Virginia Cuppaidge | Another Kind of Light

Virginia Cuppaidge grew up as a Brisbane girl, bathed in Queensland sunshine, but in her early 20s she made a life-changing decision – switching city and hemisphere to live and practise in New York City. Despite this geographic shift, her works have innately expressed her pulll towards light and ongoing connection to Australia.

What impact did the changes of pace and culture, from Brisbane to New York, have on you?
I always wanted to go to New York from when I was 14 years of age, however I can say it now: I was very afraid of New York. When I got on the plane I didn’t have any plans, I was just hoping I could stay in New York. If I hadn’t met up with Clement “Clem” Meadmore, which was not planned at all, it would have been a very different story. It was a very dangerous city in the 1970s, more than I realised.

How did this move to New York feed your interests in abstract art?
I studied fairly formally, but my first interest in abstraction was seeing images of the Russian Constructivists. In New York, seeing modern paintings in real life – what an impact it had – Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. One artist that really influenced me was Hans Hoffmann: the Metropolitan Museum of Art had two big paintings of his in its collection with these big blocks of colour. I’d never seen anything like it – it was so modern and so brash. A big influence on my Works on Paper was after I had taken up a teaching assignment at the University of California, Berkeley. It was a fabulous experience; I met a lot of Californian artists, such as Richard Diebenkorn who did a series of works called The Ocean Park Series. Brice Marden was also a huge influence. I was also fascinated with the minimalists, and it influenced my geometric works, like ‘The Big Orange’. Although, I can never be a real minimal artist, I am too intuitive and expressive.

In your latest exhibition Another Kind of Light the images are quite reductionist with their simple carved-out forms that seemingly float across the paper. What led to this openness in your practice?
The thing about New York is everybody complains of the traffic noise. I decided the place that I lived in had to be a quiet, tranquil place, and felt a very emotional need to create this little sanctuary. I wanted to make these sublime and beautiful paintings. With these works on paper, I started to open up the space and just have little pieces floating across, so the background became a big part of the work. I just wanted to create something serenely quiet, in contrast to the life I was leading.

The exhibition returns to a series of works from the late 1970s.What does this series signify for you as a turning point in your practice?
It’s only in retrospect that these were what led me into the Skyspace paintings. I wanted to bring light into the equation. Several people had written “this work is very Australian”, and I found that at the time very annoying, because I wanted to be international. I realised the light in Australia is very different; when I am mixing paint I mix a little bit of white into every colour I use. It’s my colour palette – bright colours or black – there is a tiny dab of white in them. I always remember the Queensland sky, with the heat of the sun on a blazing hot day, it’s sun-bleached light, and clear blue. I wonder if that is what is getting into my paintings, because I definitely have a particular colour sense. I don’t mind my work being called “Australian” now because it makes sense; we are deeply influenced from our childhood.

So wherever you were working in New York, there was always that memory of Australian light, and capturing that in your work?
Yes, the works on paper I created just after I had been in California, and the light is fantastic there, very soft but you can see more of it. Working on ‘Manhattan Sunrise’ from my loft in Soho, I could look south in the morning and see the light. It is really important, because New York is dark, it creates a yearning for sunlight.

Colour does get that prominence in your work, the background is almost moving to the foreground. How do you go about starting a work?
When I start a work I get a taste of a colour, I get a visceral taste in my mouth or body that I want to work with. In ‘Pink Painted Field’, I can remember I got this very intense pink colour and when I finished that one, I thought gee, what was going to be a big square of pink, looked like a field – it had an organic feel to it. I do a lot of layers of colour, in ‘Big Orange’ if they were to dissect that painting, you would find several layers underneath, of slightly different colours. It is never flat colour.

This “visceral taste”, is that intuition towards colour a driving force behind your approach or your practice?
Absolutely, I’ll put that chosen colour down and then that colour will demand what else it needs to liven the surface. Often paintings sit on my walls for months before I’ll put the next bit in there. I’m not super prolific, I shouldn’t confess that because apparently you’re not supposed to. New York artists are so prolific that some people used to say to me “don’t tell people you don’t make so many works Virginia, because they won’t take you seriously”. I’ve never been able to do that, you just have to wait until the painting talks back to you and tells you what it needs.

You have been practising for over 40 years in New York now, but you still continue to exhibit in Australia. What is the importance of maintaining this connection?
Australians respond very intensely in a good way to my work. I think they have a more direct response. It’s easy to say in retrospect how all this falls into place but when you’re young, you have all these things that you have a burning desire to do. But it all pans out slightly different from where you planned. Then when you look back on it you think “oh yeah, that’s what was supposed to happen”. I kept up that contact, even though I am living in New York I’ve never wanted to lose my Australian connection.

Virginia Cuppaidge | Another Kind of Light
Stella Downer Fine Art
5 March – 5 April

Courtesy the artist and Stella Downer Fine Art

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