Ryan Witte: Your studio is beautiful; those giant windows must invite in the most amazing sunlight. It sounds as if you're still getting settled in. How long have you been there?
Cairo Walker: I've been in the studio for a little over a year and I love it! The space is amazing, the windows let the sun in all day and provide exhibition space. The train station is just around the corner so a lot of people walk by each day.
RW: That's very cool. Have you had people walk by who wanted to come in and take a closer look, maybe even buy one of your pieces?
CW: I've had nice notes dropped under the door and people knocking on the door asking to come in and look at the work--no buyers, but lots of interest--and lots of people who make art and haven't shown it yet asking my advice.
It's the old butcher's shop and it's one of the oldest buildings in the area. You can still see where the carcasses hung from the butcher's hook in the front window. It hangs over the easel. I like the irony.
RW: It's kind of gory actually, but I like gore. You can't still smell the meat, can you?
CW: The really ironic thing about it is that we are a house of vegetarians. I've been a vegetarian since I was ten.
RW: That's pretty funny, actually. Is it smack in the heart of Sydney, or in more of a suburb?
CW: The house is right on the edge of the city, it takes about 40 minutes to walk into the city, or two stops on the train. There's a great village vibe here.
RW: Why are you in India?
CW: I've been doing some work for the World Wide Fund for nature, assisting them with an information management strategy. That involves spending time with people in the field, understanding as much as possible the culture, how they work, what is important to them, what they are missing, and then helping them share their best endeavors and hook up with others to get theirs. It's been a great project and for a cause that I am passionate about. Some of the experiences I've had have put a bit of fire in my belly and they've definitely influenced the work. So far I've been fortunate enough to spend time in mainland Malaysia, Sabah, New Zealand, India, Nepal, Switzerland, Kenya, and South America.
--Departure Lounge (charcoal, acrylic, and oil on canvas, 2008)
RW: Wow, that's fantastic. "Well-traveled" is a bit of an understatement. Of all the places you've seen, if you had to live somewhere other than Australia, where do you think you'd want to be?
CW: Well, I am actually a New Zealander and that's a pretty nice place to live. I'm interested in moving outside Sydney at the moment and Switzerland is high on the list, mainly because there are some opportunities for me there. Having said that, I love India, too, and I feel like it has a lot to teach me. India was pretty extreme; I felt really alive there, not that it was an easy place to be. Although everyone speaks English (ex-English colony), I don't speak any of the local language and it's a difficult language to learn. The culture is hard to get one's head around and just getting around day-to-day is exhausting.
RW: I've often heard that exact description of India. It must be very overwhelming there for travelers.
--Woman I (oil on canvas, 1952), Willem de Kooning
You talk about seeing a De Kooning painting [not necessarily that one] at 17 and having a sort of epiphany. I know how you feel. I once had a spiritual experience in Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross room at the National Gallery in DC.
--Stations of the Cross (oil on canvas, 1958-1964), Barnett Newman; photo courtesy exporevue
Those paintings would look utterly dumb in photographs, but in person...
Was there any event--or events--that made you decide, once and for all, you needed to be a painter?
CW: Painting has just always been there for me and I've never stopped. Despite having resolved many times not to be an artist, it seems that's what I've always been. I paint or sketch pretty much every day. I only wish I could sell the work as quickly as I paint it! Seeing fantastic work can be a double-edged sword, inspirational and also the opposite, like "what else have I got to say, that hasn't been perfectly stated in this painting?"
RW: Ah, yes. The search for one's own unique voice can be an arduous journey and I think even more difficult now that we're so far from Abstract Expressionism. In other words, it's possible that art can no longer be just about that singular voice anymore. There were times when you'd thought you did not want to be a professional painter?
CW: I question being an artist all the time. Mostly I try not to let myself slide so far down the rabbit hole of doubt that I can't get out.
It's not so much about the unique voice, it's more about other people that have really stated something so perfectly. I've only bought one artwork and I bought it because the artist's paintings could've been my own, had I chosen to extend the charcoal work into painting. At the time, I was at crossroads deciding which way to go--I'd painted myself into a corner and didn't know how to get out. Seeing these paintings was such a relief. Now I didn't need to make them, they'd already been made.
