Al Poulet

Al Poulet and Elisabeth Cummings share a space - both professional and domestic - at the Wedderburn artists' community, on the outskirts of Campbelltown. A new show at Penrith Regional Gallery examines the tangential relationships between the artists' practices, and traces their engagements with the local ecology within, about, and alongside which they work.

Al Poulet’s recent paintings and drawings are of worlds without objects. They derive from physicality, and a lot of silence. Adopting the mantra of ‘no rules’, the artist seeks to be free of classicism’s ideals. Artist Profile spoke to Poulet in the late Roy Jackson’s home and studio.

How do you picture your childhood?
A lot of freedom. I was allowed to do what I wanted most of the time. Plenty of painting in dad’s studio and bike riding through Marrickville. It was a happy time with my brothers and sister. I was always playing.

When did you come to Roy Jackson’s studio in Wedderburn?
About two years ago through an application process. All the members liked my paintings and thought I’d fit in well.

Why did you change your name from Alexander to Al?
I changed my name when I was five, because mum and dad used to call me Ali. I just said one day that my name was Al, and it was Al from then on.

I was named by my dad. It’s a Russian family name passed on through generations. My grandfather’s name was Eugene Alexander, my uncle’s name is Alexander. I have a French last name. After the revolution in France my family went through Germany and ended up in Russia. My great grandfather was a doctor, and when the Bolsheviks took over, they moved to China with a lot of other ‘white’ Russians. My grandma and grandpa lived in China till 1953. Then they ended up in Glenfield (south-west Sydney) with not much. Initially they had a chicken farm, which is ironic, because ‘poulet’ means chicken in French.

How do you balance working with performance and paint?
It’s the natural progression, an ongoing evolution of my work. At art school I made heavily political videos; they were cathartic. From video, I moved on to painting and saw that as a way of performing and leaving a mark. I looked seriously at the Flâneur, and the Situationist; particularly Guy Debord. He used psycho-geography, repeatedly drifting through the city, in order to be free. Through the motion of meditation, when you’re walking, you’re no longer observing what your surroundings are; you’re a part of it, and that’s how I approached painting.

Your video Desired Action (2012) comments ‘all actions may be reduced to their original desire.’ How does this idea relate to your painting and drawing?
I initially got the idea from desire lines, left in physical places. For example, when it snows, people form new tracks because they no longer follow the old track and every year the landscaper updates the tracks, but these tracks could be a desire line. They want to go past the roses on the way through the park, so they do that. That really related to how I paint. When I’m making a mark, it’s like where do I want to go? And there’s that residue of the desire. I don’t quite understand, but it’s something that’s enjoyable, being in that place, on that path. Also, a big part of linking walking to painting is I collect things on walks. I’ve collected a big door, lots of hubcaps and bits of boards and cardboard. The ‘Off the Wall’ (2016) series was painted on found objects.

The feeling I get is that you move from one painting station to the next, not staying on one work. Is that so?
It’s important for my marks to find their place. After a while they’ll have settled, or I notice something different, so I’ll touch it up. I’ve got the luxury of this space to be able to do that. It’s changed how I paint. I think it’s made them look better, because I live with them and I have enough space to observe them as they change. Compared to working in a garage with no lighting and space for one or two works, now I can do ten paintings at the same time.

Do you constantly tell yourself ‘no rules’ when you’re making a work?
If I were to put rules onto myself as I was painting, it wouldn’t be fun. It’s about the expression, the moment. The enjoyment is in making the mark and not knowing why I am making the mark. So, it’s this strange cycle. Maybe because I’m not classically trained in painting, some of my choices would be considered unbalanced or incorrect. But that’s part of being free; not having rules, and expressing the moment.

Are you purposefully disrespecting the materials to create your paintings?
I’m pushing those paints to the limit and seeing what I can get out of them. Also, not wasting any paint. I use house paints and top-of-the-line acrylic paints. It’s not a disrespect. The outcome is important.

You use chance-based strategies, like throwing paint.
Yeah, it’s about the action, but also having something to work with straight away. So, I throw down my liquid paints and get a mark happening. Through those accidents and experiments, in that moment, something great might happen. It’s organic. You can see the different paces of how I’ve worked depending on the strokes and how laboured something might be, creating contrast and tension within the work. In Untitled (Blues for John) (2019) you can see the speed with which I’ve worked underneath, and on top.

You seem to prefer painting on tough surfaces.
I guess, again, that’s a subconscious choice. There’s a lot of history of artists I like working on boards; such as Tony Tuckson and Ildiko Kovacs. So, it’s got that nostalgia … But working un-stretched straight onto the studio wall is pretty much like working on a board. There’s no spring at all, it feels more direct.

I wonder what freedom means to you …
I think freedom is being in the moment, surfing and walking; that’s something I try to capture in my paintings. If you aren’t practicing mindfulness it’s hard to be free; you’re thinking about the future, about financial difficulties, climate crisis or coronavirus. But if you can slow it down and record it, it’s really enjoyable and satisfying.

Your vocabulary of forms and spatial dynamics has grown in the bush.
Definitely, spatial dynamics are a huge thing. Moving into the landscape and observing through the trees the different foregrounds and backgrounds; having those filters. My eyes had to adjust from the city. The bush changed the way I see. I feel less inhibited in the form of expression. It feels natural, the different perspective that you can achieve from the one surface plane. Untitled (Urban Jade) (2019) or Untitled (101) (2014-19) are good examples.

There’s a new misty quality?
Through the trees, the depth gives that misty quality. I’m experimenting with the spray-can to capture that fuzziness of focus. It’s just playing with the paint, too.

Your perspectives expand horizontally.
I always go to the edges. The way I stretch the canvas means that the painting continues around the stretcher. It becomes an object.

You don’t paint figuratively?
My works are an inner journey, which could be considered landscape in a way; going inwards. Just a place where there are no figures. They’re not necessary yet.

Are there reflective moments after marks are made?
Definitely. In between each layer there’s at least a day of drying time. Forming the gesture on the canvas is really important. It’s more important than colour, if you can get that gesture correct. Tuckson’s red, black and white paintings: the gestures are so strong, I don’t think it mattered what colour he used.

Is incompleteness another strategy?
Yeah, to create tension within the work. I might have overdone one section of the painting, so I’ll contrast that with something that’s underdone. It creates intrigue in the gesture.

How are you finding working with an art dealer?
Nadine Wagner’s been really supportive, taking me to Sydney Contemporary last year. That was a good boost. My first big solo show is coming up. I guess I’ll have more to say after that. I’m still working it out. I couldn’t accept a dealer who told me what to paint.

Is there anything you’re afraid of?
No. I’m not afraid of anything. Maybe my paintings won’t get accepted, but who knows.

This conversation was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 51, 2020.

EXHIBTION
Cummings & Poulet
13 March – 9 May 2021
Penrith Regional Gallery, NSW

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