Amanda Marburg is “a painter, not a sculptor,” she maintains. Her works might have a starting point in film or fairy tale, or riff on a moment in art history, but it’s the modest ‘sketch’ in plasticine that lends a distinctive look to her work and has her reiterating her vocational calling. In a lengthy process that includes modelling figures and backdrops – then lighting and photographing these before oil even touches board – the paintings are given an unexpected complexity. There’s something morbidly nostalgic, humorous and, dare I say, magical, about the end result. Between the exquisite rendering in oil and the rudimentary forms depicted therein, the paintings ripple with surface tension. Marburg’s works are represented in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales and she has exhibited widely in Australia, her work highly commended in the 2011 Archibald Prize. Marburg graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1999.
VK: You grew up in Melbourne; how did you view the city as a young person?
AM: I grew up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. We didn’t make it into the city very often. My grandparents would take me to the NGV for drawing classes once a month and sometimes the family would check out the Myer windows at Christmas. However, mostly my weekends were filled with sporting activities.
VK: What movements in art history or artists were you interested in while you were at art school?
AM: During art school, my work was largely occupied with an interest in trompe l’oeil – I’m fascinated with the illusion and distortion of reality. Some of the artists I looked at were Richter, Hans Holbein, Dubuffet, Caravaggio, Peter Blake, Jon Campbell, Vija Celmins, Dali, Tim Jones, Lisa Mallory and Stephen Bush.
VK: Twenty years after finishing art school, have you drifted far from these influences or interests?
AM: No, not really. I still look to these artists.
VK: Is there anyone who you count as a mentor? What is something you learned from them?
AM: The people who I met at art school have probably been the most important. But I don’t think mentor is the right word. Colleen Ahern and I talk about painting heaps. Then there’s Tim Jones, Sharon Goodwin, Lane Cormick, Lisa Radford, Kati Rule and Blair Trethowan.
VK: To make your paintings, you first sculpt scenes out of plasticine then photograph these before rendering a painting of the original scene. How does the tableau change over the process? Is the end result often surprising?
AM: Before I start modelling the plasticine I’ve already worked out how I want the painting to look. It may change slightly with different lighting angles, but never far from the imagined image. The models are not finished works, but act as my sketches. They are three-dimensional but are made to be seen from only one angle. For example, if I’m painting a face seen in profile, then only that side of the face has been modelled in plasticine.
VK: How do you work? Is your process intuitive or do you have a more analytical approach?
AM: Once I’ve come up with a theme for a painting or a series of works it all falls into place. It may be informed by a book, a film, an experience, artworks or a conversation with friends. The process can sometimes take almost as long as the actual production of the paintings.
VK: There’s a deep interest in film and peculiar literature (I am thinking of Lobster by Guillaume Lecasble) in your practice. What is something that you have seen or read recently that resonated with you?
AM: Lately I’ve been looking at Staffordshire pottery (my paintings in the recent Sutton Gallery show are based on these). And dogs in art, especially George Stubbs dogs.
VK: Stubbs dogs and Staffordshire pottery; they seem to stem from a similar time and place. What is it about these objects that appeal to you?
AM: About two years ago I adopted a Kelpie pup. Since then I’ve been somewhat obsessed with dogs. I stayed at a friend’s house who had a massive Staffordshire collection, many depicting dogs and I was very amused by them.
VK: Works such as Maiden without hands, 2016 celebrate schlock horror, while Golden Ass is based on an obscure fairy tale of the Ducat donkey that spewed forth gold coins from its rear end. They’re both glorious in their absurdity. What do you love about this uncommon subject matter?
AM: I don’t think it is uncommon subject matter. Both of those paintings were based on Grimms’ fairy tales, which I grew up reading. About 10 years ago I visited the town of Marburg in Germany. The Brothers Grimm studied there. It was like walking through a fairy tale.
VK: There is an uncanny aspect to your paintings – they oscillate between cartoonish and real, gaudy and dark. What are some of the ways you maintain that balance without tipping to either extreme?
AM: Mostly I choose macabre or melancholic subject matter as a means to steer clear of making the paintings look too cute. I like the juxtaposition of morbid subjects and humour. Making sure the models are not too ‘finished’ is quite important – if they’re too slick they can end up looking a bit ‘Wallace and Gromit-y’. I light the models in a particular way to create mood and to make the most of their roughness, and to capture the fingerprints and mistakes.
VK: When you first exhibited works in your now very iconic style, how did the audience react?
AM: My first solo exhibition was at an artist-run gallery, TCB Art Inc. in 2001. Overall, I guess there was a quite positive reaction which included Rex Irwin representing me at his Sydney-based gallery. A Melbourne-based gallery director saw my show and mentioned it to Rex who in turn contacted me to arrange a studio visit. During this visit he purchased a painting fresh from the easel. Rex showed incredible support over the many years we worked together.
VK: You recently exhibited alongside Coleen Ahern and Lisa Radford in for you broccoli at Sutton Gallery. The show references Thomas Gainsborough’s use of models; he used twigs, rocks and broccoli for trees, to make nature ‘better’. How did the idea for the show originate?
AM: The three of us went through five years of art school together. We were asked to do a painting show so we sat down over some cheese and wine to talk about it. I brought up Gainsborough’s use of broccoli to construct landscapes and this seemed to trigger something that was shared in our practice of painting. So, we went with it.
VK: What’s the rest of your year looking like? What are your plans?
AM: Next week I’m off to the UK and Italy. I’m pretty excited to have the opportunity to see some amazing artworks. There’s a William Blake show on at the Tate I’d like to see, and I’d like to view Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, which is one of my favourite paintings. Also, in the UK my plan is to see Samuel Palmer at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Then in Italy, I’ll be hunting Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Paolo Uccello and Morandi. Then it’s back to the studio.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.