Remote studio dates is a series of conversations with artists, curators and researchers to document and explore coping mechanisms for isolation in the current health crisis. Each date focuses on one work, project, concept or dream, with digressions and slippages, without the need of ending somewhere but with the desire of opening something up.
Yonel and I never met. I saw one of his works, housewarming party (2019), in a group show at Te Tuhi in Auckland, in December 2019, and we later connected through social media. Friday 3 April, a few weeks into lockdown, was the first time we spoke specifically about his practice, although we had been talking about art ever since our first chat. So turning the camera on was almost like meeting a friend but for the first time.
The Q&A below is the result of an email exchange that followed our live conversation. We skated a long way through different works, memories and thoughts.
M: How did isolation impact your art practice and the way you think about art?
Y: Aotearoa New Zealand went into a nationwide lockdown on the 26th of March. We were at Level 4 for a little under 5 weeks, up until this Tuesday the 28th of April. During that time we had to isolate in our homes, but we could go for walks around our block. Going into isolation my main priority was to figure out how I could keep on doing what I wanted to do. I was speaking to a friend about it today and I referred to this as ‘strengthening the pillars to our lives’. For me my pillars are whānau (family), friends, mahi (work, or in my case study), and art, and I wanted all of these things to have a strong presence in my life during isolation. Basically the day before lockdown I packed my car with half my studio – oil paint, brushes, large canvases, tools – and set up shop at home. For the first couple of weeks I was working like a madman, painting, skating, studying and doing whatever else to make it seem like I was living a meaningful and productive life in lockdown. I haven’t skated this much since I lived in Sydney in 2013! I was super happy and optimistic about the world. By the second week I was totally shattered – productive, but shattered and unhappy with life in isolation. I think I realised that I don’t like to live detached from the world. I need the world and its people and that energy in my life. For me art is a commentary on how I feel about the world, and I started to question what I was trying to say in my art.
M: Yes, I experienced similar feelings. I was extremely energetic at the beginning of the lockdown, trying to stay in touch with everyone and engage in all possible side projects to keep myself occupied. Then, I progressively became more quiet, feeling spent and tired, sad even. I suppose my body and mind were reacting to this fast-changing reality and warning me I had to slow down. Today I am still very busy but less preoccupied with the idea of making isolation “productive”. What are you working on at the moment?
Y: I’m currently painting a scene with a wizard doctor and a wizard patient. It is an interior scene, and originally the walls were a rich, highly saturated yellow – mainly cadmium yellow deep and light, and titanium white. It was so poppy and happy and that grossed me out, it was not an accurate contemporary scene, so I’ve painted it a dull, dead kind of yellow. Thinking about how colour links to emotion is a massive step for me, because I usually only focus on form. I never really cared about colour. I use colour, but I always thought of a painting as if it was black and white, or a drawing. Now I think that colour is very important, because if my image represents a fake vision or story, and it is not sincere, I would just hate that. Especially right now. Isolation has made me realise that it is important to tell real stories, and that I don’t need to act like I’m on top of everything. Now isn’t the time for happy art – at least not from me.
M: OK, let’s take a step back. Tell me more about your practice and process.
Y: My practice is divided into 4 areas: oil painting, abstract painting, sculpture, video and photography. And I go about each area or discipline, whatever you want to call it, with a different type of energy and intent, but everything is related. My abstract paintings wouldn’t exist without my oil paintings, and my photographs wouldn’t exist without my paintings and sculpture. I guess my practice has turned out this way because I have a massive appetite for making art, but I’m not very pushy when I get worn out – if I’ve had enough, I just stop working on a project.
