Creative People

Interview - Public Artist Rowena Martinich

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
5th of August 2011
Chromaphos large-scale painting / window installation at Euroluce showroom in Melbourne (2010), by public artist Rowena Martinich.
Few more details from Chromaphos at Euroluce, by Rowena Martinich.

I first became aware of Rowena Martinich's incredible artwork last year when I spotted her Chromaphos window installation in the CBD (pictured above).  Such a brilliant, vibrant and energetic work - in a kind of unlikely location... emblazoned across the windows of Melbourne lighting showroom Euroluce.

As it happens, unlikely locations are kind of Rowena's thing!  As a public artist she is particularly interested in creating her striking work in transient public spaces - city streets, public transport, institutions and shop windows - places many of us pass through daily without a moment of thought.  It is in these environs that Rowena feels her work is most powerful - because these are the spaces she says are "seen but never noticed - not worth a second glance until revealed as if for the first time by an intervention of some kind".  This is perhaps the best way to understand Rowena's work - as a colourful interruption into everyday life!

If you're in Melbourne, I've no doubt Rowena's work will be familiar to you.  Once you've put a name to the work, you'll soon start to notice fluoroescent Martinich madness all over town...!  One of Rowena's most recognised recent installations is in the window of fabulous Fitzroy store (and French School!) Dagmar Rousset - after hours the work is illuminated with blue light which really makes it pop!  Rowena also featured in the recent Gertrude Projection Festival , 'Veiling' was a performance style video projection in which a life-size Rowena appeared to be painting a shop window, allowing viewers to see the work take shape in real time.

I met Rowena in person for the first time recently because she took part in Melbourne's Design:Made:Trade event - a brave and savvy move for a visual artist.  Rowena is kind of cool like that - having been a curator and gallerist in a previous life, she is wise and commercially intuitive, and fantastically ambitious, which I find so inspiring!  When asked for her 'dream creative project' I was thrilled to hear Rowena's response - creating a work for the Louvre glass atrium in Paris!  I will not be surprised AT ALL if she makes it happen.  5 years max. ;)

Rowena is currently straying into slightly less familiar territory with an exhibition of good old fashioned paintings on canvas(!) at Area Contemporary Art Space in Fitzroy.  The works feature her signature fluorescent layers of colour, and as with all her work, they're full of buzzing energy!  The show has been up for a week and finishes this SUNDAY.  If you like what you see here, do make time to pop in if you get the chance...!

Colour Storm - new paintings by Rowena Martinich Until Sunday 7th August

Area Contemporary Art Space Inc. Level 1, 230 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy (Entry via St David Street)

Gallery hours - Wednesday to Sunday, 12.00pm - 5.00pm or by appointment Ph. 0415 070 591

Tell me a little about your background - what path led you to what you’re doing now?

By default, I have always been a creative, this was something nurtured in me from a young age. Bought up in the country, I was always taken to quilting and embroidery classes that were held by my mother for the local ladies – I always ended up taking part.

When my parents noticed that I liked to paint I was sent to night-time water-colour classes at the local tafe (as an 11 year old.) As a teenager the art room distracted me from the day-to-day nonsense of being in boarding school. I dabbled in Graphic Design for a few years and did manage to graduate from Swinburne, but my heart was always in painting. I undertook Fine Art – Painting at RMIT to an Honours level. After art school I set up and ran Area Contemporary Art Space Inc, a gallery and studio space in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Doing so much curatorial work was fantastic, and it was wonderful working with so many talented young artists, but my own practice was being neglected. I returned to study, undertaking an MA – Art in Public Space. This was an essential step in defining and differentiating my practice, and transferring it from being one that was contained within the gallery environment, to activating everyday urban spaces.

Where might we have seen your work?

Dagmar Rousset Window (May – August 2011) – It seems this is the one everyone knows about… located at 157 Gertrude Street – Chaotic slices of painted vinyl adorn the façade of this little fashion boutique come French school. After hours the work is illuminated with blue light – which makes it ‘pop!’

Veiling Gertrude Projection Festival (July 2011) – Taking the usually private studio practice into the public realm – this performance style video projection was exhibited as part of the Gertrude Projection Festival. In the work I appear to be painting the window. It is almost like a live-time experience for the viewer of the artist in process.

Veiling at the Gertrude Projection Festival earlier this month!  This artwork featured a life-size film of Rowena facing the camera, painting on glass.

Viachroma - Dandenong Station (2009-2011) - Viewers are enveloped in the coloured light and shadows that this work creates as sunlight passes through at different times of day, as they walk through the pedestrian overpass of the Dandenong Station.

Chromaphos - Euroluce (2010) – Shattered forms and luminous brushstrokes splayed across Euroluce’s Melbourne Showroom. Later this year I will be creating a painting installation on the glass windows and doors of Euroluce’s Sydney showroom.

Chromacut Signal (2010) – This collaborative project between myself, Rachel Jessie-Rae O’Connor, and the youth of Melbourne, was presented on the windows of Signal Artspace. Coloured projections activated the collaged vinyl by night on the Yarra’s Northbank.

Common Gesture – RMIT University (2008-2009) – Probably the most ambitious work to date, which stood 5 storeys high. A fluorescent beacon next to the historical bluestone walls of the Old Melbourne Gaol.

