“To be honest with you, I’m a creature of habit,” Teelah George admits, “I have my regimented studio time. I like to be there at a specific time and go home at a specific time.” For several years now George has maintained a daily visual exercise in which she begins each morning at her studio by working on a self-portrait; unraveling a length of loose canvas from a huge bolt of fabric, attempting to paint her reflection in a little mirror, starting anew every couple of days.
“I had this enormous canvas and I would intuitively apply paint and take it off again, quite brutally in a lot of cases, until I found a portion of that which would work or allow me to respond to it.” By applying and removing these attempts at self-portraiture, says George, something more interesting would eventually (hopefully) emerge. “I started by drawing my own reflection and doing it in quite a conventional representative way but it would never last.” Every morning George would go through the same routine but ultimately her self-portrait, such as it was, would give way to an expression of her aesthetic. Inevitably there would be the same palette of fleshy greys and pinks, the same brush work, the same layers of heavy white and washy colour. “In a way I was representing something more honest than say, a face that looks like mine. It became the paint that looks like I used it.”
George’s new exhibition (at Bus Projects until 18 July) is both about and a product of her studio routine. The title of the show - Face Vase and Rag Painting - references an optical illusion by early 20th century psychologist Edgar Rubin, dubbed Rubin’s Vase, in which the outline of a vase also depicts a face in profile. George says she regularly uses the image to teach her painting students about figure and ground, and also to demonstrate that it’s not just what you paint but how you frame it. For the exhibition at Bus though, George is more interested in the interplay between positive and negative space as it expands beyond the composition of a painting and into the realm of everyday life.
The exhibition centres on an oil painting – one of the results of George’s process of self-portraiture – which is presented alongside fragments and paraphernalia (both real and remembered, physical and psychological) from her little studio. The painting is on a tatty piece of un-stretched canvas that has been strapped with velcro to a black metal support, a bit like a full-sized mirror swinging in a stand. Pinned to the wall behind it, just out of view, is painting of a gilded picture frame rendered in fast, fat brush strokes. Up on an adjacent windowsill is another, much smaller painting held in place by black ceramic supports. While on the floor a jumble of spent painting rags have been swept up against one wall. As George explains, the ‘self-portrait’ was made in a specific physical space, surrounded by other objects and activities, and as part of an often mundane daily routine of doing art. George has attempted to bundle up all this ‘negative space’ - all the glitches and accidents, all the stuff that exists just off-screen, off-canvas, on the periphery - and bring it with her from Perth.
Although George uses words like routine, regimen and schedule to describe her recent approach to painting, it isn’t nearly as intentional or disciplined as that sounds. Instead it’s more like administration, that interminable humdrum of repetitive tasks and background chores which all work entails, including and even especially a work of art. “I’m really interested in art being this pursuit that’s so Sisyphean. It’s kind of pointless but it totally isn’t. It feeds my brain.”
>> Maura Edmond
>> 7 July 2015