Arlene Textaqueen is part super-hero, part artist-performance artist-art curator, and general all-round kooky Melbourne cultural character.
ANYWAY I know I say this all the time but THIS interview is seriously one of the best yet. Mainly because Arlene Textaqueen (Texta for short) is just so goddamn funny. I mean, what other artist describes themselves as ‘a super-hero who draws naked women and has social anxiety’, aspires to guest-star on Sesame st, and dances around her studio to Jane Fonda Aerobics videos in between creative bursts? Read on for a glimpse into the crazy, creative world of Melbourne’s very own superhero.
Tell me a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing now?
I guess my artistic career begun entering colouring-in competitions in the weekend newspaper as a kid. Once I won a swing on a high trapeze, $100 and a coke bottle radio for a fauvist rendering of marine animals. Oh and then I went to university and did a Bachelor of Fine Arts in which I mostly made experimental film and photography, though I always drew in a sketchbook. It wasn’t until after uni without a darkroom or edit suite that I embraced drawing as my main practice. I would draw daily, a dozen pictures a day, of people I talked with or spied on whilst on the train. I began drawing with ball point pen, but someone gave me a multi-pack of kids textas and I was hooked.
I began drawing nudes following meeting someone at a party who saw me drawing portraits and asked me if I wanted create pics for a website that would be like a soft porn manga site but in a different style. I only really draw from life so I asked friends to pose but the site never happened, instead the ‘Textanude’ series began. I’ve now had over ten years experience drawing women un-dressed-up in their bedrooms, homes, gardens and lately in the natural landscape.
In addition to creating and exhibiting your own work, you’re involved in a variety of other projects… (Naked art camping etc?) what have been some of your most fun/notable projects and exhibitions?
My latest series is Naked Landscapes of Victoria in which I’ve drawn women posing in reference and re-interpretation of Australian history and culture in regional locations throughout the state such as Mary at the 12 Apostles, bunyip hunting in Bunyip State Forest or a feminist bushranger in Kelly country. On individual trips, a model and I travel in a campervan and create the picture over a few days on location.
Other than my portraits on paper I’ve made many things from them such as playing cards, collaborations to create animations such as for ARTV on SBS, zines, murals, postcards calendars, and once a surfboard.
An amazing experience I had last year was to tour across America, over 30 locations in around 30 days, on the Sister Spit tour organised by the writer Michelle Tea. Alongside 6 amazing queer woman writers reading their work, I showed slides of my drawings and told the stories of the people in the pictures. I got to see so much of America that I never would have visited and the response to my work and tales was incredible especially from other young queer woman was amazing.
You also curate exhibitions at Brunswick Bound. How did this collaboration come about? How has it worked out so far? What are your goals with this ongoing project?
I love curating the shows at Brunswick Bound. My friend Christie Petsinis did the design of the shop fitout and recommended me for the job to Rob and Susie, the lovely proprietors.
I’m really happy with the shows that have been on and the response to the afternoon tea parties that are held for the openings. It’s really lovely to create events that aren’t centred around the consumption of alcohol and instead around sugar and caffeine! I love tea and I love baking and I get to make lamingtons, chocolate crackles and sometimes fairy bread. It’s a kid friendly and delightfully social environment in which to experience art.
I love being able to choose art that I want to see and work with artists who I like as people also. In terms of the art, I tend towards figurative illustration that has an edge, often by local Brunswick artists. It’s great that we can launch publications in conjunction with exhibitions of the artwork inside them. The gallery takes a commission but it’s free to exhibit so it’s a great opportunity for emerging artists to show without having to shell out hundreds of dollars for a space, or with having to write extensive applications. I have offered people shows on seeing one or two of their artworks online or elsewhere because the images I’ve seen have been so strong.
How would you describe your artistic style? How has this style developed over time?
My pictures surprise me everytime I do them. I draw on huge sheets of paper over a metre tall and I think that I’m drawing realistically and all of a sudden I’m out of space and I have to squeeze the people’s feet into 5 cm. I don’t consciously distort my portraits. I draw straight onto the paper with black texta reasonably quickly so I have to be confident in my line and the distortion just happens.
I have noticed my style evolving over time, my backgrounds becoming more decorative and elaborate, my understanding of colour evolving, my style becoming more stylised somehow without intending it to. I got carpel tunnel in 2005 while on an Australia Council residency in New York; bad timing, but actually in some ways the RSI has focused my style a little. Previously I had done the entire outline of the pictures on site, but now I often leave elaborate details, such as the wallpaper pattern, until I can take my time back in studio with a photograph.
Which designers, artists or creative people do you look up to or are you inspired by?
