As reference books on contemporary Australian art are few, new contributions to the field are always welcome. In recent art publishing, the popularity of the interview is noticeable, perhaps reflecting a response to the disappearance of the voice of the practitioner in the accent on theorisation of visual practices in the 1980s and early 90s.
In Building a Picture, Interviews with Australian Artists, Gary Catalano asks a range of artists to discuss their careers and practice in informative and broad ranging career overviews. The book has a generalist tone, in accord with Catalano's intention to please both the general reader and student of Australian art. Accordingly, readers are required to bring little background knowledge apart from a sense of the major artistic movements in Australia and the brief glossary provides assistance with art terminology. A selected bibliography on each artist, (books, catalogues and magazine or newspaper articles) is a guide to further reading for student research.
The interviews were conducted over a four year period and most are republications of earlier texts. Catalano thematically connects the artists: "How Images Appear" encompasses Robin Wallace-Crabbe and Rosslynd Piggott; "Narrative" includes Euan Heng and Garry Shead; "The View from the Suburbs" - Dale Hickey and Robert Rooney; the lineage of "Minimalism and Beyond" - Robert Hunter; "The Attractions of Ephemera" - Murray Walker and Elizabeth Gower; "Inspecting Nature" - John Wolseley and Rosie Weiss; "Reaffirming Tradition" - Rick Amor and David Keeling; and the catch-all "Other Media" includes Lesley Duxbury and Ruth Johnstone. Short biographies precede each interview.
The artists interviewed are generally from generations born between the 1930s and 1950s and the majority work in representational modes. Hunter and Hickey are the only artists to produce geometric abstract work, while Piggott, Rooney, Gower and Weiss have created consistently abstract bodies of work. Two-dimensional image making predominates, with sculptural practice being apparent only in Murray Walker's assemblage. Some aspects of installation are raised briefly in reference to work by Piggott, Hickey, Gower and Johnstone.
Catalano has the background knowledge required to draw out his subjects in interview. His enquiries focus on common biographical themes, the individual's introduction to art or resolve to begin an art practice, the impact of family expectations, childhood interest, mentors and geographical and cultural surroundings that affect individual sensibility and choice of subject matter and materials. Some links to other interviewees as contemporary peers emerge in the dialogue.
Building a Picture contains important original information from primary sources. Artists reveal the processes behind seminal works or the inevitable reluctance to explicate or purposeful vagaries of memory. References to important exhibitions and the reception of work frame practice in its commercial and public context.
The book makes evident the individuality of background, approach and ideas to artmaking. Artists reveal personal interconnections between visual art practice and other interests (such as Rooney's passion for music), work of sympathetic overseas artists, individual concerns with aspects of ecology, history, place or language and religious or mystical beliefs. Elements important to this range of artists in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s can inform reflection on other and younger artists engagement in the 1990s with found materials, experimentation with tradition or abstraction and minimal practices, the personal significance of memory and the meaning of domestic, personal and local environments.
As interviewer, Catalano's voice is pervasive in seeking and prompting responses, the interviews being ordered question and answer more than conversation. This reader-friendly publication offers a particular introduction to contemporary Australian art. The thematic framework reflects only one way of thinking about extensive individual careers and practices. While indicating that the history of Australian art is one of diverse ideas, processes and cultural backgrounds, Building a Picture lacks reference to the wealth of indigenous or non-European cultures contributing to our visual culture, or the prevalence to integrate media in contemporary art practice.
For this reader, Building a Picture was surprisingly instrumental in producing desire for first hand engagement with the art object. Information on subject matter, sources and strategies alone without the first hand experience and contemplation of work supplements the unmediated picture, and the material and colour plates in this compilation assist in understanding and accessing visual art. It also reinforces the distinction between the visual and spoken languages. Often artists are most direct in helping us see the inexplicable. In Building A Picture, the difficulties and redundancy of explanation were articulated by Dale Hickey who, when asked to state the ground rules of his painting, demurred with the excuse, "That's why I paint."