The art of Damon Kowarsky depicts the human subject, sometimes solitary, at others set within urban or natural terrains. These compelling figures embody varied states of introspection, languor or disquiet without being sentimental. There is also a monumental and enigmatic stillness about his human subjects and environments; shifts in perspective and amplified human frames result in works which, though not physically imposing, generate a powerful and monumental quality.
In 2008 Kowarsky was awarded the Toyota Community Spirit Artist Travel Award from among eight finalists. This enabled residencies in Cairo and Barcelona, a solo exhibition in Wellington, and studies and exploration of cities including Chicago, Madrid, New York, San Francisco and Singapore.
This post is the first of a two-part interview with the artist.
[PR] Damon could you give us some insight into how you came to be a practicing artist, perhaps earliest impressions or influences that moved you in the direction of art making?
[DK] I began making art in 1992. I wanted to study textile design at RMIT and so enrolled in a folio development course at Moorabbin TAFE. This included units in drawing, design and printmaking. Pretty quickly I discovered how enjoyable the printmaking was, and have worked with it constantly ever since.
After a break for travel from 1994-96 I enrolled at Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). It seemed the best place to be. It was certainly the most challenging.
But thinking back even further my parents had a friend who was an advertising man and illustrator in the days when that meant a studio full of pencils and markers and tubes of gouache. His house was full of things he had made and collected. It seemed a magical way to spend your time.
[PK] Your bio states that you’ve worked as an archaeological, courtroom and scientific illustrator – how did you venture into this line of work and did it have any significant bearing on your art ?
[DK] I started in these fields immediately after graduating. I was extremely frustrated by what I saw as the lack of connection between my studies and the practical world. I had an honours degree and no way to be useful or even helpful to people. Except that archaeological, courtroom and scientific illustration are still places where drawing is the best way to convey information.
It is drawing without the need for fashion, drawing simply as a method of recording the world. A kind of visual stenography if you like.
Artists were always taken on the early voyages to Australia. Explorers like Cook and Banks used them to record the places and things in the days before photography.
While these practical applications of drawing have largely disappeared it was good to work in areas where the tradition still persists. Although I did not work as an illustrator after 2004 the experiences improved my observational skills and ability to make detailed and accurate drawings from the world around me.
[PR] You completed intense figure drawing tuition under Godwin Bradbeer. I’ve attended Bradbeer workshops in the past also, so am wondering if you could share with us one key insight these sessions provided you – how did they feed into your practice or perspectives?
[DK] Godwin is both a passionate artist and educator, and does not see any contradiction between these roles. Some of his great insights are that art can be taught, that there is much to learn from the past, and that the human body remains a potent source of inspiration. It was fantastic to study under a teacher who had a body of knowledge to pass on, and felt it to be his responsibility and duty to do so.
The studies with Godwin continue to shape my work. I regularly attend a life drawing group in Albert Park. All my work is informed by the figurative, narrative and formal concerns that Godwin helped bring into focus.
[PR] Are there any other artists, alive or dead, that have served as ‘mentors’ throughout your career? In what way did your encounter with them (and their work) become turning points for you as an artist?
[DK] Yes. Of the dead artists Dürer, Goya and Picasso stand out, as does Hockney today. All are keen printmakers and superb draughtsmen who use these apparently simple media to powerfully record the world around them. Picasso and Hockney are vitally important because despite the manifold stupidities of the twentieth century they never abandoned picture making in its most direct forms.
In 2002 I was fortunate to undertake a formal mentorship with Juan Davila. His passion and carefully directed fury demonstrate that you can be contemporary, political and extremely controversial and still make pictures that obey and play with the logics of the medium.
[PR] You have also undertaken some collaborations with Mirjana Vuk-Nikic, Greg Harrison and Tara Gilbee. What did collaborating with another artist mean for you – what was specifically challenging about making art in this context as opposed to working autonomously?
[DK] Collaborating is a way to enter a particular kind of conversation with other artists, and hopefully produce something that extends both of your practices. With Mirjana, Greg and Tara there were natural overlaps in style, media or conceptual interests that opened the way to working together. We were also friends – very handy! In all three cases we established clear parameters on size and subject before we began. These boundaries were important as they helped preserve visual coherence while still allowing room for individuality and experimentation.
For example Mirjana has an attention to detail and surface that is quite different from my somewhat sparer responses. Working with her both enhanced the collaborative prints and made me aware of the need to contrast sparseness and detail within the same print. This was something I had seen Hockney doing in his etchings, but collaborating brought the lesson home.
Likewise Tara’s playfulness with the visual field and conceptual imperatives pushed my responses in new directions. How this will feed back into the rest of my work remains to be seen. This collaboration is still ongoing.
The biggest challenge to working collaboratively is coordinating schedules in a busy world. One project with another Melbourne printmaker has been deferred for nearly two years through a combination of my travels and the temporary closure of APW in 2009. But it is ongoing, and the first drawings for it will be submitted next week.
[PR] It is clear from your work that travel has significantly shaped its concerns and directions. You proposed quite an ambitious agenda when applying for the Toyota Travel Award.
Did things come to pass as you had hoped?
[DK] They did. In fact the project I proposed to Toyota (five cities in three months) was a slimmed down version of the final tour (16 cities over nearly half a year). The TCS Travel Award was a great opportunity and it seemed appropriate to take the resources – and myself – to the absolute limits. This effort paid off and I saw, experienced and drew amazing things in places I would never have anticipated visiting. The trip also helped build a network of contacts all over the world. Which is very helpful when you are trying to establish projects either within Australia or abroad.
[PR] What were some of the unexpected rewards from this experience?
[DK] Luckily there were only minor challenges on the trip – mostly related to problems with a very complicated air ticket. The rewards on the other hand were exceptional and ongoing.
The highlight was undoubtedly Cairo. Here people took a keen interest in my project and ensured I had access to places tourists are not normally allowed to visit. It was a privilege and pleasure to be able to visit and draw 600 year old buildings in the middle of an enormous city that bulges with population and developmental pressures. These links continue to bear fruit. I am currently negotiating to take the Cairo work back to Egypt for exhibition in early 2011.
[PR] In your work the human body often becomes a more tribal or primal form set against the density or sparseness of natural or built environments. I think there is a wonderful combination of strength and fragility embodied in your depiction of relationships; those between human beings themselves and the environments they inhabit.
Are there any specific concerns you are wanting to bring to our attention through your study of the human subject and its relationship to the urban or natural environment?
[DK] There are concerns that I have with these areas, but mostly the ideas come about through the natural process of looking, drawing, and then trying to make pictures out of these experiences. Cities can be strange and paranoid places but they can also be beautiful, comforting and very much our home. As of last year fifty percent of the people on the planet now live in urban environments which is the first time in human history we have done so.
Mostly I make pictures of the things I like; be it a human figure, city, natural setting or object in a museum. As Allan Mitelman once said ‘make the picture you want to look at!’. He was talking about non-representational art of course, but the sentiment still applies.
Go to Part 2 of the interview.
Damon Kowarsky studied printmaking at the Victorian College of the Arts and Glasgow School of Art, and Advanced Figure Drawing with Godwin Bradbeer at RMIT . He graduated in 2000 from VCA with a BFA [Honours] in Printmaking.