‘Endgame’, oil on board, 110 x 120 cm, 1998 


Suburban Odyssey: Interview with Ric Spencer

 April 2012

The following is an excerpt from an interview conducted by email in the lead-up to my exhibition 'Suburban Odyssey' at the Fremantle Arts Centre, May-July 2012. The majority of works exhibited are personal paintings of local neighbourhoods from the preceding 20 years (such as the one pictured above), many of which had never previously been shown. The exhibition also includes some original illustrations from my anthology Tales from Outer Suburbia, and production artwork for the animated film The Lost Thing.

The full interview will appear in the exhibition catalogue, available from the Fremantle Arts Centre.

What are some of your memories of growing up in the suburbs of Perth?

Long, hot afternoons, wide and empty suburban streets, the drawl of crows, ocean air, unfiltered light, home and school: a feeling of being somewhere and nowhere at the same time, which can be both a dull and pleasant feeling. Our family did not travel extensively so my memory of Hillarys, the northern suburb in which I grew up, lacked much in the way of outside definition. It was a kind of sui genesis bubble, which may be true of many people's childhood homes, where things just are, perhaps more so in a place that was still being invented, with bulldozers working away at the coastal dunes literally paving the way for new roads, shops, schools and homes throughout the late 1970s and '80s. A world still being manufactured.

If there were any parameters here they weren't cultural or historical, but rather the bush, ocean and sky - things that were omnipresent, wordless and millions of years old. It seemed that any fresh brick veneer bled away into an ancient tangle of scrubby trees and even language evaporated under a blasting sun. You could almost feel the dissolution of meaning as you walked from the suburbs to the beach, something we did routinely as kids, sensing the fragility of our artificial lives. The receding street signs named after famous explorers - Flinders, Cook, Banks - seemed out of place, like front lawns that survived only by virtue of plastic reticulation. By comparison the surrounding coast was mysterious and everlasting (or so it seemed at the time). The old tuart trees were shaggy giants crawling with prehistoric bugs and other nameless oddities. It may be that this was one thing that attracted me to painting and drawing as a child, the fact that you can represent things without words, which sometimes seems a more realistic means of expression. I still feel that way when painting as an adult, occasionally reluctant to add a title to a picture in case it creates a boundary of meaning.

So Perth felt like a peripheral place not just physically but also in a lot of other conceptual ways. Peripheral in a positive way, implying great possibility and opportunity, a certain license to muck about in the backyard, invent your own meaning without great consequence. I often wonder if I would have felt as liberated growing up in a bigger city, surrounded by a more self-consciously artistic culture or family – maybe not.

You mention not being able to name something as an attraction of painting and drawing – I like this idea - so considering the space (both physically and emotively vast) that you have described growing up in how does observational painting and drawing work for you? Are they tools toward an understanding of this environment or rather an evocation (and enjoyment) of the ungraspable nature of what was around you – of the ambiguity of a “world still being manufactured” as you put it?

Well, all of these really; enjoyment, understanding and not-understanding too (enjoying ambiguity). Although first and foremost, drawing begins with simple evocation and enjoyment. That's quite non-intellectual and probably hasn't changed much since I was a toddler, just an attraction toward a scene or object, a fixation that may be hard to explain. In fact, the lack of explanation is probably a big part of the attraction. There's an urge to draw a line around it, colour it in, try to figure it out.

Ironically, this doesn't really lead to definition: instead the act of drawing veers toward ambiguity, or a kind of 'focused ambiguity'. That might sound like an oxymoron, but every artist would recognize this idea: the reduction of a subject to elemental details - lines, shapes, colours - in such a way that ordinary recognition is bypassed, or at least loosened up as if you were untangling a big knot. A street becomes less of a 'street', as an everyday concept, and something less obvious, more strange and unique - it's definition becomes literally sketchy.

That in itself is a form of clarity or understanding; coming to know that reality is slippery, ordinary things are not just ordinary, but open to all sorts of possible apprehensions. When sketching, I'm constantly erasing or deforming things almost as soon as I've drawn them, testing to see holds, what gives and what resists. That slow, revisionist action forces me to stare at a thing for an unnaturally long time, it’s a form of meditation. Ordinarily, I probably have quite a short attention span, having grown up (and now working) in a culture of TV, film, comics and other fast-paced, highly visually-literate media. Observational drawing is a refreshing return to pre-literate study, especially of an unmediated reality. Just sitting in front of a thing and making marks on paper with great simplicity and patience.

As for an appreciation of a specific suburban environment (getting back to your question) that's maybe a secondary layer of thinking that comes after hours of such meditation, plenty of time in which to question my original attraction. Inevitably, it all comes back to ambiguity, but here thematic, relating to my sense of belonging to a place like Hillarys, Mount Lawley or Brunswick (the three suburbs in which I’ve lived). In each place I’ve experienced fondness and familiarity, as well as feelings of displacement and distance. That might relate to the unresolved tensions between land and culture I mentioned, the ‘newness’ of suburbia. It might also relate to my mixed-race heritage, the result of several cultural transplantations within only a few generations (Chinese, Malaysian, English and Irish), and then all of the usual life transitions that constitute growing up. But beyond than anything very biographical, there's just a pervasive feeling of being somewhere and nowhere, of lacking some conceptual bearings.

Many of my paintings are quite empty landscapes, populated by a few crows, creeping shadows, a train or cloud passing in the distance. But there’s also some pleasant resolution here too, they are not unsettling pictures. The landscape is not actually empty either, because by looking carefully, I become part of it, and vice versa, and so is the viewer. The act of painting does not so much express any existing relationship with a subject, it creates a relationship. It’s less self-expression than self-reflection. You could even say, in my case, that it resolves into a feeling of belonging through the simple action of staying still, looking, feeling and thinking (while holding a brush). Painting is a reconciliation of sorts, which is also true of my work as a writer.