Guy Maestri Self-Portraits

Artist Guy Maestri says curator Andre de Borde nailed it in the foreword to his most recent exhibition titled Personal Space which included confronting self-portraits depicting vomiting, and choking, on his own paint. 

“Creative block can present the most crippling, and unfortunately universal challenge for an artist … An image will however, if genuinely sought out, emerge from the despair an artist may feel,” de Borde wrote.

In 2009 Maestri won Australia’s best known art prize, Archibald Prize, for his portrait of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. But prior to making these self-portraits, shown last month (17 October – 25 November 2015), at Gallery Ecosse, Exeter NSW, Maestri best known as a landscape painter says he spent 12 painful months locked in a creative wasteland.

“Andre is a mate and he saw what I went through in that year, and he was on the money with his assessment,” Maestri, 41 reveals from his inner Sydney studio. “It was a time of personal struggle and anguish because I suffered a huge crisis of confidence, and wrestled daily with my place as an artist.”

In an essay preface to Maestri’s landscape exhibition, No Man’s Land, (2012) arts and culture writer Anna Johnson wrote, “Maestri doesn’t pretend to forge an integral or iconic image by connecting with the land. If anything his most successful paintings convey a vague discomfort, a very real sense of not belonging at all and instead simply watching the scene in a state of apprehension, static wonderment and doubt.”

Prophetic words perhaps, crippled as he was says Maestri, by last year’s inertia, unhappiness and uncertainty.

“The act of painting has always come reasonably naturally to me, and I have always considered myself an observer…. I look at things, I see them and I paint them. But I strive to work beyond simply observing and rendering, to try to make works that speak of humanity and the landscape and the environment. I have often felt choked and inadequate in my career and that anxiety about whether I am achieving what I try to is always the carrot that keeps me trying to struggle and develop as an artist. But this time the doubts became overwhelming. Was my voice clear at all? Was my painting of any value, or potency at all to society and why should it be?”

Maestri, who is close friends with renowned fellow artists Ben Quilty and Luke Sciberras, believes his artistic block was bought on by a series of traumatic breakdowns.

“Two relationships I cared deeply about broke down in one year, and both endings were tumultuous. Where before my work had always provided solace, on this occasion I really began to question myself.”

In his studio hangs a print of the 1985 self portrait of Lucian Freud titled Lucian Freud Reflection (Self-Portrait). Maestri says the late British painter has always been his greatest inspiration. Ironically though since winning the Archibald with his work of Gurrumul Yunupingu, Maestri has only occasionally made portraits.  Never self-portraits.

“Ben said, as he always does about everything, “make a painting of it all”, and it became apparent he was right. To get over these traumas, I had to put myself on the canvas for the first time. To observe how I was feeling, record it and then let it go. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. But when I started, I found I couldn’t stop. I was blindsided by sadness I guess.”

Maestri says oil paint self –portraits depict his mental battle to overcome grief and self-doubt, and show the artist choking on and spewing paint, his eyes and mouth taped shut.

“Making and exhibiting these works was one of the hardest things I have ever done but when I put them out there, and received such a great response from people who know my work, it felt great … It has opened new doors for me, and I feel like I have given myself license to make work about myself and that is incredibly liberating.” Maestri says.

De Borde says, “Maestri has discovered a revitalized sense of purpose … The self-portraits he has offered up are among the most highly significant pieces he has made to date. They are authentically personal and emerge from a series of life challenges, a dark time of reflection and ultimately one of discovery and rejuvenation.”

Courtesy the artist and Olsen Irwin Gallery, Sydney. 

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