Neil Frazer

There is a strong physical energy that comes through in Neil Frazer’s paintings that reflects not just their creation but also the process behind the works. Frazer is drawn to extreme landscapes – stark cliffs, crashing waves, deserts – and he likes to wholeheartedly immerse himself in these places in order for a body of work to come into being. His studio practice is equally demanding, as the artist works vigorously, building layers to create the textured, gestural paintings for which he is recognised. Artist Profile spoke to the Canberra-born, New Zealand-raised artist in his inner-Sydney studio about his travels, techniques and how his early years as an abstract painter have informed his depictions of place.

How do you get the crisp, clean division between the backgrounds and worked areas of your paintings?
I mask out the white areas before the painting is started – although I can still paint over the white later in the painting process if I want to alter the composition.

What led you to this technique?
For the first twenty years of my career I was an abstract painter. The first figurative works I started began with a painting on paper of a mountain range. Being dissatisfied in a moment of destruction, I ripped the paper along the top edge to create the silhouette of a ridge line. I placed the thickly impasto ripped mountain shape on a white piece of paper and was pleased with the result. The next works began with a taped-out section and then they started to look more realistic – I was excited by the change and felt the necessity to pursue the possibilities.

What do you think it adds to the works?
The white spaces operate in few different ways within the picture. Pictorially they create a deep space without the hints of atmospheric perspective. Physically they allow me to paint very gesturally to the edge of the composition without having to limit the energy of the paint with fine brushwork. In an abstract sense they also activate the thicker coloured impasto areas, and often if on a white or pale wall the space moves out and beyond the picture into infinity.

How do you plan a work? Will you sketch it out or is a spontaneous process?
The first point is usually a trip – I am drawn to locations that have an energy and a physicality about them. I am always amazed by the natural world – so often art seems small and inadequate when compared to reality. I guess that the struggle to understand our place within the natural world is at the root of my art. Once I return from a trip the process is quite spontaneous as I experiment with the elements I have collected and with technique. At a certain point I commit to a clear way forward with a particular body of work.

Do your works come together quickly or are they worked on over a longer period of time?
In order that my paintings have energy, I work relatively fast. I have many works on the go at once, but really only one or two that I am concentrating on. I want the works to retain an energy and that requires that they are painted quite physically. I guess it’s a modernist approach that the work identifies its maker, but more than that I have to be actively involved in the process.

You estimate that only one out of three works you paint is successful. Does this allow for experimentation necessary to your practice?
I have often had to learn by making mistakes. It is true I do destroy quite a lot of what I create in order to understand what I am after. I often feel a guilt for the waste of materials, and I hate the lost hope of ideas that died, but there is also a liberation in the destruction of a painting that, despite all my efforts, still feels inadequate or just wrong. These days I usually take photos of my work during its development as I try to pinpoint the time when the work slips from that optimism of a new beginning to the unredeemable mess that has been overworked to the point that it must be destroyed. The possibility and risk of failure is a necessary part of making work for me. It so often ends with the question: ”Is it good enough?” Too many times I persevere to the point of banging my head on the painting (not literally) and then the inevitable destruction – so unstretching the canvas is usually a huge relief.

Over ten years ago you moved from oil paint to acrylic. Has that changed your practice?
At a point of exasperation as an oil painter I would often pour turps over a much worked-on painting in some vain hope that it might wash away the inadequacies and result, through some miracle, in an improved picture. Often the result was that I ended up with a turps high – which quickly fades into more of a depressive state. The great news is by changing to acrylics both my psychological and physical wellbeing is much improved, and technically the quicker drying times for the impasto has meant I can layer paint faster and work directly with more energy. Acrylic paint now has great body and tooth compared with the early versions.

When did you begin to paint the landscape and why?
The first twenty years I was working, I was an abstract painter. However the works, while containing no obvious figurative elements, were mostly based on landscape. I would spend, say, six weeks drawing, taking rubbings and gathering physical material from sites in the landscape – rocks, foliage etc. The paintings I made were informed by the texture and colour of the land, but there were often references to the conventions we associate with landscape painting. Most landscape painters approach painting with a knowledge of its historical conventions, even without consciously being aware of it. My approach is to take some of these conventions, try them out, test their limitations, and manipulate them a bit for my own ends.

How did your beginnings in abstraction inform your depictions of landscape?
When I painted abstractly, I used to collect lumps of tussock grass, branches, leaves and all sorts of things to look at and apply the paint with. It was also a way of bringing the outside in and having the palette and textures right there in front of me in the studio. It gave me a real feel of the landscape I was working from. It was as if as I was painting I was breaking it down to try to understand the physical structure and energy of things rather than just the way they look. There are many parallels in these different ways of working. In an abstract painting you can deal with a lot of the elements individually – say thinking about composition without worrying if it looks like a thing or a scene.

Do you see your works as depictions of real places or are they more about the idea of place?
Ultimately I am trying to create a sense of how a place feels – its energy – and this involves using some aspects I gather from reality, but also being intuitive about how I respond to a place. It’s wonderful for me when someone recognises a location and I know that essentially I must have created the feel of the place, because generally it’s not really like that in reality.

You tend to paint extreme, remote landscapes. What attracts you to these kinds of places?
When you travel alone to a place that is particularly remote, and possibly scary, you are very much forced to confront your own small place within what can be a very harsh and dangerous world. On my first trip to Central Australia someone suggested I swim through a very remote gorge to see a spectacular location – it was very cold, dark and at times only an arm-span wide. I had no indication of the depth or distance and continued to swim on without being able to see light at the end. Much relieved to make land again, I emerged beside a dead sheep bobbing in the water. An experience like that imprints itself on your understanding of the land and makes its way into all the gorges you paint going forward. I gather information in other ways and seek to find out about the geology and history of an area to develop greater understanding – I also draw and take photos.

Does a lot of planning go into the trips?
The trips are much better for having been planned. I waited six months for conditions to be right to boat around the Apostles on the Great Ocean Road and was rewarded with an incredible and unforgettable excursion. I am very attracted to weathered rock formations that speak of the tremendous forces that create them over time. Travelling to the Antarctic was born of a desire to see the point where those great mountains shattered by cold meet the sea – it very much raised my awareness of the fragility of this environment and the ecological issues that surround its care. I paint a world free of human intervention, never including roads or figures or any indication of human activity. But humans are just outside the picture – and not always as a positive force.

Tell me about your studio practice.
My work-life balance suffers at times from a willingness to persevere – perhaps too much at times – in the studio. Long hours and a certain amount of head banging start to make trips away from the studio very appealing. I love my studio but I am often unable to separate myself from it. I articulate my day with my practice of karate, which I have been studying pretty much my whole adult life. I run a small club – it is a discipline and it keeps me sane when I am battling in the studio.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 40, 2017

Neil Frazer
21 July – 13 August 2020
Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane

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