The Good Weekend Magazine June 28th 2014. SMH / The Age
by Susan Chenery
Chaos and calm: Rodney Pople in front of his work Santa Maria della Salute. Photo: Tamara Dean
One of Australia's most controversial artists, Rodney Pople, is known for his shocking images. Susan Chenery reports on a man who once feared he'd lost his creative spark.
Felicity Fenner wasn't expecting company on that cool, early-spring night in 2010. At home in Sydney's inner-west suburb of Marrickville with her nine-year-old son, George, she was wearing pyjamas and Ugg boots when, hearing a commotion outside, she opened the front door. There, she collided with a throng of about 50 people who were holding candles, chanting and praying, and hurling streams of holy water at the door. They were protesting about what they considered to be the Satanic presence within the house: that of her blasphemous husband - and controversial artist - Rodney Pople.
Across town in Paddington, Pople was having problems of his own. A mini crusade was blocking off the street at the Australian Galleries, where his Bellini 21c exhibition was showing. Holding aloft banners, carrying bibles, singing hymns and kneeling on the footpath to pray, the affronted ecclesiastical objectors had clearly not appreciated the textural and tonal mastery of the paintings within.
Unpredictable talent: Pople in his studio at home in Marrickville, Sydney. Photo: Tamara Dean
Ignoring the baroque beauty in Pople's depiction of the great Venetian church San Zaccaria, all they saw was the "defilement" of the revered altarpiece, Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints, painted by Giovanni Bellini in 1505. In the lap of the Madonna sat a masturbating naked porn star, her legs spread. Elsewhere was superimposed the image of a woman ably accommodating two male members.
The protests failed to abate over the three-week duration of the exhibition, despite the sumptuous visual poetry that was also undeniably on display. The switchboards of radio-station shock jocks were jammed with angry calls and emails of outrage bombarded the gallery as Pople's website was obliterated by the work of opponents he called "extremists". For his part, Pople insisted, somewhat disingenuously, that he was merely trying to "open a dialogue" about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.
"Some people would say about Rodney that he is just selecting things to shock, but he is a maverick," says Edmund Capon, the former director of the Art Gallery of NSW. Pople counters that he has surely been vindicated by the opening of the commission into institutional child abuse. It must be conceded, though, that his depictions of the abuse of power, a constant admonishment in work that now features in state galleries and the private collections of celebrities such as Russell Crowe and Spike Jonze, can take the viewer to the very edge of taste.
Sensitive: Protesters object to Pople's Bellini 21c exhibition in 2010. Photo: Courtesy of Rodney Pople
A large, solid, inner west terrace - a place of calm, domestic rhythms and higher purpose with star jasmine cascading fragrantly over the garden fence - is where we find the agitator. Fenner, a highly respected College of Fine Arts curator and academic, works in one room: across the hall is Pople's studio, a place from which the visitor can emerge reeling from the impact of seeing his work up close. They share the house with their children Oscar, 19, and George, who's now 13.
"I think having the home and the family has probably saved him from himself," says Fenner, who has been with Pople for 22 years. "We are a very close family." It appears to be a well-ordered, middle-class home - a sanctum of disciplined artistic life - but there was a time, not so very long ago, when Pople's life was so chaotic that he ended up in rehab more than once. A time when, because of his drug and alcohol addictions, "there would be horrifying phone calls from the police saying, 'Can you report to the station?' and I had no idea what station or what I'd done," he says.
Students from the National Art School in Sydney, where Pople has taught for many years, remember him projectile-vomiting during class and smelling of sick. He came very close to losing everything - his family, his sanity and his talent.
Family portrait: Pople in his studio at home in Marrickville, Sydney with his wife Felicity Fenner, and sons Oscar, 19 and George, 13. Photo: Tamara Dean
Now 61, Pople is tall and thin with thick glasses and a shock of chaotic, steel-grey hair. Says his old friend Richard Goodwin, architect, artist and professor at the College of Fine Arts, "Rodney is in love with life, but he expresses it through that sort of dark side at the point of which he finds something exquisite."
"His paintings can be very beautiful," says his art dealer, Stuart Purves. "But it's always message first with Rodney."
It was the tragic events of April 28, 1996, in Tasmania, the state of his birth, that brought him, ultimately, to one of the most noteworthy accolades of his career - the Glover Prize in March 2012 - for Port Arthur, a landscape that features Martin Bryant holding a rifle.
Self portrait: Pople's Stone Cold Sober Again. Photo: Rodney Pople
In the aftermath of the prize, Pople found himself holed up in a hotel room in Launceston being relentlessly attacked for his insensitivity. The psychic wound was still open. "OUTRAGE," screeched The Mercury. "It was 10 days of absolute horror with the press and publicity," Pople says. "I remember feeling very alone in that moment of success. I literally had to leave through the back door with sunglasses on.”
Those who know Pople well attest to his heightened sensitivity, which, at times in the past, has caused him to flee his studio mid-session, so convinced was he by the threatening quality of his work. Pople's high anxiety levels - which are, says Fenner, "just something we have to live with" - arguably contribute to the sense of dread and unease that also pervades his work, and the moody, unsettling nature of his landscapes.
