Photography: Lisa Sorgini
Amber Wallis carefully balances colour and stroke, always creating something compositionally beautiful and alluring. We were lucky enough to ask her a few questions about her paintings and consequently got to know a little bit more about herself. Wallis as a person is open, considerate and thoughtful, and knowing this about her we can only appreciate the reflective and personal nature of her art even more.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into painting?
I grew up in New Zealand, my family grew weed and bartered services on Waiheke and then Great Barrier Island, it was like the wild west and wasn’t always the safest place to be as a child. Mixed into that I was around my mother’s artistic community in Auckland and later Sydney. Since then I have lived all over the world and have never really had a clear sense of where home is, I have always felt like an outsider when it comes to place but I think what works for me is being able to access artistic communities around the world, have wonderful adventures and then come back to Australia to live simply in nature somewhere, that mix feels right.
Painting kind of tugged and called at my being while I was having another life in North America in my twenties. When I hit 29 I couldn’t ignore it so I did postgraduate study at the Victorian College of the Arts which was my first real taste of painting as I had an undergraduate in photography. I have been painting since then. I’m now 42 and it truly feels like the thing that I am meant to do in this life.
” I don’t want things to be obvious, I want the mercurial and the uncanny, I want you to make up your own story, I want to hint at probabilities and possibilities, I want to show you that things aren’t always what they seem.”
Your paintings are tonally beautiful and undeniably intriguing, yet, they don’t explicitly seem to communicate a single idea. What is the importance of this ambiguity to your audience?
Thank you. This is a tricky question. Ambiguity is vital and really important to my practice, consequently, I feel my practice is often overlooked and not understood as a result.
I don’t want things to be obvious, I want the mercurial and the uncanny, I want you to make up your own story, I want to hint at probabilities and possibilities, I want to show you that things aren’t always what they seem. The paintings can become an ode or a call to a future possibility, they can stretch perceived realms, they can allow summoning of the unconscious, they can be anything they need to be and there is an element of conduit to it. I feel merging the abstract with the figurative allows a greater field of feeling and infinite possibility, this is the space I find interesting.
Intrigue is a great compliment, making art itself is intriguing and I guess its the thing that keeps painting interesting for me – when I surprise and push myself beyond the obvious is when the works always seem to be the most successful and I think that happens with content but also technically.
Where do you find most of your inspiration? And how do you choose what you are going to paint on a blank canvas?
Inspiration is a tricky term. I go to work and I work at painting, within that work, there is a myriad of things that create the work – from technical ability and limitation, conceptual interest, failing and rectifying failures, and a desire to surprise myself mixed in with some kind of luck and persistence.
The inspiration that might be more tangible might be the conceptual elements. More and more I am incorporating figures sexually, I feel like sex and connection is the thing that has affected me the most outside of experiencing the death of my mother and the birth of my daughter. As a survivor of early childhood sexual abuse, I am interested in navigating the terrain that moves away from that trauma into what it means to be a sexual adult being. I’m interested in interiors for women as both a space for potential sexual freedom but also of domestic containment, somehow merging those intersections with imagery of the other, the unconscious or the spirit realm.
Why do you choose to paint on linen?
The raw linen, in particular, creates a technical limitation which I enjoy. It is, on the one hand, an ode to the materiality of feminism and Helen Frankenthaler and the staining techniques she used. On the other hand, it necessitates I treat the linen-like a drawing, you can only do a few layers before it changes the way the linen handles the paint, so you can’t overpaint it if you want to achieve a certain type of softness. It is difficult, there is minimal room for error, it requires control yet is uncontrollable and I like that. When you are working in an abstracted kind of way where preconceived plans do not prevail it is risky work.
How do you think the pandemic has impacted your work and the Australian art scene in general?
Over the last year specifically, I’ve felt a shift in my work and a distillation of where I want my work to go. Personally, the pandemic has created additional time and space to really reflect on my work and personal life which are always bound together.
Fundamentally art will always find a way, it is almost mercurial and I feel the art world has been changing and morphing for quite some time now with larger online presences, less openings, and a push towards fairer representation across the world and within Australia. As a woman, I have felt the glass ceiling and continually feel it at a macro and micro level, so I think any kind of shakeup no matter how it is brought about can hopefully only be positive in time. I hope that our galleries can survive and pivot as needed. I hope this time will breed alternative models in Australia as we are beginning to see overseas but I’m not sure we will see equivalent models here for a while.
Has there been a silver lining?
The silver lining I think is that I have been given the time to consider a distillation of direction rather than fill my time with the cancelled projects that I had lined up.
It has also been wonderful to have the time to connect with others that I felt such an affinity with from my past but life leads us in different directions…It has enabled those fleeting connections to turn into friendships and to vocalise the importance of them has been really heartening. I have been really valuing friendships and connections that hold firm in storms. I’ve also really enjoyed online connections through my artistic community, there has been such lovely support for my recent body of work from peers both nationally and internationally who I really admire.
Can you tell us a bit about your home and why you have settled down in Mullumbimby?
I rent an old run-down cottage on an acre surrounded by overgrown food trees, it has a little shack on it that serves as a small studio which foots onto a waterhole. It also has a compost toilet, rainwater tanks and is surrounded by wildlife. It’s close to town and the beach which makes it magical. It has been a deeply healing home, is small and simple and I don’t need much more.
How have you been spending most of your days lately?
Do you have a go-to uniform?
I get dirty in my day-to-day studio life and require comfy workwear that gets paint-stained. Outside of my studio life, I enjoy good quality natural materials and I suit classic vintage cuts. My go-to is well cut pants or jeans and a vintage blouse.
“I hope we will all be a bit gentler with ourselves and others, life is so fleeting and fragile and we must all love each other the best we can and treat each other with love and kindness.”
What are you looking forward to next year? And what are you hoping will change?
I’m looking forward to making art without any commitments, I feel it will be an opportunity to really push some boundaries and try to make the work I want to make – I’m not there yet. I will also buy a shack somewhere.
I hope we will all be a bit gentler with ourselves and others, life is so fleeting and fragile and we must all love each other the best we can and treat each other with love and kindness.