Catherine O’Donnell

It's been an exciting year for Catherine O'Donnell. If you haven't heard about her yet don't worry we've got you covered. Selected for the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2016 and about to open her latest exhibition this October at Brenda May Gallery, we managed to squeeze into her busy timetable for an interview about her inquisitive practice in our latest issue - 37.

For Catherine O’Donnell a later start to art has not limited the conceptual maturity of her practice. Since she began making art in early 2000, her drive has been fuelled by a lifelong connection to place and the home. Drawn to the familiar and unrepresented, O’Donnell depicts everyday images from plumbing to suburban homes, moving between hyperrealism and abstraction in her construction of geometric shapes and forms.

You’ve had a late beginning in the art world, but your practice has a maturity and strength that outreaches this. What led you to begin practising?
I worked as a lab technician for many years. When my last child went to school I just felt that I wanted to do something for me. Art was a natural choice because I have always loved it. So I went to TAFE with no ambitions, I just decided I wanted to go there and learn how to draw. My husband has been my biggest supporter, and when I went to TAFE I had some fantastic teachers who really encouraged me to go to university. I enjoyed the National Art School so much and had a lot of support along the way.

Suburbia has been a constant thread throughout your practice. What feeds this interest?
It stems from my upbringing. I was brought up in Sydney’s western suburbs in Green Valley. It was the first housing estate in NSW, built in the 1960s. All the architecture that I am revisiting now is partly my history. There are other elements that I enjoy of it; the aesthetic and the politics add another flavour to the work. It’s my history – I’ve grown up here, I’ve worked here, my children have been raised here. So I have very strong connections to this kind of architecture.

With this autobiographical focus underlying your work, what appeals to you about building a narrative?
That is really important to me and that is a big part of it. I may draw a façade or a window or whatever, but there are many layers to the work. Partly it is the geometry, partly it is the realism, but it is the narrative that plays a strong part in it. I don’t like to impose a story on people, I like it to be inferred, or for the viewer to impose their own experience on the work. So my work is more about shared ideas and shared experiences because my memories of the housing estates or the western suburbs are other people’s memories – good memories and bad memories. I suppose I like to use my work as a platform or a jumping off point for people to re-engage and revisit their own memories and places.

In building a narrative there is a cyclical form to your process as you deconstruct an image and then reconstruct it with selected features. Rather than realism, they seem to be leaning towards the abstract and geometric.
Yes, that is true. I don’t see my work as photorealism at all, I try and move away from that and I am not interested in photorealism. I draw representationally, but it is the abstraction of the works that interests me. It is the configuration of the doors and the windows on the fibro sheets, the brick works, there is that abstract element. Even when you look at my Rome works too, it is all about geometry.

Jeffrey Smart is one of my heroes; his work was all about the shapes. He did put people in but I think the people were only in to give more idea about the scale. I never put people in mine, and that is intentional as I feel if I put a person in there I impose a narrative as well. Straight away people look to the person in a picture and it becomes about the person when it’s not – it’s about the architecture, the geometry, the abstraction – the shared experience.

What role does intuition play in your practice?
Whenever I am walking the streets I am taking photos if something catches my attention. When I get back to the studio I flick through heaps of photos, hundreds. I just pull out one or two and think what is it within that work that interests me? I do think I am interested in the geometry and shadows, which is initially what draws me in. Then I decide what bit … lately I have been chopping off roofs and footings to emphasise the geometry of the building. I love the shadows when the shadow implies something and it’s not there. I take away all the things I don’t want, which can include window dressings, rubbish, roofs, and then I reinsert windows I want – recently I have been using venetian blinds.