RW: Are you sure you wouldn't eventually have found a different solution of your own to the problem?
CW: I am sure I would've found a new way to go, and that may or may not have been the same direction that I went in. It was a relief to cross off the territory where I was at the time and just say I am really going to blow things out and explore, as far away from where I am now as I possibly can. Although daunting in the beginning, ultimately it's pretty rewarding. I think it's a natural human trait to want to learn new things, and doing so is satisfying.
--Yoga at Bamerang (oil, acrylic, and charcoal on canvas, 2008)
RW: You say you've been exploring different unusual media. Do you choose them very carefully according to your current project, or just grab whatever is around and see where it takes you?
CW: Selection of the media is equally about the final aesthetic, the way the material is to work with, and presenting a challenge. I love working with charcoal and continue to introduce other media in. It's just not good for me to get too comfortable with things.
RW: When you do, the process seems to turn stale, somehow?
CW: I've never been good at "comfortable" on any level. I find it bland, boring. Of course, as an artist, "comfortable" usually means you've mastered a subject matter, technique, or both and this is precisely the moment when everyone wants you to keep working in exactly the same way.
RW: Oh, right: "can you make me a painting just like this one, but in blue?"
CW: Not even! More like "can you just keep making more of those works, same, same, but different?" I would've turned into a production line.
--Edge of Life (Virus, Ghost, Balls) (oil and charcoal on canvas on two doors, 2008)
RW: You also say you don't feel it's your place to attribute meaning to your paintings. From this I gather that you don't begin with a concept the resulting painting will express, but rather that the painting tells you (or the observer) what it means, after the fact. So what would you say is the spark, the seed, that initiates the birth of a new piece?
CW: A painter occupies two positions in relation to the work: that of artist and that of viewer. These two positions can't be held at the same time. Meaning is subjective. It's in the eye or rather through the experience of the person looking at the painting. Any meaning that I give any work is as a viewer, not as an artist. As an artist, I can only tell you what happened throughout the painting process and--as this can stretch over months or years--I can't even do that very well. Anyway, that's not meaning; it's process.
I have a starting point, this can be a moment, an experience, an emotion, but after that I engage in an ongoing conversation with the work. Every mark that's put down opens up new possibilities. I don't try to take it back to the original starting point, though sometimes it arrives back there. I don't want to dictate meaning (the last thing needed is another dictator). It really is like having a conversation with someone; you don't know where the conversation will go, or what others will make of it. I enjoy swapping interpretations with others, but as viewer, not as an artist.
--People I Know V (oil and charcoal on canvas, 2007)
RW: In examining your work, the seeming importance of durations of time really struck me. It would seem to infiltrate all aspects of your process. Have you ever had a painting tell you very firmly and directly "I'm finished now?" What happened to indicate that?
CW: Family and friends tell me firmly and directly that paintings are finished all the time! Matthew Browne and many other artists say that a painting is finished when the subject comes back. Sometimes that's true, and I stop there. Equally, a painting should always be left unfinished, with something left to do. Sometimes I go too far. In that instant I keep going, painting with a kind of abandon to move the existing painting beyond itself. Of course, it then becomes another painting. There are many, many points at which you can stop, or rather many, many paintings in each painting.
--Canberra Arches 003 (oil on canvas, 2007)
RW: It almost sounds like you're not very fond of that one contrived "end point," but rather that you're fascinated by where a piece will be sometime well before or well after it. I can definitely see the wisdom in that. It gives the work more mystery, somehow. Do you ever mourn the first painting, when it becomes a new one, or is it too exciting a transformation to bother looking back?
CW: I never get attached to work to the point I don't want to sell it. I don't like old work hanging around. I do have problems painting over some works. At that moment, I am worried that the sum will not be equal to its parts, that is, that the new painting will not be as good as the last one. As difficult as it can be, I like the process. I aim for it to mirror the process of living. I don't want fear of worst case scenarios to dictate what I do.
--People I Know III (oil and charcoal on canvas, 2007)
RW: Do you invite in live models for your portraits? If so, for how long do they typically pose for you? Do they change position?
