Riley Payne: Nature Documentary

Riley Payne lives and works in New York but was born in the Dandenongs. He’s had success in Melbourne with the NGV Triennial, Tolarno Galleries and most recently the ReadingRoom – a space for mindful programming where each show has tributaries in publishing, experience and experimentation. It’s a context befitting Payne whose photo-realist drawings include text that charges each image with a strange energy; they are immediately recognisable yet cryptic. I spoke to the artist about how ‘Nature Documentary’ turns over a new leaf.

Riley Payne, Untitled (Flamingo), 2018, pencil on paper, 38 x 30.5cm (paper size). Courtesy the artist and ReadingRoom, Melbourne

This series points to a calmer, less fractured state. Are you speaking to a social need for authenticity or even ‘re-wilding’?
Definitely, although I’m reluctant to put myself in the position of speaking for any social need on the whole – authenticity can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I think all I can do, and all I’ve tried to do in the past is use my work as a way to process whatever I’m seeing and thinking about at the time. This can sway all the way into the purely self-indulgent and personal, as well as sometimes tapping into a broader or shared concern, which is perhaps what this series is working through.

In this case it just seemed impossible (in Trump’s 2018) to ignore current events and continue on with the jokes and semi-dirty content that can linger in other drawings. It could be a new direction that comes with the new world, or it could just be a recalibration to help me make sense of things before I get back to regular programming.

Riley Payne, Untitled (Zebra), 2018, pencil on paper, 47 x 38cm (paper size). Courtesy the artist and ReadingRoom, Melbourne

Does the oversaturated world of images bother you, and therefore how do you see your role as image-maker?
It’s a love/hate thing I guess. I repurpose and comment on the oversaturation of images, but I also actively seek them out for my studio practice, and really depend on them to anchor myself to a certain extent.

I think what’s more important is having a set of tools to wade through them safely, which in my case is to slow each chosen one down by re-drawing it.

I’m not looking for an elimination of one over the other, but I’d definitely say I use analogue methods as a way to process digital information.

Do you use the slow process of drawing to create distance between yourself and the world?
No, I’d say it’s the exact opposite. I think the distance is already baked into the images I choose to draw, given that the bulk of them are either from an advertising context or at least show a glamorisation of each subject. By slowing down how I make work out of them I get to reclaim that image a little, which makes me feel more engaged by the time the final drawing is produced.

It seems to help loosen the grip that advertising and image-saturation has on me, as well as giving me a much deeper appreciation of how things look and are made. It may sound semi-useless if I say that I can now fully appreciate the centrifugal growth of a red cabbage, or the gummy transparency of a frog’s fingers, but I think the harder and deeper I look at seemingly mundane things, the more beneficial it is for my studio practice and outlook, in general.

Riley Payne, Untitled (Octopus), 2018, pencil on paper, 63.5 x 51cm paper size. Courtesy the artist and ReadingRoom, Melbourne

Has the wisdom of plants and animals influenced this series?
Before I was a practicing artist I was a full-blown plant-obsessive. Instead of going to art school or university I just worked in various plant-related areas – a couple of years at a nursery, a couple of different landscaping jobs, etc. When I was about 18 or 19 I was just trying to grow as much of my own food as I could – weird stuff, like rare types of fruit and hard to find heirloom vegetables. That’s where I really gained an insight into the wisdom of plants.

That’s probably the most esoteric sentence I’ve ever had in an interview, but it’s really informed a lot of my thinking to this day.

So, especially now when there are just staggering amounts of the natural world under threat from ignorant, malicious or non-existent policy and behaviour, it just seemed like a pertinent time to zero in on an old love of mine. For whatever reason, the plants didn’t feel like they’d work as a complete series on their own, I felt the need to broaden the idea somehow.

Animals were just a logical inclusion to make the series feel a bit more cohesive and far-reaching.

How have you selected the flora and fauna in this series?
A lot of the plants I have some kind of connection to, either through growing them when I was younger or just keeping an eye on them whenever I’m in an area where they exist. Along with the animals I’ve generally picked them due to some kind of graphic or intelligent quality that they exhibit – either how they grow, how they move, their usefulness as food or medicine.

I don’t expect anyone else to get those details necessarily, but I gave myself those categories as a way to keep the series consistent, even if only in my head.

The benefit of using instantly recognisable imagery (or downside depending on how I want the work to be read) is that each viewer will most likely have an entirely subjective reading, so I learned a while ago to not focus too much on explaining why I’ve selected certain images and just let people bring their own thoughts to the piece.

Riley Payne, Untitled (Gingko), 2018, pencil on paper, 47 x 38cm paper size. Courtesy the artist and ReadingRoom, Melbourne

Can you explain the use of the simple text ‘plants’ and ‘animals’ in these works when in the past you have used phrases and more obscure language?
I had two pieces in a show in New York in 2018 that simply said ‘water’ and ‘plants’, and featured images of the same.

When I made them it just felt like such a relief to not have to hitch any pun or subversive mark onto the background images, as I’d always done in the past. I decided to see whether or not an entire series could work with that simple a constraint, and the more I made the more the whole project made sense.

Using text in my work can be tricky when I’m not necessarily in a phase of hearing or writing things down, and to try and force it involves a vague sense of desperation that I’d rather just avoid and find some other way around.

Why is a familiar image so gratifying, for you and the audience?
There are a million different ways to answer that, but I think as it relates to my work it’s a matter of accessibility. If I at least create an entry point via a familiar image – or text – then people might be inclined to look a little harder, and consider teasing out other thoughts and connections that may exist in the work.

Or not – I’ve also had drawings generate irrational fear and disgust, so you really never know.

9 February to 9 March, 2019

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