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Within the Great City (Decay) – Paintings by Jenny Cuthbert, ends Wednesday 22 September

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Interview with Jenny Cuthbert by Amanda West

M: When did you begin painting?
J: 1998. it’s been over 10 years.

M: What got you into it?
J: I didn’t finish year 12 at school, but I wanted to be an interior designer. My father suggested I go across and do graphic design at the TAFE where he taught, and I realised I liked life drawing the most, and ended up moving into fine arts. That’s where my father taught me to paint. It was 4 years in Advanced diploma in Orange, so the idea was I’d learn to paint there, and go to University to learn to think.
I went to UNWS after that and majored in painting. They focused a lot on the conceptual, and I was the only painter in a class of 200!

M: So your father taught you to paint?
J: Yeah he was one of the paining teachers. He exhibits around Australia now. His work’s probably more complex and sophisticated than mine! But there’s a definite link between the styles.

M: What name does he paint under?
J: Neil Cuthbert. He’s based in Orange, but soon to be based in the UK.

M: In the paintings from this show, where did you get the models?
That’s all in the head! A few years back at UNSW I did a cadaver drawing course. There was an anatomist and an artist there who were married, and they ran a five day workshop which started me off.
They’d pull out a few legs from the huge vats of formaldehyde… Then you move up to the arms, and once you’ve desensitised to that, they start bringing out the torsos and the heads. They’re all flayed in a traditional anatomist sort of way, and you just sit and draw them. And the occasional lecture by the anatomist on how everything’s put together.

M: Was that standard art school practice for your university?
J: No, it’s a part of the medical school. That was just a very expensive workshop, but definitely worth it, because if I’m thinking of drawing an arm at a certain angle, I know what the shoulder blade’s doing and how it all fits together.…

M: Did it smell bad?
J: Well I had a cold for the frost 3 days so I was fine, but after that it was just a strong formaldehyde smell which stuck to you clothes and skin, like an antiseptic kind of smell. You can still smell it on the ghost walk at the Manly Quarantine Station in the showers where they used to spray people down with it.

M: Does that bring back weird memories of body parts?
J: Yes!

M: So you basically draw form imagination and memory?
J: Yes, I usually start with charcoal, start doodling, making lines, circles… I look at the lines, respond to them , build them up from there, form a pose and start working in muscles and form over that.

M: What connections do you make between humans and landscapes?
J: The paintings are based on my own experiences, wandering around various cities, looking at the shiny fronts on buildings, but as soon as you nip into an alley alley, you’ve got paint peeling off bricks, exhaust fumes and the grime, and so you can be in two places… You’ve got this facade and then you’ve got decay, which I feel is the same as the human body at the moment. That’s where the link comes from I think.
Very early on I was concerned with cosmetic surgery and women, It sort of goes against the whole feminist thing, because here we are, wanting to be equal, but then people are saying freedom of our sexuality, and we’re going to flaunt it, it seems paradoxical.
And since that I’ve moved into the idea of human decay, and people repairing themselves from the outside. Repairing this facade but we’re still aging.

M: With the pink floppy figures, is this a metaphor?
J: I interviewed a heap of my male friends about their porn watching habits, and they said it starts with the girl in the bathing suit, then you move on to naked hardcore, and all of a sudden, you’re jacking off over someone in a school uniform and an alien mask. So it gets weirder and weirder, and this blow up doll thing is like the end of the line for weirdness.

M: Something so perverted and weird that it’s beyond even normal sexuality?
J: Yeah precisely. It’s the outer self, about people not looking past the exterior. It’s not immediately clear, it’s difficult to interpret the works.

M: But that’s what’s so intriguing about them. Do you have a name for the pink porn blow up thing?
J:  Some people think it’s a squid! I’ve never really named it, there have been lots of interpretations. There is one reoccurring character, I think it’s me subconsciously putting myself into the work. I never do it purposely, there’s not really an element of self portraits happening. Without being a prude as such, it bothers me that there’s still this objectification of women happening. I’ve mostly moved past it but it’s still lingering int the back of my head.

M: Which artists influence your painting?
J: I’m looking at artists like Jenny Saville, Ken Currie, Peter Howson, a heap from the Scottish Saatchi school. They’ve influenced me quite heavily in the rendering of the flesh. Lucien Freud, chuck him in there! The mottling and rawness of the flesh. There’s nothing pretty or airbrushed about it. it’s just there in fluorescent lighting which is never kind to anybody!

M: It’s probably the kind of light you were drawing cadavers under!
J: Yeah! It’s definitely a cold kind of light I try to capture. I’m happy for people to make their own interpretations. Death of the Author kind of thing.

M: Do you purposefully create a kind of surreality, like the effects of a drug?
J: In the very early painting, I did purposefully create a very disconnected space but these days it just evolves naturally. Occasionally I look back at my work and think, Fuck that’s weird! But it just comes out.

Jenny Cuthbert’s exhibition, Within the Great City (Decay) opens at Monstrosity Gallery on August 27, 6-9pm.
The show runs until September 17. See for more details.

Monstrosity times Two Thousand

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