David Egan | Actually Energy Help Light at Gertrude Contemporary

David Egan,  Painting Playing Cards (Owen Jones for De La Rue, c.1850) , 2015 Courtesy the artist Photograph: Christo Crocker

David Egan, Painting Playing Cards (Owen Jones for De La Rue, c.1850), 2015
Courtesy the artist
Photograph: Christo Crocker

Even if you’re not inclined to gardening you’re probably familiar with Morning Glory, a robust vine with masses of soft flowers that unfurl for a few hours every morning. In Australia it's an invasive species because of the speed with which it can obliterate the scenery, quickly smothering buildings, trees and entire landscapes with a thick blanket of purple-blue blooms. The vine is currently claiming a good portion of David Egan's back fence and threatening to take over the rest of his garden. In a new exhibition of his paintings, titled Actually Energy Help Light (on at Gertrude until March 14), this most successful and ubiquitous of weeds provides Egan with fodder for a series of material and conceptual offshoots.

Morning Glory is a very noxious weed in Australia, a rapidly growing vine that smothers other plants. But it's also quite pretty and much admired in some parts of the word (I've also heard of it being used as a psychedelic narcotic in others). What was your interest in making a pigment from Morning Glory?

I think you can only get high off the seeds from the white flowering variety, but I don't know much about it. That painting was made by picking Blue Morning Glory flowers and rubbing them directly onto unprimed canvas. This is part of ongoing project that involves crudely exactly colour from plant materials. It's a process that considers the physicality of colour production, nature-culture relationships, and alternative systems for inhabiting and measuring time. One aspect of the gesture I'm particularly interested in is the illustrated time it takes for each colour on the canvas to change and eventually fade. 
This is particularly pronounced in the Glory flowers, which only reveal themselves fully for a few hours each morning. Even after being picked, the flowers remain in full bloom during the early part of the day and then close their petals in the evening. The rate of decomposition (and decolorisation) is much faster for flowers that get picked and left on the table (or that die naturally on the plant) to that of flowers that have been aggregated into a canvas. The plant becoming 'paint' then is a kind of process of preservation, though certainly not with any ambition for permanency. It's a way for me to think about the kind of temporal structures that paintings can set up and inhabit.
I only came across Morning Glory specifically because it is creeping over my back fence and threatening to suffocate my olive and lime trees. It grows like a sprawling blanket over neighbouring plants, carpeting their access to sunlight. I'm interested in this kind of movement that extends a body laterally by patterning.
David Egan,  Trellis , 2015 Courtesy the artist Photograph: Christo Crocker

David Egan, Trellis, 2015
Courtesy the artist
Photograph: Christo Crocker

Trellis (2015) features the interior foyer of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum painted from your floral pigment. Can you help me understand the connection between Morning Glory and this famous art museum? 

The view of the Rijks foyer described in the painting is from one of the main entry points to the museum. It's a scene that lays out an excess of choices for the visitor in terms of movement and direction. There are multiple stairways leading up or down and directly to specific levels of the building, as well as ramps up to mezzanines and doors to ground floor galleries on all sides. You are also surrounded by windows several stories high, though they are heavily tinted and present no views out or let any light in. The entire ceiling is a skylight with a suspended lattice structure that exaggerates the intimidating gridded quality of the whole space. The last time I visited the Rijks was not long after the major renovations and reopening, and because of the popularity you had little sense of any individuality as a visitor. Human movement through the building was necessarily collective. As a cumulative body, the museum crowd swarms and smothers hanging paintings, obliterating any decent viewpoints of them with its mass. Describing the architecture of the museum as a trellis that comes into being through a transfer of the twining Glory plant is an articulation of this.

You mention using the Morning Glory vine to think about 'the physicality of colour production' and also 'lateral patterning'. Is that also why you're interested in the stylised floral designs of Owen Jones, the 19th century architect, designer and author of The Grammar of Ornament? Were there any theories or patterns of Jones' in particular that appealed?

My main reason for citing Owen Jones has to do with a small printing firm that he worked for around 1850 called De La Rue. De La Rue is an English print company credited for founding the visual conventions of the modern European playing card in the early 19th Century and today they are the world’s largest manufacturer of bank notes and passports. De La Rue playing cards are notable for their lavishly colourful and ornamental back face designs that are products of a pre-Arts & Crafts movement. The commissioning of Jones to apply these kinds of arabesque and floral patterns to their cards was a strategy to address a social epidemic of card cheating, made possible because up until this point playing card backs held either blank or very simple geometric designs that could be easily marked by the hand. The density of Jones’ patterned floral designs prevented any cheat marks showing up.
These kinds of laterally repeating floral designs (to the best of my knowledge) were introduced to Europe by the import of chintz fabrics from India. When Indian chintzes were first presented to a British market they became so popular that they were soon banned to safeguard a local textiles industry who were unable to produce fabrics detailed or vibrant enough to compete with the chintzes. This law was in effect for around 15 years until the French and English were able to reproduce the Indian patterns convincingly at home thanks to an industrial revolution. It is soon after chintz is accepted again and re-embraced as something quintessentially English, that the (actually) Indian pattern is put to use by De La Rue as a social band-aid for European greed in the form of card cheating in gambling.
I’m interested in how these patterns, when applied to a playing card or subsequently, when reconstructed as a painting, becomes an impenetrable image. It obscures its cultural origins by displacement, obscures the surface on which is is applied by layering, and most importantly in the case of the playing card, obscures the opposite side of the surface, on which is inscribed the object’s value. Jones’ sophisticated designs - the articulations of his global ‘grammar of ornament’ are of course very alluring and pleasing to look at. The pictures are very good at their job: to distract from everything around them without revealing anything.

David Egan, Actually Energy Help Light (install), 2015
Courtesy the artist
Photograph: Christo Crocker

In Trellis (2015) you use plant matter as pigment but in Asparation Frieze (2015) you've used it as type of brush, specifically you've used broccolini to paint a green frieze around the main gallery space at Gertrude. The frieze is at about the same height as you would typically find wainscoting or a picture rail, where you could imagine a crafty DIY home decorator might have stamped a trail of ivy. Can you tell me a bit more about this work and your decision to use broccolini, a fairly Frankenstein vegetable that was only invented in the 1990s. I can't help but think of Jones' argument about the need to abstract nature to make good design and that 'the more closely nature is copied, the farther we are removed from producing a work of art.'

Asparation Frieze is made using broccolini like a brush to smear acrylic paint along the walls, but because of how energetically its applied and how flimsy the vegetable is, parts of the plant and its pigments also transfer into the painting. These bits of plant change in tone greatly throughout the show and eventually disappear. The use of broccolini or 'asparation' as it was originally marketed (an aspiring young protege of broccoli and asparagus) takes a cue from a longstanding rumour about the Australian painter Tony Clark originally using broccoli as a paint brush to render bush in his Myriorama series.
By wrapping the gallery and slipping in and out behind the other paintings in the room, the long form of the frieze exists exclusively in a periphery. As with the bilateral object, the playing card, a stretched canvas, which can’t be fully viewed from a fixed point but requires some agency and movement on the part of the beholder: the card must be flipped to find its face value, likewise the frieze cannot be taken in wholly without the viewer circling the room.

Finally, where are your interests taking you at the moment?

I think that the next work I’m making will be more about storytelling than materials and images. I've been writing a lot and am going up to Darwin next week to shoot some video.

>> Maura Edmond
>> 18 February 2015

David Egan
Actually Energy Help Light

30 January - 14 March, 2015
Gertrude Contemporary
200 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Tues - Fri 11am - 5.30pm
Sat 11am - 4.30pm