JUST five hours after our interview, artist Hazel Dooney sends an email marked URGENT to clarify matters.
“What is it they say: act in haste, repent at leisure?” she writes. “Which is not to say that it wasn't good to meet you today, or that I felt that you were anything less than complete in your questions of me. It's just that when I found myself reflecting on our conversation, I felt that some of my answers – in the attempt to keep it light and cheerful – risked giving you the wrong impression of what I really felt about some things.
“Your questions about my childhood were unexpected, and I guess I was trying to put a homey gloss on my responses. But it was anything but homey…” The email adds that she believes it important she doesn’t “pull any punches” in expressing her true feelings.
This is typical Dooney both personally and in her art. To say she pulls no punches is being polite. The 28-year-old, who spent her formative years in Brisbane, is a study in brutal self-examination. She quite literally cannibalises her inner-thoughts, her past, indeed her own body, for the sake of her work.
On the day we meet in Sydney’s northern beaches, where she currently lives and works, she is at once powerful and brittle, brash and nervous, raw and reticent.
She is anachronistic in her surrounds – a polite, petite café at posh Avalon, thick with wealthy retired ladies of a certain age, and gents who all looked like they’ve just come off a tennis court at their local country club.
Dooney, however, imposingly tall with her hair cropped short and with paint splashed on her work sneakers, sits at an outdoor table like an exotic, possibly dangerous, flower in this dull field of upper middle class suburbia. (When we’re momentarily interrupted by a car alarm, Dooney rails at the local “yuppies”.)
We have just come from her “studio” up the road – a two-bedroom converted flat in a curious, Spanish-style block of apartments – and refreshments are desperately required. Inside the flat are numerous finished and incomplete works that will constitute Dooney’s latest exhibition in Melbourne – Venus in Hell. And visiting her work space at this frenzied time is like stepping into a parallel universe of voodoo and ancient sacrificial ritual, of blood, death, self-immolation and pain.
The sketches and watercolours feature eerie, violent landscapes with naked women and children at their center. Even an untrained eye can detect a physical resemblance between the tortured women and Dooney.
It’s a relief, then – at lunch – to take a long draft of fresh water.
“It’s been easier to use myself in poses; I’m familiar with my own proportions now,” Dooney says. “I think that when you’re exploring something that you know. I’m so tired of art that doesn’t reveal or show anything, that doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know. About humanity. About the deep, dark aspects of someone.
“Cannibalise is probably a really good word for most of what I do. A huge amount. Consuming, displaying, flaying, probing. It’s a way of me processing myself for the outside world.”
Dooney is arguably Australia’s most successful artist of her still young generation. She is financially independent. She abandoned the traditional system of being represented by galleries two years ago, and, to put it colloquially, runs her own show. The business persona of Dooney is blunt, organised, informed and savvy.
Yet she is self-admittedly dichotomous. She argues on behalf of “real” art and integrity in the profession, and at the same time has posed semi-naked in magazines and deliberately flirted with controversy. She says she is “conscious of walking the razor’s edge between respect and celebrity”.
As she wrote recently in her essay “Life Study”, published in the Griffith Review: “…I have stopped believing in a lot of what is thought of as art these days. It’s as if a couple of hundred dull-headed, middle-aged men and women – not just artists, but educators, curators, gallerists and critics – have come up with a set of rules to define what real art and real artists are. The rules are vague, and yet still as constricting and moralistic as anything concocted by a Reformation cleric.”
And she is a new type of artist in the respect that she has harnassed the internet to disseminate her work and ideas. The world wide web has become her gallery showroom, archive, business tool, diary and intellectual soapbox.
Yet for all her technological vision, her fresh and thrilling contemporary modus operandi, there is an age-old humanness about her. As she warned, the house of Dooney has been anything but homey.
DOONEY was born in Sydney and for a time the family lived in an “historic” cottage in Campbelltown, west of the city. Incredibly, the rustic dwelling had no electricity.
“I think they (her parents Tom and Anna) liked beautiful historic cottages and they were not particularly fussed on whether it had electricity or not,” she says. “I suppose it was cheap. I was only one year old. I always remember candlelight. I know we had a dog called Watson scrambling at the door. He laid by me when I crawled and stuff.”
Not long after, the Dooneys moved to Black Mountain, 10kms south of Guyra near Armidale. Tom was an experienced “powder monkey” and explosives expert. Anna was a teacher. At Black Mountain, the family led what you would call an “alternative” lifestyle.
“We were completely self-sufficient,” the artist recalls. “We had a cow called Germaine, after Germaine Greer. She was the provider of milk and my mother made yoghurt from that milk, and she made all the bread. We had ducks, chickens, all of that. It was sort of a fulltime job being self-sufficient. My mother worked in the garden and if you were hungry you’d just go out and pull a carrot from the earth.”
