ART IS WAR: An Interview with Hazel Dooney, Renegade Artist

Portrait of Hazel DooneyWhen Australia’s version of the Wall Street Journal takes notice of a local artist, it’s a pretty good indication of a reputation on the rise. Three years ago, as nearly every Australian newspaper and glossy magazine delved into some aspect of Hazel Dooney’s young life and career, a headline on a full page article in the Australian Financial Review read, “Hazel Dooney walks the razor’s edge between respect and celebrity in today’s art world”.

She does a lot more than that. Globally famous as the first artist of any note to step completely outside the traditional commercial and institutional gallery system to manage her own career using the self-publishing and social networking tools of Web 2.0, Hazel Dooney has emerged not only as one of the most intriguing artists under 35 working in multiple media but also one of the most outspoken and controversial.

Just as her post-Pop figurative art is an ironic, critical response to the insidious influence entertainment and advertising media have had on identity and sexuality – as well as, in her recent works, the way identity and sexuality are defining new kinds of politics and religion – Hazel Dooney‘s intense, somewhat daunting, ascetic, Amazonian public persona is dedicated to blazing (and defending every inch of) a trail along which future generations of artists will trade with much greater control of their art, reputation, and income without having to rely on what she calls “phalanxes of self-important, self-interested intermediaries”.

WARNING: Depending on where you work, some of the images in this article may not be safe for work.

Intriguingly, Dooney encourages artists to give up trying to control the copyright of their images and to allow their work and ideas to flow freely, with few restrictions, across the web. This Warholian ethos is rooted in her conviction that the real “locus of value” in art has shifted – from the artwork to the artist – and that this value is increased exponentially with awareness. It’s up to the individual artist to work out how best to exploit this shift. Dooney doesn’t pretend it’s easy: as the subtitle of her widely read blog puts it, Art Is War.

Dooney came onto the Lateral Action radar via her interview with Hugh MacLeod on Gaping Void. We caught up with her at her beachside studio, one of two in which she works, an hour north of Sydney. During a brief break in a gruelling, 18-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week schedule, she answered our questions.

Enamel painting: Precious Blood

1. What inspires you?

There are persistent, recurrent ideas about the way contemporary women’s identities and sexuality have been shaped by a relentless, media-driven torrent of contradictory messages and images. There are also impressions of how politics, religion, and social trends tap into this torrent. I try to make sense of them through my art.

I’m loath to talk about inspiration. It’s associated with excuses people give themselves for not making art – “I’m just not inspired!”. In me, inspiration is replaced by self-discipline, deep thought, and hard work, every bloody day. And I’m never short of ideas. I have more than I’ll ever be able to explore fully. The busier I am, the faster they flow.

If there’s one area in which, maybe, I am seduced by the idea of inspiration, it’s in new materials, new media. When I’m drawn to a particular ink or or a type of clay or a different sort of camera, I take time out to see what I can do with it – not always successfully [laughs].

2. You’re something of an art world renegade — you sacked the highly regarded galleries who were representing you, and took the business and marketing of your work into your own hands. Why? How has that worked out for you?

The why of it is obvious. I no longer wanted to deal with – or through – intermediaries who were intent on keeping those who really cared about my art at a distance from me. I no longer trusted those intermediaries to properly communicate who I was and what I was trying to accomplish in my art. And I lost faith in their abilities to market my work – especially in a world in which the web is the main medium of communication, information distribution, and transaction.

Most art dealers I know still have only the most rudimentary understanding of online media.

As for how it has worked out for me, my reputation has amplified to an extent that my work exceeds even ambitious estimates for it at auction in London, despite the fact that I have yet to exhibit anywhere in the UK or Europe. My income has risen to mid-six figures and most of my large paintings are sold even before they’re finished. The value of my early work has risen over 1000 per cent in a decade. I’m able to work on what I want, the way I want, when I want.

But I haven’t achieved this alone. I so haven’t. I’ve had wise advisers, not the least of whom is my accountant. And I have a small, well-disciplined team of assistants.

Enamel Painting: DANGEROUS CAREER BABE: THE KOGAL ASSASSIN (HOMAGE TO GOGO YUBARI)

3. So much for your relationship with the commercial side of the art world. What about the critics? How has the unconventional path you’ve taken affected the critical reception of your work?

