Australian artist Hazel Dooney lives and creates fearlessly, unafraid to stand out or make a statement. Her work, a combination of painting and photography, is filled with strong sexual and political imagery in which she is regularly the subject. It has been the cause of much controversy, and her outspoken persona and direct involvement often blur the line between artist and art. Hazel is certainly aware of this dichotomy and its contribution to her success, and has skirted the traditional artist-gallery relationship, instead selling and auctioning her own work primarily online. She is that rare combination of sincere artist and savvy business person and manages to create emotional and subjective pop art that continues to be lucrative, both for herself and her collectors.
stated: Can you please describe the kind of work you are doing in your studio right now?
HAZEL DOONEY: These days, I am working simultaneously on a number of works, in a number of media.
There are my various series such as Dangerous Career Babes—which began as a massive conceptual work of 24 enamel on timber paintings, 210cm x 160cm—and Big Pin-Ups, to which I continue to add works as they are commissioned. Each of these is preceded by a precise study in acrylic on paper. I currently have about 20 large enamel works under way so it is a huge production challenge.
There is the constant output of drawings in ink, my latest love, which is culminating in a limited edition book of the most erotic ones, titled The Flesh Eaters, with a foreword by American filmmaker, Amos Poe. I am exploring a couple of other interesting publishing proposals.
I have rediscovered a love of documentary photography and I’ve been experimenting with it through a rather twisted and intensely auto-erotic, if not altogether ‘true’, monograph I am publishing in segments of a few images daily on Tumblr. I have always used my own images as a reference resource but since 2008, I’ve become more confident of showing my photographs. I suspect this interest will extend soon into video.
I suppose I regard the writings and images I publish online as, together, an experiment in a new form of performance art in which there is an evolving and possibly confounding split between the artist’s real self and the virtual persona. I also see it as the first focused attempt by an artist who is preoccupied with the ways media infects the modern female identity to wrest control of that media directly.
My life is lived in self-observation and, to some degree, self-obsession. This is readily apparent in my art and is, perhaps, rooted in the necessary routines of managing a serious bi-polar disorder, which depends on a high degree of self-awareness that can become disconcertingly egocentric.
My life is rigorous and routine driven. It is what drives the high productivity that is evident. There is not an appreciably sensual vibe; I live a deal more monastically than most women my age but I am also more inclined to harness my libido to work. Although, as I’ve indicated, I have periods in which I abandon my self-imposed strictures to live a more adventurous, explorative (in every sense) and yeah, sexual existence, all of which comes out in different ways, not just in my paintings, but my photographs and writing.
The work I am assembling on Tumblr is deliberately random and about as uncurated as it can get. I often leave it to assistants to choose images to go up…which is, perhaps, why the texture and content of successive groups of images can change quite markedly and abruptly. I like the randomness, the lack of a plan, other than to show a version of my various realities.
My current blog entry goes into this in a deal more detail.
|The Flesh Eaters|
|Dangerous Career Babes
stated: Can you go into more detail about your various realities? You mention living more monastically than most women your age. Have you documented that reality or expressed it in your art? It seems the monastic reality has no artistic manifestation, or is it always there in an ironic way? This is an interesting topic to explore about you and your work. Is the battle of self vs. self always present in each piece? Would you mind exploring this topic with specific series or works in mind?
HAZEL DOONEY: I might have a history of mental illness, but I assure you my reality is singular not plural. That reality has a number of facets, some of which are in tension with each other, but that doesn’t detract from the high degree of order and clarity I require to work as hard as I do.
And this is the key to my response to this question: I live a fairly spartan, disciplined, and solitary life so that all my energy can be invested into the work—and the management of the opportunites that flow from that work. If it emerges in my art at all—and I would be loathe to think it does—it is in the solitude of the figures my art portrays.
I don’t really understand why anyone would see this as a ‘battle’. (Self vs Self is the title of one of my series of enamel paintings, as well as my blog. It is a concept I explore in my art, not a description of myself.) As Flaubert advised, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” My self-denial (albeit punctuated by periods of utterly louche self-indulgence) and solitude enables me to be productive, focussed, and unrelenting in every aspect of my career. It eliminates distraction and, if anything, amplifies the intensity of the work itself.
stated: Although you wrote about objectification on your blog, can you share with us what the label “pornographic” means to you?
