We sit down with renowned artist Kate Bergin to talk about inspiration, creative process and her upcoming exhibition.
'The Pleasure of Your Company' Front Room Exhibition
Opening Thursday 7th July, 2022
Who and what inspires your work?
My discovery of Ellis Rowan while living in Cairns in Far North Queensland, led me to think of a new way to create a series of un-still lives. A journey to Cooktown to meet with a butterfly collector was the beginning. An offer from James Cook University in Cairns to use their bird and mammal collection was another development.
After 5 years in Far North Queensland, in 2000 it was time to go back to Melbourne but the seeds had been planted and I approached Museum Victoria to access their storerooms and started focusing on birds as well as butterflies. There was almost a Darwinian development in animals after that!
Over time though I found taxidermy to be too limiting and felt constricted by the poses created by others. I wanted live animals and an interaction with them that I felt would give more life to the paintings.
I feel it’s this connection that has changed my work. Spending hours watching animals and how they interact with each other has given me more understanding and respect for them which I hope comes through in the paintings. Sometimes I can almost see the painting being created when I’m in front of an animal just by a particular pose or look they may have.
Music is also a big part of my life particularly as the studio can be a quiet and isolated place. I enjoy “The National" whose lyrical dark humour is strangely comforting. I’m also re-reading “The Information” by Martin Amis who also tends towards the darkly humorous. Lucinda Williams has been a constant “friend” in the studio for more than 20 years and the music of Lou Doillon has the magical ability to take me to another place. Her songwriting and voice being both new and old at the same time...beautifully familiar and unfamiliar.
There’s a sense in this combination of old and new that nothing really changes. The same questions and desires remain through the generations. My image of the “mobile phone” with the old 1940s “film noir” phone tied to a tortoise suggests that even though our lives are fast-paced and led by the technology we’re really not communicating any better on many levels.
This telephone appears in many paintings. It creates a sense of mystery and menace in what may appear to be contented or curious gatherings on the tabletop. The dial reads “In Case of Emergency Dial 170” reflecting my own love of old crime movies, true crime documentaries and talking books which often sustain me through “a long day’s journey into night”. I’ve been listening to Jo Nesbo’s “Blood on Snow” narrated by Patti Smith. Interestingly, Anwen Crawford wrote of Patti Smith in The New Yorker,
“Smith’s attitude to objects is devotional rather than acquisitive. She holds dearly to the things she has. Crime shows are one of Smith’s few cultural concessions to the 21st century. Her intense identification with fictional detectives feels of a piece with her broader understanding of the artistic process: much in the way that a detective might obsess over physical evidence in search of a truth that will reveal itself only to her.”
I love this sense of being a detective, revealing hidden truths to understand the artistic process and what we ourselves are trying to find within it.
Tell us more about your creative process?
Generally, I’ll start with the main character and build the painting up around it - the tabletop acting like a stage where I move the creatures around. On some level, it’s not unlike the traditional still lives of Morandi. But unlike Morandi’s selection of jugs and vases I need an enormous amount of creatures in different sizes and colours to create the balance and movement around the piece.
I paint directly onto the canvas every brushstroke adds to the layers and textures. I tend not to pencil sketch onto the canvas as it just creates a line to be dispensed with. Sometimes I cut out photos and use masking tape to stick them onto the canvas and then place spoons and spectacles around the canvas just to get a sense of the arrangement and balance before I paint them in. It’s a pretty low-tech process of just feeling my way around the image through colour and other connections.
It’s then a matter of making the composition a believable space and creating a convincing relationship between the animals and objects. It’s also important for me that the animals don’t become anthropomorphous even though they’re in a domestic space with human objects they need to retain their own identity or nobility as animals for the paintings to work.
While the birds and animals are painted from photographs that I’ve taken I also paint from life which helps me to understand the spatial elements. The telephone and tabletop are from life as are the teaspoons and spectacles. I also sometimes add a peeled apple which challenges my painting ability. It was often used in earlier times as a sign of artistic virtuosity as it must be painted in one sitting before it rots which is a particular challenge up here in the sub-tropics during summer.
