John Meade

There’s a mini welder sitting on a desk. His high-ceilinged studio is packed to the very rafters with materials. He opens a drawer filled with beads; another shelf is stacked with wood-cutoffs. There is a lot of physical material, much more tangible than something like atmosphere. His sculptures are very much physical.

“I’ve only realised this within the past decade or so,” he continues, “but looking back, that’s really what it’s been the whole time.” Meade intuitively follows his gut to make sculptures with uncanny personality. Working with industrial materials like concrete, aluminium, automotive paint, wigs, the sculptures he produces have a personality and lifeforce – the interior world of a person.

When pushed on what he means by atmosphere, Meade refers to movie directors, the capacity to build an emotionally charged mood for the audience, with an intimate connection between audience and film. His sculptures are arranged just so in an exhibition, with tricks of light and staging like the mise-en-scene of a film. His exhibitions are highly staged and performative, the inert materials made to feel alive.

Meade is preparing for a solo exhibition at Sutton Gallery, as well as a survey exhibition John Meade, It’s Personal at the McClelland Sculptural Park, covering a span from the mid-90s until now.

“I like for my work to exist in this grey zone of meaning,” he says. That is, it’s about paradoxical relationship between the artwork and the audience – the emotional encounter between an audience and sculptures made from processes used in industrial manufacturing. Meade is a deeply intuitive artist. He follows his gut. A single image or a feeling he encounters in his life will spiral out into various works.

He shows me a series of smaller fibreglass sculptures he’s working on, which still await licks of automotive paint for his upcoming Sutton show. They’re made of various interlocking pieces – one is intertwined cylinders, another an abstract bust made of geometric shapes, a spherical helmet or hair-do atop it. The bust is inspired by Liza Minelli, he tells me. When I ask about the other, he points to a printed-out image on his studio wall – a 70s black and white glamour portrait to show off a model whose hairstyle looks like a modernist sculpture.

“I’ve been looking at the photo for years,” he says, “I didn’t know what to do with it.”

He played around with various maquettes to make a sculpture like the model’s hair. “I guess I’m just the cliché country queer kid who wanted to be a hairdresser.”

Meade draws out these tiny anecdotes. He’s driven by his experiences and feelings, shapes that he finds. He makes little maquettes, until he arrives at a work imbued and overflowing with possible meanings, distant enough from his own autobiography, that his works take on a whole life of their own.

Motifs always come back around in his work though – a buzzing erotic charge, uncanny performance, queer desire. There are always curved lines in his works, hinting at bodies and sensuality, beads that could be an adornment or a sex toy, silhouettes inspired by haute-couture.

John Meade, It’s Personal, won’t be chronological, but it will group works by atmosphere and motifs, recurring imagery. He shows me one of the earliest works, Mean Yellow from 1997, industrial plastic bristle made to look like a wig, the title of the work deployed as if referring to a real person. Silvia from 2014 uses horsehair to stand-in for the hair, hinting only at a puffy out ponytail, hanging off a bright green modernist form. Double pin with Heidi plait, 2008, is self-descriptive – but again uses industrial bristle, curved forms, and hair to make a work charged with desire.

Meade’s practice has been a process of connecting the dots between his life experiences. While he’s coy about meanings of individual works and how they relate to him, there is a sense when he describes how he came to be an artist that he is making exactly the sort of work that is true to who he is.

“I dropped out of school at sixteen and started working at Myer Chadstone,” he tells me. He started out as a window dresser for Myer, finding a way into a broader queer community through workmates and friendship groups. He’s a working-class kid from Ballarat – being creative was never on his radar growing up. The senior window-dresser Meade worked with at Myer went on to become a significant Melbourne drag performer of the 80s.

After a stint in the queer scene of Sydney in the 70s and 80s, surrounded by artists, musicians, and dancers, he returned to Melbourne in the 90s, and started making art at thirty-five. The links to a working-class background have driven his interest in industrial materials – he gets to work with fabricators who work in factories.

One can see how connecting the dots of a life lived up until that point would flourish into such a strong art practice. He stuck to his guns in the 90s even though what he was doing was not in vogue at the time – deeply conceptual work, underpinned by academic theory, reigned supreme. Even now, when work about underrepresented identities is having a moment – and is aligned with what he’s been doing for decades – he has never wanted his own biography to lead his work, nor for a work’s meaning solely to be linked to who he is as a person.

This feels at odds with a survey exhibition titled John Meade, It’s Personal. He laughs when I push him on this and says that the title is a double entendre. It can act as a way to deflect questions around what Meade’s work means – he can merely reply, “It’s personal.”

Images courtesy of the artist, Mick Richards, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, McClelland Sculptural Park & Gallery, Victoria
This profile was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64

John Meade, It’s Personal! 
4 December 2023 – 25 March 2024
McClelland Sculptural Park & Gallery, Victoria 

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