Yes you have huge variances in size and scale in your practice.
In the little Fairfield series I knew the room at Fairfield Gallery was small, so I wanted a smaller scale. The large scale, which I really enjoy doing, is to bring the viewer into the works. I am very interested in trompe l’oeil, and that was the reason I did go to Rome so I could experience the trompe l’oeil from the Baroque period. To be in that space is overwhelming, you are fully encapsulated in the work and in the moment. I wanted to do that with my drawings too, so when I did ‘Threshold’, it was to partly make people feel like they were confronted with the house, with the stairs, you could actually walk into that space physically and psychologically.

In your residencies in both Rome and Venice your works ignored the icons and focused on the local and familiar. What drew you to focus on plumbing instead of the ornamental buildings?
When I go to other places I have a settling in period, where I feel a little displaced and have to find some common ground. Often I will go for a found object, and in Rome this was a book and the plumbing. I was in a place called Segni looking at an archaeological dig, and as we were walking around this little hilltop Tuscan town what struck me was the geometry of the plumbing and lightboxes as the sun struck them – jumping out at me everywhere I went. That place was beautiful, it was quaint and picturesque, but for me it was the plumbing. I went to Garbatella and Primavalle, which were housing developments very similar to Green Valley, where the people were pushed out of the city to go into these housing developments so that they could redevelop the city. Like Green Valley they were pushed into these places that really didn’t have very much and expected to have this wonderful life there. In reality their life wasn’t that great there, living on top of each other.

Drawing on these grand art traditions, such as the tromp l’oeil, you re-contextualise them to depict everyday suburban spaces.
So often society dismisses, or doesn’t put as much on value on these places. I understand that, but that is our history too and you can’t say it is not there anymore. It is just me saying this is who we are. In the grand scale lots of people live in those places and they still do, they are still homes.

Focusing on these symbols of homes, doorways and entrances, you’ve connected with a broad audience, not limited to Australia.
Yes, today we have immigration and the migration of people all across the world. What is a home? What is a house? What’s your relationship with that? What I draw are windows and doors but they can relate to anywhere, any culture, anybody. It is all about that shared narrative and that shared experience, while mine have a particularly Australian flavour I suppose. When I have travelled to other places and done other architecture the same themes come out, it is just more related to where I am at the time because that is what is influencing me.

These suburban houses also engage people with a different perspective of Sydney – not just the harbour and the beaches. This is one reason with the houses I never put the rubbish or the cars, my houses aren’t about poverty. I don’t want people to feel sorry about each house, it is somebody’s home. I don’t like to get political but it is the inequality. You want people to have the best life they can have, whether it is in that house or the Packer mansion, it doesn’t matter.

In the Fairfield series, why did you interview the homeowners and record them for the exhibitions?
I suppose I wanted to feel close to them in some respects, it is something that I had been thinking about for a while. I had the opportunity with Fairfield because they could help me contact people, I wasn’t brave enough to knock on the doors. We put out a call and I thought it added a layer of depth to hear the people that lived in them, and that again becomes shared experiences with the viewer.

You’ve been selected in the Dobell Biennial, drawing within an iconic building, the Art Gallery of NSW. What are you focusing upon?
It is a big thrill to be invited. I like site-specific works and I like the challenge of the wall. This is the first time I have done a wall drawing. Straight away I thought I want to make it a big house, in my head I had the idea of punctuating the wall with the windows, and the wall becomes the house. In perspective I drew the room. The house will be 9.9 metres so it’s slightly smaller than real size, so I hope with the room and the perspective it comes off as a full-size house. It is a nice challenge to draw on the wall, but there is an element of the unknown. There will be a door ajar, and slightly open windows. I want an entry point for the viewer psychologically so you think “who is behind that door?” I do like to change things – that is an intentional thing. It is also for me too partly, because it’s almost like the drawing can’t breathe unless they have a window open or a door open, it needs to have a life in there.


Drawn in Fairfield
1 – 26 October
Brenda May Gallery 

Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2016
Until 11 December
Art Gallery of NSW

Catherine O’Donnell is represented by Brenda May Gallery, Sydney

Courtesy the artist, Parramatta Artist Studios and Brenda May Gallery, Sydney.

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