It sounds idyllic, but in Dooney’s corrective email she further writes: “I’d hate for you to think that I am a 'country girl', simply because of the time I spent in various rural areas as a kid.
“The country was my parents’ life for a while, not mine. It was where they retreated to when they were broke. Aren’t we all prone to try to be sentimental about the country? But the truth is, from the moment my parents dragged me there, I wanted to be in the city. I found, still find, the country to be incredibly isolating and desolate. If I was asked to name the locus of my darkest hours, it's the country.”
Following her parents’ “huge” divorce, Hazel and her younger brother, also named Tom, lived with their father outside the tiny town of Bonshaw, near Texas on the Queensland/NSW border. The hamlet’s only claim to fame was the robbing of the Bonshaw Hotel by notorious bushranger Captain Thunderbolt in May 1867.
Again, the Dooneys lived in conditions that might have belonged to another century.
“We moved into a country house that hadn’t been lived in for a couple of years, so we cleaned that out,” she says. “We ate a lot of rabbits. There was a rabbit population problem there.
“We were dirt poor. I don’t think we would have done that by choice. My dad made it into a good time, an adventure, something that was fun. But for him, as an adult and a person, would have been an incredibly stressful and horrible time. He was buying groceries on his credit card. We shot and ate a lot of rabbits and they weren’t gourmet rabbits. I don’t think it was romantic, but for us he made it into an adventure.”
Moving to Brisbane, the family settled in a Housing Commission dwelling in Kingston, near Woodridge south of Brisbane.
She remembers: “We went to Woodridge. I thought it would be wood and ridges. To me it was frightening. My father is a survivor. He made the garden beautiful. We had fresh food. He tried to make it nice for us.
“I did well (in high school) and became even more of a misfit. I spoke well. I walked tall. I was a country kid. I was acing everything as well which didn’t go down well.
“It was a good experience, but I wasn’t appreciated in any way. There were rapes. It was scary. Gangs. Cigarette burns on their Adams apples. I remember girls who liked fighting. Beating up other girls. I was palmed in the face.”
When she left school she bought a one-way ticket to London via Japan. She still had no idea what to do with her life. She fell ill and returned home to Brisbane. Before long she drifted to Melbourne. Her love of art began to surface. She began mixing with bohemians, taking drugs, garnering experience.
Back in Brisbane, she immersed herself in the city’s street culture. As she said in her email: “I always loved going to art galleries, plays, and concerts. I loved the murals, public art, and graffiti. The technique for painting the work I am best known for is a refined form of graffiti, and I also have elements of it in my most recent work, where it is, of course, much more raw.
“I hated every school I went to, and I hated every country place we lived (in). I hated school in Brisbane as well, but at least there was an urban centre, and at least there was Fortitude Valley. I lived at Bowen Hills, and when I wasn't working I hung out at night with friends who did graffiti and made lo-fi hip hop and lo-fi rock and roll. I went to industrial raves, and art performances. For a solitary, f***** up, very creative kid from a broken home, it felt like heaven.”
Dooney briefly endured art school at QUT. She quit after two terms. “What provoked me to leave art school was the sense that the art I was being ‘taught’ was so leached of technical rigour and emotion that it had been reduced to a kind of glib in-joke between teachers and students.” She was told by a teacher she would “never make it” as an artist.
Living in inner-city Paddington, a local exhibitor asked to see one of her canvases. She walked the huge artwork up La Trobe Terrace. It was bought by an interested passer-by before the exhibitor had barely seen it. The sale shocked Dooney, then 19. She decided to hold her own solo show – Hazed.
“It got a lot of coverage in street press and bit of attention in newspaper,” she says. “It was massive. The church where we held the exhibition (in Paddington) was packed out. After that, Jan Murphy Gallery called me and asked me if I wanted to go there. That was a big moment for me.”
Her work then was a bright, bold, provocative combination of traditional Pop Art styles a la Roy Lichtenstein and Japanese manga. It questioned the female image as commodity. Again, Dooney herself was the physical subject of the work.
Jan Murphy recalls: “Her work was just very different. I’d never seen anything like it. Her early pictures were meticulously painted. It’s impossible to say if she’s a potentially important painter. I think she’s a very good painter.” When asked about Dooney’s decision to eschew the galleries to represent her work, Murphy says “she does still use galleries to show her work, which is quite an interesting contradiction”.
Midway through our interview Dooney reveals she suffers from Bipolar II Disorder, which has been defined by the American Psychiatric Association as "characterized by one or more Major Depressive Episodes accompanied by at least one Hypomanic Episode." As distinct from Bipolar I, the illness general does not invoke psychotic episodes and does not disrupt the sufferer’s social interaction or ability to work.