My critical reception has always been mixed. In the past, it was largely because the underlying intent of my art, which was cute, candy-colored and accessible, was left up to the critics to work out by themselves. I didn’t feel the need to explain, let alone justify, my ideas. However, I realise now that was a naïve attitude, born out of youthful insecurity. It didn’t help that my representative galleries were just as stupid.

Over the past few years, I have made an effort to articulate what my work is really about, to expose my convictions and explain the reasons for them. This has prompted discussion among critics and other artists, and although this discussion doesn’t always resolve in my favour, my work (and my reputation) are now taken a lot more seriously.

The recent rise of a slightly older generation of Japanese artists also influenced by advertising, fashion, pornography, manga and anime – especially those who orbit Takashi Murakami’s so-called Shock Pop movement – has also argued for increased respect.

Another problem between critics and me is my very public attacks on institutional and commercial galleries. These galleries are a source of substantial secondary income for many critics, especially for the few of any note in Australia, and are a principal source of advertising revenue not only for the dwindling number of glossy art magazines but also the arts pages of urban newspapers. It’s not in their interests to see my views gain wider currency. So the best way to diminish them is to diminish me.

It hasn’t worked. Quite the opposite. Old art media – which, like the gallery system, once acted as an arbitrating intermediary between content and consumer – are doomed.

Enamel Painting: DANGEROUS CAREER BABE: THE TERORIST

4. Your art is provocative, playful and subversive. It’s tempting to see your contrarian approach to business as all of a piece with your art. Would you agree? Or do you see the art and business as in completely separate categories?

They’re separate. And the word ‘playful’ is probably inappropriate to both.

My large enamel paintings are colorful, shiney and provocative, sure, but they’re intrinsically subversive. Similarly, I’m attempting to subvert the way the business of art operates – which is in the interests of everyone but the artist.

There’s nothing ironic about my engagement with the art business. It’s driven by an urgent desire to disintermediate the process of promoting and selling art, to encourage artists to communicate and transact more directly with those who are interested in their work. I also want to dismantle layers of obstruction that over the past century and a half, have been concocted by galleries to interfere in the relationship between collector and artist – not just physical but also intellectual and social obstruction.

5. So how do you bring your works to market? What part does social media play in your marketing? Do serious art collectors really hang out on Twitter?

I think it’s simplistic to see online media in terms of a ‘virtual shopfront’, a phrase you hear all too often from galleries that have online presences (and still don’t know how to use them). I rarely offer works for sale via the web – although, very recently, I offered two print series priced under $1,000 via Twitter and my blog as part of a process of ‘democratising’ my art for younger, less moneyed collectors. Prices for my large enamel and watercolour paintings are far out of reach for many now.

I use online media mainly to provoke conversations about what I am doing in my art and why, to explore some of the meanings and issues within (and without) the body of work. I also create a small window from my blog – and other online presences – to my creative process and those parts of it that occasionally intersect with my personal life. This increases both awareness and understanding of what I’m doing. There is a stone-in-the-pond effect that ripples out to those who are not particularly engaged in dialogues on the web and who browse only occasionally: often their interest is piqued enough to compel them to find out more about my work and me. Sometimes, they buy.

My web site, my blog and even my Twitter and Linked-In pages are intended more as resources from which potential collectors, critics, curators, and the merely curious to gain a better understanding of what I’m about. They can reference my entire output and its evolution. Naturally, there are different ‘nodes’ that resonate for different people. If they resonate strongly enough, an opportunity will often emerge for me.

That said, I have always had a broad base of collectors in Australia, New Zealand, S.E. Asia, China, Japan, the USA and Northern Europe. Many have more than one of my large enamel pieces and a few have ten or twenty.

Print: No!

6. When I enthuse about blogging and social media to fine artists, they often say it’s all very well but if they are seen to be too active in promoting their own work, it could actually damage their standing in the art world. Apparently the done thing is to have agents and galleries do the dirty work of marketing for you, and doing it yourself could lower your status. What would you say to them?

They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of the traditional system. The arts are no longer under the control of elitist cliques that have the power to arbitrate one’s success or failure. Which is not to say such cliques don’t still survive – in some places, like New York or London, they continue to thrive – but the web has given the many who aren’t ‘lucky’ (or well-connected) enough to be anointed by them the chance to emerge and gain some significant ‘surface’ and regard.

