Billy Bain

Billy Bain is an emerging artist who engages with ceramics, painting and printmaking to unpack ideologies surrounding Australian masculinity, taking agency in his Indigenous identity after growing up on Sydney’s Eurocentric Northern Beaches. In his upcoming solo exhibition ‘Blokes’ at .M Contemporary, the artist will be exploring these concepts in darkly humoured mini ‘men’ clay figures who are grisly, raw and unapologetically themselves.  

In your new series, you’re drawing out the complexity of Australian masculinity – was there a triggering moment for you that led to this body of work?
I think growing up in a suburban beach town as a guy, you are subjected to this hyper-masculine identity as being normal. You know, I grew up playing football and surfing, where your social worth is based on how much you can hurt the guy on the other team in a tackle, or how big and scary the waves you’re willing to surf are. Everyone’s jostling to outdo each other in this weird pursuit towards this extremely gendered and toxic identity. I never felt totally comfortable with it all, but as I’ve grown the peculiarities and dynamics of Australian masculinity and identity continued to interest me more and more. I think this body of work probably started to blossom when I began to research these ideas in my Honours year at uni. I started to be more critical of the culture I grew up in, and where I fit into it as an Indigenous Australian.

This idea of criticality seems to be met with some humour …
I try and be critical of the culture I grew up around in my work, but I think it’s important to have a laugh while doing it. Most of my works are fairly autobiographical in the sense that at some stage in my life I have embodied an essence of the characters I am creating. When I make these works that profile masculine identities in a tongue in cheek way, I’m somewhat taking the piss out of myself. I’m trying to highlight the ridiculousness of it all, but also acknowledging that it’s a big part of who I am as well, for better or worse. I also feel like by deconstructing and being critical of these idealised identities of the Australian male, it helps me to take back agency in being able to define my own Indigenous identity.

Your practice spans multiple disciplines. Why did you decide to use clay for this exhibition?
I picked up clay in the last six months of art school and pretty much just learnt by a lot of failed experimentations. I was lucky that .M Contemporary saw a few of my early figurative sculptures at a graduation show and they wanted to exhibit some of those at Sydney Contemporary and line up my first solo show. Working with ceramics has been great because I’m still in that honeymoon period where I’m learning so much with every piece, and the outcomes are still surprising me. Painting and printmaking are still a big part of my practice, but I think it’s interesting the ways in which the physicality and presence of sculptural pieces can expand and build on my image-based works.

Ceramics can be a drawn-out process. What does your process look like?
Each clay work usually has a turn-around period of a few months. Usually, I will build a body of work all at once over a few weeks. I tend to leave them to dry for a couple of months, so they are less at risk of blowing up in the kiln. Turns out rushing big sculptures through the kilns ain’t such a crash hot idea. After that it’s mostly just a series of glazing and firings. I think everything in this show was made within a ten-month period. Forty sculptures and a bunch of paintings.

How have you managed to stay focused on your art during these bizarre times?
I’ve been lucky in a sense. I moved home back to the Northern Beaches from the city and really tried to simplify my life. I’ve spent a lot more time outside, surfing every day, spending time with family and just finding a healthier balance in my life. Obviously, it’s difficult to stay motivated all the time, but for me, it’s all about managing expectations and allowing myself to sit with the fact that it’s fine to have those slow days, weeks or even months. Just keep chipping away and what will be, will be. It’s not forever.

This article is sponsored by the Northern Beaches Council as part of the series ‘Documenting Art in the Time of Corona.’

Billy Bain: Blokes
18 September – 4 October 2020
.M Contemporary, Sydney

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