‘Locality’ 20 June - 1 July 2019
Gaffa Gallery 281 Clarence Street Sydney 2000
‘I told you the truth,’ I say yet again, ‘Memory’s truth, because memory has it’s own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality,...’ Midnight’s Children, Salmon Rushie 1981
Interview with Lizzie Muller and Zuza Zochowski
LM - In this exhibition you’re showing watercolours that grow from your experimentation with collage. I want to situate these works in terms of the overall trajectory of your practice, and talk about the journey that brought you here. That journey is partly about the relationship between memory and representation, of glimpsed moments in time and the puzzle of how to reconstruct those moments. It begins in some ways with your earlier works in oils and your relationship to photography.
ZZ - I started off working from photos, and I used to love the development process - being in a dark room and seeing the image appear. I wanted to have that magical feeling happen with my paintings and the process of painting. But I realized that it wasn't working for me because that magic had already happened with the photo being developed, and I was just copying. It was in the back of my mind that the photograph is like this little beautiful captured moment and I wanted to do that with my paintings, but do it in my own terms, so that magical development happened while I was painting. I was trying to capture what I remembered about the moment, what I originally felt about the moment, and how I later translated it.
I got rid of the camera because I felt that in the end the paintings looked like a static moment. Not a feeling or a glance. So I thought, okay, I've got to then work from life. I went back to using watercolours which was actually really frightening at first because you almost have no control over what happens with wet paper and a wet brush and with the pigments just doing their thing. Once I let go of that fear I really enjoyed it, because then the process was exciting. I was enjoying the process of painting again, and painting from life, where you don't have very long to think because things change – light, weather, people.
LM - It sounds like a process of introducing uncertainty.
ZZ - Yes, definitely. There's no planning involved. There's no structure. I don't have a certain image in my head or know what is going to happen. It's frightening. But that's what makes it exciting.
LM - And then around three years ago you started experimenting with collaging - where you cut and paste from different sketches of your own to create a new composite picture. As I understand it the collaging was a solution to two problems. First the practical problem of how to move from working outdoors, from life, to working in a studio. But it’s also a solution to an aesthetic problem, or even a philosophical problem about how to reassemble memory. But let’s start with the practical problem.
ZZ - Yes, I had built a studio, but I needed to work out how to use it. I was asking myself: how do I work inside with the same freshness that I get when I work outside? I looked in my plan drawers one day and they were all stuffed with hundreds of sketches. They weren't exhibited because they somehow didn't work, either compositionally or the colours weren't working, but there'd be certain sections that I did appreciate. So one day I just started cutting them all out and then got a blank piece of paper and started assembling them. That form of assembling was another process where I had no idea what was going to happen - but I did have one little fixed section which I could start off with. Plus my memories in terms of: “Oh, I remember that house or that section with that telegraph pole”. Or: “I love the shapes that I've created with that kerb. That bush will work well with this section here.” And then thinking about the colours to put behind these pieces of collage, to bring all the pieces together to make an image.
I would remember a particular day being quite vivid or more cloudy, and I would think of a colour, and in most cases, actually quite a bright colour as a strong contrast, almost like a void within the image. The void could turn into a river or it could turn into a piece of sky or it could be something else. And I liked that surprise element, not only for me, but then for the viewer to make up their minds – “what is this colour bleeding behind these sections of more realistic pieces?
LM - The collages have vivid moments of realism, but those realistic elements, as you say, are floated in a sea of ambiguity. To me they are a deliberate move towards a composed world - a world that's specific to a painted reality.
ZZ - It was a wonderful break to start using my own imagination, my memories, and to bring a new reality. I love the fact that you've got these little mini worlds, but they don't mean anything unless they have some kind of narration. So I start off my collages with little bits of narration, and then you can take it to wherever you want. Whereas before, when I tried things from memory I didn't have anything to start off with, to aid me or to guide me. Also I’ve been living here in Russel Vale for a while now - I barely leave the suburb, so it's just soaked in me. And you'll see it often in the collage, the form of the Illawarra escarpment will be in there. I think that's helped as well to have these ingrained images in my head that can develop.
LM - As you say you’re soaked in this suburb. One thing I'm curious about is this idea of capturing a glimpse, or an accumulation of glimpses. You're creating composite or cumulative portraits, which in a sense are more faithful to the lived experience of that place. Because a place is not experienced as a glimpse, a place is experienced as a daily accretion of experiences. You could argue that that your move away from life makes your works more like lived experience.