HAZEL DOONEY: My reputation as an artist has been built on large enamel on canvas or timber paintings that challenge media-driven stereotypes of women—and none of these are, in any way, sexually explicit.
Only recently have I worked on a series of sexually explicit ink drawings, The Flesh Eaters, which are to be published in a limited edition book by The Lytlewode Press. I have also (and, again, only recently) published sexually explicit photographs of models and myself, in the context of an irregular ‘notebook’ on Tumblr. Neither of these can be said to be central to a catalogue of works that now spans more than 12 years. There is really only the sexually explicit Kelly and Lin series of watercolours, from 2008, that could be said to be pivotal to my work.
In any case, my sexually explicit watercolours and photographs are intended to discomfort the viewer, not turn them on. Sexual arousal and orgasm are pornography’s only raison d’etre, but my engagement with explicit imagery is done outside the traditional contexts of sexuality in art—and pornography. It is about testing the boundary between creator and subject and subject and viewer in as revelatory, confronting and as risky a way as possible. As you’ve noted, I’ve written a deal more about this in a blog post.
My work in every medium interrogates the influence of all media-driven ‘content’ on our lives and if it’s justifiable for artists to explore and critique other cultural contexts—popular entertainment, advertising, consumerism—why should porn, one of the most accessible and pervasive contexts of the early 21st century, be off-limits?
The photographs I’ve published of myself having sex reflect the increasing presence of pornography as a subtext in celebrity culture. Unlike Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, I don’t need sexual imagery to create notoriety. I am already well known as an artist. I am using it to push boundaries, to explore what the experience entails both as subject/object and creator/exploiter, and to fuck with aspects of the public perception of my persona. It’s not central to my art—it’s a personal experiment, a digression, an exploration, not much different to my writings on my blog.
stated: We have to leave our comfort zone sometimes, and where can anyone turn for that today? Incredibly, it’s a hard thing to come by. You have to go out of your way to find it. But occasionally it finds you. And usually it is feared as an unwanted burden. A struggle that then alters your perspective on something, or perhaps on everything. AKA, change. Do you think your work is creating change?
HAZEL DOONEY: I think it’s too early to determine whether my work is creating change but I am absolutely certain I am.
In a purely business sense, I am widely acknowledged as the first artist to create a successful, internationally-recognized career, acknowledged by the litmus test of the auction system, solely by using the web. In doing so, I have caused a great number of young and emerging artists to question the value of the traditional gallery system and to confront the unreasonable amount of financial and even creative influence this system has wielded, to the detriment of many artists.
I think I have also contributed, through my public persona and my art, to a change in historical perception of women artists as victims of a male-dominated art world that is skewed to the lionisation of its late-middle-aged men and in which women have only, at best, a supporting role. Even in a post-Emin, post-Abramovic world, women struggle to have any kind of surface in the media, except when demanded by elementary political correctness, while the story of those who preceded them, from Camille Claudel through to Lee Krasner and Diane Arbus, are framed by a perception of mental or emotional frailty and/or the impositions of more famous male partners.
That’s another reason why I am unabashed by the hardcore sexual images of me: it is one of many means by which I’ve exerted fierce intellectual and emotional power as a contemporary female artist. I embody a fearlessness (and maybe a shamelessness) that inspires in many younger female artists a refreshingly less inhibited and defiant attitude in which there are the beginnings of change in the way female—and emphatically not ‘feminist’—art will be encountered (by critics, dealers, collectors and the general public) in the future.
Of course, this also touches on issues that underscore my recent large enamel series such as Dangerous Career Babes and Big Pin-Ups. The apparent accessibility of these works are, to some degree, a barrier to their critical appreciation but very large numbers of women do ‘get’ what I am trying to say in them and are happy to interrogate their relevance to their own lives. To this extent, they are mechanisms of change.