Fred Fowler‘s background is in street art, which he discovered in his teenage years, through skateboarding. Initially enticed by the thrill of painting in public space at night, and having people see his work the next day, by the end of his high school years Fred had refocussed his creative talent, turning his energy towards making art. He held his first solo exhibition in 2001, at just 21.
In the years that followed, Fred found himself taking on a studio in the Nicholas Building, surrounded by other local creatives, and influenced by Melbourne’s prolific street art scene at the time. As he says below, ‘there was lots of partying, painting and general artistic mischief going on’!
More than ten years later, after time spent living in Paris and traveling around Europe, Fred returned to Melbourne and enrolled in a Masters of Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts. Since graduating, he’s been practicing art full-time. With formal training behind him, Fred has refined his work, though his roots in street art and the culture surrounding it are still a big influence on his practice.
Recently, Fred’s paintings have been concerned with the relationship between native and invasive species, examining the Australian cultural landscape, and themes such as colonisation. Often inspired by politicised subject matter, Fred aims to create multi-layered works which are subtly subversive. We’re thrilled to present four new paintings by Fred at our TDF Open House event in Melbourne in early December.
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a fine artist, and to creating the style of work you are currently making?
My parents are both architects so they were always giving me pens and paper and encouraging me to draw. They are both interested in art, and having a father that was born and raised in Papua New Guinea meant I grew up looking at not only western art, but also all this amazing PNG stuff that really captured my imagination.
I got into skateboarding as a kid and when I was about 16 I discovered graffiti through my skating buddies. The unruly and direct nature of painting in public space at night, and having people see it the next day really appealed to me. By age 17 numerous counts of ‘trespassing’ and ‘vandalism’ caught up to me so I turned my energy towards art. I started experimenting with stencils, posters, rock carvings and painting and this work led to my first solo exhibition at A.R.T Gallery Eden in 2001.
It was around that time that I met Marc de Jong who had a studio in the Nicolas Building in Flinders Lane. He was looking for someone to share the space so I joined him there and he became a good mate and somewhat of a mentor of mine. This was the era when the street art scene was really gaining momentum, so there was lots of partying, painting and general artistic mischief going on.
In 2011 after living in Paris and traveling around Europe for a year, I came back to Melbourne and enrolled in a Masters of Contemporary Art degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. Since graduating I’ve been setting up my studio, and practicing art full-time.
The DIY ethos and anti establishment attitude of skateboarding and early street art culture are still a big influence not so much on the content, but definitely on my attitude and approach to creating work.
How would you describe your work?
Recently I’ve been working on a series of semi abstract ‘liquid’ Australian landscape paintings that explore the relationship between native and invasive species. It’s a way to visually examine the cultural landscape and comment on things like the history of colonisation in Australia. I like to camouflage the subversive or political aspects of my work, so they remain ambiguous to a degree. I try to make almost ambient pictures that can be interpreted on different levels.
Can you give us a little insight into the physical process of your art-making?
I’ve moved away from pre-planing work too much as I find it way too restrictive. I usually have a general idea visualised and then start work quite loosely. Using oil sticks and quick mark-making I get a lot of colour and texture down quickly. I then mix up colour for the main body of the painting and cut back the work which creates the details and elements that make up the landscape.
I’m really into the process and the physicality of making of art. I predominantly paint, but also have a kiln, furnace and a small printmaking press at the studio, so I practice sculpture and printmaking as well. Several paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings are in progress at any one time. When I’ve been staring at a painting for too long I’ll flip the work around and pick up a bit of clay or paper.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Get up pretty early, coffee, take the dog for a little adventure with my girlfriend. Get to the studio around 8 then work until lunch. Do some admin stuff, get art supplies, take a break. Paint until 6 or 7 and head home for dinner. Sometimes I’ll go back to the studio and work into the night or we’ll watch a film on the projector.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?
1. Art books. Currently I’m reading Francis Alÿs’ A Story of Deception and a Joseph Beuys monograph.
2. The Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia publish a really good quarterly art journal called Contemporary Visual Arts and Culture Broadsheet.
3. I listen to a lot of music and online radio while in the studio- stuff like BBC Radio 1 Xtra, Giles Peterson and The Science Show.
4. E-Flux journal.
5. Adam Curtis is an English filmmaker I like, he’s got a great blog on the BBC site.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
Ken Thaiday Senior, Reko Rennie, Rhys Lee, Ash Keating, Fiona Hall, and all the artists represented by Milani Gallery in Brisbane.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
Having 10 of my early works acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 2005 was an achievement that meant a lot at the time. It was a part of a larger acquisition of early Australian street art work. It was exciting to see all my friends getting recognition from a major institution like the NGA for work that was created completely outside of the mainstream art world, and often the law.
What would be your dream project?
Being let loose on a large scale at somewhere like GOMA, MONA or the NGV.
What are you looking forward to?
Most nights I just can’t wait to get the studio the next morning. It’s like that feeling of excitement the night before Christmas when you’re a kid. Other than that I’m always looking forward to the next overseas adventure.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
My studio is in Footscray and I live just up the road, so I spend a lot of time in that general vicinity. There’s an abundance of cheap amazing food, weird shops and you see the most interesting looking people around the place.
Where and what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
Bún bò Huế from Pho Hung Vuong Saigon in Hopkins St, Footscray.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
I usually hit up Footscray market and Little Saigon pretty early, do some grocery shopping and have something to eat. Then I’ll hang out with my girlfriend, do some domestic stuff or head to the studio.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
There are some interesting abandoned buildings around the place if you know where to look.