Join us at 6.30pm tonight at St Heliers Street Gallery for the official opening of Eureka’s exhibition, Scarlatta, presented by Midsumma 2017, the state’s premier queer arts and cultural festival. A celebration of the male form and queer culture, Scarlatta includes photography, photomontage and light installations which frame the nude-male within religious iconography, creating a tension between the carnal and the unearthly. We talk to Eureka ahead of tonight’s launch about this tension and where it comes from and the troubles he’s encountered when exhibiting male nudes in the past.
The male nude is a cornerstone of art history; taking on many forms and created in countless mediums over the centuries. Why have you chosen to focus on this rich source of artistic inspiration?
I spent many years my life denying that I was attracted to men, coming out in my early 40s. Pioneering Midsumma queer artists like Ross Watson demonstrated the male nude is a legitimate subject for contemporary artists. As I caught up on my art history, I came to see that queer artists throughout history have been major cultural figures and that they often used the unclothed male figure to express the full range of emotions.
You’ve said previously that exhibiting the naked male form is a way for you to challenge the patriarchy. How so?
Being the Apostle of the male nude is not an easy role. I get a lot of pushback when I try to exhibit my work or to express myself as a gay artist. I have had printers refuse to print my work, models withdrawing permission to use images we have shot, and queer art competitions and community galleries all admonish me to be more family friendly. By the way I have three children – they love my work. There is a real fear of the unclothed male body deeply embedded in our culture.
There are always restrictions placed on my work, which is naked but not overtly sexual. Where does all this fear come from? Half the world’s population has a penis – why must it be so carefully hidden?
At a basic level the patriarchy wants to award status based on the size of your pay packet or your social standing etc., all attributes that have been acquired or inherited by conforming to the patriarchy’s rules. A naked male form opens the possibility of another hierarchy based on bodily achievements or penis size.
A naked male figure might also excite desire – male-to-male lust is clearly transgressive but there is also a desire to protect women and children from the naked male form. The patriarchy wants to control women and who they lust after and confine reproduction to dominant men.
You’re an artist with a passion for social change. What type of social change are you trying to get people thinking about with Scarlatta?
I would like to see Australian society more relaxed about their bodies as many other civilisations are and have been throughout history. When I was in Berlin, I was photographing a naked model at my residency’s studios. The director was showing a guest around. Neither he nor the model, nor the guest, were even slightly uncomfortable about the model being nude.
German sauna culture also provides another safe space where people can be naked together without difficulty or embarrassment. Art is a social laboratory where society experiments with new ideas of the normal – this will only work if arts organisations and society more generally support artistic freedom.
Tell us about your collaboration with Ilan El for Scarlatta. How do his photomontage images and lighting installations work alongside your pieces?
I have only recently come across Ilan’s work as part of Globelight 2016, held at the Convent. As my show was mostly complete, we decided to focus on using Ilan’s skills with art lighting to add another dimension to my photomontage images. With a longer lead-time, we may be able to conceive and execute a project together. My Scarlatta show will include two installations lit by Ilan.
You have a long history of working in community development. How has this informed your art? Are the two linked?
Yes, I have 40 years’ experience working with communities to create opportunities, address disadvantage and help society become more inclusive. In my education at the University of Melbourne, I was taught to question everything. Then when I worked in New Zealand, I met some fabulous women who taught me how to achieve change. My art also questions everything – a picture of two men in an intimate pose or a picture that brings out the latent homosexual feeling in much catholic art can challenge perceptions just as much as setting up a self-help group. At this stage of my life I can combine art making and activism as I have for the Scarlatta.
As part of Scarlatta, you’ll be undertaking an artist talk with the LGBTIQ Carers Forum in partnership with Carers Victoria. What can people expect from this unique discussion of art and social services? How did this collaboration come about?
I have been working with Carers Victoria over the last 12 months to raise awareness of the special challenges faced by LGBTIQ carers and our uniquely creative response. I have always used my art to make sense of whatever situation I am in. I am looking after my 93-year-old mother who doesn’t approve of me being gay. Art helps me counter the message I am somehow inferior. Also, by sharing my art online I stay connected. The seminar will explore how LGBTIQ carers can understand and manage their caring roles by maximizing their creativity, supporting each other, accessing resources and practising self-care.
How has the St Heliers Street Gallery allowed you to develop such a multi-faceted exhibition? Have you found the space’s flexibility to be its greatest asset, or is it something else?
It has been a fantastic opportunity to access the gallery at no cost. It has freed up resources so I could expand my range as an artist – for example engaging Ilan El to light my works. Abbotsford Convent staff and Cameron Miller (Cam’s Café) help as much as they can but they have other roles, so it’s a DIY experience to a degree. Cam has been kind enough to make some alterations to the gallery so more challenging work can be shown and I really appreciate that.
As well as exhibiting here for Midsumma, you’re a tenant at the Convent. What do you love most about being here as a working artist?
I have a somewhat extraverted manic and intense personality and I love being surrounded by the tranquil river animals and beautiful buildings at the Convent. In my second year here I’m beginning to develop some friendships with other artists and tenants, which I’m really enjoying, as art making can be a lonely experience.
Midsumma is Victoria’s premier queer arts and cultural festival, for and by the LGBTIQ community. In recent years you’ve completed artist residencies in Berlin and Venice, but does exhibiting your work back home for Midsumma Festival hold a special point of pride for you?
Yes, you always need to take your ideas back home and test them against local realities. Midsumma Festival was one of the avenues I used to come out, and I am happy to help others make that journey through my art. I also need to sell my work and gay men are my best customers.
What’s on your plate after Scarlatta? What can we expect to see from you next?
After the show, I’m returning to New Zealand for 10 days after an absence of 20 years. I have applied for an artist residency looking at the social construction of body image in Toronto and I would like to do volunteer community development and art making in Sri Lanka. I’m looking forward to doing more teaching this year. The Art Summer School I taught with my colleague Thea Bates was so successful we will be running another one at the Convent in April.
Scarlatta is on until Sunday 29 January at St Heliers Street Gallery, 8am – 4pm. Tonight’sofficial opening is from 6.30 – 8.30pm and includes a special live performance.