Published in VAULT: Issue 19 – JULY 2017
THE CRYPTIC, MULTILAYERED PAINTINGS OF SYDNEY ARTIST SETH BIRCHALL ARE IN THRALL TO THE MYSTICISM AND MAGIC OF THE NATURAL WORLD.
For a year, Seth Birchall hid a tiger’s eye gemstone in the crevice of his wallet. “It was a caramel pebble with toffee streaks – a friend gave it to me and told me to keep it close for prosperity,” he tells me. After noticing he had saved more money than usual, he decided to remove it. “It feels like my good luck rubbed off after that tiger’s eye left my life,” he laments, “I have to find another lucky charm now.” Although Birchall doesn’t strike me as an overly superstitious person, he does lay claim to “going along for the ride” when it comes to mysticism.
As a painter, Birchall hat-tips towards the Modernist avant-garde era, with Symbolist and Romanticist proclivities. Describing his gesture as “scumbly, potentially naive, and rife with clichés,” he probes the tropes of escapist scenery and animal folklore, using a lashy colour fermentation to skew the vantage points of land, water, and sky. We see waterfalls piling into luminous prisms in Gilman Landscape #2 (2014–2016), night skies gooping over slanted mountains in Purple Moonrise (2016), and hills dwarfed by fat, swollen mushrooms in Ways of Relaxing (2017). In other works, cabins are swallowed by dense forests, snakes coil clandestinely around trees, and a lone adventurer roams nomadically, free of life’s constraints.
We’re at Sydney’s Birmingham Street Studios, where the 36-year old artist keeps a white-tiled space strewn with coffee cups. On his workbench, among squished paint tubes, lie his go-to reads: Cabin Porn, Colour Mixing Bible and Ways of Seeing. Thorny plants slink across bubble-wrapped canvases, gravitating towards a window that spills over with sunshine.
Birchall speaks with a timid, almost- whispering cadence that carries an American twang, even though the New Jersey native has been living in Sydney since his family relocated in 1987. The artist often skims culture magazines, podcasts, films, and found imagery for source materials – a process he prefers to keep lax and non-committal: “I feel like I have undiagnosed ADHD, so the more haphazard my influences are, the more excited I get.” For his solo exhibitions The Bloviate Suite at Chalk Horse in late 2016, and New Swamp Paintings with Tristian Koenig earlier this year, Birchall filled his landscapes with cats, snakes, and “the unavoidably romantic sun and moon.” He explains: “I work under
the pretext that when someone views the moon or a sunset, they have an associated moment of nostalgia and thankfulness about the good things in life – the planets become their pause beacon.”
Snakes, on the other hand, “make me squirm, but I paint them because their formal qualities allow me to manipulate their shape into text, like rope.” Indeed, his works show the reptiles contorting to spell the word ‘RILEKS,’ the Indonesian word for ‘RELAX.’ Birchall often visits Indonesia as his partner, filmmaker and photomedia artist Leyla Stevens, is part Indonesian. “While I’m there, locals would often say to me, ‘whatever happens, just rileks!’ I can’t tell whether they mean it in a serious or term-of- endearment way, but this mantra stuck with me.”
Birchall’s mother was a kindergarten teacher, while his father “spent a huge portion of his life underneath people’s houses” as a plumber. “Dad also paints on the side,” he reveals, “though we have conflicting styles: he has a conservative approach that honours the [J.M.W.] Turner era, whereas I’m more experimental, and this baffles him.” Nevertheless, his parents nurtured his creative impulses as a child.
He went on to study painting at the National Art School, but felt unconvinced about his art path after graduating in 2003. For a while, he veered into odd jobs, “like working in a touch-screen factory and maintaining water features in offices and hotels.” It was in 2008, while teaching art to kindergarteners during a year-long stint in South Korea, that art yanked him back. “Unlike my mother, I realised that being a teacher was not my thing,” he admits. “At the time, I just felt like taking a break from Australia to go live somewhere less provincial, more global. I met many artists while in South Korea – not just locals, but also Germans, Indians, Americans. Their passion for art gave me the cold-water-in-the-face shock that I needed to convince myself that I wanted to paint for a living.”