Most of my energy is put into my oil paintings. It can be a very time consuming process. Some paintings take up to 2 years to complete. I’m constantly painting, working on up to 10 paintings at a time, and that is exhausting. If I feel like I’m not getting anywhere, or I’m just over it, I drop that series for a while. I just store the art and forget about it. It took awhile to build up the courage to be able to do that. Now I know that time doesn’t hurt the art. I used to attack painting with a do-or-die urgency, and that really hurt my art. If I wait to develop knowledge or understanding around oil painting and oil paint, it makes the art better every single time. When I get totally worn out by oil painting, I work on my abstract paintings on denim. I only paint on denim, but my abstract paintings are more immediate and physical. I throw bleach on the denim on my lawn and soak them with a hose. It is like a subtractive process, where the bleach subtracts the dye from the denim. I then hang them out on my line to dry, and that might be all that I do for a few months. If I love it I leave it. If I hate it I’ll rework it with oil sticks, silkscreen prints, spray paint, stuff like that. The bleach stage is like a Pollock-process, and the second stage is like a drawing process (kind of like Joan Mitchell, or Cy Twombly), and when I oil paint I feel like da Vinci. Not as great as da Vinci, but like I’m painting a surface like him or any other oil painter in history, you know? And when I am totally over painting, which is about 1/4 of every year, I work on my sculptures outside. I love my time working outdoors – it can seem like a vacation from the studio. Also, I only take photos and videos when I travel overseas. Travelling is a strictly no painting time for me! The reality is everything takes a very long time to finish. I have photographic series from 4-5 years ago that haven’t been realised, abstract paintings that I haven’t finished, oil paintings in storage – it never ends, but I like the pace I go about with things. I don’t want to work within other peoples schedules.
I focus on one core series with each medium. My wizard painting series is my main focus for oil painting, and it is what I’m mostly working on at the moment. I started this series about 2 years ago. I caught up with my buddy Rhys Lee in Melbourne in 2018, and I mentioned to him that I loved his latest dog paintings. He said something about referencing a character from the New York subway graffiti scene (I can’t remember which one, or who did it). That totally blew my mind because it’s so uncool to reference graffiti in oil painting or contemporary art. There’s a real mistrust between the graffiti world and street art world – most graff’ writers think street artists are sell outs and fakes who don’t rack cans and commit crime, and street artists think graff’ writers are bogans and crackheads. Also, the art world is wary of both graffiti and street art, sometimes thinking they are one and the same – personally, I have zero time for street art. I was thinking about Rhys and the origins of graffiti and I realised that Philip Guston and the earliest graffiti writers would have looked at the same things – mainly cartoons, comics, stuff like Vaughn Bodē. Graffiti writers and Guston would have had a common, or at least a very similar source of inspiration, but Guston went one way and the graffiti writers went another. The main difference between the two parties is what they used to make their art – Guston used oil on canvas, and graffiti writers used spray paint on walls. Similar, but different. That realisation inspired me to relook at figuration in cartoons and graffiti, and take that into oil painting like Guston did, but from a contemporary stand point. And that is how I came to my wizard paintings.
Basically my wizards are like a wimpy version of Gandalf – super anxious and human – sad even. There’s a few more core series I do, like my wooden Hongi sculptures, my abstract denim paintings and my flower photographs. Sometimes one is more urgent than another, and sometimes everything works together, like in housewarming party. I won’t be painting wizards forever, either. We’ve spoken about my plan to do landscape paintings down the line. That idea is a little too undercooked to talk about right now.
M: When and how did you realise that you wanted to pursue art?
Y: In primary school I was always competing with my friends to see who was the top drawer in our classroom. We would draw cartoons from this hip-hop magazine called The Source, and the Flame Boy logo by World Industries, which was a very iconic skateboarding image. Drawing was one of things I was semi-decent at. As a teen I was into hip-hop, skating, I hung out with taggers. I wasn’t super ambitious. My older brother Justin was a pro-skateboarder and owned a clothing business called Traffick. He was a skater, photographer and designer, running a creative studio and warehouse. He’s my biggest inspiration in life and creativity, so I wanted to either work for him or be like him – maybe as a designer or a photographer. I used to work in his warehouse, counting stock and sending out orders. My life was going in that direction up until my mother bought me a Picasso book. I was familiar with the name, but I had never really seen any of his art. Cubism totally blew me away. I was about 16. I thought it was ridiculous and absolutely mad. I remember that moment very vividly. I was shook and so inspired. I think I was laughing about how ridiculous and stupid his images were. After that I made some paintings, and knew I had a deep passion for art, but I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist. My passion for art kept on bringing me back to it time and time again over my twenties, until I decided to take it seriously around 25 or 26. Everything goes back to that Picasso book, really. I still get that feeling when I see art today. It changed my life, and art continues to keep on doing that.