I can’t really say I have a particular method for the painting itself it’s just a matter of layers and layers of oil paint until the textures feel right. Having the taxidermy nearby is still helpful for that. Often I’ve referenced the legs and paws of my taxidermied fox to help me create tiger or lion paws that are hidden in long grasses in my reference photographs.
Every part of the process excites me...I’ve travelled 10 hours to Dubbo in 40-plus degrees just to spend 3 mins with a rhino. I’ve travelled to the Atlanta Zoo only to get captivated by a squirrel in the car park. I‘ve been to New Orleans for the Audubon aviary and ended up standing for days with a jaguar. Then wandered down Magazine St to a pretty shop and found an Italian 1950s silk bag that features an old master painting that I think I’ll paint sometime.
I come home to the studio and grapple with a white cloth to find the perfect folds. I add a phone that the antique dealer in Sydney assures me was in the latest “Gatsby” movie...it wasn’t...I watched it five times to find it but it’s still beautiful and we named our puppy Gatsby so all wasn’t lost.
Inspiration is in the extraordinary, the unexpected and it’s in the every day - perhaps the magic trick is recognising it and being able to transpose that onto canvas in some way.
Can you tell us about your success as an artist and your biggest career highlight to date?
Perhaps the most significant highlight was early in my career when I was awarded a studio residency in Italy by the Australia Council for the Arts. Being able to live and paint in a beautiful old Italian villa and easily visit galleries all over Europe was an extraordinary experience. It was the first time I felt comfortable introducing myself as an artist and felt a true connection with art history that has continued to inspire me and give me confidence throughout my career.
Being purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW, Bendigo Gallery, Artbank and the Victorian College of the Arts to name a few, for their permanent collections has also been very affirming throughout my career.
Art competitions are also a way to develop as a professional artist in the public arena and I have been fortunate to win The Albany Art Prize, Corangamarah Art Prize, People’s Choice Winner at the Arthur Guy Memorial Art Prize and highly commended, Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize and have been a finalist three times at the Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW.
I have also been fortunate to have support from galleries over the last 3 decades that has allowed me to continually exhibit since graduating from art school in 1992.
Finding a balance between being an artist and a mother and wife has been the ultimate challenge and the thing I’m most proud of. Nothing can match the rewards of creating a creative life on a day-to-day basis.
What do you think it is about your work that immediately captures the hearts of your collectors?
Still-life is a very broad term for an incredibly diverse range of styles over many centuries, from the Greek and Roman “Unswept Floor” mosaics to the abundance of Dutch 17th Century and the complimentary sparseness of the Spanish 17th century to 20th-century modernists such as Giorgio Morandi’s shimmering beauty to John Brack’s marching pencils of the 1970’s the different ways we present objects is as varied as the objects themselves.
While Cezanne and Picasso may have used the genre to discover and learn about colour and form there’s inbuilt psychology that is utterly captivating.
There is no grand gesture, there is only the artist and the object, there’s a simple truth and a mirroring perhaps to the viewer and their own thoughts and desires - perhaps that’s the enduring element that captures the heart of collectors.
Perhaps too, in this collection of my paintings, it’s the sense that animals and birds allow us to contemplate issues of nature and the human condition in a way that’s a little more metaphoric and familiar. The animals become an accessible filter to see into our own hearts.
As far back as ancient Egypt animals have been used to satirise and appraise human behaviour. The Greek writer Aesop also used animals to provide a moral mirror for reflecting the best and worst of the human race.
While all cultures may use animals as symbols they are not relegated to a singular meaning. I like to think this about the still life genre too that it cannot be contained or defined in a singular way. It can burst free of its boundaries and become un-still. It can merge with animals, landscape and figures and it can be both sublime and beautiful, quiet and loud, balanced and discordant. It should be able to make you laugh and make you cry. It needs to be all these things because it is a reflection of our complicated and layered lives. I hope it is this that connects with the viewer.
What can we expect to see in this upcoming exhibition?
Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson wrote “The Getting of Wisdom” in 1910 under her pen name Henry Handel Richardson. An Australian coming of age story of a young girl during her school days. Germaine Greer wrote, ‘The enduring truth is that The Getting of Wisdom is Richardson’s only great book, precisely because the subject is, like the rest of us, ordinary, and therefore deeply important.”
I’m constantly drawn to this dichotomy of the ordinary and the extraordinary. How an apple isn’t just an apple, a spoon is not just a spoon. Even the smallest and most mundane of objects can evoke a memory or follow a thread through history setting off sparks of understanding and recognition.
In this collection of five paintings the ordinary and the extraordinary continue to gather on the tabletop... the only question is which is which? I’ve used Richardson’s title, The Getting of Wisdom for a painting featuring a white tiger. But it’s the barn owl standing on the tiger’s paw with the base of the statuette on its head looking like a graduation mortar board that speaks of wisdom. The statuettes are Casanova, (a little souvenir I picked up in Venice many years ago) with spectacles held aloft curiously contemplating the beautiful white tiger and perhaps seeking its wisdom too.
The Dream Makers takes its title from the small coffee cup or demitasse on the tail of the lemur. It is from Tiffany & Co and has the notes from Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” printed around it and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics seem to magically sing from it...
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you're goin', I'm goin' your way
There is a sense that while these creatures may be disconnected and from different worlds somehow they too are “after the same rainbow’s end”.
Dance Ensemble is one of those paintings that I saw in the camera lens, a kind of flamingo stretch and shake, so quick that the very good fortune of having captured it already defines itself as a painting. I find this interesting within the context of a realist painter who essentially takes an extremely long time to complete a painting that its very beginning stems from a moment of chance and an inexplicable confluence of momentary reflexes. It is the essence of connection. It’s that moment that entices me to undertake weeks and weeks of negotiation with an image trying to bring it back to life, back to that moment.
The major piece of this exhibition is The Pleasure of Your Company, (Featuring, Tiepolo's "The Banquet of Cleopatra", c.1744)
When I attended the Victorian College of the Arts it was situated at the back of the National Gallery of Victoria so access to their vast collection was an easy but sometimes overwhelming experience. Standing in front of Tiepolo’s, “Cleopatra’s Banquet” is truly breathtaking as you contemplate its enormous scale and the dramatic moment when the Egyptian queen dissolves her priceless pearl earring in a glass of vinegar, drinks it and wins the wager for the most lavish feast against the Roman consul Mark Antony.
This transportation that art creates to another time and place continues to fascinate me and paying homage to this painting allows not only the retracing of the master’s brush and learning more about the painting itself, but it also offers a direct connection from now to 1744 when Tiepolo painted it and then further back to the winter of 41-40 BC in Alexandria where Antony and Cleopatra were inseparable companions.
Creating a painting within a painting has been a recurring theme. This not only adds another narrative and connection to art history but it also opens up the domestic space allowing for a sense of escape and dreams of a place beyond the tabletop.
Velazquez also employed the same technique. “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” uses an internal window to denote the clash of the ordinary kitchen duties (complete with still life objects) with an extraordinary guest in the main room. The painting inverts the usual message by elevating the domestic space and servants above their master - the profane becoming more important than the sacred and it’s these twists and turns within the narrative and the different perspectives that interest me.
The Slow Journey features HMS Sirius on top of a tortoise suggesting a very slow journey indeed not unlike its namesake’s 252-day voyage to Botany Bay in 1788. At the same time the Italian adventurer, Casanova was 63 years old and soon to embark on his epic “The Story of My Life” documenting a life stranger than fiction with many voyages of the heart and soul. His raised glasses perhaps contemplating another adventure in this new environment he’s found himself in complete with a very elegant-looking stilt on pink legs.
And just like Johnny Mercer’s Moon River lyrics, There really is “such a lot of the world to see”.
I hope these five paintings in this exhibition take you on a journey through history, over the seas, into a tropical jungle and back to the tabletop where all these creatures come together to delight, question and entice you into their world.