She is matter of fact about it.
“It’s not something that comes on and off,” Dooney says. “I don’t have a period of feeling normal then suddenly not feel good. It’s far more an integrated part of my life. I know people live fairly normally and have episodes, but mine is constant. I don’t really feel I experience a medium ground.
“I take medication for it now, and I see a psychiatrist once or twice a week. I used to work 12 hours to 28 hours at a time and then have 4 to 6 hours sleep. I had been conscious from very early on I wanted to do a lot of work. I didn’t want to take it slow. I had a sense of urgency, I guess. I didn’t want to wait until I was 50 before I could make art fulltime.”
Following Hazed, Dooney held several local and international exhibitions, and her artistic cache has been steadily maturing and increasing in value. Her larger works now command up to $30,000. She reportedly estimated her annual income in excess of $200,000.
She says her decision to forgo gallery representation has been financially rewarding.
“I still work with galleries,” she says. “I will exhibit with other galleries. But I won’t do it in same sense, as an artist in their stable and having to run ideas by them for their goddam approval. I’m not going to be answerable to a gallerist.
“Not to be arrogant, I’m one of the most successful artists for my age at the moment. I’m sure there are other artists my age who have more work in collections than me, but I see that as a long- term thing. It happens over time. I’ll keep working hard and stay true to my work.”
The internet has been integral to her survival and success. She describes herself as a “virtual corporation”.
She adds: “For artists, the irony about art is there are all these rules people follow. Incredibly structured rules. I’m very unhappy following them, and I don’t think they work for artists. I approach it now in same way as an Indie band does. I use the internet. I don’t have that battle for control of someone telling me how to do it.
“I live it. It’s part of me, as well, organising and presenting my work to the world. It’s how you live. I don’t want to be a Tim Storrier or Tracey Moffatt, an artist who paints about issues and lives a suburban life the same as a doctor or a lawyer. I’m allowed to work and live the way I want to now, with the internet.”
Her close friend, the writer and photographer Creed O’Hanlon, says she may be a new breed of contemporary artist.
“She recently declared that she wouldn't be represented by a single gallery anymore, and that while she would continue to exhibit in well-known independent galleries on a one-off basis, she wanted to take more control of her professional life, and be responsible for her own sales and marketing,” says O’Hanlon. “She has a business manager (unheard of for most local artists), and a small team of web designers and programmers that she works with to keep her site and her email subscription list constantly working. In many ways, she is probably a prototype of the artist of the near future – tech' savvy, independent, and financially self-reliant.”
The internet has also been her occasional muse. A few years ago she explored the internet as a source for fetish-related pornography as research for a new series of pictures. Her abiding interest is how women are culturally represented. That she was briefly a model in her early 20s perhaps feeds this inquiry of hers and adds to her contradictory nature.
Dooney’s latest works, exhibited in July at the Melbourne Art Rooms, were described by one critic as having “ripped the surface asunder, revealing a troubled and troubling potpourri of psychological self-investigation and an obsessive fascination with arcane ritual…one feels that Dooney is treading very close to the edge in these works”.
Melbourne Art Rooms owner/director, Ms Andy Dinan, says Dooney is one of the most exciting and collectible young artists in Australia. “I think she’s a remarkable young lady and very desirable from a collector’s point of view,” says Dinan. “Her work is an amazingly good investment, and there’s a strong secondary market for Dooney paintings. Work that sold for $9,000 two years ago is now reselling at $13,000 to $15,000. What collectors love about her is the way she uses the web to give her work a context.”
O’Hanlon says: “Given the ten year span of her career to date, it's hard to accept that she's only in her late 20s. It's an impressive body of work, but I think a lot of it has been under-rated or misunderstood even by some of the galleries that have represented her. Her early work was large, glossy and accessible – a lot of critics compared it to '60s Pop Art – but if you look at the works closer, especially together, you begin to realise that there is a hell of a lot of irony and anger in it, even if, like every young artist, Hazel was eager for recognition (even if it came without real understanding).
“That said, when a few of her works were shown in some high profile group shows in New York last year, everyone there did seem to 'get' what was going on beneath the shiny surfaces, so maybe it was just another instance of our parochial perspective.”
Near the end of our meeting it appears Dooney is keen to get back to work in her studio. For weeks later, she sends several emails with further information on her life and work, friendships, and future. She is always generous and affable and shares intimate and honest thoughts in her virtual messages. It is almost as if the real Hazel Dooney exists online, in cyberspace, just beyond the computer screen.
I remember, much later, the signs of a tattoo I noticed peeking out below the line of her T-shirt, on the soft inner flesh of her upper left arm.
It reads: A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi. Alis volat propriis. In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies with her own wings.