David Ralph

David Ralph explores the psychology of built spaces.

His paintings examine the cities and dwellings we inhabit and the way they shape our minds and our identities, as well as what they reveal about us – where we’ve come from and where we want to go. Taking existing architectural forms, Ralph fragments them and their settings to create beautifully painted, dream-like worlds that call into question our existence and priorities.

Currently in Leipzig as the recipient of an Australian Council Skills and Arts Development grant, Ralph speaks to Artist Profile about how his experience in Germany has changed his practice and how this is expressed in the paintings he will soon exhibit at Gallery 9.

Your work explores the built environment as it relates to human experience. What sparked this interest, and how is it expressed in your work?
I think it all began when I was a child. I was always intrigued by my family and friends’ differing houses and work places – the stuff they had, the lighting, the atmosphere, and how they made me feel. Some felt good, some bad and some ugly – it had a lasting effect on me. I would also go to the cinema and liked the surroundings at times more than the movie! So I realised very early on that environment is very important to me, and is a kind of metaphor for who we are or might aspire to be. Winston Churchill once said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” I’ve always been attracted to this idea, and in my work I make a kind of portrait of people as their environments, or as the environments that represent them, rather than a portrait of any particular person. It’s a sort of collective portrait. I also like the residual spirit of abandoned buildings as a kind of theatre of life, or end of an era full of history, mystery and psychology. This is partly my interest in Leipzig, which has an enormous number of derelict buildings. Like an old layered painting, they have a history to tell, and these environments suit the more physical and textured kind of painting that I enjoy, and which some people think is derelict too! Little do they know, like the buildings, everything old is new again.

Tell me more about your experience of Leipzig.
I’ve been in Leipzig working thanks to an Australia Council self- initiated studio grant. I have a huge studio as part of the Leipzig International Art program, which is located in a former cotton mill with 120 studios, 12 galleries, a cafe, bar, nightclub and enormous art materials store. Many of the other artists are locals or from nearby Berlin, and are known throughout Germany and internationally. It’s a wonderful communal atmosphere that I’ve not experienced since my art school days, and it’s a great creative incubator to be working in as a contemporary painter. Neo Rauch’s studio is directly above mine and many of the new Leipzig school painters can be seen mingling with the newer breed. So it feels like a generator of fresh art with a heavy emphasis on high-level painting, which the German art world still seems excited about. It’s a very pro-painting city thanks to the art school which – shock horror – still teaches figurative painting.

What is the physical environment like?
Leipzig is very picturesque and painterly in its appearance. It’s like a rundown, more affordable version of Fitzroy and Brunswick (in Melbourne). Abandoned graffitied factories and derelict buildings are everywhere, but are just metres from sweeping wonderful gardens, waterways and forests. Its past and recent history is palpably in your face; it’s like a ghost town that’s come to life with some very alive artists who seem to enjoy feeding on the gritty romanticism of the place as they make it their own. There’s an overwhelming sense of community and communal life here.

Has the residency impacted your practice in any way?
I think it has had a bar-raising effect. It has made me more ambitious, and it has allowed me more time to paint, think, focus, photograph, experiment, try new techniques and just look – seeing things I might otherwise miss. It has also allowed me to see a lot of very good art, for example at the Venice and Prague Biennales and the inspiring ‘Painting Forever!’ exhibition – a massive survey of recent German painting held across four major museums in Berlin that confirmed my suspicion that I’d come to the right place. It’s a slower-paced lifestyle in Leipzig, which I think suits me and the consuming nature of my painting – which needs time, continuity and momentum. I’ve been intrigued by the interiors and semi-industrial nature of spaces around me here. Professionally I’ve had the luxury of working full time and it’s paying off. I’ve been able to show my work to some important, local art dealers and curators and have been invited to exhibit here.

Is the role and status of artists noticeably different in Australia?
It has been so inspiring to get to meet the local and international artists working here for whom art is a full-time job. They appear to sell enough work to make a living, which is more or less impossible in Australia (for me anyway!), where people love to look but don’t buy much. I need to do a lot of teaching in Melbourne, which is great too but it has slowed me down professionally. So the status of artists differs considerably because there is more demand for their work, they live on the doorstep of the world’s best art institutions, and their work is heavily promoted internationally in major books and journals.

Tell me about your studio practice – how do you like to work? Has this changed, either by choice or by necessity, since you’ve been working in Leipzig?
A little bit of both. I’ve been working smaller, with one exception ‘Camp Site’ which is the biggest painting I’ve ever made. Lately I’ve just been pinning primed canvas onto the studio wall and using it like paper. I need to ship or carry the work back to Australia, which presents some serious logistical problems. I feel making larger works is great, but they can be hard to sell, and as my livelihood relies on me selling a work or two I’m just as happy to make smaller works which don’t cost as much. This also means I can make more of them and make more progress with them technically and thematically.

I’m also interested in whether the experience has changed your art making process.
Since I’ve been here a few things have changed. I’m taking more photographs, making drawings and watercolours, which I’ve never done much of before. I’m trying to become less digital and more analogue. In the past I was making sketches in Photoshop first, but now I mainly go out, look around, find an environment I find interesting, photograph it, then start painting from the photograph – of which I have several exposures so I can see into the shadows and highlights. The work has become more experiential. My handling of these environments, however, is never literal. I want some things to be lost and new things found in the translation. The photo is heavily filtered through the medium of washy to textured oil paint, which means the image must translate well to a surface and an abstraction of sorts.

I look for environments whose compositions lend themselves formally to painting, or will be interesting as paint and colour on canvas and as a representation. I seek ‘painterly’ environments that suit this old, if not derelict, medium. Over the years I’ve moved away from painting slick contemporary spaces that suit a finer-grained realism. I choose environments that kind of look and feel like they might be an expressive painting as they are – low definition or low tech, emotional. It’s an extension of drawing for me.

David Ralph is represented by Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne and Gallery 9,

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