Your work often inhabits the most unlikely spaces – places you would never expect to see an artwork.  What is it about transient and public spaces which inspires you?

Transient spaces are often “dead spaces.” Passed through without a moment of thought. In this environment I can unleash my work onto an unassuming audience. Through my work one can experience the everyday, but differently. What may ordinarily be an empty interval, a non-experience in passing from one place to another, can be altered by the experience of walking through or past one of my works.

Viachroma at Dandenong Station (2009-2011) - by public artist Rowena Martinich.  Incredible artwork in the most unlikely public space.
Viachroma at Dandenong Station (2009-2011) by Rowena Martinich - amazing coloured light and shadows

What has been a favourite commission / client and why?

This is a really difficult question to answer, because each project has its rewards. Working in the public realm I have met some amazing people. Whilst working overseas, through my practice I am able to integrate into communities, and form relationships without shared language through the act of painting. For me this is really important. But aside from that aspect, I get a major kick during the installation of project, where I can see all of the planning and processes coming to fruition.

Perhaps Common Gesture is my favorite as – after trawling through the miles of red tape affiliated with doing a large scale public project at RMIT (as a student) and having spent a month in the basement of the Collingwood housing estate, painting the vinyl – it was a feeling of elation as I watched the work go up tile by tile – and coming to life as a whole. The site was slightly tucked away on the campus, viewed as you came around the corner – Bang – it would hit you. This work changed constantly throughout the day, and at night really glowed. One could also literally immerse oneself in the work from the buildings interior stairwell – as the façade was a curtain wall to a massive staircase that serviced the building. When this work was de-installed, the panels were carefully peeled off and have been sold as framed works, thus enabling the work to live on albeit on a domestic scale.

Common Gesture at RMIT University (2008-2009) by Rowena Martinich.  5 storeys high!  A fluorescent beacon next to the historical bluestone walls of the Old Melbourne Gaol.

You currently have a show at Area Contemporary Art Space in Fitzroy. As an artist most commonly associated with public art, often on an immense scale, was it a challenge to create a series specifically for a good old fashioned gallery space?  What inspired the current show and what can we expect to see in the exhibition?

Though the works are canvases – they still function on a similar level to my public works. They are large in scale – some pieces are 2x3 metres in size. The works would transform any space that they were placed in.

The physical process of application is evident in my paintings. I have carefully and gradually built up dripping expressionist marks. Layers and layers of bright fluorescent colour pulse and dazzle with optical vibration. I seek to engage the viewer’s eye for long enough in order that they may forget what they were doing, who they are, and become completely immersed in a world of colour.

Afterglow - painting on canvas by Rowena Martinich for her current exhibition at Area Contemporary Art Space in Fitzroy.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

As an artist I do not have what one would consider a typical day at work. Because although I have a studio, my work environ is the public domain. Some of my activity, as I learnt in French class the other night, would commonly be described as being a ‘flaneur’ – a person who wanders the streets for inspiration.

Every day is an exercise in viewing potential sites, formulating ideas, writing proposals and grant applications in response, acquiring and delivering materials to my studio where I ensconse myself in my paintings, breaking occasionally for friends, exhibition openings, the ubiquitous bottle of red, and when I remember – dinner.

Which other designers, artists or creative people do you admire?

I am a massive fan of Katherina Grosse and her giant compressor-sprayed painting installations. Some other artists that inspire me are Joost van Santen, Stephen Hendee, Olafur Eliasson, Judy Pfaff and Dale Chihuly. Aside from the “greats” I have some spectacular friends who are creative forces in their own right, and are highly inspirational to my practice – Arite Kannavos, Chloe Vallance, Eddy Carroll, Jon Lelleton, Michelle Francis and Yandell Walton.

What would be your dream creative project?

Covering the Louvre glass atrium in translucent fluorescent gestures that allow light to pass through and illuminate the space within.

What are you looking forward to ?

Early November boarding a plane, rolled up canvases tucked under one arm, and embracing Lyon, France – where I will be staging my next solo show with Lorenzetti Gallery. Following that a short stint in Spain, then Morocco (which I love) – searching for antique fluorescent textiles and headpieces. After that, my reset button will have been set and I will be ready to take on 2012!

Dagmar Rousset Window (May – August 2011) by Rowena Martinich.  157 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Chaotic slices of painted vinyl adorn the façade of this little fashion boutique come French school.   These pics by Beck Rocchi.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I love Fitzroy. Its my stomping ground. I can wander down the street and bump into locals as if I were living in a country town.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools / materials of your trade?

I get a lot of bits and pieces from In Touch Imports (the $2 shop in Smith Street) brooms and mops and the like that I adapt and use as painting tools for large scale works (they pretty much stock everything that you would ever need in life)… Bunnings for chemical sprayers and hardware, and specialist suppliers for paints and vinyls.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Gills Diner in the city, Poussin with corn puree, cucumber and sesame salad. Amazing. Just as insane, the dessert; chocolate pudding with peanut butter icecream.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

You would most likely find me at Arcadia in Gertrude Street. Otherwise I’d be skipping town and heading to the country somewhere.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

The walking trail around Yarra Bend from Clifton Hill to Fairfield is pretty magic.

Dagmar Rousset Window (May – August 2011) at  157 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, nightime with blue light!

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