ZZ - Very true. I tend to go back to the same spot where I did have that original glimpse. If I'm working on a piece and something's not working, I tend to go back and have a look. I think it's more to see whether any other particular colours occur or something else comes into it. Just even the way a parked car has changed or they've chopped a bush down or there's been cases where the house has been demolished. So I sometimes bring those things into it. So you're right. The works are creating their own reality in a way, as other things are happening meanwhile, and they’ve moved away from that original glimpse.
LM - We started talking about the collage practice, which was literally cutting and pasting and placing in a field of paint, but we've moved on now to talking about the painting practice that has come from the collaging. This is the work that you're showing in this exhibition. None of these works are cut and pasted from previous sketches, they're all painted, but they're painted in this collaging style.
ZZ - Yes - you'll see lots of shapes, lots of areas of space which I like to fill, and stripes - in the gates or in water tanks – or solid shapes of houses against organic shapes of bushes. And I tend to leave them open in my paintings for me to almost fill those little voids with colours or particular textures. And I feel that way of working is almost like putting together a collage or a puzzle. I like puzzles.
LM - You've told me before you like puzzling and there is a puzzling in your work in both senses. It's kind of quizzical, but also it is about assembling with discrete pieces. So each piece is discrete and unique and specific and then it will work in relationship to all these other pieces. There's a process of piecing together. And the other thing you’ve talked about before is the role of colour in that puzzling or piecing.
ZZ - I've always enjoyed using a lot of colour but I was actually almost afraid of it, and I guess limited by what I saw in the photograph originally. But then I really pushed myself. So if there was an insane pink sky or a crazy red house, I would just let that colour explode a little bit more on the paper. And working on the canvases in the studio I let that enjoyment of colour drive me even further. I can push the colours by exaggerating what I originally remembered, like a really contrasty day or, or a day where it had a lower light but things were still sparkling. And the fact that I have these sections which I assemble allows me to look at how colours talk within the assemblage pieces. So for example I might decide not to put a red sky in because I've already got an orange piece underneath and I need something to contrast on top. I don't necessarily have to have the original colours that I saw. I'm working on another reality now.
LM - What you're describing there is formal. In a sense cutting loose from memory and instead becoming a conversation that's entirely within the structural or perceptual logic of the painting. So you've come a long way from reality and memory. Is that new?
ZZ - I like to think I was always questioning how or why I paint or what is it exactly that I'm putting down, but I don't think I've actually ever really been successful until this point.
LM - So has the internal logic of the image as a guiding principle, as the key of the puzzle, become more important than the memory?
ZZ - No, I think the memory is always going to be there, but then yes, taking it into the studio, you can suddenly say: “well I might switch that off and create a new reality”. But I do always end up going back to how I felt that day, remembering that sketch or why I stopped at that point and decided to sketch.
LM - We’re returning to that philosophical or aesthetic problem which the collaging was a solution to. The pragmatic problem was how to paint in the studio, and the philosophical problem is what's the relationship between memory and representation? You have described that question to me previously as “how do I paint with memory?”
ZZ - Yes. I think my ultimate idea is that I was getting away from the photo as a reference to actually using my brain, my conscious mind. And then asking how am I going to translate from my brain, from what I see, to my hand onto the canvas. So that's what I was really questioning. I remember growing up I was always really jealous of those artists that looked like they painted from memory, like a lot of the Post Impressionists, people who had wild expressive colours but then also this amazing capture of feeling. I think I was trying to work out how I do that.
LM - You have used a quote by Salman Rushdie to describe that idea that memory has its own truth. So it’s not just about trying to work from memory, it's about trying to capture the truth of memory and creative act of remembering.
ZZ - And also questioning what exactly is a memory, it's going to be very different to you and me. I really liked that quote. It’s lovely to have that feeling that you can, like he says, eliminate some things, exaggerate some things, glorify some things, and make your own truth.
LM - How do you know when a painting's finished?
ZZ - I think it’s at the stage where all the puzzle pieces sit well and your eye travels easily around the canvas and there's nothing that stands out and irritates you. When I feel like the eye’s flowing around freely and beautifully.
LM - When the puzzle is solved.
ZZ - When the puzzle is put together… solved.