Sam Leach has been painting full time since 2006 when he won the Metro5 prize, which enabled him to spend the next year locked in the studio. For the last three years Sam has been a finalist in the Archibald Portrait Prize and he has won a number of other prestigious awards. His latest works continue to depict his fascination with wildlife while at the same time developing his interest in the tradition of the painting styles from the Dutch Renaissance.
Hey Sam, could you tell us a little about your background, when did you start painting?
I did quite a lot of drawing throughout my childhood but I never really thought of art as a career. I studied economics at uni and wasted most of my time drawing caricatures of the professors. I had no real idea about the existence of contemporary art until I went on a trip to Europe when I was about 19 or 20. There I saw a lot of work by Joseph Beuys, Günter Forg, Gerhard Richter and so on. Until then I thought that art finished with the abstract expressionists and had now been relegated to the Sunday markets. After that trip contemporary art seemed to be relevant and I became determined to develop a practice. My partner and I moved from Adelaide to Melbourne and I began studying art part time. I moved to full time study in my honours year and from 2006 I was pretty much making a living from painting.
What paintings / projects are you working on at the moment?
On the 26th of November a show I have curated will be opening at Sullivan and Strumpf in Sydney. The title is Extropians and, having just installed the show, I can say that I am very excited about it – some details can be seen at http://ssfa.com.au/exhibitions/. I have a couple of works going into a show coming up at Stephen McLaughlan gallery in Melbourne in December: Skylab curated by Felicity Spear. The show asks the question: when we look at the sky, what do we see? Space exploration has been a theme I have been using in my work for a while now and I am quite excited about this show. I am also developing some work for a show in London next year – there are some new approaches that I am keen to develop in that body of work. Lately I’ve been experimenting with some printing – messing with images of some of my old paintings. No plans to show any of that work at this stage but it has been a lot of fun.
Your work features a theme of animals & wildlife, where does this fascination come from?
Initially my interest in using animals came from 17th century Dutch still life painting. Especially the work of Willem van Aelst and Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The former made hunting still life with dead game displayed as trophies and the latter specialized in birds, creating elaborate narrative tableaux in which the birds are strongly anthropomorphized. These two painters said a lot to me about the human relationship with animals. On one hand animals are objects of the environment and they are a resource which we can enjoy using. On the other hand, animals are in the class of living things together with humans. They are like us in some ways and we are like them in some ways (at least this was something like the 17th century conception of these idea -research now continues to make the boundary of what we term human fuzzy indeed).
These two views of animals are indicative of a shift in the way humans understand the world which occurred around the 17th century. This was a shift from understanding the world by analogy and metaphor to understanding the world through experimentation and observation. Of course if you listen to scientists discuss their work it becomes apparent that while experimentation a vital part of their work, understanding by metaphor and analogy is just as important. When I paint animals I try to bring those two aspects together. On one hand I use it as a way to learn something about the animal – making a painting requires detailed observation and I learn something new each time – even if it just the way an ear folds, or how a leg attaches to a body. On the other hand, the animal symbolizes something – either by association as with a hunted game animal or by using a posture or situation that encourages the viewer to project some human emotion onto the animal – wistful looking chimps, for example.
You’ve recently completed an exhibition, ‘The next Billion years’. What was your thinking coming into this series?
There were a couple of sources. One was a lecture series I listened to on ‘big history’. The concept was basically human history beginning with the big bang. The scale of the history has an interesting effect on the narrative. The origin of life takes on a certain level of significance with comparison to, say, the northern European renaissance. Another interesting effect of history at that scale is its fractal nature. That is, events seem to follow certain patterns at different scales: galaxies form, collide and collapse, as do species, as do civilizations, as do individuals. The second source was Michael Hanlon’s book Eternity: Our next Billion years. In that book Hanlon makes some speculations about the likely fate of the human species over that time, based on a (perhaps optimistic) assessment of how long humans are likely to last. We are going to be hard to eradicate, he argues. In my show I wanted to emphasise the role of technology and propose that technology extends the feasibility of all life, as well as humans.
You discuss the concept ‘the corrupting influence of wealth’ how do you feel about the role of wealth and corporate money in today’s Australian art scene?
Naturally I feel that if people have money to spend there is nothing better to spend it on than art. I think that on the whole the Australian art scene is pretty healthy. We did not experience the sort of bubble in the contemporary art market that was experienced in Europe or the US. Even allowing for that, the amount of money in visual arts is tiny compared to other sectors such as agriculture, pharmaceutical, primary resources and finance. Certainly some very wealthy individuals and entities buy art but on the whole I don’t think that the visual arts world is generating anything like a corrupting level of wealth. Finally, since I have focused on this area for some time I have found myself becoming steadily less certain. I still think there are many problems with corporate wealth and corporate culture, but I am extremely uncertain about suggesting any sort of alternative.
For the past 3 years you’ve been a finalist in the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, could you talk about your controversial entry for 2008?
That painting caused a lot of people pain and offense and that is something that I regret. When I made that painting I was really thinking about the history of western civilization and I was struck by just how close we are, culturally speaking, to the period that produced Nazism. The worst atrocities committed by any civilization occurred within living memory. I was making paintings which dealt with history and I couldn’t ignore that fact. Placing myself into the Hitler’s uniform was a way of forcing myself to confront that period and think about it in a personal way. The painting did cause discussion, some of which was very good, but I have very mixed feelings about the work. I knew there would be discussion and that some people would have a problem with the work. I thought, and still do think, that the painting is serious but not especially complicated so I was confident that most of the art-viewing public would understand the work. I did not expect the front page of newspapers..
What have been the highlights in your art related career to-date?
Receiving the Fletcher Jones prize at Geelong gallery was pretty incredible. In that show my work was hung alongside many of my favourite artists and artists who have informed my own practice. So to be acknowledged in that field was really wonderful. The Optimism show at Queensland GOMA was also very exciting. That show occurred just as I was beginning to develop some particular themes in my work which seemed to tie in. It was one of those serendipitous moments.
Which artists have influenced you, what has been an inspiration?
In terms of contemporary artists, Beuys, Gunther Forg, Gerhard Richter, Neo Rauch, Mark Tansey, Nigel Cooke, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Glen Brown. At the moment I am very fascinated by the New Leipzig school, David Schnell, Tilo Baumgartel, Tim Eitel et al. I also look at 17th century art very often, especially still life paintings by van Aelst, d’Hondecoeter and Jan Weenix , but also architecture paintings by Saenredams and de Witte and landscapes buy Ruisdale and Pynacker. In Australia I was very influenced, and greatly assisted by a group of young Melbourne painters including Tony Lloyd, Juan Ford, Craig Easton, Chris Bond and Darren Wardle. But of equal importance were my teachers at RMIT, especially Sally Mannal and David Thomas who taught me for years and years as I very slowly made my way through the undergrad course part time.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artists?
I think that study is vital, as much of it as possible. And reading very widely – not just art theory and history (though these are crucial), but across a wide range of topics. Everything is related. I read a quote from Jasper Johns the other day which rang true. He was talking about spending time sitting in the studio trying to think through problems and said that he always found that the best way to find a solution was by actually doing the work.