It’s mid-afternoon in Bendigo and the last vestiges of summer are in no rush to depart. The neat utilitarian buildings that make up the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University lie a few kilometres away from the stately facades of gold rush architecture on View Street, and here, Kylie Banyard is at work in her campus studio.
Banyard, a Sydney native, recently relocated from a similar appointment in Mildura, to lecture in visual arts. “I like the reciprocal nature of teaching,” she says. “It’s ideal really because you’re still thinking of your practice as you’re teaching, and you have a chance to refine it, hone it.” Banyard’s studio does indeed have an academic air: a kind of hum, as though this small room is a cell in a hive. There are a few canvases in progress in this space – washes of oil flesh out interior spaces, quietly populated with students and teachers. There’s a pragmatism to the space we stand in: the window of the studio looks out into the car park (on the plus side, Banyard saw me arrive). “What I like about art school is the community. So that’s probably why I like still being in this context.” Her research is practice driven, and in her full-time teaching schedule she’s able to work in the studio four days a week (including weekends) during the academic term.
Banyard is a multidisciplinary artist but when prompted she freely admits that painting is where her heart lies. Her most recent bodies of work have centred around an evocative reimagining of Black Mountain College in North Carolina which was founded in the 1930s. The liberal arts college took a holistic, experimental approach to education. “I think about the way Black Mountain College is so completely different to the experience of teaching art now in the neoliberal realm, where everything’s very money-oriented and regimented.” The college eventually buckled under the demands of the economy and closed, yet for almost a quarter of a century it was a hotbed of creativity in an idyllic setting. “I love the way they lived on the campus and it was a total experience; they ate off the land and they had to work the land and build the buildings.”
The faculty and students present a rollcall of American mid-century artists, dancers, musicians and poets: Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Ginsburg, Franz Kline. In Banyard’s paintings, these men have been excised from the quiet scenes of study, work and relaxation at the college. Working from archival material, she has instead focused on those who were part of the history of this utopian project yet tended to be overlooked in its official writing. In her artist statement she explains: “I’m interested in the young women who studied there, the faculty spouses who lived with young children on the campus … I’m interested in the kitchen staff and the farmers who coordinated the communal project of working on and living off the land and who fed the whole community.”
“I rudely cut the men out of the frame,” she admits. In one of the paintings hanging just outside of her office in the gallery space, Banyard has depicted Elaine de Kooning, painted from a well-known portrait of her and Willem sitting together at Black Mountain. In the original photograph “she’s actually looking at him and he’s looking down the barrel” says Banyard, “so I got rid of him and she’s now looking up at the sky: it’s just about her.”
“I’m trying to discover alternative narratives or stories that aren’t the sanctioned history and pull those out of the past and bring our attention to them.” College alumna and sculptor Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) is chief among these. Last year a Washington Post critic gushed that a retrospective of her intricate wire sculptures in St Louis was “the most beautiful show of the year”. A heavy hardcover Asawa monograph sits on Banyard’s shelf; it was only published in 2018. This year, Banyard’s painting of Asawa working on a net-like sculpture is displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney for The National, perhaps pulling Asawa evermore out of a dimmed corner of art history.
The inclusion of figures in her paintings is quite new to Banyard who previously painted “empty interiors and empty landscapes, and places you could tell people inhabit but there were no people present.” Her women have a monumental presence not unlike the shining proletariat of socialist realism – defined by its rose-coloured glasses and revolutionary gaze. Banyard’s romanticism however, comes with the nostalgic territory. What would the perfect art school look like? It can exist only in that private longing for times past. Given that she works from archival material that predates colour photography, the colours are speculative: it’s a dreambright America. “I don’t use a natural colour scheme,” Banyard says. “I work with heightened colours intentionally.”