Yes, it involves a deal more hard work and maybe some re-adjustment of ingrained attitudes, especially among old artists. In return, you regain control of your career and you get to keep most of what it earns for you (instead of ceding 30 to 60 per cent in commissions – and that’s before the gallery bills you further expenses). You also have direct contact with your collectors, people who are so committed to your art that they’re willing to pay for it, instead of being cordoned off from them by an intermediary. If artists think this is beneath them, that it somehow devalues their art, they’re fucked.

The art world is in the process of radical change. The old systems are doomed, sinking. Those artists who still cling to them risk being dragged under.

Print: Yes?

7. Forgetting the art world gatekeepers for a moment, do you think there’s any danger that if an artist is too visible and accessible on social media, that we could lose some of their magical aura surrounding The Artist? Or is that a good thing?

Too much information? Maybe. But then that’s the ‘art’ in using them, the difference between those who are successful at it and those who aren’t. It’s a matter of proportion, of balance.

I do subscribe to the idea that there is not much to be gained by cloistering oneself. Distributing as much useful information as possible about one’s work can only enhance the experience of those who are taken by it. I make my study images – sketches, collages and Polaroid photographs – available to view on web site and blog and I write frankly about the imaginative or technical struggles I confront as I try to create a work. I also write about some of the stuff I do to relieve the stress of it [laughs]. My occasional confessions about my, um, eclectic sex life is probably way too much information.

As for the ‘magical aura surrounding The Artist’, this is a stale residue of 19th century Romanticism and the sooner we dispose of it the better. I do believe creative people have an elevated role in conemporary society – even the most primitive need their shamans – but I think there are some very urgent, pragmatic but revolutionary opportunities we should seize and the Romantic construct is entirely inappropriate to them.

8. Do you have a typical working day? Are routines or rituals part of your creative process?

My days are marked by what most would probably think of as dull routine. I get up early. I work late, often on several pieces at the same time. Two days a week are devoted to sales, marketing and general admin’. I update my blog every afternoon and tweet for an hour or so every morning and evening. I have one day off a week, during which I read, watch TV, go out for lunch or take long walks on the beach. I do this week in, week out, regardless of mood, health or God help me, inspiration.

My holidays are the periods in which I travel interstate or abroad to an exhibition of my work. I usually spend a couple of weeks wherever I’m showing, starting from a week or so before opening night. Of course, it’s work – I do a lot of PR (which always includes informal get-togethers with bloggers and editors of online ‘zines) as well as meet-and-greets with collectors, students, and others – but change is as good as a rest. I’d get bored fast just lying by a pool sipping drinks with umbrellas and fruit.

The truth is, I’m dug in for what I see as a long, arduous campaign that has not one but a whole series of creative and personal objectives. To take a holiday in the middle of it would feel like retreat rather than r’n’r. Besides, the last thing an artist needs to be is too comfortable or to take anything for granted.

Print: SELF VS SELF

9. What advice would you offer to someone setting out on a creative career, who is hesitating between (a) going the traditional route of approaching agents, editors, galleries etc, and (b) striking out on their own, using the web to reach an audience and build their reputation?

Why bother with a) at all? You’d just be investing precious energy and time into a disintegrating paradigm. b) is by far the better choice. However, it isn’t just a question of whether to use the web to the exclusion of all other media or opportunities; it’s about using the web as a platform on which to build greater flexibility and control over your career along with a more direct, disintermediated relationship with everyone with a potential interest in it.

It doesn’t mean avoiding galleries – there are some that recognise the changing environment and are adapting to it – but acquiring enough awareness through your own efforts to negotiate a more equitable relationship with them. It doesn’t mean excluding yourself from major art fairs or other venues but rather defining for yourself how they fit into your overall career arc, which, in turn (and most importantly) should be defined by the core of what you’re trying to achieve with your work. It does mean working as hard on communication and virtual relationships as you do on the conceptual development of your work.

It isn’t easy. But the rewards are significant. So are the freedoms.

Increasingly, I refer to the dictum, Art Is War. It’s a war of disparate ideologies and conflicting interests and ambitions. To succeed, you have to have clear objectives and be ready to devote time to planning and executing not only the work but the campaigns to support and win ground for the work (and, of course, the ideas within the work). Expect plenty of hostile opposition and don’t rely on your allies. Above all, take no prisoners.

