Last November, Tasmanian visual artist Amber Koroluk-Stephenson packed up her paints and brushes and went to Paris.
For two months in the middle of a long, chilly Parisian winter, Koroluk-Stephenson was a resident at the Rosamond McCulloch Studio, a renovated 18th townhouse in the world-renowned Cité Internationale des Arts complex.
The complex extends across two sites in the Marais district of Paris. Close to the River Seine, the Marais has a thriving arts scene, with many museums and art galleries dotted along the historic district’s cobblestone lanes.
Every year the complex accommodates more than 1000 artists, musicians, performers and writers from all over the world. Owned by the Tasmanian College of the Arts, the Rosamond McCulloch Studio has been a temporary home to Tasmanian visual arts graduates since 1992.
Since returning to Hobart in January, Amber has been busy. She’s been preparing for two solo shows. She’s also been included in four group exhibitions, and she has two public art commissions on the go.
Her upcoming Devonport Regional Gallery solo show Homeland is a subversive take on traditional depictions of Australian landscape and identity.
These are regular motifs for Amber, whose practice also encompasses notions of paradise, the suburban facade and the relationships between natural and man-made environments.
Undertow: Tell us about your residency.
AK-S: My application was based on searching for the exotic in Paris, which I guess is a bit of an oxymoron. Yes, it’s a very romantic city, but it’s not traditionally very exotic. I wasn’t sure when I’d be doing my residency. It turned out I went in winter, so any chance of experiencing something that might be slightly more exotic seemed harder to discover.
I wanted to look at motifs from primitivism and Orientalism through the likes of Rousseau, Gauguin, Delacroix and Ingres. I’ve especially loved Rousseau’s work since I discovered him in high school. He painted dark, imaginary jungle scenes without ever having been to the jungle, which I find very intriguing. I was really interested in the idea of the city dweller imagining different realities of the exotic from a very unexotic place.
While I was in Paris, I was also really drawn towards surrealism — there was a fantastic Magritte exhibition at the Pompidou at the time — and symbolist painters, as well as depictions of nature and wilderness in the National Museum of Natural History. This got me thinking about parallels between natural and artificial landscapes, the wild and the tame, the familiar and the unknown, and the ironies of reanimating dead animals into ‘lifelike’ poses.
It also made me think about how I defined or understood the exotic, and how foreign or unfamiliar things relate to the term — especially when considering the Australian landscape from a European perspective. I did these enactments in my studio in response to my search for the domesticated exotic of sorts.
Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Soft Savage 2016, oil on linen, 40x50cm. Courtesy the artist
My work turned out to be more thematic and a bit more surreal. Some of the works I saw over there, such as the surrealist photos at the Paris Photo fair, informed me in different ways that I wasn’t expecting.
Did you get the travel bug after going away?
I hadn’t been to Europe for ten years, not since before I started art school. I was itching to go there because it’s obviously so culturally rich in terms of the art that’s accessible in the big cities.
It was incredibly exciting being exposed to so many wonderful and varied museums and galleries, but it was also really exhausting because I felt this need to see absolutely everything. But once I was there, I got really homesick. Also, my work is very labour-intensive. So I found it challenging to find the right balance between seeing everything and making at the same time.
I think if my work process was more immediate, maybe I could have found a happier medium between making and seeing things to the extent that I would have liked. But that said, I love the process of painting. So for me, it’s the ultimate state of indulgence.
Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Chasing Temptation 2016, oil on linen, 40x50cm. Courtesy the artist.
What’s your work process like?
Some people work very intuitively. But my stuff is really planned and meticulous. I tend to make my images using found and captured imagery and composing them on Photoshop. The construction process often takes as long as the painting time. Before I even put the brush on the canvas, I usually have a relatively clear idea of how the painting will end up looking.
I really admire people who are able to successfully work intuitively. I’ve been working in a very planned manner since I was at art school, and I just haven’t managed to break out of that structure.
Wow. You must have a pretty intense work pattern.
When I’m in project land, I like to be 100 per cent in it — physically and emotionally.
When I’m working towards a big show, I have periods that are completely manic, just focused on the task at hand. I’m not fantastic at multi-tasking.
When I’m not doing a big project, I get agitated because I’m not working on something. It’s all or nothing for me.
Some people are good at having a balanced lifestyle. I would love to. But I just haven’t found the right balance yet. When I’m not painting, I start to twitch.
Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Rise and Fall 2016, oil on linen, 40 x 50cm. Courtesy the artist.
Do you enjoy manic alone-time?
I love it. Deep down, I’ve always been a bit of a lone soldier. I enjoy the solitude of working on my own thing in my own space and time.
Although I dedicate most of my time to producing art, or undertaking art-related admin such as writing grant applications, it certainly doesn’t put all the bread on the table. I have multiple sources of income. I’m a shop assistant at Artery, a gallery attendant at MONA and I also do cleaning jobs.
While I’m in my zone, I’m putting myself completely into something that brings me immense pleasure and joy. I’m quite aware that what I’m doing is a very self-interested pursuit, and that I’m not doing it to please anyone else. I guess it’s very indulgent to be able to do what you love. Not many people get to do that.
Homeland runs from July 15 — August 27 in the Little Gallery Project Space at Devonport Regional Gallery.