Taylor Mac, a musical, theatrical and burlesque performer in NY, Gurlesque Lesbian Strip Club has hosted incredible kooky performance for years, Simon Yates is one of my favourite Australian inventor-artists, Sprinkle Magic, Gilbert and George, Sista She, Hey Willpower!, Annie Sprinkle’s playing cards, Michelle Tea, Breakdown Press, Alice Edgeley who designed my costume (image below), Daniel Boyd and my sister Keg.
Where else do you find inspiration – travel, books, the internet or movies etc?
I’ve been doing lots of research for Naked Landscapes on the net, its good for secret histories and fictions. I choose my people with trust they’ll turn out a good idea for the portrait and we spring ideas of each other that might come from their life or mine. People I know are easily my greatest source of inspiration.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Coordinating future drawings, exhibitions, residencies and stuff via email and phone usually takes up a chunk of the morning. Then I’ll uncover the latest picture I’m working on as I have to protect it from the paws of my cat with an Alf sheet over the table. I’ll often test colours out on a small photocopy of the picture before carefully colouring the page. I’m still recovering from carpel tunnel so I can only work for half an hour at time depending on the kind of detail I’m doing, so I’ll usually read parts of a book (I’m reading the Ultimate Guide to Winning Scrabble by Derryn Hinch at the moment) or punch out a letter on the typewriter with my left hand or dance around to a Jane Fonda aerobics video or other nonsense in between.
What are you most proud of professionally?
I’m very proud of co-founding Squatspace in Sydney at the Broadway Squats in 2000, a free to exhibit gallery in a squatted venue that was part of an incredible squatted community and still exists as a productive collective. I had my first solo gallery show at the Squatspace venue and being part of that supportive and wonderful team of people creating community was empowering. I am generally proud of my Textanude series as I think of it as a showcase of wonderful and creative women in the world. The pictures are created in an intimate process and even though they are naked the connection between model and artist is the strongest dynamic that the viewer often witnesses as an outsider. I draw my peers; performers and queer women who reflect politics relevant to myself, and I think this is evident. Realising that many people make a living from voyeuristically capturing people they consider very different from themselves, I am proud that I don’t. I make my artwork for my community though it also does make me a living.
What’s the best thing about your job?
My job involves getting paid by an ArtsVic grant to go on camping trips where your big dilemma is figuring out how to make a teddy bear and a can of tinned spaghetti look like your model, who is un-dressed-up as a puma, disembowelling a wombat. I am a lucky woman.
And the worst?
That people expect you to be vivacious because you’re a superhero who draws naked woman, but you actually have social anxiety in crowds of more than 5 people so might come across as mean and tough because of your grimace!
What would be your dream project?
It used to be guesting on Sesame Street but now it’s being paid to do a television series of Naked Landscapes of Queensland. I borrowed the camper for Victoria and an independent film maker called Claudia Rowe for Rebel Films is making a doco, but I want to find my own dream camper so I can continue. The TV series would be Lleyland Brothers meets Greatest American (Australian) Hero due to my camping bumblingness experiencing Australia.
What are you looking forward to – professionally or personally?
The show I’m in at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brissie at the end of the year – I’ll have an 8 metre long wall! Printing a 2009 Textanude calendar teatowel with Third Drawer Down, and completing my new set of playing cards. Personally: Taking my karaoke skills to the next level, I’m starting a band with my neighbours. We’re called Suzanne Grae and the Katies (I’m Suzanne). I’ve been op-shopping for outfits in country Victoria and I’ve been writing songs with my models while campervanning with such titles as Moccasin Man, Dirt Bike Diva and Undercover Butch. I hope we can perform when I exhibit my landscape series next year.
Melbourne Questions –
Best galleries/spaces to see new contemporary art in Melbourne?
I love Sticky, the zine store under Degraves in the city. They are my hub to the creative world. Oh and of course, Brunswick Bound, the gallery I curate! There’s still people whacking up good stuff in the street too, I hear.
Where do you buy the tools of your trade – ie papers, textas, etc? (ie a specific art shop in Melbourne? An online shop?)
I bought most of my markers in North America, I haven’t had to reload yet. Markers are one third the price over there. My next lot are coming from Japan (via a friend) where all my favourite markers:Zig and Tombo are made. If anyone knows the online store for these though, pass it along.
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
I hardly eat out because I love to cook, but when I do its usually at Friends of the Earth on Smith Street for there most-often-delicious $6.50 organic lunch. I love Yoyogi on Swanston Street in the city and The Uleg Indonesian Restaurant on Sydney Road in Brunswick.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Weekends are the same as every other day for me, I barely keep track of what day of the week it is because I work to my own schedule, but if it was the morning of a Brunswick Bound opening I might be dipping lamingtons in chocolate and rolling them in coconut. If it was not I might be at the gym, as there’s hardly anyone there on a Saturday morning for some reason.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
That you don’t get paid compensation if you have a traffic accident while riding your bike if you’re not wearing a helmet or are wearing headphones. That you can swim for free at your local council pool if you’re a pensioner.