Hazel Dooney is one of Australia’s best-known contemporary artists. For more memorable images and outspoken opinions about the art world, visit her website, read her blog and follow her on Twitter.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. stewkelly says:

    I like the way Hazel Dooney rips open the curtain to reveal the sordid mess behind societial myths.

    She is a breath of fresh air in a room filled with butt fume stench.

    I’m sad making a paradigm shift in our thinking isn’t a natural process. I’m sure Ms. Dooney is perplexed as well.

    -Stew

  2. Superb interview! I am just beginning to venture into the unknown, and I can see perfect logic in Hazel Dooney’s statements. Kudos for standing up! I am sure, by her example, more artists will follow. Thanks for presenting this interview.

  3. I sat down one afternoon a couple of months ago to read Hazels whole blog – start to finish. (Kinda guy I am – I dont dabble with too many blogs – I like to go deep) Actually took a whole lot longer than an afternoon.

    Reading there – you get to witness the naked ambition and talent that has enabled Hazel to achieve a success that is impressive by anyone’s standards. But you also get to see the long hours, toxic working conditions and toxic blood sucking industry vermin that she endured(s) to get there.

    Its a great read for any artists that are seeking to work outside of the ass-kissing merry-go-round and live by their own rules.

    If you’re offended easily – or even moderately – may not be for you.

    Good interview. Thanks
    Simon

  4. Truly superb interview. Real insights into a professional artist’s daily life and the how & why to go your own promotional path. Thankyou Hazel for speaking so frankly. Thanks Lateral Action for publishing.

  5. Great interview. I’ve been following Hazel’s career about a year now. Am delighted she gets more focused and clearer and articulate about what she is doing and trying to accomplish.
    Art is war; take no prisoners!

  6. I’ve know Dooney personally for several years and it has been eye-opening to watch her evolution (or revolution) as an artist and public persona. The difference between her now and back in the days when she was tightly confined by commercial galleries intent on her just “looking pretty and painting pretty pictures” is not just a matter of her increased personal confidence and composure but also her willingness to take greater risks with her work. She has her critics, some of them quite vicious, but I think that evidences just how deeply she is getting under the skin of art’s old guard.

  7. I can’t say how much I believe in the artist taking control of their career and message.

    I come from both a gallery and working artist perspective. At one point several years ago I became so disgusted about how galleries operate as businesses and how much they take advantage of artists. With that understanding I created my own studio/gallery Art Rogue, where I took complete control of my work.

    Artists need to empower themselves and respect the value of their own time, resources, and work.

    I hope the current art gallery business model goes the way of the recording industry and becomes less relevant.

    Kudo’s to Hazel and thanks for bringing her story to my attention.

  8. An excellent interview. I have only, in the past few months, come across Hazel’s work and follow her on twitter and her blog. She has so much to say, and is not afraid of saying it – or pissing off people. And that is really refreshing.

    She blogged recently about a conversation with a galleryist in Australia who really didnt get it about her not wanting his representation or co-branding, and I think that one post probably summed up a chunk of the old school art world.

    Hazel is the 21st century archetype for artists wanting to take control of their own image and works. 🙂

  9. Dolandro Feinstein says:

    Sorry, I don`t buy it.
    No shop on her website.
    No physical place to buy her art.
    And have you seen how little new art she creates? (other than her sketches which do not at all look like the art she tries to sell.)

    This lady is all about PR for herself and her selling angle is sex and porn. Cliche, cliche, cliche.

    And the many web type articles that are done about her recycle the same old quotes and bits from one old article in a newspaper article that I cannot find via the web.
    And I could not find any non-web blog articles about her.

    She became well known in Australia for licensing her art to sell condoms:
    “Legends, a small operator that moves about 4000 tins of condoms a month, has struck a royalty deal with Hazel Dooney, whose irony-tinged works explore sex and sexuality, often through the portrayal of semi-naked women.
    Dooney has licensed her work on what she describes as a “small royalty basis”.”
    http://www.theage.com.au/business/condom-company-looks-to-sexual-art-to-stretch-sales-20080608-2njq.html

    In 2008 she did:
    “I wanted to present an alternative”, says Dooney, whose sometimes explicit photographs are of herself, her lovers, and friends and their lovers. “I’ve called the exhibition Porno because I wanted to show that the word itself is no longer taboo; it now hints at the socially acceptable. Making a sex video is now a career move, as is being photographed getting out of a car with no underpants on.
    http://www.theage.com.au/news/arts/seeking-sexuality/2008/07/24/1216492621693.html

    So the lesson learned: Get naked, make a porn movie and become an artist.

