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Studio Start-up Artist – In Conversation with Lauren Dunn

Posted by Huw Cushing on 6 Mar 2017

"Looking into the future during this time I knew I wanted to use my arts practice to earn a living. It’s ultimately what I feel most satisfied doing, so I’ve tried to keep a consistent momentum going by applying for relevant awards and exhibitions, sharing ideas with others and pushing my work into new territory."

Each year, the Abbotsford Convent supports two emerging visual artists through its Studio Start-up program – assisting them to becoming professional artists. We speak to the first of our 2017 recipients, Lauren Dunn, about her works and the questions she asks of her audience. We also find out what she hopes to get from being a part of the Convent artistic community. Lauren has a rent-free studio space with us for six months and her work will be displayed at St Heliers Street Gallery in early 2018.

You recently graduated from Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Since then it sounds like you’ve managed to keep pretty busy. How has the Convent’s Studio Start-up program helped you transition from graduate to working artist?

The last three years at art school was very liberating. The heavy emphasis on critical theory and having unlimited freedom to test out ideas and materials gave me some really strong foundations for my arts practice. Looking into the future during this time I knew I wanted to use my arts practice to earn a living. It’s ultimately what I feel most satisfied doing, so I’ve tried to keep a consistent momentum going by applying for relevant awards and exhibitions, sharing ideas with others and pushing my work into new territory. Although I had a heap of things planned for the beginning of 2017, the success I had at grad show was unexpected. I was lucky to win a couple of awards and secure three exhibitions. I was offered a neon artwork commission for the George Paton Gallery at University of Melbourne and also sold most of my work.

My studio here at Abbotsford Convent has alleviated the financial burden of paying for a space, which at this time I wouldn’t have been able to afford. It’s helped me create a new routine and to segregate my time and energy. So far I think the transition has been really positive, I’m extremely grateful to have the space and I’m getting a good idea of how I’ll need to mange my practice in the future.

How are you settling into the Convent space? What benefits are you hoping to get from working here that you might not find at another studio?

I couldn’t be happier. The environment is perfect, the greenery and large spaces are very conducive for me to being productive and creative. Everyone has been extremely welcoming and supportive. I’m keen to experiment with the unused spaces, testing out installing neon and sculptural printed work in an unusual manner. The amount of space here is very unique.

Your work looks at how people consume media and images. What are you trying to reveal to your audience about the way they approach media, and in turn, how they look at your own artwork?

It’s always evolving but the core of my practice is essentially concerned with our behaviours surrounding desire for popular products and services. I like to question the forces that dictate this and how it all relates to our personal consumption ethics. My work is always drawn from personal experiences.

I use found and made imagery because I believe the thousands of images, we consume everyday can be read as an indicator to broader behavioural trends and habits. I use neon because it references commercial exchange. It’s bright and bold; people are naturally drawn to it. I can use this familiar advertising language to make statements or trigger critical thinking. I use my video works as a more playful and humorous approach to critiquing consumption trends.

In terms of the viewer, ideally, I’d like them to be lured into the beauty or boldness of my work – the large scale is usually immersive, the print quality is rich, colourful and detailed. I often use simplicity to create intensity, once they have that initial moment of being drawn into the work by aesthetics, I hope that viewer would identify a broader political discussion can be had if desired.

As well as photography, you create video works. Do these works share a similar aesthetic or message regarding media consumption as your stills, or are you pursuing something else with the moving image?

I see the video works as a playful and often performative outlet for my practice. They always address the core of my concerns around desire and consumption but in a more humorous tone. Last year I made a three-channel video work for the Gertrude Street Projection Festival where I impersonated Jennifer Lopez starring in a popular commercial for L’Oreal makeup. I was interested in unpacking the use of celebrities to sell, as well as the mannerisms and language used to draw consumers in. It’s camp and painfully exaggerated. Whether this actually differs from my printed or neon works I’m still trying to figure that out.

You work for ART DOCUMENTATION, a Collingwood-based photographic and video service, which keeps records of exhibited artworks for paying clients. Does this photography, in which you observe people observing media, tie into your critiquing of commercial culture, or do you approach it solely as an important service for artists?

I started ART DOCUMENTATION in my first year at VCA. My art works have always had high production costs, so I was basically looking for a way to earn more money to make more art. I studied for two years at Photography Studies College so I could use commercial photography to earn money – so it all just made sense to be working within my community using these skills. I deliberately created a separation between my arts practice and ART DOCUMENTATION. I don’t see a conceptual connection but seeing other artists’ work, documenting it and talking with them about it is something I really enjoy. I guess this will always inform my own practice.

Boom Gallery in Newtown is featuring works by you and other new artists for Summer Projects IV. This will be your third exhibition for the year already. Tell us about the exhibition and what visitors can expect.

Summer Projects IV is an all-girl line-up of emerging talent selected by the curator Dylan Foley from 2016 grad shows around Melbourne. I’m showing two images and a neon work. The title of the work as a whole is The state of things. For me these works are small nuances relating to consumption habits.

Away from the gallery space, next month you recently hosted two free workshops as part of Screening Melbourne, by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Multicultural Arts Victoria and the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP). Images taken by workshop participants are then displayed at Federation Square. As a photographic artist, what tenants of photography will you be trying to relay to your participants?

I prefer not to spend too much time with teaching technical skills in these workshop environments. I believe helping people read the thousands of images we see every day (internet, street, books, mags, products etc.) in order to create a greater awareness of our cultural behaviours, to then inform their own image making, is more valuable. So, I tend to spend most of the time talking about the image, other artists and their own ideas.

Have you always taken an interest in workshops and sharing your knowledge?

Sharing ideas and opening up new ways of thinking is just as important to me as making art – it’s really just another way of communicating ideas and shifting levels of consciousness. But I didn’t feel ready to do it until recently because I wanted to have a clear trajectory for my own practice before I start preaching to others. That all fell into place for me early last year. So I ran my first workshop last year at CCP with Collingwood College students on behalf of the Rotary Art Youth Program. We had such an amazing time together. It was very satisfying to see their ideas and images evolve during the program.

What can we expect to see from you next, once your current exhibitions are finished?

Next I’ll be running another workshop, Signal Camera Club. Signal is a Melbourne City Council creative studio for young people and aims to foster young artists’ ideas and it’s free. Later this month I’ll be showing work at the Clyde & Co LLP Melbourne office as part of the law firm’s international Art Award, which aims to encourage emerging talent, fresh out of art school.

In mid-April I have a solo show at LON Gallery, an artist-run commercial space in Collingwood, mostly supporting local emerging and mid-career artists. They included me in a group show last year and I really enjoyed working with them, so I’m pretty excited about taking over the entire space and creating new work. At this stage I’m keen to use highly produced photographic images in sculptural forms that survey our relationship with popular imagery. I’ve also been working on a life-size neon work that implies ‘hedonistic gesture’. Hopefully I can pull it all together by April!