Q & A
Q. Where did the idea for Ambush Exhibiting come from?
A. I had been to a show at the NGV Australia, a retrospective of Australian Artist John Davis, it was such a great show, the best I've ever seen I think. John Davis was a sculpture and installation artist. As part of his practice he used to drive into the bush in his comby van with his kids, they'd go and collect sticks and bits of wood and he'd make a scultpure out of it. At the end of the day they'd drive off and leave the sculpture there. That really struck a cord with me you know? I thought 'maybe you don't need a gallery to make art'.
Q. Art could be ephemeral.
A. Yeah. That was in 2010. Later I came across the work of American artist Shannon Ebner. She would make text based works on pieces of furniture, take them into different landscapes and then make these beautiful black and white photographs. I liked the confusion and many questions her work presents. I mean what's the artwork? The statements she renders on the objects, the objects with the words on them, the activity of installing the objects in the landscape, the photograph or all of the above? Which, if any of these is more valuable than the other?
Q. Do you remember the first time you did an Ambush Exhibit?
A. There's a bunch of commercial galleries near my studio in Collingwood, a suburb in Melbourne Australia. Every year they'd put on the Collingwood Arts Precinct Open Night and a bunch of people would come down and check out all the galleries. I wasn't with any of these galleries and so I thought if I put a bunch of my works out on the street it would be a good way for these people to discover my work. I called it Finders Keepers - a show without a gallery. The idea being that as people wandered between the galleries they'd also be walking through my show. That was the first time I used the term Ambush Exhibiting.
Q. When was this?
Q. Did anyone discover your work that first time?
A. Well yes but it didn't play out the way I thought it would. I hadn't done it before but these ideas had been spinning in my head for a while. I decided on a whim to do it because the open night was on. My wife came along to help out and as I piled the paintings into the car one of the photographers at the studio space I share said he'd come too and take some shots. It felt all very covert. Kinda sneaking about and putting the paintings around, which is odd because I was putting them in public places but I didn't want anyone to see me putting them out, I wanted them to be discovered. I didn't put any note next to them then like I do now. I wasn't as overt. I just signed them and put a post on facebook saying come and get them thinking that if anyone was interested enough to take a work then they would be intrigued and do a search for my name on the net. That didn't happen though. We did a drive-by to check on some of the works and not one had been taken. I was checking my phone like an idiot every five minutes to see if anyone had got in touch but they didn't. Much later that night I was out drinking at a local cafe and telling people about this show I was having without a gallery. This guy who was sitting at our table (who later it turns out was a collector) wanted to see some of the pictures, he looked at one of them and said 'that's fucking brilliant I'd love that in my house' so I said 'well you can have it, it's sitting down the street'. By this stage it was about 2am and we'd givin it a good crack so we went down the street and I showed him where it was. He was perplexed that I was giving it away. The painting was about 2 metres tall so I helped him carry it home to his warehouse nearby. He chose the best one. I really liked that painting, still do.
Q. What did you think would happen?
A. Well I probably thought that some big-time collector would stumble out of one of the commercial galleries, see my work, recognise it's obvious brilliance and tell all their influentual rich friends and I'd blow up massive in the art world.
Q. Do you normally hear from the people who find your work?
A. No, not always. Sometimes I do. others I have no idea what's happened to them. They could have been collected by the council and thrown in the rubbish.
Q. To resurface many years later when you're famous?
A. Ha! yeah right, maybe. It's all part of it though. Learning to let go. Some people think I only put my shit paintings out because many can't tell the difference anyway, but usually it's the opposite.
Q. It will be interesting to see if any of them do turn up later on.
A. Yeah. it will. I do hear from some people though. Instagram's been great for that. Unlike that first time, I leave a note with the paintings now that has all my contact details on it and asks people to get in touch. I had someone put a work out for me in New Zealand recently and an italian couple got in touch on instagram, they'd found the work while over there on their honeymoon and were taking it home with them back to Italy.
Q. Why do you give your work away?
A. At first it was a way to have a show without having to submit a proposal or pay for a gallery space. I could just make the work and put it out there. My studio is small but I like to make work and like most artists who are prolific I have a storage problem.
Q. And you like to show your work.
A. I really do. I like to show my work, I like people to see my work. I love having an audience. I'm still that little kid who gets a kick out of their work being put up on a wall or on the fridge for everyone to see and enjoy. All artists are the same aren't they? They're bullshitting if they tell you otherwise. You make the work, you want people to see it.
Q. So you're anti commercial.
A. Fuck the gallery system! I'm going to do it on my own... Nah I'm only kidding. I'm not, not really. I'd be absolutely rapted to sign with a commercial gallery. Ambush Exhibiting is really just a way for me to have an ongoing practice. I'm impatient and it's too slow to do it any other way. You've got to go through the gate keepers. Write proposals / read rejections. I just want to make work and Ambush Exhibiting is a way for me to get that work out there. Some people do think that I'm anti commercial, but I'm not... I think it's awesome if anyone can make a living from their art.
Q. How do people react to you giving your work away.
A. It's been interesting. Many can't grasp the idea that I'm giving it away for free. Nudda, Zilch. Some get quite angry about it actually. No-one's forcing me to do this. It's my own choice to give my paintings away right? But many try and convince me that I shouldn't be doing it. It's like I've offended the natural order of things or something. I don't know. Others are just perplexed, my family included.
Q. Do you think you'll keep doing Ambush Exhibiting forever.
A. I do yeah. Why not? That's the plan.
Q. Well for one it doesn't pay the bills?
A. [Laughs] no it certainly doesn't. But in a way it just makes it about the art. I put a painting out in Abbotsford once and there was a cafe down the road that I could sit at and watch to see if anyone took it. About 10 minutes later I saw this lady walking along with her friend and they stopped to look at the painting and then one of them picked it up. They started walking towards the cafe and as she walked past I debated whether I should say something or not and I just said 'nice painting'. She wanted to know if it was mine and when I said that it was she gave me a hug. She was quite emotional and said that was her first piece of original art. She was going home to put it on her wall and I imagine is going to love that painting. Someone likes a painting so much they pick it up and take it home, not because it's in an expensive gallery, not because they read the they should like the work but because they've responded to it. Don't you think that's a nicer way to be?
Q. Is it fun when you see someone taking one of your paintings?
A. Oh yeah for sure. I find that really satisfying. That same day a guy who follows me on facebook saw that I had put the work out and drove down to get it but it was already gone. So even though I'm giving them away for free they're still not accessible to everyone. If I have a vantage point I like to sit and watch for a little while, see if anyone takes it. Other times I place the painting, put the note up, take a photo, walk away and that's the last I every hear about it.
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