Living With Art: Jon Cattapan

Jon Cattapan is a leading Australian artist and Professor in Visual Art for the Victorian College of the Arts, and formerly the VCA’s Director. 3:33 Art Projects had the pleasure of collaborating with Cattapan as part of the Clayton Utz Art Partnership at Clayton Utz, Melbourne in 2018-2019.

Cattapan first began exhibiting in 1979, igniting an expansive and ongoing exploration into ways of representing urban topographies and narratives. As well as being a major award winner his work is held in many state, regional and university museums. Within Cattapan’s paintings, drawings and prints we see influences of contemporary global culture and recent history, from science fiction and film through to urban social debates. As such ‘these times’ pose a wonderful opportunity to catch up with Cattapan about how contemporary life is affecting his outlook. We were happy to discover he is reconnecting with his already deep and thoughtful practice, testament to the ever-evolving nature of being an artist.

Jon Cattapan, The Group Reacts, 2020, 140 x 180cm

Has this year influenced or evolved your preoccupation for the way human beings negotiate territories?

That’s a very good question to start with. Here in Victoria, of course we’ve been under quite strict lockdown, particularly in Melbourne. In actual fact there is a list of permitted industries and extraordinarily, artists are not allowed to go to their studios, even artists like myself who work alone. That has basically meant that a lot of artists have moved their practices to home.

What I’ve begun to do is make lots of small drawings, very intimate studies. Interestingly what’s evolved without meaning to is a parallel body of work that is vaguely related to what people would recognise in my paintings but is much more intimate in scale, and a little bit more random in its methodology. For me that has been incredibly refreshing and has got me thinking about a lot of ways forward in my paintings once I make a proper start again.

Jon Cattapan, Double Glitch, 2020, 140 x 280cm

That’s excellent and echoes conversations we have been having with artists about getting back to the core of why you do what you do.

I think that’s so true. Artists are, in a funny way, very capable when they are living in ‘interesting’ times. Personally, I reflect on the forthcoming changes that this may bring and find myself asking ‘Why am I actually making work?’ That point has become really critical, and I’ve answered that question very simply. It’s not so much about the desire to exhibit the work or to see it published or collected, it’s about the need. I have a need to make something every day. So even if I cannot access my studio I can keep making work from the dining room table. This is definitely a moment to be resourceful and think laterally, not just about one’s work but the reasons for being an artist – what can you give as an artist?

Jon Cattapan, Untitled (from the lockdown series), 2020, ink, pencil and watercolour on paper, 21 x 29cm

I’ve gone back to basics, watercolours and ink drawings. Generally one can make those in a much quicker way. Painting for me is a battle. It takes place over a number of different stages and there is a lot of forethought, whereas the drawings and watercolours are immediate. The effect is that the images have a kind of randomness, and are very often based on observations of little things I have around me. A classic example is I’ve done a suite of used face-masks. They’ve insinuated themselves into my consciousness. Another set of images involves figures trapped in plastic bags. I saw a crumpled bag on the table I was working on and I was struck by the way the light was hitting the bag and the forms. I made some quick notation sketches, just testing my observation and rendering skills and then I overlaid a figure (a lot of my work is about layering). Lo and behold it looked as though this little figure was trapped in the bag. I was reviewing that little body of work recently and it’s very much about people being locked away, feeling claustrophobic and having to deal with a very confined environment.

It’s kind of fascinating to me how ideas which are only half formed can sometimes play out and evolve through the making of the work, rather than being premeditated. That’s the difference between painting and drawing for me.

For some people when things are out of control you can find freedom, to be present and adaptive, creating in a free flow way and seeing things you didn’t notice before. 

Yes, there’s a kind of strange calm that sets in. In that relaxed moment you can go rogue, if you know what I mean? You can be wayward, let your imagination take hold and try stuff out. It’s liberating. It goes to the first thing you said that a lot of artists like myself are out there feeling ‘what the hell!’ I can go into myself and dig deep and see what’s there. 

When you’re in a different context you relate differently to form, line, and colour, it becomes more intuitive and emotional.

I always remember Howard Arkley saying to me ‘You work so hard to get something that you can do and claim as your own, and then you spend the rest of your life trying to get away from it.’ I think there’s real truth in that. I’ve broken with style a number of times in my life. I’ve used style as another kind of tool. That has been upsetting for some people but I have found it a great way to learn and reinvent. This coronavirus moment through the drawings is allowing me to rethink things again. One thing it has made me realise is that drawing is absolutely fundamental to my practice, even though I hardly ever show them. 

Jon Cattapan, Absence Field (For N.H.), 2020, 185 x 250cm

You’re presenting new works in ‘Dissolve’ with Milani Gallery soon (21 November to 23 December); can you discuss the ideas in the exhibition?

Well we’ve been talking about drawings on an intimate scale but I have to say this new show is actually very large paintings. Most of that work was finished before lockdown so in some ways the work actually looks quite prescient. It never ceases to amaze me how artists have their little antennas up all the time and sometimes you’re making work imaginatively that then unfolds in the real world around you. It’s not like I’ve foretold the future, but there’s a sensibility in these works that I feel is very pertinent to the times.

The works are divided in two parts – figurative and abstract. I’ve been thinking about how people claim territory or search for community right at this moment. ‘The Group Reacts’ for example has people wearing masks, prior to coronavirus. They are wearing masks for protest but now it’s going to be read in a particular way. Then there are large abstract fields, which is how all my paintings begin. The best way to describe them is that they are very loosely fields of space, colour and maybe an imagined landscape. With some of these works I haven’t felt compelled to overlay them with the figures, which is an interesting change for me.

There is a sense in the work that there is something else at play. Maybe at the ripe old age of 64 I am to find other ways of working that aren’t as beholden to narrative. They are really pointing to something I don’t fully understand, and I think that can only be good. And there are a lot of openings for me to work through.

My biggest enemy is time, but I’m determined. I feel very alive as an artist at the moment.


Jon Cattapan is represented by STATION Gallery, Melbourne, Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

This article is presented in collaboration with 3:33 Art Projects