Like allowing your eyes to adjust to a darkened room, it takes time for the gruesome imagery to fully emerge from the shadows in Les Rice’s almost impossibly dark paintings. From a background in tattooing to winning the Doug Moran Portrait Prize, Rice has developed a distinctive practice that draws on contradictions – between the kitsch and the classical, the understated and the over the top. In two worlds driven by trends – art and tattooing – Rice’s work remains firmly grounded in the unexpected.
You’re trained in painting but you are also a tattoo artist – how do the two practices come together?
I think I’m pretty much finished with tattooing, in all honesty. I grew up with it – my dad has been at it since the late 1950s, and I will always love tattoos, but the tattoo industry has become a strange and pale imitation of the business I fell in love with. It seems it has finally succumbed almost entirely to the influence of fashion, though it did manage to hold out for a while. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t really good, dedicated people still in the game, but they’re lost amongst a sea of hipsters and pretenders. Having said that, I do get the shits with the art game too, and tattooing can be a good place to seek refuge from that.
How do you find the two differ and complement each other? Do you learn new things about painting from tattooing, and vice versa?
In my practice, they complement each other intrinsically; I grew up drawing and copying tattoos, fantasy art and the like, so my ability to assemble an image is steeped in tattoo. Art school kind of showed me other avenues. I think that the only path for a painter (I hate to call us all ‘artists’, only time will tell if we are that) is to paint from experience. That way not only will you have a source of inspiration but also your instincts will be trustworthy. Fish around outside of yourself and you’ll likely be one of those unfortunates who, when the tide goes out, is seen to have been wading naked. But in general, art and tattooing are different beasts, I believe.
Why do you paint on velvet?
The black velvet surface has served a few needs. Conceptually it speaks to kitsch and the function of art as commodity. It also provides the most matte black surface for me to play games with tenebrism and the aesthetic of very dark paintings, and I happen to like dark things.
I think velvet and dark subject matter make a happy marriage, but as for any significance I’m happy to let others decide for themselves. It’s always a paradox – the sad clown, the weeping child, the tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic… Having said that, I’m currently working on a new thing, making frescoes, which are the most beautiful stark white. It’s something I’ve been tinkering with for years and am now finally ready to show – I made a contribution to a sculpture of Pegasus in collaboration with Julia deVille last year which featured frescoed wings, painted directly onto the wall of the gallery. It’s another painting medium with significance, with baggage. I like to play with such things.
How do you work with light and colour against such dark backgrounds in your paintings?
Carefully and slowly. I make drawings where I plan the passages of light and shadow across the surface – the light pops out from behind a blackened figure here, then delves into darkness behind a well-lit positive form. It’s a kind of game with shadows. I often mean for them to be brighter when I embark on a new work or series, but find I hit a nice brooding balance that hums visually and I’m done. It’s all a bit PT Barnum, perhaps – to always leave them wanting more. I do cop a lot of criticism from folks who want them to be brighter. I think contemporary taste seems to be for garish advertising billboards of paintings, so it’s deliberate, a kind of resistance. Every now and then someone sides with me, and they’re usually fellow painters or sculptors, the ones I admire.
What are the main influences for the classical, Renaissance-style subjects in your work?
You can’t beat the counter-reformation zeal of Rubens, I reckon. They may be clunky and sometimes as ugly as all-get-out, but they’re everything painting should be. Also, Ribera was a badass beyond compare. Supposedly he ran a thing called the “Cabal of Naples” – an outlaw motorcycle club centuries before they came to exist, threatening painters from Rome if they received painting commissions on his turf. Rumour has it Guido Reni sent his apprentice and he wound up floating in the river Sarno. Heavy stuff. Figurative painting compels me, the stories of sex and violence may be a bit naff but they keep me painting.
What sort of relevance do you think these subjects have to contemporary audiences?
I don’t think they particularly do, and perhaps that is the point. Seeking out daggy old Greek mythological shit and biblical tales of sex and death is simply the best way to avoid current trends in contemporary art. It’s deliberate. Nobody is making religious paintings, really, and yet strangely the world is actually becoming more religious. I think it’s secular societies that are buying all the condoms. Perhaps, though, it’s because these themes are universal and timeless and deserve another look.
Why are you attracted to violent imagery?
For the same reason we are all rubberneckers at a car crash, in the hope of seeing some poor bastard’s blood on the road. It’s horrible, but we all do it.
Your works can be considered scary or disturbing; is this your aim?
No, not so much. If you look carefully, you’ll notice I try to keep the gore in the shadows – so that it’s more in the ‘theatre of the mind’. Besides, there’s a lot worse on the news each night, which everyone sees. I do enjoy the ability of art to present the worst aspects of the human condition with grace – in fact I am sure this was ever its task, if it has one.
In 2013 you exhibited with Julia deVille. How did you find this collaboration?
I have a great deal of respect for Julia as an artist, a friend and as a human being. We have quite a lot in common in terms of our sensibilities. We never discuss the work that we will show together, or each other’s individual contributions to our collective efforts, and yet those who have seen our stuff together will have experienced the happy coincidence of materials, subject matter and titles that seem to plague us.
What can we expect from your upcoming exhibition in July?
A bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. Some large black work, some new white work. Things on the wall, stuff on the ceiling. Some works on paper … I’ve changed it up a bit this time, to keep myself interested. It’s the only way to give yourself any chance of keeping someone else remotely engaged with what you do – to keep it fresh for yourself.
Paintings by Leslie Rice
7 July – 1 August, 2015
Jan Murphy Gallery
Images courtesy the artist, Sophie Gannon Gallery and Jan Murphy Gallery