M: Many of the artists I have worked with so far, although moving across different practices and concerns, have run (or still run) their own project space. I suppose this is more than just a coincidence. I assume it is linked to the value they give to the idea of community, which also mirrors my own curatorial approach – I tend to develop long-term relationships with the artists and fellow curators and researchers I engage with. Can you tell me about your experience with SAVOIE de LACY? Why did you open it? What function did you have in the gallery and what was the role of community in this venture?
Y: I opened SAVOIE de LACY around 2016 in Ravensbourne, Dunedin in the South Island. Me and my now-wife had moved down there so she could complete her PhD. We were renting a house with an attached store front facing Ravensbourne Road, which leads to Port Chalmers. It was highly visible. I initially planned to use it as a studio space only, but I needed something more. Around that time I had decided that I wanted to be an artist, and I took that commitment very seriously. There was basically zero interest in my art, so I had to take things into my own hands and do it my own way. So I made a gallery. Savoie is French for Savoy, the middle name of late brother, Secombe Savoy Watene, and de Lacy is the surname of the former mayor of West Harbour, Thomas de Lacy, who gave Ravensbourne its name. I coined it as an alternative gallery, which I kind of hate now, but I wanted to differentiate it from artist-run-galleries and project spaces. I felt compelled to illustrate our differences because I was running shop off the grid. I had no funding or endorsements, no clients, no interest, and a very small community of artists. I was working outside the local artworld. The shop itself was derelict. It was ancient, over 100 years old. There was a plant growing through the wall in the kitchen, and the roof leaked. People used to come in and be like “I remember when this was a dairy 40 years ago”. It also used to be a butchery and a second-hand store. Basically it was a shithole, but it had so much history. It was divided into 3 areas: There was a large wall, facing the road through the storefront window; a smaller room to the right, next to the kitchen, which was basically a sink that didn’t work; a office type of area to the right, where I also hung my own work; and my studio was behind all of that. I showed some local artists like Scott Flanagan, Anet Nuetze, Craig Freeborn and Brendan Jon Philip. I also got some friends down from Auckland, too, like Sena Park, Kenneth Merrick, Paris Kirby, and Sam Angrignon. Peter Nicholls, one of our most renowned sculptors, lived around the corner. He used to drop in from time to time. I later found out that my best friend has two children with his granddaughter. Kim Pieters would show up on her bike every now and again, too.
Most of the shows were pretty out there. We did a summer show and an artist didn’t show up, so me and Kenneth painted a mural of Ralph Hotere – a famous Māori artist who was a longstanding community figure in West Harbour. He used to live in Port Chalmers. For the summer show I exhibited artwork in my garden and we had some live music. Kenneth did a beat boxing set with a MIDI player. Felix Harris, Jeffrey Harris’ son, did a rap set. And Brendan Jon Philip did an experimental guitar set. It was crazy. Everyone was sitting on the lawn under a gazebo, drinking and eating – it was raining. I sold a painting to the artist Anya Sinclair, who is married to the current Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins. That was a decent show, but other times only 4 or 5 people would show up to an opening. In winter it got down to 0 degrees celsius. It was such a beautiful place, right on the harbour side, but it was also so very old and cold, and we had no money, too. It seemed like no one did. But it fulfilled its purpose, and quite well now that I look back at it. Artists had a place to show their art at a place and time when opportunities were scarce. I had a place to make art. And I sold art – enough to get by, make art, and expand. Looking back, everything was about community: my community – my whānau and friends; the local community – the artists and residents of Ravensbourne and Dunedin; and my vision of what a gallery could look like.
I closed shop, I think, in 2017, but my vision continues to this day as SAVOY GERACOPOL. In short, it’s like a project or a structure that represents my curatorial projects. Since closing SAVOIE de LACY I have done a show in an Air BnB in Roma, Mexico City, and at The Lucy Foundation Charity HQ in Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca. I also installed a Wizard Staff sculpture in a park outside the National Library of Kosovo in Pristina. I’m going to do another show in a park in South Auckland later this year. This is all under SAVOY GERACOPOL. Working outdoors and in new spaces, on my own terms, is super important to my practice. It represents that part of me that wants to work outside traditional artworld structures, but not in a way that works against such structures. I am working outside them, but alongside them by adding to them. Really, I am just addicted to doing my own thing and I feel like a lot of my art is best shown in the place it most belongs, and that isn’t always a gallery. Sometimes it is. The most important thing for me is giving my art the best life, and the best platform for it to be what it needs to be.
