Despite her use of arbitrary color to create the ethereal women that seem to float from the canvas, Abbey McCulloch’s portraits articulately render the very real complexities of human emotion. The Australian Gold Coast–based artist seeks out the critical moments in life—those that seem to make us less perfect in the eyes of society, but also those that make us more “us.” Sometimes opaquely pigmented, sometimes translucently washy, McCulloch’s layering of paint is akin to the build-up of emotions within ourselves. The artist creates works that are refreshingly female, relieving the women in her paintings from social comparisons to allow for a more introspective form of identity. Through her portraiture, McCulloch explores the process of self-acceptance and provides a space in which to reflect on the inherent beauty in honesty and flaws.
WHITEWALL: Could you describe your creative process? What is the inspiration behind your paintings?
ABBEY MCCULLOCH: I often have a general idea of how I want a body of work to make me feel before I start out, and I tend to produce works in groups or multiples. I usually start drawing on paper as the basis for paintings, although the final image is sometimes very different; paint tends to want to go its own way. As much as I like to think I have control over a work from beginning to end, I really do enter a space that requires so much solitude and disconnect, it’s almost like a trance. It’s hard to define the strange sort of zoned-out focus that my painting process can require.
My main source of inspiration would be the women around me and the relationship that I have with my own sense of being female today. I think we all struggle with what we are supposed to do with ourselves sometimes—we have come so far and yet it is far from straightforward. I guess the issue of accepting ourselves inspires me more than anything, and I’m just trying to explore what I’m experiencing in relation to that through my image making.
WW: Seeing as your work deals exclusively with the female form, what do you think your work contributes to the representation of women in contemporary art?
AM: The female image has historically taken up a large amount of our cultural landscape; however, the concerns surrounding actually being female, from a female perspective, have only been explored in art relatively recently. We have a long way to go to make up for lost time, and I think it will be a while before the balance is addressed and gender-based concerns become general concerns. Womanhood offers such a complex and often overlooked set of experiences that I don’t think I will even scratch the surface of in my lifetime. I feel like it’s important to keep doing what I am doing even though my inner critic says it’s all been done. I wouldn’t be painting images of women if I thought there wasn’t still something to communicate. I paint what I want to see and feel; my work makes the women around me make sense.
WW: You describe some of your painting subjects as a generalized female form or an “everywoman.” Could you explain what this means? Is most of your work based on self-portraiture or other female subjects?
AM: I set out originally to deliberately avoid any likeness to anyone in my work. During art school, there was such a lack of encouragement for painting and drawing, and I think that made me want to strip the content of anything too personal. I constructed women that were like caricatures, and the less authentic they were, the better. Things started to change, though, when the actress Toni Collette asked to sit for a portrait in 2007. It was my first attempt at likeness and the painting was selected as a finalist in the Archibald portrait prize, which is quite a big cultural event here in Australia. From that point on, I became interested in using friends as reference material, and the prospect of giving my images a pulse of sorts became more appealing. I have recently been using my own image as well, and I think that the work is now free to use whatever or whomever it needs. Sometimes I want the work to really connect and other times it’s necessary to make an image that could not appear more detached.
WW: Do you find that your approach to a painting is different when it’s a self-portrait versus a portrait of someone else?
AM: The process of making a self-portrait is such an odd one, especially if you are really self-conscious, which I am. Working through that felt like an important step, as I would get overcome with embarrassment even when it was just myself and the camera. I felt just so aware and so flawed and I had to get past that. Once I had taken the photos and started painting, I completely disconnected, which surprised me. It was like I was looking at someone else, and in that sense the process allowed me to control so much more. Even though I learned to disconnect, I think it is difficult to avoid some sense of autobiography, which is why I am interested in bouncing around and using others. Painting other people is like casting for a role—if I don’t look or feel right for it, then I try and find someone who is. In some cases it’s a hybrid thing where it’s a bit of both. If I really want an image that disconnects, I make someone up.
WW: How has your work evolved in the past few years? Do you find yourself addressing different emotions or themes in your work?
AM: Up until a few years ago I think I spent a great deal of energy on whether or not I was going to have children. I probably focused on it longer than I should have, but it was a subject that I wanted to give good consideration to. There were so many factors to consider, and at the same time I was interested in watching others weighing it up. I think that we all naturally compare ourselves to others, and as I get older I can feel that happening less and less. As an artist, the prospect of being less self-conscious is an exciting one. I’m less worried now about what society tells me I should be doing and I’m more concerned with what I want to do. I wish I had discovered this earlier, and I think that my new work reflects elements of this newfound defiance.