In conversation with Justin Lee Williams.
Published to coincide with ‘Night Mountain, I Miss You’ by Justin Lee Williams, 18 Jul- 18 Aug at k.o.M.A Gallery, Brisbane.
There is muted ceremony in the watercolours of Victorian artist Justin Lee Williams. Through whiskered lines and ghosted blobs he presents a living energy that liaises with decay and loss, depicted through a lucent cast of floating heads, arresting eyes and black-holed mouths that exorcise the subtleties of folklore. Then there are the softly stained bodies draped with floral and fauna, ballooning across the whites of the paper as if they were nutrients for dark mattered beings.
Justin held his first solo exhibition in 2016 at the now-coffined Nine Lives Gallery in Brisbane. He returns to the city four years later for his new offering, ‘Night Mountain, I Miss You,’ curated by the gallery’s co-founder Matt Rabbidge. My interview with the artist takes place via phone, and involves a tangential conversation about panther-dogs, ingesting pins, and the trials of not owning a mobile phone.
Mariam Arcilla: How did the idea for your new series come about?
Justin Lee Williams: The starting point stemmed from primary school, when I was taught stories from the Bible. I’m sure some characters, like Adam and Eve, were real, but overall their tales felt like works of fiction. I wanted to pass down this fiction by mixing characters from my childhood, or people from the real world, and putting them in these absurd situations.
MA: Ok, so it’s like you inject these real-world beings with folklore and magic realism.
JLW: Yes. In one work I turn Peter Doig, a Scottish artist who I’m inspired by, into a hybrid sphinx. I’m also interested in sightings of this panther-dog hybrid in the Dandenong Ranges, where I used to live. Some people think it’s just a large feral cat, others say the tale drew its roots from World War II, when soldiers in the area used a panther as their mascot. Once the war was over, the soldiers set the panther free into the bushes, and it began interbreeding with horses and cats. I also based figurines on teachers I’ve had. There was this one teacher who had Down Syndrome, and he had a weird, cool teaching technique, it was like tapping into a different way of thinking. I often think about how some creative people take hallucinogenic drugs to explore hidden brain functionality, while others are born with that element, but are also perceived to have ‘disabilities’. These stories make for interesting paintings.
MA: My Aunt has Down Syndrome, and she has this instinctive way of conversing with me. She refused to learn English, instead she taught me how to speak her self-taught language – a complex combination of hums and yodels.
JLW: See, people like that are so fascinating to me!
MA: Yeah, my Aunt even taught my two green parrots to speak like her. Each day, while I was at school, she would talk to my parrots, and pretty soon, they were fluent in her dialect. They weren’t interested in clichéd stuff like ‘Hello, hello’ or ‘Polly wants a cracker. Challenging at first, but my Aunt managed to convince our family – and two birds – to talk like her, to come to her side, instead of the other way round.
JLW: Wow, she sounds amazing! I want to paint her story.
MA: I’ll try to find a photo of her for you. Which brings me to the next topic: you have an on-going project, ‘The Attachment’ series, which sees you attempt to paint, from memory, a person you’ve met that day. Most days, when you are alone in your studio, you paint mental images of people from your past – be it significant or fleeting.
JLW: Yes, I’m interested in memory-triggers, and in trying to capture people who are dearest to me. At the same time it could be something unimportant, like someone I noticed at a bus stop.
MA: One of your portraits is called ‘Chris turning into Clare’. Who is this chameleon?
JLW: Most people ask me if it’s about a ladyboy, but it’s not the case. Chris my brother and Clare my sister look similar to one another, and at one point they started to look identical. On the other hand, I look nothing at all like my family.
MA: Really? Ok, on the off chance that you are adopted, who would your biological parents be?
JLW: Let’s see, Matt Rabbidge would be my dad, and my mum’d be Mariam Arcilla.
MA: That should make you a highly tall, black-haired and bearded anomaly, with dry elbows from my side.
JLW: Great! That’s me.
MA: Actually, have you seen the ‘Actresses without Teeth’ Tumblr? Some of them look like your black-mouthed figures.
JLW: No, but I’m looking this up online now [sound of fingers tapping on keyboard]. Ok I found the Tumblr. Oh God! These actresses look like The Muppets…no actually they look like this girl I know. Anne Hathaway without teeth, this is going to creep into my dreams.
MA: When was the last time you were in Brisbane?
JLW: It was in 2010, when I exhibited with my friend Andrew Gordon at Nine Lives. We flew to Brisbane the day before our show to find that Andrew’s works had not been delivered by the post office. I told him to send the work by freight, but he wanted to save three dollars [laughs]. So with him having no works, we started painting new works the night before! Then, his works turned up a few hours before the show opened, so we were just frantic trying to hang all these works. Good times! Andrew and I have since started a band called ‘This Weather.’ Basically we play Nirvana rip-offs. Our singer Chris even grew his hair long to look like Kurt Cobain [laughs].
MA: Tell me a highlight of your week.
JLW: I recently swallowed a small pin. I was pinning up works on my studio wall, and I balanced a few pins in my mouth, as you do. As I started hammering one of the pins twirled down my mouth… and I accidentally ate it. And it hasn’t come out yet.
MA: Holy moley! Are you worried that the pin would poke out of your skin, like say if someone hugged you? Or that it would actually never resurface?
JLW: [pauses] Both.
MA: This guy I know went to an acupuncturist for the first time. During the session he fell asleep, rolled off the table, and landed on his chest. The acupuncturist saw two needles disappear into his body.
JLW: Is he alive?
MA: I think so. Still.
JLW: Then I’ll be ok.
MA: Well, when the pin comes out, call me. By the way, why don’t you own a mobile phone?
JLW: I’m just used to calling people on landline or through public phones. Actually, I have a glove-box full of cheap mobile phones that friends have donated to me. They go “Please, Justin, use this mobile, just do it.”
MA: Like an intervention.
JLW: Exactly, but I never use those phones. The way I remember people’s numbers is I write them on my studio wall, like a list. I take my camera with me everywhere, and when I need to call someone I zoom into the image and find their number, then I go find a public phone booth. My friends have dubbed this wall of numbers my ‘Giant iPhone Wall.’
MA: Aha! So the real reason you don’t own a mobile phone is because you’re biding time until someone donates you an iPhone? None of that cheap Nokia crap.
JLW: It’s true. I’m waiting for my friends’ phone contracts to end, so when they upgrade to their new plan they’ll give me their old iPhone. Come to think of it, it’s getting ridiculous – I lock myself out of buildings, and my car always breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and I’m screwed without a mobile phone. I might have to get a phone before my Brisbane show. For now, I’ll stick to public phone booths. I know people still use them because I saw a crushed-up can of Jack Daniels inside one the other day.
Image 2: Night Mountain, I Miss You, installation shot. Photo: The Opening Hours.
Image 2: Works from Night Mountain, I Miss You. Courtesy of k.O.M.A