Amber Boardman

In Issue 40, Sydney-New York-Atlanta-based artist Amber Boardman discusses the idiosyncrasies of her practice inside and outside the studio, as well as her influences spanning '80s cartoon culture, manufacturing industries and social media.

My work is heavily influenced by my background as an American child of the 1980s who grew up on cartoons and animations like The Far Side and Looney Toons. My training is in painting, but for years I was sequencing my paintings into animated films and public art installations.

I’ve also worked in animation commercially, and I think working at Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim has influenced the way I’m painting these days. Squidbillies – one of the first shows I worked on – had these hillbilly squid characters with tentacles we could draw into infinite distortions. I love thinking of human bodies as plastic in this way. This influence is perhaps clearest in Yoga Trumpet (2015).

My paintings highlight small events and traumas of everyday life through the use of absurdity and humour. They encourage us to not take ourselves too seriously by helping us to laugh at ourselves, while simultaneously examining ourselves more closely by questioning accepted norms such as beauty standards.

These works are multi-layered and figural, painted wet on wet with bright and flesh-like colours. They belong to a field of contemporary painting I call cartoonish figuration, which is marked by bulbous forms, sometimes with thick outlines, and narrative content. Think Philip Guston, Dana Schutz and Nicole Eisenman.

My process involves ritualised studio habits designed to help me turn off filters and focus into a painting headspace I think of as a risk-taking attitude. It involves brewing tea in a specific way, and putting on certain types of music and nice smelling essential oils. Then I begin to mix out a lot of colours on my table-sized palette. Most are flesh-like colours but I add some wildcards in there too.

When I put down the first blob of paint a line of questioning begins. Is that a leg? Could it be a chin or a nose? A continuous question and answer session happens with each application of more paint. As a figure develops the questions become more specific to the character. Is this person comfortable in her own skin? How might this character be handling being middle-aged and still single? Things like that.

I like thinking through the constraints of the medium. There is only the image on the canvas and a title to work with, but so much information can come across nonetheless. The titles of my work can completely change the reading of the image. I think of them like captions in a cartoon. A good example of this is Feeling Nothing at Major Life Events (2015).

Some of the themes in my work concern looking at cultural norms with a curious mind. I’m interested in what I observe in memes and social media as the anxiety of never being enough coupled with an urge to distort and disguise the body. I turn these ideas into characters who stress the uncanny tendency for people to change their bodies to look better but end up looking worse. I think of these characters as “artists” who use makeup, spray tan and plastic surgery as their own art mediums. Henri Bergson defines the comic as “something mechanical encrusted on the living”. Similarly, the characters in my paintings mechanically conform to the trends that bind them.

Most recently, I’ve been painting a lot of machines. Perhaps it comes from a long-standing fascination with manufacturing while growing up watching how things like crayons and saxophones were made on Sesame Street. Self-Portrait Painting Machine (2017) is an endless loop between the painter and the painting. In it, the artist pushes a button that starts the painting machine. The painting makes itself.

In Kiss System (2016) I wanted to paint an event that would act as a catalyst for other events. In this case, how a kiss (especially a first kiss) can catalyse forces of feeling between two people, affecting their bodies. I was imagining how to make these invisible forces visible. Painting the invisible forces that guide our behaviour is a large theme in my work.

Outside the studio I try to rethink the ways we view and collect art. While I love the opportunity to share my work, exhibitions have often felt one-sided to me, as viewers don’t always engage with the artist. I’ve been devising ways of having a more meaningful dialogue with other artists through an exhibition. I want to know what people are working on. Deeper conversations about our work can catalyse insights that trigger us to move in directions not previously explored.

I have an upcoming exhibition in Atlanta where I’ve partnered with a few local organisations to hold free workshops and lectures throughout the city. Emerging artists are invited to one-on-one sessions to talk about their work with me. I’m interested in offering my experience to them as a university lecturer, fellow artist and PhD student. I’ll also invite open, frank comment on how my work has affected them. This will arm me with information to absorb back into my own work, completing the exchange loop.

Last year I invited fellow artists to “collect” one of my smaller works by sending me a paragraph on what the work means to them and why they must have it. The most interesting story won the painting. It was an incredible experience that helped me better understand how my work is connecting, allowing me to feed that back into the work as well.

I try to bring as much playfulness to the dissemination of the work as to the work itself.

EXHIBITION
The Archibald Prize
12 May – 9 September
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney