Hobart-based Megan Walch’s new suite of paintings, Materia Prima: A Rough Guide to the Soft Apocalypse, makes one feel awash – awash in water, in sky, in swirling human flesh. Her virtuosity leaps off flat composite panels upon whose brushed metallic tones Walch pours, brushes and erases paint. The works seem to play out simultaneously on the surface and somewhere much deeper. From abstract gestural forms, it’s possible to make out trees, mountains, limbs and skies that rise up and recede again, and each encounter with the work yields different combinations. In conversation with Kate Britton, Walch articulates her process with a similarly energetic clarity, moving through a clearly defined art historical lineage to land herself firmly in the present.
Can you tell me about the departure from working on canvas to these composite panels?
The panels are screens, but they’re not referencing any particular screen. As [art theorist] Giuliana Bruno was saying, it’s about the material relationships that are occurring on that surface, be it a wall, canvas, architecture, projection, cinema – it doesn’t matter. I find that lack of partitioning of art forms really refreshing, because being a painter is like being a leper. I just sort of think, get over it, you know? It’s about the relationships of forms that occur on that surface. And the depth, or lack of it. I suppose they’re quite tumultuous, they’re macro and they’re micro, so upon close inspection you can see a lot of detail and it could be weather or it could be the skin or fur of something; I don’t want to pin things down. I’m really interested in working between abstraction and figuration. That’s another partition I’ve never really believed in. I’m interested in the way that form appears, coalesces and then recedes back into whatever is generating it again – it’s more about that play of vectors of energy. I’m really interested in the movement. Movement is key and that’s always been in my work – always that kinetic element. There is quite a bit of erasure on the picture plane in these works. I can’t sand canvas but I can sand this [composite surface], it’s pretty robust. You can do stuff with it and it registers the pressure. I find it can do more than canvas can at this point.
The movement through and with the paint and across the surface is really strong. How was it achieved?
There are quite a few layers. The first layer – the process is that I pour paint – is enamel and oil and acrylic. The initial pouring of the paint sets up what will be responded to, so there’s a balance of control and being out of control. I guess my key concerns with the material, if we’re going to talk about the materiality of paint, are its plasticity, viscosity – patterns occur according to the viscosity of the paint – and its fluidity – not only to be a fluid but to traverse figuration, abstraction, different viewpoints, looking through, as if you’re looking up and down. These plastic properties of paint are why I’m passionate about the medium, and it’s why I totally believe in paint as a material with which to comment on contemporary culture. Those properties are – in my opinion – pretty salient to the time we’re living in.
Your exhibition has a great title [Materia Prima: The Rough Guide to the Soft Apocalypse]. Can you talk about its meaning?
‘The Rough Guide’ refers back to oil paint: I’m using it as a map, an alternate form of a map – a surreal cartography. I believe that humans still haven’t evolved beyond using visual schema, so these are sort of surreal visual maps for how I feel the contemporary world is evolving as a result of digital culture and globalisation. They’re alternate maps in my mind. So ‘The Rough Guide’ is the rough map made in oil and ‘The Soft Apocalypse’ is a little segue into the possibility that maybe, instead of us all being annihilated in one big bang, an apocalypse might be a move towards homogeneity. And that’s more disturbing to me. I guess that’s a reference to the idea that if everything evaporates to become immaterial in a digital world, then everything would become homogenous. So again I’m sticking up for materials. ‘Materia Prima’ is that first alchemical substance and it’s kind of sticky; messy.
You’ve done quite a few residencies and travelled a lot. Can you talk about the impact this has had on your practice?
I was in Japan last year and I had a residency in far north Thailand in 2004-2005, and Taiwan in 2003. I find South East Asian pictorial philosophy to be the most sympathetic to the way I’m thinking. There’s this whole history and lineage that is thousands of years old about not using linear perspective. It’s a completely established alternative perspective. I’m Tasmanian but half of my family lives in the Pacific and the States and I spent a lot of time in the Pacific growing up. I suppose that otherness is important to me, to my formation. My uncle is Tongan, and being white was just a hideous thing to be, I was so bummed out. I didn’t want fair skin. And of course Surrealism has this great link to ethnography, with its interest in other cultures and criticality of European culture. I think I’m a Surrealist at heart.
Megan Walch – Materia Prima: The Rough Guide to the Soft Apocalypse, Mon to Sat 10am-6pm until 1 April 2015; Bett Gallery, 369 Elizabeth Street, North Hobart; (03) 6231 6511, bettgallery.com.au