You know when you watch a film, or read a book and there is a female character there who is so complete and perfectly original you just know they could never be real. How could Margot Tenenbaum ever navigate the trams, or Rosa Saks argue with her phone company about a bill? Artist and writer Minna Gilligan is one of these girls, from her picture perfect 60s throwback style to her dreamy artworks that have caught the eye of other dreams like Petra Collins, Tavi Gevinson, and the rest of the Rookie team. In fact if she wasn’t one of our own hometown heroes, we’d say she’s too good to be true.
GGG: On the The Arduous website (curated by Canadian photographer, Petra Collins), they describe you making, “potent, psychedelic drawings and paintings that evade time and space like mirages”. Psychedelic art was a movement neglected by the academic art world because of its proximity to pop culture—can you comment on psychedelic art as an influence for you?
Minna: Cool question! That description is a couple of years old but I would still say it’s pretty accurate. Psychedelic art is an influence for me, definitely; not because I take a lot of drugs, but because of the slipperiness of it. I like the idea of something existing as an idea because ideas are always larger than anything in the physical world. I guess my art works have both their physical paper or canvas existence and their existence in my mind—then on the internet, in reproductions, etc etc. I suppose the work of art in the academic art world you mentioned is like this one god-like object, whereas my work is tied to popular culture as psychedelic art is because it exists in lots of different contexts and spaces. I really like that about it.
I see true psychedelic art as being intrinsically sinister, sort of like Alice in Wonderland stuff, I like the idea of the trick mirror,
It’s an overused word in art in general, but can you describe how nostalgia plays into your work?
Yeah, the word nostalgic is used a lot to describe my work. I tend to shy away from it, as I prefer to explain it on my own terms,that is: I don’t think my work is nostalgic for anything particularly tangible. I’m sort of looking back on borrowed memories and experiences via found objects, ephemera, images in old books, and recurring melodies from long ago that get stuck in your head. I fashion or piece together these false “memories” and I feel incredibly fond towards them because they were never a reality. They’re vaseline lens, misty and slippery and dream-like. They are whatever I want them to be and I guess that’s why I feel rather nostalgic towards them.
What is the most common misreading or misunderstanding of your work?
I don’t know, I sort of spoke to you about people assuming because I’m a woman who identifies as a feminist making art, that the work I make is about feminism. That’s really not always the case. I can be a feminist and make work about feminism, or I can be a feminist and make work that doesn’t touch on feminism and that reading shouldn’t have to be thrust upon it. That aside, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a really drastic misreading of my work that I’ve found offensive. I enjoy putting my work out in the world and knowing that I can get a whole bunch of random things back. I generally like hearing people’s readings of my work as they offer another human’s experience to paste over the top like a piece of invisible collage.
Can you elaborate on music as a source of inspiration in general, and more specifically as in the series, Feel Flows?
Yeah, music is huge for me. I think it’s huge for everyone in the world really—although I always remember that my mum and dad have this friend who actually says that he “doesn’t like music” which is such an odd statement. I love how songs are super sentimental and have the ability to transport you to other times, places and circumstances. I love listening to the radio, thinking about the other people who are also listening to it very late at night, and the fuzzy reception. With Feel Flows, I was obsessed with this particular Beach Boys song forever, I think because I found it particularly haunting with the psychedelic backwards reverb and the really abstract lyrics, different to most Beach Boys songs. The lyric “Feel Flows” was poignant because I was painting on used sheets and curtains at the time and I loved the idea that Feel is a noun rather than a verb in this circumstance, that it can literally flow through my works. It was cool because the president of the Australian Beach Boys Fan Club came to see the exhibition and I found that brilliant.
You describe your paintings as, “eerie playgrounds of colour” on your website. It’s such a beautiful reflection, your colour choices are both vivid and elating, but uncomfortable too. What is your relationship with colour?
My relationship with colour is pretty intense. Most of my works don’t even contain earthy tones or shades of brown or black to break things up. I don’t think you see that very often. My use of colour is super acidic, it’s artificial, it’s attractive to look at but after a while you can feel nauseous or a bit off. There is definitely something sinister about such intense colours, because you don’t really see it organically in nature or whatever so you question it more and it sits awkwardly outside of while walls.
Your work is intimate and has often been described using words like sadness, exaltation, longing, lust—however you also discuss optimism as important to your work. Can you elaborate on the tension between optimism and melancholy in your practice?
