Darren McDonald

Darren McDonald long been interested in imagery of humans and animals. He is drawn, more specifically, to a particular feature – their eyes.

With a commitment to simplistic forms and the omission of detailed backgrounds the viewer’s gaze is drawn solely to the subjects who are left vulnerable and exposed. The ambiguity in the bareness of these works, and the physiognomies of these subjects, are juxtaposed by the tension and energy of McDonald’s practice and technique.

McDonald explains his challenges and limitations as well as his influences and inspirations that have shaped his art practice allowing us to not only see through the eyes of his subjects but through his.

Your work has been discussed as having a ‘strong psychological edginess’. Do you agree?
The collector, patron and dear friend Peter Fay wrote a statement in regards to my work and stated it carried a ‘psychological edginess’. I never spoke to Peter in regards to this, but a lot of other people have used it in discussing my work. I have always been interested in the image. I had a religious upbringing and schooling and a lot of the things a child or teenager might like or be interested in, I was sheltered or restricted from. In my schooling I cannot remember being taught art until around Form 3 for roughly half the year. My first paintings were taken from The Marlboro Man advert and the cover of ‘Bat Out of Hell’ by Meat Loaf. In a lot of ways my subject matter hasn’t changed. The ‘psychological’ more than likely comes from the subject matter. Be it human or animal I will always choose the image due to the nature of the eyes, be it vulnerable, aggressive, loving, etc. The ‘edginess’ comes from my art practice. All the works are done in one sitting and are very rarely ever worked on again, it leaves a lot of room for mistakes, which I feel has been removed from a lot of art practices, which is a shame.

You have painted a range of subjects, from dogs and horses to famous faces like Mick Jagger. What is it that draws you to a particular subject?
I am drawn to a subject mainly due to its eyes. I remember talking about this in a gallery in Canberra and a man walked in halfway through, so I stopped and the first thing he mentioned about my work was the eyes. It took me by great surprise. He was the first person to say this in my 20-year career. I am drawn to media so a lot of images are drawn from that. I love music: Nick Cave, Dirty Three, Townes Van Zandt, David Bowie and The Stones. I am also drawn to the plight of human nature, the hardships, how we survive this, and one’s instincts. I am painting Terry Hicks in Adelaide for the Archibald Prize. His son David was still in Guantanamo when I arrived I sat in the backyard and chatted with Terry. I couldn’t believe his strength and love for his son but most of all his honesty. It was a painting that I never wanted to sell, it was perfect. One day Scott Livesey, my art dealer, rang. I was short on cash, he said he had someone interested in the painting. On meeting them they asked “why did you paint Terry Hicks?” and straight away, at that moment, I knew it wasn’t for them. It’s still in my personal collection.

What challenges or limitations have you encountered throughout your practice? How has this helped you change or develop your approach, your thought practice and your painting methodology?
The challenge I face with my work is the practice itself. As an artist you try to practise your trade every day and I think in time you grow and become confident in that. There is a lot of room for error in my work due to it not having a background. Once the mark is made it cannot be removed as I work with oil on a glue-sized linen. I feel that as an artist one should not have limitations, but I can understand sometimes it might be due to financial matters. I received a scholarship from Peter Fay; it was the first given and I think the only one. Dear Peter came and slept on my lounge room floor made of wood – no mattress, just a blanket and pillow. I remember going into Seniors Art Supplies and he said, “go nuts”. We worked in my studio in Port Melbourne for five days, sometimes collaborating.

My work has changed due to using a glue-sized linen and not working on cotton. My work has also become larger in scale due to having a studio. The approach hasn’t changed at all; I still like to paint a painting in one sitting. I love oil paint and its challenges. As I got older my work moved away from the headlines in the media. It has become less political.

Can you talk a bit about significant influences or inspirations? Who or what have been your main sources of stimulation?
My work has been influenced by a lot of artists: Francis Bacon,Jean-Michael Basquiat, Horst Janssen, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester… the musicians Patti Smith, Will Oldham.

The inspirations are more local: artist and partner Robin Astley, my dearie Gabby Power, Drasko Boljevic and Stephen Benwell, and my teachers Peter Ellis, Vivienne Shark LeWitt and Louise Weaver.

You seem to have a commitment to simplistic form. Your subjects are vulnerable and exposed yet the viewer seems to be ambiguously faced with tension and energy. Is this intentional?
The tension and energy in my work comes from the way I approach the canvas, the time it takes me to finish a painting and the subject matter.

Your recent work includes portraiture sitting.
I was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2012 with a painting I did of Adam Cullen. In 2013, I was a finalist in the Doug Moran prize with a painting of Stephen Benwell. I saw that the Benalla regional gallery were giving a prize for nude portraiture so I did a number of paintings of a life model. I have always worked from photographs and started to enjoy the process of the model. I started to ask friends and colleagues to sit for me; Drasko Boljevic, James Smeaton, Lewis Millar, Brett Harris, and Andrew Browne, which was painted on a single canvas. I have recently been a finalist in the Benalla Nude Art Prize with a painting of the artist Robin Astley entitled, Painter with Chair.

Darren McDonald is represented by Flinders Street Gallery, Sydney and Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne.

20 August to 6 September, 2014
Flinders Street Gallery


Images: Courtesy the artist, Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne and Flinders Street Gallery, Sydney

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