CW: For the series of work that I showed in the middle of 2007, friends posed for me. Most posed nude. Sometimes people came to the studio, sometimes I went to their place. The works were created directly onto the canvas with no preparatory sketches. We'd just kind of work things out between us. We might eat something and have a cup of tea or a glass of wine and chat--some people would bring props or read a book--and we'd find the work over the course of a day or an evening. For the most part, I'd let the models direct the conversation, the action, and the final painting, right down to the final colors.
--People I Know IX (oil and charcoal on canvas, 2007)
RW: It sounds quite a bit more pleasant than posing for someone like Picasso, who supposedly tortured his models. And I suspect you get a much truer representation of the subject's character that way. You're much less controlling about your portraits than I suspect many artists would be. In fact, it sounds something like a collaboration between you and your subjects.
--People I Know VII (Unfinished) (oil and charcoal on canvas, 2007)
The destruction of unfinished paintings is a wonderful bit of performance art, really (without audience, I presume). Although, I'll have to say that your unfinished piece People I Know VII is one of my favorites. What happens to the destroyed pieces? Do they go into the garbage or become the starting point for new works?
CW: Unfinished or finished paintings form the basis for other paintings. I work over them rather than throwing them out or having them stacked up in the corner of the studio.
--Orange and Blue (oil on linen, 2006)
Although there's a real sense of destruction and abandon in the beginning, eventually this slows and the new painting meets the previous. They have to work together with the earlier painting being pulled up through the new. There has to be a kind of resolution between them.
Sometimes it seems I can't finish a painting, that it has beaten me and I can't turn it into an artwork or complete it to my satisfaction. Even if I put it down and feel like I have no choice but to throw a work out, I don't. Some of the paintings that I really think have beaten me have gone on to be the best things I've painted. Tenacity may not be the sexiest tool in an artist's toolbox, but it's one of the most important. I've resolved to paint over all unsold paintings. Some of them I've grown quite attached to and it's difficult to paint them out. Maybe I'm masochistic or Sadistic or maybe I'm learning (a little) about materialism, grief, loss, letting go. I'm not sure yet what's in it for me. It's an interesting trip, though.
RW: You bring up an extremely interesting concept here, where your refusal to abide by the "end point" I mentioned earlier in fact says something somewhat profound about our consumerist, throwaway society and the way trends of environmentally responsible living are now beginning to take hold (we hope).
--World Tree (oil and charcoal on canvas, 2007)
CW: I wish they were doing so quicker! The web has been a great educator, I'm not sure that it actually changes behaviors. People are more aware than ever of what is happening, yet behaviors don't really seem to change.
RW: I know what you mean. As I keep saying, possibly the only good thing about gas prices shooting up through the roof is that I suspect it will do more toward forcing people to live more responsibly than a million warnings that we're destroying the planet ever could have.
The thing about the paintings that almost beat you also kind of goes back to what you were saying about how your process is like a visual conversation you have with the painting. In the sense that if I start out disliking or arguing bitterly with someone, it feels all the more valuable if we later turn out to be good friends--in other words, because it came at a price--in much the same way, the paintings that "argued" with you most bitterly have often turned out to be your favorites.
CW: I don't know what that is all about, there is definitely something in the struggle, though!
--Space Knights (oil and charcoal on canvas, 2008)
RW: Space Knights is really pretty funny, though at the same time totally poignant. It kind of reminds me of the work of Aboubabra for an Electro group called Agoria. [Suddenly websites for both are dead, apologies.] Do you consider having fun to be an important element in your work?
CW: Fun? That's a tough one; the imperative to paint is tough. Sometimes painting is fun, sometimes it's like a compulsion, or maybe it's just like speaking? I have things I want to say and this is the language for me. Some paintings are certainly more fun and whimsical than others, it's not an important element for me. I think it comes back to the idea of subjectivity; they're not really fun to paint. Space Knights was inspired by the way the local kids draw knights with chalk on the pavement and it was named by my ten-year-old son. I like those drawings for Agoria, by the way.
RW: If you had to choose one reaction you'd hope people would have to one of your paintings, what would it be?
CW: Inspiration--in whatever form that takes. And Action: going on to do the things they've been inspired to do.
--Bones (charcoal on paper, 2006)
RW: Thank you so much!
©2008, Ryan Witte