Natalie Thomas


"How good can we get something to look, that’s got no value, really?" says artist Natalie Thomas. "I use $2 shop paint generally. I just look around at what I’ve got access to and use it, see how good I can get it."

Natalie Thomas is an irrepressible force. In the early days of her 20-year career, she was half of notorious duo nat&ali, whose rambunctious collaboration included skewering corporate promotional tactics, disrupting art openings and stencilling their names across Melbourne. No less provocative is Thomas’s ongoing art blog Natty Solo (“One woman, one camera, no film”), which mashes tabloid-style recounting of art world events with robust, irreverent critique of the institutions involved. Her work has spanned every conceivable art form—from performance to printmaking, writing to sculpture—and she rejoices in the ‘lowbrow’ and the DIY.

Editor Anna Dunnill spoke to Thomas about the artist’s home studio routine, trawling for materials during hard rubbish collection, and a love of diagrams.

Natalie Thomas: I recently wrote for a book called The Art of Laziness, and I stupidly included this sentence: “Social situations are my studio.” I’ve been thinking a lot about how I really shouldn’t have said that.

Usually, I’d be thinking about something, and then I’d go out to an exhibition opening, and then to a bar or whatever, and start talking about those issues with people. That was really informing what I was thinking about.

I’ve had to work pretty hard to locate a new space. I’ve had to almost sack my phone. A good day now is having no engagement with my phone. I’m dialling up artists and free-jazzing a little bit, trying to stumble on new voices of artists. I’m interested in artists speaking—not the people around them, the curators or the other people that work in the arts, but the artists themselves.

I’ve been relying on the voices of artists in books as well. I’m not exactly a hoarder, I’m more like an archivist…an archivist with a tendency towards maybe being a hoarder depending on who you speak to. The old books that I’ve re-read almost become like old friends revisited; I seem to be going towards the voices of things that I already know I enjoy, for reassurance. And then occasionally, if I feel brave—a new voice.

I’m really lucky in that I’ve got a really good book collection. And I’ve got to be careful about Netflix because my propensity for trash is pretty big. I think we keep looking to this idea of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ art—I keep coming back to it—but, you know, ‘lower’ is where the action is. It’s not in a really wellresearched documentary on business, it’s in Donald Trump in The Apprentice. Donald Trump in The Apprentice is where you’ll get your lessons about life right now, about what’s going on in America: in trash reality TV, a show pretending that he was a successful businessman when he’s just not. To rewatch The Apprentice—that can be, I think, a scholarly pursuit.

Photograph by Jesse Marlow for Art Guide Australia.

Process: I seem pretty attracted to this one circular table in our lounge room; I sort of pack it up and pack it down. I’ve had studios in the past, but I find the added cost slightly prohibitive. I guess I’m used to working from home now, and my family’s used to it. I’m very susceptible to mood changes and noise, and having other energies around, so I actually really enjoy the solitude. I mean, it’s a very inner city, West Preston solitude; I know that there’s a tram at our doorstep! But a great day at the studio is a day of solitude at home, when I get to say goodbye to my partner and my kid, and then I’ve just got that empty house.

I have a set routine that I get into. I work in the mornings very well. I wake up very bright, creatively bright, and feeling really, really optimistic about the potential. As the day progresses, that slowly leaches away. I work really productively for short, sharp bursts of two and three hours. I try and get the most out of that time and then down tools, whether it’s writing or painting or whatever—literally stepping away because I can really mess stuff up pretty quick. And I like to have an afternoon nap.

If my sleep is disrupted it’s okay for going through the motions, but for coming up with good ideas, or even deciding which of the ideas I have is the best one to follow—that’s early morning stuff.

A friend of mine gave me a ream of paper and I’ve had it under the couch. A lot of what I’m using for this show I’ve either been gifted or stumbled upon for not very much money. That seems to be a recurring theme—sort of Arte Povera, make do, make it up. How good can we get something to look, that’s got no value, really? I use $2 shop paint generally. I just look around at what I’ve got access to and use it, see how good I can get it.

I used to be a school teacher, and I think that diagrams are pretty interesting; you can kind of subvert existing ideas. We live in a pretty male-dominated world, and when you start looking at diagrams and then look at who came up with the diagram or the theory behind the diagram, it’s generally men. So that’s fun to have a poke around. But some of the diagrams I really like—like Charles Booth’s poverty maps; he looked at the structure of society in late 1800s London.

I guess I’m looking at ‘what do people want from life?’. Which is pretty universal, really. I think people want to bring their kids up, have a good education; a comfortable warm home, or cool in the summer. I don’t think that people want things that are much different to each other around the world. Or a good night out. What’s a good night out worth to you in your life?

Photograph by Jesse Marlow for Art Guide Australia.

Projects: The milk crates and soft toys are for the Gertrude show, Stage Fright. I’ve been riffing off Mike Kelley’s work, particularly the piece More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, which I think is just such a beautiful kind of metaphor. That was the first work that he used with the collection of stuffed animals.

I think with all collections you need to go a bit extra: you can’t just collect a few, you’ve got to really get stuck in. I worked out pretty quick that I needed anything en masse because ‘Gertie’ is a big space. So to make an impact in a big space, you just really need to scale up.

I kept seeing teddy bears in the windows as we did our iso walks. And I started seeing the media reports of these teddy bear hunts that parents have put together to try and reassure children that everything’s going to be fine—or even just to entertain them, at a time when playgrounds and all of the things that you’d usually do close down. I was really attracted to that as a gesture, a community gesture, something that we can do together. So the collection grew from there.

The milk crate collection started out from hard rubbish, which has just gone through the inner north. I spent quite a lot of weeks trawling the footpaths of neighbours in my area, and helping myself to their garbage. I’ve also been working on these Duchampian wheel works, the bicycle wheel—I’ve collected preloved stools and wheels that my partner Morgan is putting together. I call them Marcel Duchamp as a stay-at-home dad.

Photograph by Jesse Marlow for Art Guide Australia.

Our daughter said, “Are you manifesting these crates?” I really love that improvisational process— you stumble upon what you need.

My first impulse, when I found out about the Gertrude commission, was to do something quite similar to my previous work Postcards from the Edge at Carriageworks. But that’s all changed, because that was dependent on people lying down on the stage that we’d built, and you can no longer ask audience members to do things or touch things right now. And I realised how much of my work does that—like even putting headphones on, you can’t do that.

I’m really lucky that even if we get closed down or the isolation period gets elongated, the show can open just in the front, to be seen from the street. It’s a massive window space. I’ll really be addressing the street—sort of like Myer shopfront windows, you know, if Myer wasn’t going broke, if Myer had a budget, like in the olden days. In the past I haven’t loved window spaces just because they are so related to shops and shop fronts. But in this instance, I’ve been trying to pivot right into it. Except my Ugg boots are a bit slimy on the inside from not really getting the breather that they usually get to dry out. Are Ugg boots now tax deductible?

Stage Fright
Natalie Thomas
Gertrude Contemporary
24 November – 24 December

Exhibition dates are subject to current COVID-19 restrictions at the time. Please refer to the Gertrude Contemporary website for the latest updates.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Studio Words by Anna Dunnill