Unearth, Guy Maestri

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With a strong connection to the landscape and a distinctive style, Guy Maestri is a multi-award winning artist, with an Archibald Prize win to his name. Guy spent most of his formative years living in the Pappinbarra Valley and attending primary school at Beechwood. His latest exhibition, Unearth, will be on display at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery from December 9.

Hi Guy. What was the inspiration behind your exhibition, Unearth?

Essentially it’s a selection of work that I’ve done over the last five years, and it represents my main focus – which is landscape painting, and other things that have led from there, like some figurative sculpture. It’s mostly about my observation of the landscape and how human beings have interacted and impacted with it.

You’ve mentioned this exhibition contains sculptural work, as well as paintings. Is sculpture a relatively new practice for you?

It’s funny – I went to art school to do sculpture in 2000, and I very rapidly fell in love with painting. Sculpture has kind of been on hold since then, and it’s only been over about the last six months that I’ve really delved into again. There’s so much potential in it – it’s fantastic. I want the sculptural work to have a narrative or speak to or with the paintings, and that’s slowly starting to happen. It’s a pretty new thing, even though I had a focus on it 15 years ago.

My recent exhibition at Jan Murphy’s Gallery in Brisbane was the first body of sculptural work I’ve ever exhibited.

How has the response been to your sculptural work, considering it is so new?

Fantastic! I was really surprised, actually. You do what you have to do and you don’t know how people are going to respond to it. I was very uncertain about how the work might be received. But, I think that was the nice thing about it … I just did it, without having any preconceptions about what sculpture should be, and that led me to bring my understanding as a painter back into the sculptures. They were received really well, and that was so encouraging.

Since then, I’ve been working on a lot more.

Why is oil paint your preferred medium for your paintings?

When I’m painting, I definitely use oil. Apart from being the most tactile, luxurious medium, it’s so rich, and the colours are so vibrant. It captures every nuance and every detail so beautifully – and it doesn’t change, unlike some other materials. It’s the perfect material, particularly if you’re working in that painterly, gestural kind of way that I do  … You can allow the paint to take over in some parts, but it’s also very controllable if you know how to use it. It’s the perfect medium for me.

How do you construct your sculptures?

The original material for most of them was plasticine – it’s very much like oil paint, in that it’s malleable and you can push it around and move it. You can model with it, much like you can do with paint. But plasticine never dries, so you then have to make a mould of it and cast it in some other material. The original ones I’ve made were created from plasticine, cast in bronze, but then I’ve painted them so they look like plasticine again! They have the feeling that they’re impermanent and malleable, but underneath they’re actually really solid.

I’ve been enjoying the process of moulding, casting, reproducing and playing around with new materials.

You’re well known now for many of your paintings, but some of your more interesting ones featuring “road kill” – which are so vibrant and somehow so lifelike – may be seen as a bit macabre by some viewers.  What’s your motivation for painting these pieces?

My main focus has been landscape, but very much about observing what influence we have on the landscape. I spend weeks and weeks driving around in the country, and I come across enormous amounts of roadkill. It became almost like a survey of what is in an area that I visit, and I thought it should be documented.

I really enjoyed painting in that way – it made me refine the way I worked, as I was able to bring these things into the studio and work as though they were a still life. I was able to compose and control the environment, as opposed to all my landscape paintings, which are painted on site – where it’s very difficult to control anything.

There’s a nice counterbalance there with the landscape paintings, but they continue on the basis of landscapes – they’re part of the landscape, they’re part of our effect on it – so they’re a valid part of my research.

Among other locations you visited and painted, my understanding is that an artist residency in Hamilton, Victoria, led to some of your work in Unearth?

Yes, I had 10 weeks in a really beautiful old region of southwest Victoria, which is sheep country. It was an area made famous by Streeton and other artists, who created some  landscape paintings showing the light and the grandeur of the region. It was nice to travel in those footsteps and make my own contemporary observations of the same landscape. I’d only seen this area through other artworks, so it was very interesting to go there and create my own 100 years later.

There are a number of paintings from this residency in the show.

You’ve achieved such success in the art world, winging the Archibald Prize in 2009 for your portrait of Australian singer and musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. You also won the Kings School Art Prize in 2014, as well as being a finalist in the Wynne prize several times – among others. What are your current goals and aspirations?

You don’t enter these things with the thought of ticking them off, or even that you might win them – it’s more about being involved. Being hung in these exhibitions mean you become part of that art community with your contemporaries and other artists you admire. It’s a nice thing to belong to! Entering these awards prompt you to finish something, put something together and think about things in different ways, whci is very healthy in terms of achieving things … That’s really what my sculpture is about. It’s opening up potential, and I’m so enthusiastic now. I hope to always have that, and I think that’s what keeps me bouncing to different things; I hope to always keep that enthusiasm.

If I was to hope for anything, it would just be that I never run out of inspiration, ideas and enthusiasm.

Thanks Guy.

Interview by Jo Robinson.

Photo of Guy by Daniel Shipp.

THE PLUG

See Unearth at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery from 9 December – 12 February. The Glasshouse acknowledges the support of the Jan Murphy Gallery with this exhibition. www.glasshouse.org.au

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