world is on the brink of a nuclear war seemed poetic. I liked the contrast. Innocence is a terrible victim of power.
That’s based on Pinocchio. History’s always a suspicious portrayal of the past that’s open to being abused, like everything else. I’m not overtly commenting, it’s just something I’m thinking about while painting.
You once wrote ‘Like poetry, painting comes out of the workings of the mind’. Is that still important to you?
Yeah, that’s really important. Painting’s a reflection of how someone thinks, what’s going on in their brain. It’s valuable to let that process become part of the work. I’ve been interested in Krishnamurti – a kind of anti-philosopher, who presented that concept of changing the world by people changing their own minds. I think life’s always mysterious, and that’s what keeps painting interesting; you don’t really ever get anywhere. Socially, there are always attempts to impose order, which is meant to bring security to people’s lives, but nothing ever works properly. Also, philosophically life’s just mysterious.
Is paint mysterious?
No. You have to work within the boundaries of what can happen with paint, and I enjoy knowing there’s a limitation to what paint can do. I tend not to be too concerned with cleanliness or clear edges. I think my lack of concern probably goes back to my sense of the importance of disorder, and a certain amount of anarchy. When I’m being too concerned with order I know the painting’s going in the wrong direction. Structure’s important, but not too much order.
Do you use colour for structure?
Tone is more important to me than colour. Colour doesn’t really matter. You can paint the sky red; it will make sense if the rest of the painting is formed around it. There’s a tension that’s built up of formal elements which corresponds to feeling. When I feel like a painting’s successful it’s because it creates that kind of response.
Do you draw?
Drawing is important in a sense, but not descriptively. As a line it’s just another abstract element of the work. It’s important for me to let my mind make the first point of contact with the canvas. To do a preparatory drawing inhibits that, in a way. I paint whatever comes to mind as I start painting. Sometimes the underpainting becomes part of the over-painting – that’s a reflection of how my mind works. The painting is a symbol of my mind. I think about what it means to be an ‘artist’ ... I’ve always had trouble defining myself as one, it’s such a loaded word.
It’s romantic. I feel it’s really important artists maintain a sense of what the role of an artist is in society. The fact that you’re alive and you don’t know the reason is interesting. For me, painting is a way to understand the meaning of life.
Do you look at other artists’ work?
Yeah, I love to, it can be so fulfilling, and I don’t think you can be a painter without wanting to. It’s part of the bag. I’m fascinated by visual language that introduces a different viewpoint about looking. I think about the balance of opposites when I’m painting – colour and light, darkness and tone. It’s a fundamental part of my process, and of life, really. Painting for me is a way of making little visual analogies to life – little visual analogies to the complexities of living.
03 A man wearing a suit and gloves and leaning to his left, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 101 cm 04 Saw the leg off a table, 2008, acrylic on plywood, 61 x 41cm 05 Screen Time, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 76 × 91 cm 06 Cut painting with rail, 2011, enamel on board with rail, 97.5 x 80 cm