If you’re looking for an artist who paints a grown up Patrick Star from SpongeBob SquarePants as well as surreal portraits that’ll leave you inspired, then you better get down Amber Boardman’s exhibition Methods For Making Eye Contact. The US born, Sydney based artist has teamed up with Teelah George for a unique exhibition which includes 30 paintings, with 10 of them being collaborative works.
While Boardman found it extremely rewarding working with Perth based George, the logistics involved when two artists live on opposite sides of the country meant some serious dedication was required. Eager to read into the unique situation a little, we caught up with Amber ahead of her joint show.
You may be able to send a track to a producer, but you can’t email a painting: Amber Boardman opens up on the challenges of long-distance collaboration.
HAPPY: Where are you from?
AMBER: I don’t really know. This is always a difficult question to answer because I moved almost every year growing up. But here’s the short answer: Born in Maine, was living in NYC in the five years before moving to Australia.
HAPPY: Where are you staying at the moment?
AMBER: I live in Sydney, in Northbridge. My studio is in Brookvale on the Northern Beaches.
HAPPY: What’s your creative space like there?
AMBER: I have the studio I’ve always dreamed of! There are lots of windows, the light is perfect for painting and it’s a 5 minute bike ride to the beach! Unimaginable in Brooklyn. The studio is called Bushwick South and it’s more than just a shared studio space, we plan to have group critique nights and grant application reviews. My idea is for it to be extension of the New York arts community, and I’m interested in facilitating a cultural exchange between the two cities.
HAPPY: For the upcoming firstdraft exhibition, yourself and Teelah George were mailing work to each other. Can you tell us a bit about that?
AMBER: Working with another artist, especially someone like Teelah, has been really wonderful for me. We’ve both found this collaboration has helped wrench us out of some of our habits and expand the possibilities of how we work. This show consists of 30 paintings. About a third are Teelah’s, a third are mine and the other third we’ve worked on together.
In the collaborative pieces we each started a group of paintings and sent them by post to the other to finish. I loved working on top of her wonderful, odd and thickly painted portraits. Her colour palette is also very different to mine so I had to stretch myself a bit in terms of colour choices.
HAPPY: What other challenges are there collaborating with another artist?
AMBER: With Teelah there have been no challenges other than the distance. We both have a lot of confidence in ourselves as painters as well as the comfort knowing the other wouldn’t mind what happens. If I had to be worried about an artist thinking I might ruin their work, I wouldn’t be able to relax and make something worthwhile.
HAPPY: What makes you want to paint each character?
AMBER: Most of my portraits are imagined people inspired by human behaviour I observe in everyday life or on the internet. Memes are a source of inspiration for how text can change the reading of an image, and so my titles are very important to understand the work. I try to look at the ‘normal’ things people do, but with a curious mind, and then I think of ways I can characterize them.
An example of this is my long-standing fascination with women’s beauty rituals and the industry around it. I think of the women I paint as artists who use makeup, spray tan, hair dye, plastic surgery, etc. as their art mediums. I’m especially interested in how they distort their bodies to look better but end up looking grotesque, but I think it’s important to note that I’m not making fun of these characters. I have sympathy for their feelings of insufficiency, but I don’t exactly share them.
HAPPY: How do you create a personality for a character you’ve never met?
AMBER: Well, there is a mysterious or magical part of my process that I don’t entirely understand but I’m sure a lot of people can relate to it. It’s that part of creating something that doesn’t feel like it totally comes from you. Perhaps it’s from the collective unconscious. Sometimes I think of this knowledge as a built-in human kind of internet.
My process begins with an elaborate studio ritual designed to help me overcome the terror of confronting a blank canvas. I make tea in a specific way, listen to a certain kind of music, burn some essential oils. Stuff like that. Then I mix out lots of flesh tones and a few other colours on my palette and I begin the same way each time. I put a blob of flesh coloured paint down and then I start asking questions. Does that look like a face? An arm?
I keep following this line of questioning, but I also feel that I’m not entirely in control. I let the paint lead. As the painting progresses I ask different questions: Is this the face of a person who is satisfied? Anxious? What are they thinking about and what are their concerns? What is their family like? Who are they trying to impress?
I want to create unique, conscious individuals that come from a world made of paint, and the rules of this world are governed by that fact. If I’ve painted two people who are in a relationship and the woman wants to break up with her man, I can just scrape the paint away. Done. Relationship’s over. But the history of the mark making remains, similar to our world.
HAPPY: Can you tell us about the animation work you’ve done?
AMBER: My art practice has come full circle in the last five years. I began as a painter and then fell in love with bringing my drawings and paintings to life through animation. I worked for a few years commercially in animation for Google, Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] and Comedy Central.
It was a great experience but I really wanted more time to do my own work so I quit, and ever since I have tried to work as much as possible on my art. I enjoyed turning my animations into large scale public art installations which become immersive visual representations of music. Working with composers and musicians to reach large audiences has definitely expanded me as an artist.
Then I fell in love with an Australian guy and moved from NYC to Sydney to be with him. This huge change of pace, city and country led me to want to paint again full time.
HAPPY: How has animation influenced your painting?
AMBER: I used to wake up really early as a kid so I could watch Loony Tunes before going to school. I didn’t understand what animation was. I didn’t know I was experiencing the result of thousands of drawings sequenced together. I just knew I loved watching it. My favourite moments were when the character’s bodies morphed into different shapes, like when the coyote from roadrunner gets smashed by one of his own failed devices.
I think a lot about the mutability of form in my own work. I try to imagine how far I can push a character and still retain its essence. I love the speed of animation, I love the cartoonish, simplified aesthetic, and I especially love the clarity of character. Chuck Jones (Loony Tunes’ director) was a master of this, and has talked about how he refined his characters, their personalities, motivations, and facial expressions over time.
HAPPY: What are you going to be up to after the firstdraft exhibition?
AMBER: I’m working on a PhD at the moment about the influence of cartoons on contemporary painting. All of my research feeds back into the paintings so it all meshes together nicely. I’ll also be working on my upcoming solo exhibition in February at Edwina Corlette Gallery in Brisbane. Aside from that, I like spending time with my dude and with friends. Bushwalking and swimming are good too. Australia’s pretty enjoyable.