Polly Borland: Polyverse presents new and recent work by the celebrated Australian-born, Los Angeles–based artist. While perhaps most widely known for her portraits of prominent figures including Queen Elizabeth II and musician Nick Cave, many works included in the exhibition explore more surreal imagery in which magnetic visual qualities embody a distorted, punkish humour. Through series including Smudge, 2010, Monster, 2017, and most recently MORPH, created for the NGV exhibition, Borland creates images that render the body alluring, enigmatic and absurd, inviting audiences to see the human form in unfamiliar ways. Pip Wallis, NGV Curator of Contemporary Art, spoke to Borland via telephone from LA.
Pip Wallis: Thinking about your new series MORPH, is this work a continuation of your series Smudge and Monster or is it more of an amalgam of all your past work?
Polly Borland: I think it’s an amalgam. I think that in all my series, one thing leads to another, everything feeds into each other; it’s a progression. Conceptually and visually, it’s definitely a continuation but also a body of work that can exist as itself.
PW: In all your previous work you play with a combination of the abject and desire; an unsettling ugliness as well as a libidinal quality. It seems to me in MORPH you’ve taken this combination further.
PB: Interestingly, I see this body of work as the most beautiful. There were initially two inspirations that I was working with. One was the last image of Monster – that big red piece. It was the starting point for this next body of work. The other inspiration was the stocking cases, which I’d never worked with before, that had their own organic quality, which gave a bit of a direction through the raw material.
There were also some visual ideas in my head: the dream sequence in Dumbo, where Dumbo gets drunk with the mouse, and some of Australian painter Tony Clark’s earlier Chinoiserie landscapes, and Dr. Seuss.
I feel that Untitled XXXII is one of the most successful works in the Smudge series because it relies on its shape and the face marks are literally smudges, like the series title, while being Classical and modernist in its simplicity. Recently, I haven’t used wigs or identifiable props like in the other Smudge works. The new series was an endeavour to reduce visual language. I was aiming to abstract but at the same time conjure a kind of mythical dreamlike state. I think I was successful in that but interestingly, the more I went along, the more figurative the images became. At first, I was creating preconscious images and now I look at it there are sort of mythical monsters; some of them are a bit monstrous, almost touching on horror. But because of soft textures and the colours they also have a friendly seductive quality and are quite compelling because the work has a modernist kind of classicism to it – the centred framing. It’s appealing to the eye.
PW: You talk about the preconscious and I’ve been thinking about whether you have an interest in psychoanalytic perspectives and how the work can tap into unconscious associative thinking.
PB: Definitely. It’s become more and more prominent or I’ve become more and more conscious of it as I’ve gone along. Preconscious and unconscious are two different things, because unconscious is something that’s locked into your non-memory whereas the preconscious is about to become articulated. When I started thinking about preconsciousness, I was interested in the pre-language; almost in the womb. Recently Sibylla Phipps, who is the model inside the costumes in MORPH and who has studied psychoanalysis, mythology and the demonisation of females in film, wrote an incredible essay about my work. Interestingly, she analysed it from a human point of view, whereas I would like to think that actually the work kind of transcends the human.
PW: The body is perhaps less cohesive and stable than we’d like to think, in terms of the way that writers like Donna Haraway have thought about how the body is subject to things like technological change and medical intervention. We’ve started to understand that the barrier between the human body and the rest of the world is more unstable than we previously thought. Is MORPH responding to issues of today or does it feel more routed in mythical and Classical themes?
PB: I think it’s more mythical, Classical and primal, but having said that I’m very aware of the impacts of, for example, iPhones being the extension of our bodies now. So we are cyborgs and my work is infused with an existential awareness. We’re under threat; I don’t see our way out of this. When I was growing up there were threats like the atom bomb and other fears to keep everyone in check. But it feels to me like we’re really under threat now, particularly in that the technological age has completely distorted ethics as we’ve known them. The genie’s out of the bottle and unfortunately, I can’t see how we’re going to survive as a species. I’m feeling pretty desperate, particularly for my son.
It’s a misconception that globalisation has homogenised everything; it’s actually social media, the internet and algorithms that we are being manipulated by because algorithms have in-built biases, so discovery and choice is now an illusion.
PW: It’s interesting to think about how these fears are playing on your mind while you’re making this work, and although your work has never been didactic or overtly political, you can still feel that sense of anxiety.
PB: I’ve never been afraid of that darkness. I think all my work has had darkness, even when I wasn’t feeling as worried about humanity.
PW: When you’re in the studio with the model how much of an impact does your relationship with the model have on the work?
PB: With Smudge you can really see that each person gives their own ambience, but Sibylla, the model in MORPH, approached me after seeing a work from Smudge. She said what had attracted her to my work was that there was the sexual language and the way I depicted the female not through the male gaze.
PW: How do you see yourself in relation to the politics of feminism? Is this body of work particularly interested in the female body?
PB: I think of myself as a humanist. I’m a visual artist and language has never been my main interest. I believe that language is used to confine people – and particularly now language is very important, and young people really understand the power of language, yet you’ve got people in power who don’t care about the impact of their words, which incite hatred. The liberal culture in certain Western countries is being threatened and there are conflicts around freedom of speech and of course you can’t censor the internet, yet it is a place of some horrible things: the information war, child pornography and so forth. I believe in freedom, but freedom that actually allows people to be who they are and freedom that promotes – it sounds very hippie! – love and kindness. I don’t see a lot of that in government policies around the world right now; it says a lot about humanity’s lack of compassion. I grew up being taught by my mother and father that society should care for those who are struggling.
PW: You’ve been living in the United States for seven years now and there’s been a lot of change in the last couple of years. The concerns that you’ve talked about just now have become more and more pressing. How has living in that context impacted your work?
PB: I’ll tell you exactly how. When I first began living in Hollywood, in LA, I felt gagged. I realised that there were not a lot of truth tellers, that there was not a lot of honesty. Hollywood permeates Los Angeles and you know, a lot of it is smoke and mirrors, that’s how Hollywood has been built. Feeling like I couldn’t speak and that I was being suffocated gave me anxiety, but then I realised, slowly, it’s made me stronger as a person because suddenly I started to find my voice again and now I feel like I can speak my truth.
I think Los Angeles has created some of the best artists in the world. Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley are artists that I’ve always admired and loved. The Mike Kelley retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in LA blew me away. He was a genius and so much of his work was very unsettling, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that he and Paul McCarthy came out of LA. I think it had to do partly with the environment that they were in. That’s what artists do, they soak up their environment.
PW: How has your use of photography as a medium shifted over time?
PB: I fell in love with taking photos, but the only reason I picked up the camera was because I didn’t feel I could draw or paint. I loved art history and my teacher at the hippie school I went to said, ‘Why don’t we build a darkroom in the cupboard?’ and basically I’ve been taking photos ever since.
The way I approached photography was much less about documentation; there was definitely an element of that, but it was more about me reordering space, creating my own thing. Where I want to go next is towards creating sculptural forms. What you see in MORPH is very sculptural and I imagine exploring another medium in which to create those figures.
PW: This exhibition goes back to a point where your practice shifted towards the abstract and in that sense, builds to MORPH as the most daring expression of impulse. In this sense the exhibition itself pre-empts what the next step might be for you.
PB: Definitely, that’s exactly what this exhibition does.