Birchall returned to Sydney that year to tackle a Master of Arts at the College of Fine Arts, cementing this with a finalist nod in the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship and the Doug Moran Portrait Prize. In 2011, he developed Man Crush, a double-portrait homage to his favourite painters Edvard Munch, Sidney Nolan, and Paul Gauguin. Hung at Firstdraft that year, with a follow-up at Liverpool Street Gallery in 2012, the series saw Birchall cast duelling versions of their facial profiles, side by side, stroke by stroke. Starting with prototypes that allowed for automation and looseness and, more significantly, mistakes to creep in, he then twinned them with a more resolved replica. “The idea was to take note of any mistakes in the first panel, and to ‘better’ it the second time round,” he says. “It was an empowering process.”
Soon after, he caught dengue fever during a trip to Bali and compared the experience to having “your organs and blood cooked from the inside while the fever tried to escape through your bones.” While recovering from post-viral fatigue, he received a plethora of mobile-phone pictures from his three brothers who were travelling overseas. “I was stuck at home while they were climbing mountains, dipping into waterfalls, and doing great bike rides around Vanuatu, Argentina, and Bega,” he wryly recounts. “It felt like this big middle finger directed at me, even though I knew this was self-imposed.”
Birchall responded by funnelling his travel photos and personality traits into a fictionalised wilderness adventurer called Gilman, a “full-time Bear Grylls survivalist who is forever nomadic and out in the nether.” He adds: “I wanted to create a character that allowed me to legitimise my escapist fantasies, because I actually get scared when I’m in the wild. It’s only natural that my brothers get to do ‘manly’ things while I document their adventures from the safety of my studio. I feel this is a deficiency of mine…” I interject to suggest he could perhaps view them as field researchers, and he is the lab scientist pruning their findings. “That could be true,” he beams, “my brothers collect the data, but I’m the lucky one that gets to turn them into paintings! I guess I should thank them?”
For The Bloviate Suite, Birchall flexed Gilman’s shape-shifting nature: the name GILMAN, spelt in the shape of a snake, a rope, and a rainbow, skated across the beetroot-red and basil-green landscape like a billboard mantra. Other works saw his muse play the role of a cat surveying windowsills and pathways, its back arched and ears perked as if to safeguard the artist. In the art world, a cat is long known to be the ideal studio companion; Henri Matisse and Édouard Manet often bundled their beloved cats into their masterpieces. While Birchall does not own a feline, he fans this tradition by keeping Gilman’s presence close, on all fours.
“Gilman has given me a language that I didn’t have before,” he offers. “He tells me to listen to my own voice and to know when enough is enough. Chasing him gives me the confidence to continue painting.” Birchall worries about Gilman’s shelf life though, revealing that “his visits have become irregular since the arrival of [his daughter] Elka.” His partner, Stevens, whom he met while studying at the National Art School, recently gave birth. I ask him whether Gilman’s ghosting coincides with Elka’s appearance. After pausing, he reflects, “I can’t tell yet. But I suspect I’ve put too much pressure on him, and now he has disappeared – or maybe shifted form.”
Casting another eye around Birchall’s studio, I start wondering whether Gilman has left breadcrumb clues. By the window, a taxidermy snake loops around, camouflaged by dust. Branding the front of his sketchbook is a hand-scribbled ‘S’, which could be a twofold reference to snakes and his first name, Seth. A crown of thorns cactus, which Birchall tells me he’s tended to for years, angles its giraffe neck into a catlike hunch. Perhaps Gilman is here, maybe he always was, disguised as a tiger’s eye, as his latest man crush, as his soft wild code.
Seth Birchall will be exhibiting in ‘Master of Three Worlds’ at COMA Gallery, Sydney from 4 August – 9 September 2017.