M: You have told me that, alongside your art practice, you are currently studying to become a teacher. Why have you decided to embark on this journey? Do you see teaching and art making unfolding together?
Y: I have to work to pay the bills and keep things going – my practice, mainly. And lots of travel. I used to work in finance. I loved my team and my boss, but the work itself crushed my soul. Everything was about money. Everyone was so money obsessed. I just don’t care about money. I need it, but I don’t need that much, and I don’t want my life to revolve around it. I was about to turn 30 and I asked myself, what do I want to do for a job? What do I need from a job? After searching my feelings I realised that helping people makes me feel happy, and that I wanted to feel happy and proud about what I do. That narrowed it down to teaching, nursing or social work. I decided to become a teacher because the man I am today was shaped by society and the local education system.
Growing up I was really poor. My dad was a criminal and a drug addict. My mother is a drug addict and alcoholic. I grew up around a lot of nasty things. I obviously didn’t have the greatest or most equitable access to education. It was a real battle for me and my siblings. Not only did we have to worry about passing school, we had to worry about a lot of other things also: whether there would be any food to eat; how we would pay to go to school camp, or even buy school uniform; whether or not my dad was dead or in jail. Our house was a hub for drugs, drinking, low-lifes and crooks. It was a really horrible environment to grow up in, especially during my teens. That said, I come from a family of high achievers who were able to overcome our inherent adversities. Despite whatever my parents were getting up to, they had high expectations of me and siblings. Educational success wasn’t an impossible goal, it was just inherently hard for obvious reasons. For a lot of people like myself, who are regarded as priority students (students most at risk of under-achieving), educational success doesn’t seem very attainable. Especially if your whānau or community has a historical track record of failing. Aotearoa New Zealand has the largest gap between low- and high-achieving students in the OECD, and the lowest-achievers are people like me. That really bugs me. I decided to become a primary teacher to help provide our most at risk students with equitable, high quality education. I want to serve my community. My art isn’t about being Māori. It is about art because I am interested in art. But my life is about being Māori and serving Māori. I’m not becoming a teacher for the money. Teaching is the worst way to get a paycheck, if that is what you want. It is hard. Tiring. It will consume me for the rest of my life, but if I can look back in 20-30 years and say that I’ve helped some people in need – helped people get ahead in life, I’ll be happy with that. Even if my art does become very very consuming, I will still teach even if I don’t need the money. Playing a positive role in a child’s life is worth the time.
M: What are the artists, thinkers, movements, references from popular culture that have had an influence on your art practice and for what reason? No need to go crazy with a list but I am curious about relevant sources of inspiration and stimulus.
Y: Picasso! Even though I have grown to resent the Modernist form over the years, it’s still the benchmark for me. His grotesque cubist figures, especially from his later work, that’s what I thought painting was growing up. I am more familiar with that image then, say, the Impressionist image, or anything that predates that. However, I think that that type of form is the worst thing to touch in this day and age. To me Modernism died when AbEx came about. And it’s very European. I have only been to Europe once. It’s such a foreign place to me, and so very different to the Pacfic, but we still can’t seem to shake the Modernists off. But as I mentioned before, art history and my love for art all started with Pablo Picasso.
Another important influence is Kurimanzutto, and the group of artists they built their gallery around. Their story really touched me and influenced how I go about SAVOIE de LACY and SAVOY GERACOPOL. Showing at a market, a carpet shop, apartments, warehouses, and just being totally nomadic for, what, 8 or 9 years? For someone like myself, a Māori from Aotearoa New Zealand, what they did is absolutely revolutionary, even to this day. We are so reliant on the traditional brick-and-mortar model of showing art. We do have young people here and there who realise temporary shows or spaces outside the square, and it’s becoming more and more common, but Kurimanzutto took it to another level, and Aotearoa New Zealand is not quite there yet. I see what they did as liberating art from the rules and restrictions we have created. That helps us to understand that the realms in which art exists is infinite. We usually recognise 3 or 4 realms – the art gallery or fair, someone’s house, a commercial space, and an institution. That’s so restrictive and unimaginative, and it does the artwork very little justice. They really inspired me to think about how art can be shown differently – doing that seems natural to me, and it suits my personality.
