Charmaine Pike

The paintings of Charmaine Pike allude to the remote landscape, its geographical features and natural formations, embedded or rather personified with human emotion. Her use of bold lines, form and colour probe deep into the human condition, dealing with psychological tensions within the self and the environment we inhabit.

Paintings such as ‘The Sorrows’ and ‘Aubade’ depict a landscape that seems real yet unfamiliar, suggestive of place yet void of notable landmarks. Is it an intermediate state?
I’m more interested in the substance of a place – the feeling of it. When it comes to the forms it’s perhaps my early connection with Surrealism. I’ve always been interested in the absurd, the Dadaists, Artaud and Kafka … and maybe I’ve read too many post-apocalyptic genre novels and sci-fi stories but it’s all relevant; it’s all in the well somewhere. These landscapes may be of the future, or simply remote. I’m deeply concerned by the destruction of our environment by humans and therefore our inevitable demise. I may at times personify the forms, as some kind of psychological undertone but there are deliberately no humans here. We are long gone.

As a child you gravitated towards rock structures and the geographical features of the remote landscape, particularly from family trips. How has this fascination developed over the years?
I was fortunate as a child and teenager to regularly travel throughout the ever-changing landscapes of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, mostly with horses heading to equestrian events. Also, my grandparents had a property in Duri, 10km from my home in Tamworth and riding up into the bush was an almost daily experience. It’s funny though, I never thought back then of drawing or painting any of these landscapes. It was always about the horse galloping off into the sunset. I don’t know that I deliberately set out to paint rocks.

What role does memory play in your paintings?
Whether conscious or unconscious, memory is contributing all the time. The travels from my childhood probably helped develop a strong early visual memory. There are so many variations of memory structure. I do recall bits of other paintings, mine or others, that I connect with at those times when I become stuck and mystified as to which way to go. I might recall some of those landscapes I’ve been to.

You mentioned that while at TAFE and university that you primarily worked in drawing with a preference for charcoal. How do you think this shaped your practice and prepared you for your current medium of painting?
The transition from TAFE in the country to COFA in the city was extraordinarily difficult. I was very unwell and at uni I was incredibly shy and self-conscious, yet I had this compulsion to draw. So I decided not to bother with paint but to focus on this strength. I needed the immediacy, the lack of fuss in setting up. Mike Esson was a terrific teacher, very passionate about the line and mark-making and he encouraged me greatly. This was such a productive period, I filled journal after journal with drawings. I just couldn’t stop.

Your use of colour emulates the rich tones of the Australian bush and desert. What role does colour play in your work?
In my early work at TAFE and uni I mostly worked in monotones. I think this was a lack of confidence. I had little idea of how to use colour. As a child it was different, a private thing, and obviously it’s a free-er state of being. Suddenly I’m in a big studio working next to other people. Very daunting. Nowadays, I like to experiment with colour, to try and keep changing up the palette. I guess it’s simply about evolving and trying to keep the work fresh and interesting as I’m easily bored by repetitive palettes. I will certainly use deeper colours to emphasise form and shadow but I’m unsure of any other significant meanings.

Your paintings have been compared to painters Philip Guston and Russell Drysdale. Was the likeness in abstract composition and remote terrain intentional? Who or what else has influenced your practice?
As a child I was glued to the TV when Mr Squiggle was on. I filled wads of paper with his method of making seemingly random lines and marks, turning it upside down and making objects come to life. As a teenager I connected with the Surrealists, their ideologies and manifestos.

Seeing an image of Drysdale’s ‘The Rabbiters’ was deeply affecting and pivotal for me. It was the oddness and the menacing quality of those rock formations that got my attention. The people in the work held no interest. At TAFE there was constant exposure to art books and this is where I first spied a Guston. It was his use of bold line/outline and mark making that appealed. Over the years I’ve looked at Paul Nash, Milton Avery, Per Kirkeby to name a few. I’ve been fortunate to have had a few generous mentors over the years which I feel is essential for any artist. I have a great bunch of peers and always the support and encouragement of Campbell and Lauren at Defiance Gallery.

You divide your time between painting en plein air and in the studio. Which do you prefer?
They are both very contrasting experiences. En plein air is quiet contemplation, lots of looking, sitting on the earth to work, connecting. Also it’s social for me, I always go with other artists. Banter and laughter are just as important as getting something down. Sometimes I take a bunch of abandoned work in and rework them. I enjoy that hybrid. It’s also a marvellous antidote to the isolation of the studio. The studio requires a commitment to solitude and hard work. I’m a terrible procrastinator, easily distracted. Some days it’s like I’m ‘Waiting for Godot’ in there! I rely on rituals and various tactics to keep me focused and energised.

You spoke in awe of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China and its floating spires. Will these be a source of inspiration for your two-week residency in China later this year?
Undoubtedly! I’ve known of these natural wonders for a while but only from pictures. I was awarded the Nock Art Foundation HK/China Residency alongside Angus Nivison. Michael Nock taunted me with the quip “it’s Pike country” – no pressure or anything! I’ll be overwhelmed, excited, terrified … but I’ll see what I can do. To be given this incredible opportunity is one I’m extremely grateful for.

You have a solo exhibition in the near future. Will this be a new series of work? What can we expect to see?
Yes, at Defiance Gallery in November. It will be all new work with an emphasis on larger scale. All the odd assortment of characters will be on their stages interacting in further peculiar and illogical ways.

The subjects in your landscapes, such as rocks and trees, convey aspects of the human condition such as alienation and isolation, loneliness, conflict, despair and struggle. Do you hope that the viewer will identify and perhaps acquire a sense of understanding?
Stemming from my own anxieties, I have long been preoccupied by the psychology of human behaviour and various aspects of the human condition. At 19, the loss of my father during first year TAFE created an urgency, an exploration and search for “meaning”. In my 20s I read voraciously – philosophy, psychology, feminist theory, existentialism (Camus and Schopenhauer). This naturally led to acute self-examination and social observation. Again, it all flows into that well.

I’m not always deliberately personifying the forms; it can be accidental that they look vaguely human. One of the tree images I use came about from thinking of the angophoras where I used to live and a Brancusi sculpture I saw in Paris. Sometimes I paint a tree like it’s Gumby’s legs. It’s not all doom and gloom in studio Pike, I engage my dark sense of humour to balance! I do a fair bit of interpretive dance as I work, brings me down to earth when necessary! [laughs]. I’m not sure I need the viewer to do anything more than spend some time looking. And then maybe look again.

Instagram: @LonePonyClub

Exhibition
Charmaine Pike
22 November – 16 December
Defiance Gallery, Sydney

Courtesy the artist and Defiance Gallery, Sydney.