Lucy O’Doherty in Paris

In the year that’s passed in between winning the 2016 Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship and leaving for the three-month residency at the Cité Internationale Des Arts in Paris, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I want to produce during my time here.

Having previously painted mostly detached urban and remote single-storey Australian architecture in depopulated landscapes, Paris is a challenging deviation of subject matter with its ornately trimmed and towering buildings and densely populated streets.

I didn’t want to go into the residency with a preconceived idea of what I wanted to make. I knew I wanted to wait until I arrived, explore my surroundings and make honest responses to moments or places or artworks that interest me. My main objective is to build up a decent amount of observational studies so that when I return to Australia in half a year’s time, I can extract different moments and combine them to make new compositions of merging memories and places from my overall journey.

After one week here, my first realisation has been how strongly I miss oil paint. I brought a set of acrylics with me, thinking that they’d be more suitable for travelling and would aid me in my mission in becoming a speedier painter. I spent a frustrating afternoon feeling like I was dragging my paintbrush over sandpaper because I wasn’t used to acrylic’s rapid drying time. I miss the fluidity and leniency of slow-drying oil paint, though I know I can experiment with different acrylic mediums. For the first week I eased into new surroundings with my more familiar soft pastels.

On my first full day in Paris I strolled through the Jardin des Tuileries, passing some old Frenchmen by a fountain who were impressively sunbathing in 30-degree heat and chain-smoking at the same time, and continued on to the art supply store, Magasin Sennelier. Many people have mentioned this store to me because of its huge collection of dry pastels and pigments, as well as its links to Cezanne, Picasso and Degas as clients and product contributors.

As well as the many art materials on display there are even more hidden in stacks of old wooden drawers that are lined with pastels in increasing and decreasing shade variants for every colour. I purchased a few pastels to try out, and my first drawing was mainly to compare the new pastels against my old ones. It’s a drawing of my studio’s single bed simplified to subtly varying shades of light blue planes popping out from its dark surroundings.

In my first few days I felt an urge to draw my studio and living quarters in the Cité Des Arts building located by the Seine, just near Le Marais district. I’ve become quite fond of the Cite Des Arts’ sprawling interior shell. It has Hitchcockian long dark corridors with light switches on timers, a 1970s palette of avocado green, mustard yellow and wood, and I have a phone in my studio that people can call me on but I can’t call out with, which for some reason I find intriguing.

On the way to the supermarket one day I visited the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, where they have an exhibition of contemporary Japanese photographers. I was particularly drawn to Nobuyoshi Araki’s photo series, A Sentimental Journey, which features intimate photos of his wife on their honeymoon, finishing on a photograph of their rumpled bed. I like the quiet intimacy of rooms and the stories they can tell about the people who occupy them. I have a feeling the rooms I stay in might become a recurring motif during my travels.

I also did a pastel drawing of my seat on the plane on the flight over as a way to plot the first pit stop of my journey. It’s an improved memory of my plane ride with lots of space around an isolated chair and a tarte Tatin and a glass of Ricard Pastis on the food tray.

Looking back at all the drawings I’ve done so far I feel like I’ve had a mental jet lag from sitting in the box-like environment of a plane where everything can be reduced to little boxes, from the boxy chair covered in buttons to the TVs and compartmentalised food trays. All my recent drawings seem to focus on furniture simplified to prisms in an interior space. I guess my usual subject matter of simple suburban houses and shacks can also be seen as glorified, occupiable boxes.

In response to a visit to the Musée de Cluny, national museum of the Middle Ages, I did a strange drawing of a row of increasingly headless statues on plinths near the edge of a Roman bath. I think my palette is already getting a little deeper, perhaps influenced by the Musée de Cluny’s dark rooms filled with richly coloured furniture, art and glowing stained glass windows.

The Musée de Cluny surprised me – it’s one of my favourite places so far. I sat in an almost empty room surrounded by the massive Lady and the Unicorn tapestry and had a chance to be quietly impressed by its mystery. It was a more peaceful viewing experience than when I visited the Musée d’Orsay earlier in the week, where I had to elbow my way through people and cameras to get a glimpse of Van Gogh’s 1889 self-portrait.

After one week I don’t know if I’ve made any startling progressions yet. I’ve mostly simplified my subject matter, concentrating on subtle shifts of tone and creating spatial depth in relation to rooms or objects that have interested me. After attending a lecture on colour by American artist Amy Sillman at the Carreau du Temple, where she mentioned how neon colours have crept into the palette of painters who grew up with the influence of television, I want to experiment a little with some neon pastels I found in the studio.

I also want to gather materials to explore space through some actual 3D painted creations, not just illusionary depth, a little like the maquettes I saw on the first floor of the Musée d’Orsay.

The nice thing about being physically dislocated from my normal studio and studio practice means I feel more freedom to experiment without worrying about expectations from an established way of working. I can dismantle my normal process, and then see if I want to rebuild it later.

Lucy O’Doherty is represented by China Heights Gallery, Sydney and Edwina Corlette Gallery, Brisbane


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