Tom Polo Awarded 2015 Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship

Congratulation to Tom Polo who has won the 2015 Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship.

The annual scholarship awards the recipient with a stipend – this year valued at $30 000 - to support living and travel expenses while Polo spends a three month residency at one of the Art Gallery of NSW's studios at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and up to a further three months travelling throughout Europe to further his art education.

In Issue 23, Polo spoke with Glenn Barkley about his expanding practice. The interview, occuring in August 2013, demonstrates the influences and diversity of Polo's practice as he has come into his own.


WORKING THROUGH A fairly lean period in painting’s history, Sydney-based artist Tom Polo is compelled to make work that explores many of the now standard tropes of Modernism and beyond – notably the figure and abstraction and how the two might relate. Parallel to this is an abiding interest in text as an extension of portraiture, as well as the more social meanings of art and, as a maker, its related anxieties.

An essential part of Polo’s work is its affable nature, much like the artist himself. I met with him at the Parramatta Artists Studios complex where he works with other young artists who are now coming to prominence, such as Liam Benson, David Capra, Heath Franco, Giselle Stanborough and Jodie Whalen.

You grew up in Western Sydney. What made you want to become an artist?
I grew up in Smithfield. I was always the ‘artistic’ kid, both in the family and at school – the student who took that extra time to do drawings for a project. So, if I didn’t have the information, I would try to get away with a detailed drawing. I could never draw well – I would have gotten an A for effort, but technically, at best, maybe a B. Eventually I became interested in painting and the very physical act of creating it, so I kept going.

Where did you go to art school?
I did Fine Arts at COFA [the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts], in 2003, finishing in 2006. I went back in 2009 to do a Masters. I had various teachers through the years: Gary Carsley, Ian Grant, Nicole Ellis, Andrew Christofides, David Eastwood, Peter Sharp and Alan Oldfield. Fine Arts wasn’t my first preference. I applied for a Bachelor of Visual Communication but I missed out and my second choice was a Bachelor of Fine Arts. As a safety net I put down a Bachelor of Arts as a way of justifying studying art – a ‘slashie’ degree. I didn’t go so well until the third year when I had the courage to drop out of the Bachelor of Arts degree. I got the marks to do honours and that’s when I decided I wanted to talk about painting in a way I hadn’t done before and I guess it’s just continued from there.

How do you feel as someone interested in painting that at a place like COFA you were going against the orthodoxy? What did you feel the fate of painting might have been?
It’s that funny thing about being a painting student and the continual reminder about the death of painting and its 10-year renewal, so I tried to embed that in the conceptual concerns of my practice. Now, of course, I think making the work is justification enough.

My painting was always figurative but I became increasingly interested in the canvas as a stage, or a proscenium arch in which something happens. A figure becomes the protagonist in this setting. Recently I’ve become interested in redeveloping this idea and pushing my painting into installations that audiences step into.

I think I did OK at art school because, at the time, I wanted to think about painting in a different way. I wouldn’t say I was ‘funny’ but the work definitely had an underlying nerve to it. Abstracted figures were loose, strange, androgynous forms that stressed how important the link between figuration and abstraction was to me. My work was never about creating a likeness, but colour or shape suggesting a face, which then opened up other ways of explaining form. It was, and still is, problem solving, or creating a problem, then finding a solution in a tactile way.

Your new work… it’s unusual to talk about your career as having recent and early phases…
… seven years is a funny amount of time… …

but you seem to have returned to your beginnings. Most people would know your text-based works but text seems to have gone.
From 2009 to 2011 I was doing a lot of text works, but now I might use text on banners or flags rather than doing paintings of texts.

How did the text works come about?
I began to use a lot of slogans or phrases as titles for my figurative works and there was something about their humour, which was very much about doubt, that needed its own platform. At that time, it was almost enough. But I’ve always been interested in what portraiture is and I see the text works as just a part of that.

I got interested in that dialogue of slogans and mantras in the studio and, like a comedian writing down his best jokes, I felt the need to get these words down as text paintings which began to find their place resting around the studio as a constant dialogue. I wanted to translate these into a gallery setting. People were responding and relating to them. I was still interested in abstraction and the text became abstraction: a colour or shape on canvas. Often words were illegible. Sometimes I stopped seeing words and just looked at paint.

So, I don’t feel I moved back from text to figuration – they sit alongside one another. This happened in ‘Time and Vision’, the show I was a part of in London (The Bargehouse, 2012) coming out of the studio residency I did there in 2011. My work Fields of Uncertainty (Playing with painting) activated the space, with both figurative and text works continually being made in a space that was both the site of production and site of display, where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

It was a work where painting is suggestive of performance and so often people would stop and ask “Is a performance happening?” or “Have we missed it?” and “When does it start?”.

This came from my show at Gertrude Contemporary (‘Gestures and Mistakes’, 2012) where, again, I wanted to keep the space active. If I wasn’t there, staff or volunteers would do things in the space according to instructions, such as recreating one of my paintings on the wall using three colours. Paintings were on sticks and would change position in the gallery. It made the audience aware they had an extra responsibility.

So these paintings on sticks are like placards?
Yeah, I refer to the series as ‘Paintings/Props/Personas’. They have a physical, human quality. They watch you. They’re like the audience but also just props. If they’re protesting anything, it’d be personal not political. One day I suggested that [people] could go in and move them. From then, I would go into the gallery and a banner might be rolled or unrolled, or something may have fallen and been stuck back up or a placard had been turned around. I like to imagine the times when the audience may have been in there alone wanting to change something.

Change and negotiation that talks about the anxiety of the artist and the role of the audience is what I’m really interested in right now: how these divisions are made and how we categorise artist and audience, studio and gallery, outcomes and completion. What then happens when we sabotage that?

I hope I can be OK at what I’m doing. It’s trying to create a critical engagement with how people look at painting today

Art Gallery NSW Travelling Art Scholarship

Image: Tom Polo, All she needs, 2014 Acrylic and vinyl acrylic on canvas,
Courtesy of Station Gallery, Melbourne. Private Collection, Sydney

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