Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pollyxenia Joannou - Devolving - INTERVIEWS

Tell me about your earliest childhood memory, place, time or experience when you just knew you needed to become an artist?

I can’t recall a ‘eureka’ moment.  The notion of becoming an artist wasn’t a clearly defined road.  Now in retrospect, I see the making of work (art) happened in stages.

Although I’m an impatient person by nature, I have realized over the years that when I ignore stages, the work usually becomes formulae …… (what I would perceive as added decoration or, result in a facile story which has been laden).  I have learned to follow my instinct and, stop when I feel the work needs no elaboration.  If that road fails, I start again and approach an idea from another angle.

Tell me the story about your early art training Pollyxenia?

In 1969, Edith Head (costume designer for film) was in Australia to promote the film ‘Sweet Charity’ and was being interviewed by Don Lane on Channel 9.  She spoke of colour, movement and materials.

I applied for the dress design diploma for the following year at East Sydney Tech.  I failed to be accepted into the course and subsequently, used my bursary to go to night school to study fashion illustration, colour and design, pattern-making, life drawing and sculpture for four years while I was employed by a publishing company as a girl friday during the day.

After this I travelled to London.  I worked as a temp and attended life drawing classes at the Byan Shaw School Of Art and, sculpture at St. Martins during the evenings after my day jobs.

I returned to Australia and it was then I enrolled on a full time art certificate course at East Sydney Tech followed by a visual arts degree at the City Art Institute (now COFA).  I was awarded the NSW Travelling Art Scholarship on completion of my visual arts degree and this propelled me back to London.

On my return from the scholarship, I was quite lost and took up the post grad diploma in painting at Sydney College of the Arts as a way of settling back into Sydney.  I had realised at this stage that the expressionistic work I had been making was not the direction I wanted to go.

Still very restless, I headed back to London via a residency through the Australia Council.  This time, I stayed nearly a good decade and applied for my Masters Degree in Communication Design at St. Martins.

By the way, I went to see ‘Sweet Charity’ four times within a month.  The magic was in all the elements combined; the choreography, costumes, the actors, music, songs et al.  The studio had filmed two endings. One ending was where she gets the fella, and the other, where she doesn’t.  Both endings had a positive message.

And something about the teacher or teachings that inspired you then and continue to linger and inspire you now?

Brian O’Dwyer at the City Art Institute was the first teacher to say to me “One day you won’t need to make that gash!”  And, as he inhaled on his More cigarette, walked away.

Ann Thompson was another teacher that inspired me. She was encouraging and gave of herself and her knowledge.  This encouragement led to The NSW Travelling Art Scholarship.  Also, Jim Brown who encouraged self-sufficiency in the sculpture workshop.  His practical, no-nonsense approach, have been with me to this day.

Do you have a recent (or not so recent) magical experience of gazing at a work of art and being absolutely lost in it, in a way that all time disappears?

There are two works that hold that magical experience.

The first being Joseph Beuys’ video of being in an enclosure with a coyote.  Him crouched in a corner wrapped in his felt blanket and the coyote slowly, cautiously sniffing and snapping as he approached this living thing wrapped in felt.  As you watched, there was a tolerant acknowledgement of this strange ‘other’ in the cage with the coyote.  The work left me optimistic and touched me in a way that changed my perception or, gave me permission if you like, to another way of story telling.

The second was the work of Rachel Whiteread.  The inside/out terrace house in the East End of London, which, revealed an inner life of a humble two-up/two-down.

Nothingness - there is an expression I particularly like that nothing underpins everything - your own philosophical take on nothingness?

I like your expression “that nothing underpins everything”.

I’m not sure where my philosophical take on nothingness derives from.  My knowledge of both Taoism and Buddhism are very sketchy.  The most true would be from the quietude of place.

Tell me the story about what happened at the very beginning of the idea behind this exhibition Devolving?

The title ‘Devolving’ didn’t happen until I was asked to come up with a title for this exhibition.

I had to backtrack to my work entitled ‘Safe’. 

