Brendan Huntley

Brendan Huntley's upcoming show 'Without Within,' at Tolarno Galleries, considers the coccoon. A suite of new paintings and sculptures, emerging from last year's long lockdown in Melbourne, both reflect upon and exemplify the transformative potential of turbulent times, weathered from within a space of shelter. Attendant ideas of flux, 'solitary freedom,' and experimentation rang through a conversation between Huntley and Elli Walsh in Artist Profile Issue 50.

Your Mum and Dad are artists – did you grow up knowing you’d follow this path?

Yes, it was the only way for me. My parents made their living making pots and selling them at craft markets and teaching pottery, sculpture and painting. Every year they’d have an exhibition of their higher-end pieces. They would turn the whole house into an exhibition space. Furniture moved out, paintings and drawings hung, and tables covered with linen, adorned with their pottery and sculptures. When I turned eleven I was given my own space to exhibit during one of those shows, which was a big deal for me. I got to hang my work alongside my parents’ and have their friends and supporters come and see it and collect it. I would continue to do this up until I was about fifteen … when I got into graffiti and my focus was diverted.

As the frontman of garage punk band Eddy Current Suppression Ring, you’ve described a freedom and wildness felt whilst performing in the band. Is there a similar sense of escapism in your art practice?

It’s a different kind of escape. Being the singer and lyricist, I’m able to feed off the crowd or other members of the band. Whereas in the studio, it’s a more solitary freedom. When things are really cooking, coming together, and it’s feeling good, there is a certain pull and charge that can take over my consciousness – as though I’m on another plane or in a form of deep meditation. I can go for hours before I realise I’ve forgotten to eat lunch and the tea’s gone cold! I think any form of creation opens up the mind to venture into other realms.

Expressing ideas in music – through lyrics and vocals – is vastly different to the ways your paintings and sculptures silently materialise ideas.

One of the great things about making visual art is you don’t have to explain it in words. Even if I’m dealing with darker or more challenging subject matter, I’m creating my work from a place of love and I think if I’ve done my job well, it should be able to exist and excite simply as a form or image, leaving it open for others to interpret as they choose. In an ideal world, be it through my lyrics or art, I’d like to imagine everybody getting down on the dance floor, even beings from outer space.

In recent years you’ve shifted to larger format ceramic works. What prompted this change?

After painting and sculpting heads for so long and then busts for another couple of years, I started looking outwards, beyond the human form towards landscapes or spiritual places a person could escape to. This opened up the playing field for new colour palettes and larger scale. The first large works were loosely based on drawings of hikes and camping missions my partner Ellen and I were going on. To me they also resembled elements found in outer space – like stars, planets, nebulae; the way nature can appear so alien. Or, alternatively, the way nature can resemble things that could be made in a machine.

At around the same time as the works were getting bigger, I was lucky to catch wind of a huge kiln that was for sale through a friend of a friend. It took a lot of work, assistance and energy, but I managed to install it in my Frankston studio. The door is wide and the main loading dock is on a dolly so I can wheel it in and out and load it far more easily than I could with my last kiln. It was a real game changer. In saying that, I’ve been feeling the urge to go smaller lately. It always ebbs and flows.

I’m interested in the materials you use for the stamping in your clay sculptures.

A lot of the materials I use have been in our family for many years. Stamps, rocks, carved sticks, pen lids, old tools, kitchen utensils, op shop toys, things we’ve all found or crafted over time. I incorporate these stamping tools into my work – it’s my way of hinting at my past and also the beauty of craft and industry. On a more conceptional side, to me the repetitive stamping patterns represent our physical building blocks. Like a patchwork quilt of genetic material.

Speaking of patchwork quilt, the imprints on works such as Untitled (primordial soup) (2018) resemble a vintage blanket, creating dialogue between soft and hard. This dualistic aspect can be seen in many of your recent sculptures, as they’re in two parts. What inspired this approach?

I’ve always been interested in the contrast between two opposing forces. Soft and hard, organic and machine, chaos and balance etc. I find I’m constantly searching for that satisfying meeting place of the two. When brought together there’s something in the unity that creates a kind of peace.

Tell me about the eye motif in your latest paintings …

They’re the windows to what’s inside and out. Eyes have always played an important role in my work. I like to imagine that art (and or particular objects) can look out for you, bring you joy or protection – mainly from one’s own anxieties.

You recently became a father – how has this impacted your practice?

Well, in the lead up to his birth I found myself thinking more and more about who we are as humans and why we are here and how minute we are in the bigger scheme of things, in this vast universe. And that’s lead me to the work that’s been happening this last year or so – shooting stars, comets, suns and moons.

For my last show in Sydney at Martin Browne Contemporary I made a sculpture that I titled the moon that became a sun but in actual fact, it isn’t sure if it’s a moon or a sun but it’s happy either way. It has the freedom to be viewed as both or either, be it about gender, sex, life, craft or art. I feel as humans we can sometimes box ourselves in with titles and preconceived notions. Looking back at that work, it was a celebration of life and the openness that I hope can flow through my child for the rest of his life, and all people for that matter.

What’s your favourite thing you’ve ever made, art or otherwise?

Well right now, in a collaborative sense, even though I didn’t do the hard work, I gotta say experiencing our child come into this world has really blown my mind … it’s like watching a small universe slowly explode before my eyes.

This conversation was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2020.

Without Within
17 April – 15 May 2021
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

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