I look at a lot of art, as with most artists. My all-time favourite is Isa Genzken. I adore her so much. And Brice Marden. And Judd – not for what he did with his art, but for what he achieved with Marfa. His vision for how art should be shown and preserved – that is something so beautiful. It really inspired me to fight for a better and more permanent life for my art, that works within my vision. I think a lot of my art belongs in a natural setting – amongst the birds and trees, exposed to the sun, wind and rain. In a forest, or a garden, or alongside specific architecture. I am really interested in exploring how wood can work alongside bricks, and how oil paintings can work on top of wood. I really want to realise that vision, and everything draws upon these three artists, and other artists like Nobuo Sekine, Lee Ufan, Kishio Suga and many more – I even draw from Van Gogh’s fields and the Impressionist landscape. My painting hero is Chris Martin. He has so many different styles and languages, and is just so real and down to Earth. He’s a total hippy. He used to do shaman rituals in the forest, where he would burn his paintings. He also did this lecture while he and his friends are doing a improv music set, totally jamming while he’s talking about his art. The lights are off, too – it’s absolutely wild. His Seven Pointed Star, Bread, James Brown, and Magic Mushroom paintings are some of the best I have ever seen, and totally crazy to a Kiwi. I had never seen anything like it before. I want to do a rip-off bread painting for my own collection and write a note on the back of it saying something like “this is not a real Chris Martin Bread Painting, I made this for my own pleasure because I could never afford a real one, do not show or resell.” I’ve thought about sending him a message asking him if he’s OK with that. I just really want to have a bread painting in my house. He might think it’s a tribute from a fan, or he might hate it.
M: Or he might love it. What is the role of narrative and symbolism in your work? I am thinking about both painting and sculpture.
Y: Narrative used to be everything to me. It was all about me and my story, or just any story. I’ve always made links to culture, history, art history, popular culture. I am starting to rethink my approach to this, whatever it is. Being in lockdown has made me think about a few things to do with power and meaning. Sometimes I can try to control the meaning of my art too much, or I make titles that are a little more than a nudge – it’s like me yelling at the audience “this is the meaning of my artwork!” I am starting to realise that my wizard paintings are just paintings. Whatever it is to whoever is what it is to them, and that’s a beautiful thing. When I give my artwork a title it is like I am insinuating what it’s about and the audience is agreeing with me, like “OK I see that”. This whole process seems so very undemocratic and kind of controlling. I don’t feel I need to control the meaning of my artwork. People aren’t stupid. I am keen to stop titling my work after this series. I was with a friend the other day, and we were speaking about how the Modernists had great titles for their work, such as (I am making these up) ‘Woman in a chair’, ‘Yellow Hat’, ‘Angry Dog’, ‘Red Door’ or something like that. The title was what the painting is, and nothing more. Now we are so fancy and poetic. I think we need stories, but we don’t need to tell people what to think or feel or how to see art.
M: Can you define two things for me? 1. Identity, 2. Authenticity
Y: I identify as a Māori (Ngāti Maru (Hauraki), Ngāpuhi) from a lower socio-economic background.
I think it’s important to draw inspiration from contemporary art and art history, but I always ask myself ‘can I see myself in the artwork?’ If I feel like I didn’t make a piece of art, or that I am trying to be someone else, then it has to go. My artwork cannot be detached from my personality and beliefs. Art needs a part of the artist’s soul.
M: In relation to art: what is your worst nightmare and what is your ultimate dream?
Y: I would hate to see a world where I can’t work with people. I would hate myself if I didn’t remain sincere to my vision. My only dream is to keep on realising the projects I envision. I don’t feel like I need to be particularly ambitious if I work my ass off. I keep things simple, and I am happy with that.
Yonel Watene was born in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand in 1989, of Māori (Ngāti Maru (Hauraki), Ngāpuhi) and Greek descent. He lives and works in Auckland.