Based between Melbourne and Leipzig, David Ralph creates quiet, uncanny scenes that conflate a host of dichotomies: nature and culture; exterior and interior; physical and psychological.
Your paintings capture a connectivity between architectural spaces and the human experience. How does your latest series build on this?
I realised early on that the built environment is very important to me; it’s a metaphor for who we are or might aspire to be. Winston Churchill once said ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’ I’ve always been attracted to this idea. In my work I make portraits of people as their environments; it’s a sort of collective portrait. I like the residual spirit of abandoned buildings as a kind of theatre of life, or end of an era full of history, mystery and psychology.
My latest series is about stimulating curiosity and looking for clues in interiors. To some extent, like a detective, I want to elicit a portrait of a person from their background, their things, in their absence.
When and why did you develop a fascination with the built environment?
I think it all began when I was a child. I grew up in a big city, Melbourne. I was always intrigued by my family and friends’ differing houses and work places – the belongings they had, the lighting, the atmosphere – and how they made me feel. Some felt good, some bad, and some ugly; it had a lasting effect on me. I would also go to the cinema and liked the interior at times more than the movie! When you look at the built environment, especially interiors, you are looking at a purely visual thing, a manifestation of an idea, an emotion, an aesthetic that has psychological implications.
Being based between Melbourne and Leipzig, how do these different settings influence your practice?
Apart from being a more economically viable place to work, Leipzig is an artist’s city and very pro painting community. Leipzig is one tip of the Berlin, Dresden cultural triangle in the east of Germany. There’s a great history of art and painting in this region of Germany, I’ve discovered so many amazing and diverse painters here that I probably wouldn’t have seen or heard of in Australia. Leipzig has an enormous number of derelict buildings – like an old layered painting, they have a story to tell, and these environments suit the physical and textured kind of painting that I enjoy (which some people think is derelict too!) Little do they know, like the buildings, everything old is new again.
Melbourne is and has been an artist’s city as well, but it is a very different, big, modern metropolis. I like its slick surfaces and dichotomy with the coast and landscape. The contrast between the two cultures is something that’s inspired my practice it helps me find a broader perspective on painting.
Many of your spaces seem silent and empty, evoking the loneliness endemic to contemporary urban life. What are you trying to convey here?
Silence at times is great; it’s a counterpoint to the noise of the city. I see emptiness as space to think and loneliness as a challenge to be curious; to contemplate and observe the things around us that we would otherwise miss in our busy lives. Being a painter is a very solitary business, so the work really echoes this.
These kinds of spaces can also be intriguing in and of themselves, like a cave you’ve discovered – you don’t want figures competing with the space for your attention; you want to study the cave. For a long time in the Academies of Europe, interiors without people or a grand narrative were frowned upon. The rise of the painted interior in the mid 19th century coincided with crime fiction and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Jung, so this subject is very much about about personality, ‘interiority’ and psychology. My scenes signify a variety of people and states of mind. Where I have incorporated figures, they are melding with the interior as if one and the same, belonging. I like to think of figures as part of the woodwork ingrained or camouflaged like an animal in a rainforest.
What informs your luminous, jewel-like palette?
I use colours that suggest a place somewhere between fantasy and reality, colours from the past that feel a little old, like aged colour photos or, in the case of my club interiors, like the residue from cigarette tar has stained the painting. The surreal look of the colour is reinforcing that painting is fiction, but I’m not a fan o flat out surrealism or straight realism. I prefer to consider my scenarios as reality being stranger than fiction – which isn’t too hard to find these days.
In your new work Jungle Room (2018), foliage sprouts from the ambiguous walls of a lounge room. What are you exploring here?
Interiority or inner subjectivity. Jungle Room is based on an existing interior designed by an artist who made a film in Hawaii. Encountering the Hawaiian jungle had a profound and lasting effect on him. When he arrived home he knew he probably wouldn’t fly again due to his fear of flying, and he wouldn’t see that jungle again, so to get that feeling back he converted a space in his house into a jungle room. In the latter days of his life he spent most of his days there, singing and playing guitar. It was his favourite room because of an encounter with Hawaii and its jungle.
When I learned this about the ‘Jungle Room’ I had to paint it because it exemplifies what I like about interiors – that they can be so personal and display the lengths people will go to make their interior into a portrait of their psychological needs and interests. Often what people yearn for but can’t have beyond their interior they create as a virtual reality.
This idea of virtual reality is evoked in the ambiguous walls that appear as portals to another realm, golden light radiating from beyond the foliage like an indistinct sunset.
I’m interested in how virtual reality is a real aspect of today’s media environment, with implications for our domestic environment. In Darren Aronofski’s film Requiem for a Dream, there is a great scene where the lead character’s mother is sitting in her living room watching a game show on TV. Under the influence of wrong medication, the TV starts expanding before her eyes, beyond the frame and into her room. That’s the kind of creative licence I wanted in Jungle Room, to push it into a further dimension, or at least open the walls to the possibility. I like the idea of ‘portals to another realm’.
Can you walk me through your painting process?
I’m trying to become less digital and more analogue in my preparation. In the past I would make sketches in Photoshop first, but now I find an interesting environment, photograph it, then paint from the photo – of which I have several exposures so I can see into the shadows and highlights. On the canvas, my technique has become more experiential. The photo is heavily filtered through the medium of washy to textured oil paint. I seek ‘painterly’ environments that suit this old, if not derelict, medium.
Over the years I’ve moved away from painting slick contemporary spaces that suit a finer grained realism. I choose environments that kind of look and feel like they might already be an expressive painting – low definition or low tech; emotional. My handling of environments is never literal; I want some things to be lost and new things found in the translation.
Elli Walsh is a Sydney-based arts writer.
14 June to 7 July, 2018