Pople's untroubled childhood in the countryside near Launceston was far removed from the "violet and violent skies" of Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore, which he read during the course of his research for his Port Arthur series.
Born the second of five children to a builder father and housewife mother, his was a childhood played out amid great natural beauty, but there was little in the way of art. "I felt different," Pople says. "Restless. We had a pretty restricting upbringing; the television went off at nine o'clock at night. I don't remember being really good at anything."
On leaving school, where the only thing he'd enjoyed was playing chess, "I started an apprenticeship like a good working-class boy. It was electrical fitting or something totally foreign to me. I had no brain for it." School friends encouraged him to begin night classes in graphic design at art school, which he did. "That's how I started art," he says. "I met some people who were different from my regular schoolmates."
At 18, to the dismay of his mother, he crossed the Tasman to move to Sydney, where he worked on the railways for a year. "I met people who had travelled the world and they educated me," he says. "I knew I had to do something else with my life."
Two years later, he enrolled at the Tasmanian School of Art and, in 1974, graduated with a Diploma of Fine Arts in photography. By this stage, though, he and his then girlfriend, Jane Hutchison, were feeling confined and unstimulated by Tasmania and decided to move to London. There, Pople began to study sculpture - a period that can be defined as the beginning of his real education - at the Slade School of Fine Art, a department of The University College, London.
"It really started to kick in," says Pople. "Creativity and intellectual and artistic curiosity were expected and expanded on. I remember going to a party in south London [in 1976] in a derelict old house with broken glass, where we heard this amazing live music. It was the Sex Pistols rehearsing."
Adding further to the air of unreality was the fact that Francis Bacon, an artist whom Pople counts among his most significant influences, could often be spotted on Slade's grounds in the evenings. (He was rumoured to be having a sexual relationship with one of the tutors.) Pople was 25 and still living in London in 1977 when it was first "pointed out to me that perhaps I should look at my drinking. I remember thinking there is going to come a time when I have to give all this up or I will be destroyed," he says. "I made an appointment to see the college psychiatrist and took two large bottles of gin for the consultation: one for the shrink and one for me. I drank mine during the discussion and, on leaving, grabbed the bottle I'd given him.”
After moving to New York, where he studied sculpture at Manhattan's New York Studio School in 1979, Pople met Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. "They were just there," he says. "It was such a vibrant scene. They both oozed a creativity I hadn't experienced before, very confident and pure New York underground. I loved it and soaked it up like a sponge. They gave me the courage to be myself."
In 1980, Pople, who was back in Australia, experienced an epiphany. "I had done a sculpture using bright-pink corrugated cardboard," he says. "It was quite a punked-out thing. I was looking at it and thought, 'My god, I am going to have to paint.'" Pople dived head first into a bohemian existence, teaching himself to paint while his contemporaries were doing sensible things like getting mortgages and teaching jobs.
"I had no money. I lived in hostels in inner-city Sydney and I'd sell paintings here and there for $50 or something. I remember when I was in my early 30s thinking, 'This is the decade where I have to do it, while I'm young. Really go for it.' You can't get that energetic moment of your 30s back. I just knew how precious it was.”
Pople maintains he wasn't deluded enough to think that heroin was glamorous or that he had to suffer for his art - even though he has - but says, "I was always afraid that, if I allowed myself to become too ordinary and conservative, that my creativity would shrivel up and die. In the early stages of addiction, I felt anything was possible. Creativity was this endless flowing river.”
A dangerous duality, one that is ever-present in his work, followed: high art and low life. "I used to drink in this pub that was full of criminals who were alcoholics," he says. "If you were really desperate, you could just go upstairs and put your mouth under this big drum of scotch with a tap."
Richard Goodwin took him to his first detox at Sydney's Mosman Hospital in 1984 when he was 33. "We had two taxis," recalls Pople. "Me with suitcases full of books and cigars, and another with friends to get me there. That is a very common story in AA. Grandiose sort of arrival and the next day crying in your plastic bed.”
Goodwin would be called again and again to transport him to rehab. "He would come over to my place and drink the place dry and then say he needed to go and get help. Then we'd go through this incredible process to actually get him to go. I remember once he had his shoes tied around his neck and he was throwing a tantrum in the street outside the hospital.”
The stories from Pople's picaresque past - in particular, his time in his studio in Waterloo - are legendary. "He just had a toilet, no kitchen," says Goodwin. "You would go to his studio and he would be walking down the road with a china plate from the pub that he frequented. "He'd bring his dinner and eat it on a charmingly dilapidated 19th-century table in among this absolute havoc and continue to drink and throw paint around. It was all very theatrical, but the work was fabulous."
When Pople met Fenner in the early 1990s, he'd already been successful, but these were lean times. She'd only recently returned from working in posh London art galleries. "Rodney used to zoom around in a vintage Mercedes, total cliché really," Fenner says. "In a way, [moving into his studio] was like this fantasy of mine. I was going to be living in a warehouse with an artist, but it wasn't Manhattan: it was Waterloo. It was a bit of a dump, but it was great to be living with the work.”
