GT: Guy, thanks for dropping into the Bent Street Cafe. The coffee is virtual, but the welcome no less the warmer for that. You are currently in the process of turning your exhibition of paintings and drawings – What Maketh A Man – into a book. Tell us a little about the exhibition and how is it evolving?
GJW: Hello Gordon, hmm, virtual coffee just isn’t quite as delicious as real-life coffee is it? Yes, indeed, I am totally nose deep in images of naked men at the minute, which although not normally a bad place to be, it can be a tad demanding. The exhibition, which was a series of images portraying different types (and stereotypes) of masculinity went really well and won an award so putting it all together as a book seemed the next obvious and easy step. However it turns out book writing and putting together images to illustrate a narrative isn’t really a natural skill for me, although it all seems to be coming along, I have a good editor which helps. I’m looking forward to a point soon when I can see a naked picture of a man as something simple and sexy again instead of seeing lines, form, colour and an expression of a particular type of masculinity. The book is all about redesigning concepts of traditional masculinity and I’ve learnt so much putting this together and talking to a very diverse group of men about what the word masculinity means to them! I can’t wait for the book to be finished so people can see it.
GT: Thematically the exhibition ‘dismantles’ masculinity, and does this through a range of nude studies. Help me here. If masculinity is a set of attitudes and behaviours, how does nudity (absence or clothes, or indeed costume – the removal of props) therefore get down to the truth of a person?
GJW: I think you may have just suggested the answer just then in your very well-worded question! I would actually say though the ‘dismantling’ of masculinity is such a massive, massive undertaking that I’m fine with the limited reality of this project only being a small part of the bigger movement, or revolution, needed to dismantle those elaborate constructs of masculinity. In truth, this project is really about opening up conversations around masculinity rather than ambitiously trying to fix such a huge worldwide problem!
I started out on this project trying to share a very simple and reoccurring experience I have when I paint someone; there is often an intimacy and trust within a sitting where pretensions and artifice fall away. I am exposed in what I’m doing, putting my creativity up for judgement and the sitter is vulnerable in whatever it is they are bringing. If you add into that mix the extra defenceless-ness of being unclothed, with all of life’s external drag and costume removed, then you end up with a really raw and honest interaction that I haven’t ever experienced in any other situation. What this project also is, is a platform for men to talk to other men honestly, using and acknowledging this kind of vulnerability. If macho, hyped-up masculinity is present when a man talks to another man, and it often is, then the outcome of that conversations is going to be convoluted and corrupt, and so will the outcomes. What Maketh a Man is me putting the conversations I’ve had without that bullshit involved out into the world for others to experience. Also, this project is about redefining what we visually think of as masculine: so many male stereotypes come attached to only one clichéd body shape, so I purposefully chose a diverse group of sitters who represent a very different and diverse physicality.
GT: I think it was Isherwood’s partner the artist Don Bachardy who said that in drawing a portrait the mouth carries the emotion and the eyes the soul. Your images I find endlessly arresting because of that vividness of soul and emotion. It’s a very special place you take the observer to.
GJW: Thank you (although I never really know when somebody uses the word ‘arresting’ if that’s a compliment or not…)
GT: Definitely is …
GJW: I think something that I really try to do with my work, albeit rather subconsciously, is portray the human-ness in my sitters. Human beings are quite gloriously fragile and fallible things, I think it is part of our beauty. There’s good money in painting stern portraits of CEO’s, bankers and lawyers but there’s no way I could take on those commissions because, and I’m obviously generalising here, because those corporate gigs are so soulless. In that corporate world people want to look polished, hard and tough and those are not qualities I necessarily value in someone. I’d rather take the viewer to a place based in compassion and shared understanding. Physical nakedness is a great leveller, but so is the fundamental reality of who we all are. As a queer person I have life experiences that prove once you can dismiss someone as ‘other’ you can also dismiss them as lesser and I want to ‘use my powers for good’ and bring individuals (and communities) together into a shared common ground built on an experience of empathy rather than just build up one individual sitter because of their privilege.
GT: Perhaps you should offer corporations that option – a nude painting of their CEO in the manner of What Maketh A Man – with the sitter only allowed to hold a lump of coal, or some other symbolic representation of their core business! One thing I have noticed in your pictures – and this might be a digression – is that you do provide a kind of ‘prop’ or ‘clothing’ – I mean in terms of the background. You often use a motif of a fleur-de-lys. Is there a plan here, or is it just the wallpaper in your studio?
GJW: Okay, so, the recurring fleur de lys motive I can happily explain and talk about, but do you want the rest of this interview about that, because there is no short explanation, there is a lot, and I mean a lot more to it than ‘just wallpaper’…
GT: What about a small gesture towards an explanation? I’m personally interested in all aspects, but I was looking at the fleur de lys as something you bring to the framing of the person. And I’m trying to get the flavour of that and what it contributes. A nude wearing a necklace is I think fairly different from the same nude without the necklace.
GJW: Okay, I suppose I can say this; the fleur de lys mostly is all about ‘false flags’ and about questioning what you are being told and sold. I use them often, and often for different reasons, but mostly in a not-too-subtle background (or wallpaper) as a metaphor for fake prestige and the empty commodity of modern art. That doesn’t really explain all of it, but gives you an idea. I have gone into the reasons before in further depth but bless them, I can tell you the interviewers really regretted asking the question! I can talk for hours on the purpose and symbolism of them! Let’s just say I constantly overthink things A LOT and if I’ve taken the time to painstakingly paint something in a picture, it’s normally there for a reason.
I agree with your point about the necklace. It’s the same with tattoos, I love painting people with tattoos, but only if their tattoo really tells a story and contributes to the visual narrative of who someone is. I once met a girl with a massive full sleeve tattoo and I really wanted to paint her because the images were a real juxtapose to who she came across as, but after chatting I found out she got the whole sleeve done in 3 days on an intentional trip to Bali and she let the tattooist choose the images from tattoos off his suggestions wall, which to me defeats the whole point!
GT: Guy – thanks for popping into the Bent Street Café. We haven’t even covered No Meat May, or your recent overseas trip! One last question. What is the main thing that drives you?
GJW: Well thank you for having me! That was the loveliest cup of virtual coffee I ever did drink! What is the main thing that drives me? Well, finish on a big one why don’t you! Okay, well at the fear of being really naff and overly dramatic, it’s actually being, as an adult, the individual I needed to see for guidance as a child. When I was younger I really struggled with a lack of positive queer and creative role models, and now I’m very lucky, in the way that I have a platform to use, to put myself into the world as being unapologetically creative and queer. I was recently offered the chance to work with a queer youth group here in Sydney and that’s something I’m so passionate and excited about. I also host a fortnightly drawing group at ACON which is aimed at older LGBTQI people who may be in a bit of a rut or feeling isolated, so being part of a social event that bring people together to forge new friendships over creativity and positive experiences is really affirmative. Basically, and there really is no un-naff way of saying this, what drives me is trying to be a bit of the positive change I want to see in the world. Oh dear, did I really say that out loud? I think I did, best I stop now. What exactly was in that virtual coffee?
Back to Bent Street Cafe