Anwen Keeling’s alluring paintings tempt us into voyeurism only to leave us void of any truth. Befallen with shadow and light, Keeling captures characters suspended in moments of fictional narratives, seducing us like stills from a film noir. As we look upon private interiors, we are then privy to intimate moments of introspection and solitude; moments of contemplation and of deep quiet, hinting at what may have come before, or what looms in their aftermath.
Born in 1976, Keeling has had an impressive formal art education, gaining Tertiary qualifications both in Australia and overseas. Her success also extends internationally, with exhibitions in Spain, Japan and England. Demonstrating a style that is incredibly true to life, Keeling forces a double-take. Is it a photograph, or is it painting? A question that is only answered upon close inspection, and most importantly, suggestive of an artistic skill that in a digital age, is few and far between.
Keeling is now represented by Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney and continues to host sell-out shows. We recently caught up with the Sydney born artist to talk nudity, craftsmanship and the benefits of trusting friends.
First of all, how would you describe your work to a stranger?
A stranger…I guess I would talk about my paintings looking like film stills…a Hitchcock film-still, or some sort of cinematic still, like a section or page from a story…The atmospheric use of light and shadow is a defining element in my work. I think it creates a sense of mystery where questions linger. The women in my paintings are lost in some deep world and snippets of information lead into a narrative that only the viewer can unravel….
Do you conjure up fictional characters or do you paint from people you know?
Yeah, I actually use all of my friends. The moments are fictional, but there is always a certain level of truth in them.
And your friends are all comfortable posing nude?
Yeah, some of them are getting married and their husbands aren’t so comfortable with that these days. But yeah, they’re all friends that model for me. I guess that helps because there’s a level of intimacy, and they’re relaxed. The poses are very natural; I suppose there’s a level of comfort that comes from being around people you know.
As I was looking at your works I noticed that although the figures are 95% of the time nude, you’ve managed to capture nudity without being pornographic. Do you think that comes from being a female artist painting women?
I definitely think that a woman’s appreciation of the female form differs significantly from the male gaze. There is a sense of voyeurism in my works, and even a fragility to the subjects; afterall, the viewer is looking in on a very private moment. I guess there isn’t a hugely strong sexual tone, it’s more of an observation of form and bodies and light. The figures I paint are beautiful, but yes, the female gaze and the male gaze are very different.
So, would you say your primary concern is rendering an entire composition in terms of light and shade?
Definitely; it becomes about the form in space, noticing how skin reflects light…I think bodies are beautiful, and I believe that as a woman, I relate to the female figure easier. I guess people talk about how they project themselves in their painting, so I see a slight vulnerability in some of the figures, but a strength as well. Particularly the isolated figures. It’s really about looking at a person absorbed in their thoughts, in their own world.
Yeah, I noticed with a couple of your works with male figures, the female projects a greater sense of vulnerability than if she was alone…
Yeah, I guess after looking at alot of films, and the dynamics of tension and space you may achieve with two figures, I started experimenting with the drama you can project with both a male and female figure in the composition. I like to think that the women in my paintings are subjects, rather than objects. Although beautiful, and often sensual, they always have a sense of self; often it is the viewer intruding in on their space and in their territory, rather than the subject positioned only for the viewer’s gaze.
Which human emotion do you find the most fascinating?
I like melancholy without despair, hope without expectation…
Something I came across when I was researching your work was that you don’t like to be referred to as a photo-realist painter…
The true definition of Photo Realism is that you can literally hardly tell a painting from a photograph. When you actually look at my paintings in the flesh, you’ll notice that there’s quite a lot of texture and visible brush strokes. I never deny that it’s a painting, I never deny the brushwork. The photograph, is however, integral to my working process. I work from photographs that I stage myself. As some works may take months to complete, the camera is a necessary tool to document details of light, reflections and tone. For me, the painting process is all about mixing colors, and achieving the colors that are true to life, mimicking light and using the glazes to get that effect.
In this digital age, do you think that painting as a medium has to constantly reinvent itself to keep up?
Yeah, but at the same time I think there’s certainly been a swing back to the appreciation of work that takes time, and craft, and skill. There was a time when the word craft was a dirty word in the art world, but I definitely think that there is a resurgence and definite interest in a work that has been beautifully rendered and crafted. I mean, we live in such an age where everyone wants immediate results, an immediate buzz. I think people are really fascinated by work that may take a month to do.
I noticed you’ve had an incredibly impressive art education, even gaining a University Medal. You studied in Spain as well?
Yeah, I did a Masters in Barcelona.
How did that time abroad affect your art-making?
It was fantastic. It was a very conceptual and challenging course. They considered me the old-fashioned, antipodean painter. Alot of the artists worked in the genres of performance and installation, and I think there were only a few of us who were actually painters, and my style of figurative painting was seen as completely passe…
Which country, do you feel, has had the most positive response to your work?
I think the work in England went down really well. I would love to one day, show in America. I’ve recently spent four months going around the world, and just looking at the galleries over there, it’s just so exciting, I mean in Australia, we have a very small market.
I wanted to ask you also about how you’ve said that you’re heavily influenced by Caravaggio…
I love Caravaggio, his manipulation of light and composition, but I really love looking at most of the Renaissance painters, particularly the mannerist and high Renaissance period. Recently as well, I traveled up the coast of Maine to a place called Monhegan Island, which used to be an artist colony in the 1940s and 50s, and that’s where Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyatt used to paint. That was really inspiring, in fact I think my next series will be less ‘finished’ landscapes based on my travels…
What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I think, in terms of my art career, I guess it’s to have a plan, to know where you want to go, and to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. Most importantly, to work out where you fit in.
Could you imagine being anything other than an artist?
Well, I have a horse, I spend alot of time with my horse, so I guess something to do with horses. But i could never be in an office, I’m way too badly behaved to be in an office.
You also lecture at the College of Fine Arts right?
Yeah, I actually teach life drawing, and some online classes…
What would you like people to take away from your art?
A sense of quietness and stillness from our otherwise hectic existence…
And finally, how would you like to be remembered?
I guess as a great painter. And someone who made work that was honest. You have to be honest with yourself, first and foremost.
BY BIANCA GEORGIOU
All Images Provided by Anwen Keeling