Rob McHaffie: This is living

‘Laughter and crying are most likely the two best therapies I’ve found,’ says Rob McHaffie, whose ebullient paintings personify splendour in the ordinary. The artist’s survey show is on view now at Bayside Gallery and comprises paintings, watercolours and ceramic sculptures from the past five years.

Rob McHaffie, Word of mouth (Half Moon Bay), 2018, oil on linen, 138 x 184cm. Bayside City Council Art and Heritage Collection, Melbourne

What’s so interesting about ‘everyday life’?
For me I guess my mind gets occupied with what’s going on beneath the surface of simple gestures and chance encounters. ‘Everyday life’ offers a structure to perhaps parade in unison as an individual within a community. I’m fascinated by the roles we all play in order to perhaps avoid real confrontation of very central human questions. Why are we here? The answer can’t really be to ‘Netflix and chill’ or serve customers 50 hours a week in the print section of Officeworks.

Is art a form of anthropology? Over the years what have you learnt from looking and then reproducing elements of Thai and now Victorian beachside suburban culture?
Art for me is my quiet time. Art I think is communication. It’s strange that these are perhaps some of my most literal works but I feel they are so strange.

I don’t think surrealism really touches upon the weirdness of everyday life. What we’ve constructed as humans is worth looking at and reflecting upon. It can point us in a good direction, for example we can learn from the horrors of war in Picasso’s Guernica (1937) or the simple peace available in Matisse’s image of the Moroccan blokes lying on the ground staring at goldfish. Head away from this and towards that.

Rob McHaffie, Sylvia, 2016, oil on linen, 76 x 51cm. Private collection. Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

Thai culture is changing rapidly, Victorian beachside suburban culture is a little more stubborn but we’re all heading together towards this global culture, which is bubbling wildly with many different flavours all mixing with the help of the Internet and cheap flights.

Uniquely your paintings offer the viewer a flash of eccentricity, tenderness and social comment all at once, what motivates you to create?
Plopping paint on a brush and tickling the canvas with it is my prime motivation. The subjects in the paintings really offer the framework for how I’ll paint. I’ve found painting brick walls really meditative. I’ve found painting jogger’s leggings also quite satisfying as your eyes shift from floral pattern to line to the curve of the human body. As the eyes follow the folds in a nightgown closely they get lost in the ripples of colour or rhythms of nature as you paint nature. It slows me down to a point I no longer exist or I exist just as awareness. The by-product I hope is worth sharing as it sustains what is essentially a professional hobby.

Rob McHaffie, Beachcomber, 2014, oil on linen, 84 x 56cm. Monash University Collection, Melbourne

Can you tell us about your recent influences or new inspirations?
Kerry James Marshall hit me with a big whack this last year. I saw a huge survey of his work in Chicago in 2001 maybe and it’s only just crept up on me what an important artist he is. There’s a lot of trendy figurative art but not much with real potency that can actually lift those who have been repressed in the world. Dana Schutz does amazing things with paint. Nicole Eisenman is inspiring for the lack of adhering to any one style of painting. She finds a new form to fit each unique modern scenario she has. I went back to that MoMA show at the NGV twice and felt the power of art early last century to be a little more powerful than recent times. There seemed to be a closeness I could feel through the artists and their subjects. Even that tiny little one of Frida Kahlo after she’d cut off all her hair really touched me for its intimacy. She couldn’t have foreseen that her struggle and defiance would ripple on throughout the world until now.

Rob McHaffie, Study Commerce and work part-time at Country Road, 2015, oil on linen, 56 x 41cm. Monash University Collection, Melbourne

How has your process, pre painting collage or drawing, as well as working with oils changed or evolved in the last few years? 
I was always so nervy painting people from life, I guess I needed to construct portraits out of sculptural material or collage before painting them. The works have been becoming a little more directly about what’s around me due to a lack of time factor. I’m busy with two kids, sessional teaching and working three days a week at Arts Project Australia. This has meant I’ve been grabbing imagery from very close to home as the backdrop and using actors from the Internet to play the parts of various neighbours, friends and family. They’re far away enough from the origins that I can then represent them and say ‘I feel what you’re feeling’ or ‘I love the fact that you have pursued life as a full-time double bass player while everybody else has just given up on their dream.’

Bayside Gallery
Until 11 November, 2018