I believe I am essentially an optimistic person, and a certain part of that positivity comes through in my work in my use of colour—there’s a kind of lightness there. I do speak a lot about longing, and sighing and looking back on things through rose-tinted glasses, but I don’t necessarily see that stuff as melancholy in a bad way, more like daydreaming and living in a fantasy.
The process of making artwork is generally denied the viewer, particularly in a painting practice. Could you tell us about your art practice? Are there other rituals you partake in that help your work?
I usually make sure I am in an appropriate frame of mind before I start a painting. I want to be calm and experiencing some sort of clarity in my thoughts. I like to listen to music when I make work so the sentiments from the songs can be transferred into my paintings. I don’t usually plan what the work will look like, I enjoy seeing it take it’s own shape before my very eyes, there’s something magical about that. I work usually everyday, if I have a show coming up I’ll working on paintings like mad—if I’m just making for myself I like to draw, collage and doodle aimlessly. Sometimes the best works come out of really unstructured periods of making. I work best alone.
Did you want to be an artist as a child? Were your family from this world?
As a child I spent most of my time thinking and observing and eavesdropping on adult conversations. Everyone in my family are in creative fields: writers, artists, designers, musicians, so it was something that infiltrated into my mind from a really early age. I remember going to friend’s houses to play when I was little and being really confused because they didn’t have art hanging on their walls, it was super normal for me to be surrounded with images and books and stuff.I would say my family really characterised my existence, definitely.
Once I was at the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) I benefited monumentally by being surrounded by like-minded peers and lecturers. It opened up a whole new world for me that I never knew existed. I had never had friends with whom I could discuss art, so I think I quashed a large part of myself as a young teen in order to slot into a friendship group and so I could have people to hang out at the local shopping centre with. I talked myself into thinking those were the activities that fulfilled me, but in retrospect they obviously didn’t as my whole experience at high school felt like I was constantly searching for something—something I wasn’t quite sure was even there. Luckily it was.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
As mentioned above, in high school I was super lost: I couldn’t quite identify the way in which I wanted to, or could, be creative. I really enjoyed writing and excelled at that, but after my first overseas trip with my parents when I was 15 to New York I definitely realised I wanted to be an artist. I discovered Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, the Factory, and subsequently begun a three year complete obsession with anything and everything to do with them and their lifestyle. I had silver foil on the walls of my bedroom for crying out loud. I was completely infatuated with the idea of being an artist and living in New York, and would constantly daydream about that from the isolation of my far away suburban bedroom.
The internet really allowed me to open up about my art-side a bit more, and I started blogging, finding like-minded creative friends not in real life but on the internet. They liked Andy Warhol too. They “got” why I wore stripy tops and dark eye makeup and big 60s beehives. I think my perception of being an artist has changed a little since my romantic teen daydreamings—it’s definitely less glamourous I suppose, not that I let the reality ruin my illusion—it’s better, in a way. I thought being as artist would be a real loner profession, but going to VCA allowed me to become part of a fantastic community of artists and creative people who I hope to grow and make work with for forever.
You also have a commercial illustration practice, how do you see commercial art and the differences between your fine art and illustration/collage practices?
I love both the Fine Art side of my practice and the more commercial, illustration side equally. I keep them on separate sides though, because they have different intentions. I love the reach of commercial work—the millions of eyeballs you get on a particular drawing or collage. I think there is so much power in that. The reason I make work is for people to see it, and I get really excited at the prospect of the internet allowing me to have that monumental audience that I’d never get in real life.
My paintings, drawings and collages that I make in a “fine art” context are usually shown in galleries and artist run spaces. They exist solely as products of my mind, not me working to a brief or illustrating someone else’s idea. I don’t believe this gives them elevation above my illustration works, they are just different. I want to have the best of both worlds and I think in this day and age of like so many cross pollinations of mediums and processes and stuff then why shouldn’t I. I admire Martin Sharp as someone who had the best of both worlds and was respected in both fields. I want to be an all-rounder and I’m proud of that.
What direction do you want to take your work in—what’s your dream scenario for working and living?
Dream scenario for working and living is to be a full time artist. I also want to focus more on writing too. However at the moment I do really enjoy the routine of my part time job so I see myself juggling both that and my own practice for some time to come. I’m moving into Gertrude Studios in December and I absolutely cannot wait to get in there and get started. I want to make as much work as I can and keep challenging myself with the kind of work I make. I want to work really hard and be proud of myself.
Words by Zoe Koke