Above: Ash in the air, after the fire (2018) by Lucy O’Doherty
Lucy O’Doherty paints empty spaces that vibrate with life. In one work, a half-finished glass of milk and a piece of chocolate cake sit next to a vacant armchair, waiting for their owner to walk back into the frame and gobble them up. In another, the lights from a row of abandoned houses fill a silent suburban street as if all the townspeople have just rushed off in a hurry, forgetting to shut their doors and switch off the lights. Like a memory of a night out or a beach house that you visited every year as a child, these scenes are a bit fuzzy around the edges.
“I’m not concerned with an accurate representation of a certain place. Instead, I’m interested in trying to capture what I remember it to have felt like, or the impression it left on me. I’ll alter the colours, lighting and composition to try and achieve that,” O’Doherty explains. “I’ve enjoyed hinting at an unknown phenomenon that’s upset the banality of domestic spaces and caused a swift abandonment, leaving it up to the viewer to speculate as to what might have happened moments before.”
O’Doherty’s childhood home was filled with images of houses painted by her father Christopher O’Doherty (the artist also known as Reg bloody Mombassa). Her dad’s subject matter, artistic style, and sense of humour have had a huge impact on O’Doherty.
“[My dad] was, and still is, extremely generous, encouraging and always had a good sense of humour,” she tells me. “What I make is very influenced by him because I learnt how to draw and paint by mimicking him from a young age. In terms of art practice I’ve been influenced by his work ethic. He’s always had his studio at home so growing up I got to witness how dedicated you have to be when you want to pursue art as a career.”
O’Doherty has just returned home from a residency in Paris. The trip came courtesy of the prestigious Brett Whitely Scholarship that O’Doherty won last year with a painting of a beach shack. When we talk, she is working a series called ‘Silent Skies’ about the “atmospheres” she encountered on her travels for an exhibition that opens at China Heights Gallery on Friday, 29 June. Get to know her, in her own words.
“My name is Lucy O’Doherty, I am an artist from Sydney who makes mostly oil paintings and pastel drawings of structures, recently vacated interiors and landscapes.
“I grew up in Glebe in Sydney. At the moment I’m back in the same house I grew up in staying with my parents while I’m between houses. My parents’ house is full of smaller houses, like a building version of a Babushka doll. I grew up looking at houses in artworks on the walls by my dad, his brother and other artists, as well as having doll houses my Grandpa built that were very beautifully made with handcrafted furniture. Being brought up surrounded by images of houses, as well as playing with model houses, encouraged my fascination with and sentimental attachment to architecture.
“I drew from a young age because we had art materials around the house. Painting felt like a natural progression from drawing and I gravitated towards oil painting because I enjoy the slowness of its drying time, which makes it very easy to blend. I find it to be a very satisfying, therapeutic action. I also love oil paint’s layering process and the gradual progression of a colour’s vibrancy.
“I often think of my paintings as very still, but I do try to use a technique—I don’t always pull it off—during the layering process of oil paint, when painting subsequent layers of a field of colour, where I leave the slightest edge of the layer underneath exposed and a shade lighter. I think this fractures the line where that colour ends, making it hard for your eye to settle on it and giving the image a slight vibration.
“When I was in art school I was influenced by a book of black and white police forensic negatives from Sydney dating from 1912–1948 called City of Shadows. Some of the photos were obvious crime scenes but the ones I found the most interesting were the more subtly disrupted domestic interiors. Ruffled bed sheets, furniture slightly out of place, a glass knocked over, might be the only indication that something had occurred. The mystery created by those disruptions became a palpable atmosphere that I found very intriguing and that I keep coming back to.
“The first time I portrayed an empty pool was in a series about a fictional motel called the Dog Days Motel. I had been reading about the Sirius star and a misled belief from antiquity that when the Sirius star rose at the same time as the sun it caused days to be phenomenally hot, to the point where it would send animals mad and cause water to boil. In this series I wanted to create mystery by the whole motel being suddenly abandoned, and for this to somehow be related to this drastic heat that caused the water in the motel pool to evaporate.
“Most of my experience of the Australian landscape has been either hiking or staying around the Blue Mountains or the south coast. To me both those areas can have a sense of being unknowable, sometimes eerie. When hiking in the bush it’s easy to forget about time and other humans, which is a sensation I find enticing and always try to put into my paintings, even if they’re not of the landscape.
“My initial interest in painting shacks comes from wanting to capture the contrast of trim pastel structures against the earthy tones of the surrounding landscape. In my earlier paintings the landscape is overly simplified due to my lack of confidence in painting it, but I’ve been trying to improve on that in recent works. Now when I approach the shack as a subject matter I see the structure as an entry point to the surrounding landscape, which I do hope one day I’ll get close to conveying as a force that’s ultimately dominant, mysterious and ancient.
“I like pastels because they feel time-worn, as if the desaturation of colour has occurred through a passage of time. I started using this palette after coming across advertisements and postcards for motels, pools and house interiors from the 1950s and ’60s. I like to reference these era-specific colour combinations because it helps in creating a feeling of nostalgia as well as a strange time displacement. There’s uncertainty about whether these paintings are places from the present or past, or maybe even a glimpse of the future through a retro-futuristic lens.
“In my solo exhibition at China Heights Gallery I’ll be showing oil paintings and pastels based on places and particular atmospheres I experienced while travelling overseas for half of last year. A lot of the paintings are larger in scale than I’ve previously done because I wanted them to feel immersive, as if you could step into them. They’re a mixture of remote dwellings, misty seascapes and a few conspicuously empty restaurants.
“[I’m also] potentially making a publication with China Heights gallery to document my exhibition ‘Silent Skies’. It will be my first art publication and a nice record of a particularly important exhibition for me personally. I’ll also be having a joint exhibition with photographer Harry Culy in October at a new gallery called Millers Obrien in Wellington. I’m excited to show with Harry, because I’m a huge fan of his work, and I’m also excited to visit New Zealand and do some exploring there. I’m looking forward to getting the chance to travel again. I do think it had a valuable impact on my work recently so I would like to continue seeing how different surroundings will push my work down a different track.”
Above: Lounge car limbo on the Caledonian Sleeper (2018) by Lucy O’Doherty
Above: No reservations (2018) by Lucy O’Doherty
Above: Sketch Vacancy (2018) by Lucy O’Doherty
Above: Cottages on the Isle of Skye, hues of heather (2018) by Lucy O’Doherty
Above: Lake Como Haze (2018) by Lucy O’Doherty
Above: The ruins at the end of your street (2018) by Lucy O’Doherty
Above: Oasis shack, Calanques national park (2018) by Lucy O’Doherty