When she became pregnant with Oscar, Fenner bought a little house around the corner. Pople would disappear into his studio for days at a time, fighting the demons that were slowly but surely threatening to destroy him. "He had these recurring dreams of falling into a vat of blood," says Goodwin. "And he would try to paint it, try to get it into his work.”
And then he was the last person left at the party. Everyone else had grown up and sobered up. Now, for Pople, there were just his twin addictions - to alcohol and heroin. "He was becoming dangerous and terrible," recalls Goodwin, who remembers the artist one day as he was trying to paint his friend's portrait. "It was in the phase when he was using egg tempera to get that glassy effect," he says. "I had to sit there while he was dancing around, twitchy and nervy, like a Spanish dancer. He was pissed as a newt and hurling rotten eggs at the canvas, all over me. It ended up looking like a plate of cornflakes.”
The work that Pople lived for was leaving him. Once, after a two-day bender, he returned to the studio. "I remember feeling disgust from the work," says Pople. "The painting was saying, 'Look what you've done. Why don't you just f... off?' I was beaten black and blue from falling down stairs. I remember looking at the work and thinking, 'Even you?' "
After George's birth in 2001, Fenner had to think about her own survival and that of her children. "Rodney's life had just unravelled to the point that I couldn't live with him any more," she says. "I just took off." She made arrangements to accept a visiting lecturer job at the Royal College of Art in London. Stuart Purves also dumped him. "We got to a crossroads with Rodney where it wasn't possible to go on," says the art dealer. "During a show we had, he was inarticulate. He was a brilliant person who was wasting it all." Purves had watched too many artists succumb to their demons; the spectre of Brett Whiteley hovered.
Pople feared he'd lose his life, "in some catastrophic event through drink. Maybe the biggest fear was of losing my mind and ending up in the wet-brain unit of a hospital. I was 49 and descending down a slippery slope towards oblivion. The last two years were like a train wreck and I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to stop [drinking]. I was in a shocking state.”
"Actually, he had nothing to lose," says Fenner quietly. "He might not have come back from it.”
Once he got clean and sober, it was a year before he could paint again. He was afraid that his talent had deserted him, that it was the addictions that had made him the artist he was. "I had six months of sobriety and I was thinking, 'I can't do this, I just can't do it.' " Then the artist Tim Storrier, whose wife, Jane, had died from alcoholism, rang him. "He said, 'Pople, stick at it.' That was just what I needed to hear. I was shaky, but the work wanted to see me again. I felt welcome in the studio." He made it through that fragile first year. Then, "I was ready for the journey, I was ready for the new symphonies and I wanted all of it," he says. "I didn't want existence: I wanted life. The biggest surprise to me was when my creativity bounced back after two years of being clean and sober and has been developing ever since to an awesome power in the last few years.”
There is a wonderfully quirky Pople painting called Stone Cold Sober Again. Now owned by Russell Crowe, it is a self-portrait of the artist dressed in a black suit leaping off a building, arms outstretched as if he is trying to fly. It is taken from Yves Klein's 1960 photograph, Man Leaping Into The Void. In the painting, the subject is taking the leap of faith into sobriety, jumping off a cliff, flying into the unknown with trepidation and excitement. He is free, free of dangerous addictions.
Fenner returned from London in 2002. "Slowly but surely we pulled it back together and we haven't looked back," she says. Purves also took him back. "He is a great character to be able to open the rusty gates and the padlock of hell and walk out," he says. "It is very rare."
Pople has been sober 11 years now. In this time, he has perfected his technique of montage and multimedia - photographs of great churches and museums overlaid with images, then worked over with multiple applications of paint, scrubbing away the photographs in many processes to get to the final, unifying whole. A great white shark floating threateningly in a Venetian cathedral is a theme in a number of Pople's works. "By putting it in a church like this, it is undeniably dominant," he says. "And I always like to think that perhaps the church is underwater as well and past its use-by date."
He has painted zebras in Parliament House in Western Australia and in San Zaccaria in Venice. An elephant with its face hacked off by poachers forms part of a triptych called Manet is Queen, from the Lie of the Land exhibition, on display until August 17 at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney's Paddington. On a panel on one side, an Aboriginal woman fellates a British soldier from the Port Arthur series and, on the other, a woman with a baby masturbates in front of the Madonna and child in San Zaccaria. It is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, atmospheric and luminous, juxtaposing the past and the uncomfortable present.
"It is post-modern appropriation," says Anthony Bond, former curator for the Art Gallery of NSW, and now a writer. "But it is actually using the medium [montage and multimedia] to do something that is, in the end, quite magical. The light in these pieces is extraordinary.”
Pople's current series depicting wild animals is a call to arms for their protection. "They not only face extinction because of man's greed, but they also have innocence and a great beauty and spiritual depth," he says. "They have a right to a world that we human beings just selfishly destroy.”
Pople believes that an artist must be physically and mentally strong. "When you get that sense of uncertainty about what you're doing, that churning feeling when you think, 'That's absolute rubbish', no one can help you. This is where you need the strength." It comes in handy, too, when people are protesting in the street and jamming the airwaves because you've deliberately provoked them. Then it's called courage of conviction.