‘Safe’ was a work I’ve always wanted to make for years but, failed attempts to fund this had always put this project on the backburner.  About two and a half years ago, I bit the bullet and ordered the felt I would need to construct my felt house on wheels. 

It had to be unbleached, thick felt, stacked in layers (like sediments of time), it had to convey safety, it had to be portable, had to be a recognizable, iconic shape that conveyed our idea of being safe: A house or home.

The concept of portability and safety took me back to my Greek Orthodox background of the portable icons that were used during the Byzantine time; where portable images of saints were carried as a form of faith and protection.   It (the result of this current exhibition) stemmed from ‘Safe’.

The word ‘evolving’ wasn’t quite what was happening as I always head towards nothingness after one stage or, body of work. 

I looked up the meaning of ‘devolve’ and found that this was what was occurring.  My work and thoughts were taking everything back to a simpler, more central core that sprung from nothing.  Devolving for me implied motion.  No doubt the next stage will evolve into a more complicated language?  I’m not sure?

I am struck by the sensuous, tactile quality of the works, even as digital photographs they evoke a rich sense of touch, tell me about your enthusiasm for tactility in the works?

Yes this enthusiasm for tactility in my work has been a long held tenet.  Even when I make paintings, I try to evoke tactility.  It proved harder to convey this in paint without resorting to the expressive gesture and density of oil paint.  It has also proved more difficult as I chose not to be representational in my work.
I went back to the drawing board with paint and learnt from artists that went long before me in history:  Trial and error.

Can gallerists actually touch the felt, blanket, rope, wood and silkscreen works? I imagine it must be terribly difficult not to touch them?

I consider touching an extension of the work.  I remember taking my mother to a Biennale.  She stopped in front of photographs and her hand went over the photograph.  My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was young and for her, touching was her way of an image or thing existing.

Joseph Beuys springs to mind again now, felt and blankets perhaps, simple things that afforded Beuys shelter, warmth, consolation and protection in difficult times?

Yes! Joseph Beuys is definitely an influence as he opened a gamut of possibilities.  Before him though an artist named Yannis Kournellis who spoke of humanity, the human condition and, history using various materials for his installations.  I later discovered the scale and colour of Elsworth Kelly, the purity of Robert Ryman, the simplicity and complexity of Malevich, the magic of Rachel Whiteread’s work and the silent rhythm of Agnes Martin.

There is one work that I (not so secretly) covet and would cherish and that would be Joseph Beuys’ ‘Felt Suit’.  This piece sums up life or the journey of life. And these recent works have been a culmination of influences over decades plus, the revisiting of ideas and the trials and errors of experimentation.

For me, it is this qualit that evinces a palpable sense of belonging at the heart of each of these works?

I would like very much to have realized some sense of belonging in each of the works as I think that most of us would like to belong and, if a sense of this comes through in the work, I’m happy.

For me, the phrase you use: "Stripping Away" is such an evocative term about your process and practice?

OOOO! I never thought of “Stripping Away” as an evocative term.  When I use the term “stripping away” in relation to my process and practice, I mean a ridding of all that is not necessary in a work.  That is, attaching a shape, an unnecessary gesture or stroke, a pattern, a material that will kill or sledgehammers a work: So yes, in a way there needs to be a degree of detachment in the studio during the making and work process.

There is also a quality of meditative quietude in each of the works, a unique and distinctive quietude that invites contemplation, for reverie, and compassion?

I’m not conscious of setting out to make work that has a quality of meditative quietude.  I can only guess that my work is what it is and probably derives from an unsure early family life and my constant desire for a safe respite from the real world?

What does nothingness feel like?

Scary and hopeful.



99 Crown Street Sydney, NSW 2010 Australia

The artist will be present at the opening.

SATURDAY 31 MAY, 2014 12.30 - 1.00 PM


Pictured Above:
Safe, 2012

Medium:Sculptures, Felt, wood, castors
Pictured Below:
Red Corner Square, 2012
Dear INTERVIEWS readers your commentaries are welcomed, thank you, Paul.