  10. Umm, I count 18 large enamels over past year. And between May, 2008 and now, the photos, the prints, some LARGE watercolours (75cms)… and as Dooney makes clear in the article, these are all ‘sold’ works– thus archived online – as opposed to those awaiting shows in the North America in 2010.

    Hardly “little new art”.

    I suspect Delodrio Feinstein (a likely moniker) has an axe to grind.

  11. Actually, there’s a very complete bibliography on Hazel’s site that gives the lie to the contention that all Dooney’s coverage has been web-based: http://hazeldooney.com/hazel_dooney_bibliography.asp

    Feinstein conveniently overlooks other articles in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper: http://www.theage.com.au/news/technology/stateoftheart-selling-rivals-traditional-play-to-the-gallery/2006/07/04/1151778936440.html + http://www.theage.com.au/news/arts/seeking-sexuality/2008/07/24/1216492621693.html

    And from Vogue Australia: http://www.hazeldooney.com/Hazel_Dooney_Bibliography_Details.asp?ID=35

    And NY Arts Magazine: http://www.nyartsmagazine.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=5643&Itemid=25

    Yeah, I too suspect an axe to grind.

  12. I’ve been following Hazel’s blog for a while and she is a breath of fresh air in the art world, what she’s doing makes perfect sense in taking responsibility for defining her own path. Galleries will sell anything, as long as it sells, if it doesn’t its not art. She’s an inspiration for me, and I think you’ll see more artist going down a similar path in the future. Thanks again for the interview, and a cool site.

  13. Dolandro – No, the lesson is you can’t please all the people all of the time. Better to thrill the people who get it and annoy the ones who don’t.

    In your case, I’d say she’s doing a terrific job.

  14. Angela Pena says:

    I appreciate articles like this. I am a new Dooney follower. I am not into porn, but I love sex with my husband! I don’t see her hurting anyone. She is making a living. I really don’t understand why people (sometimes other artist) get jealous of other artists. Usually, I believe, it’s because they are not any good or haven’t found there niche. BUT WHY do we have to condemn people for being talented or different then ourselves. I can go on forever, I like controversy, it gets your blood going to let you know your alive!!! Who said that or is it something people say frequently? I’ll have to look this one up on quotes.

    I think your intriguing Dooney!!!

  15.  Dolandro Feinstein – Dave, Don –
    whatever your name is, you’re
    still pathetic.

    -Malcho

  16. It’s interesting i) how these very vitriolic dissenters hide behind completely opaque false identities and ii) just quite how upset they become (and just how many words it takes for them to express why this is so). If Dooney manages to provoke such strong emotion, that alone says something about the strength of her art.

  17. @ b/rood – Indeed. If they spent half as much energy on actually making something original…

    Edit: b/rood’s comment referred to another commenter who was deleted for personal abuse, which we don’t tolerate on Lateral Action.

  18. I credit Dooney with great entrepreneurial skills. All artists can learn from her expertise and advice in marketing themselves and taking control of their business. Like Dooney, I believe the internet has contributed enormously to the weakening power of the traditional gallery system. Despite not being a fan of her work, I admire her success. Time and people will ultimately be the judge of her work. Personally, I find it intellectually driven, lacking in depth and poetry, stylisticly cartoonish and derivative. It looks and has the feeling of a pre designed, pre thought out manufactured object. But this is only my personal reaction to it; it is not my preference. There is precedent for this kind of work and it obviously draws its audience.

  19. It is interesting to note that b_rood himself “hides behind an opaque and false identity” when he criticizes others of doing so. There is an undeniable and consciously expressed component of vexation in Donney’s work which should not be equated with its “power” when people respond to that. Great “power” in art always reveals some truth. It is not the product of intentional vexation.

  20. ZoeVahlentine says:

    Very nice article, the artist seems honest and then again is she ? At first yes, but if you look closely, is she. I feel her dealing with dealers in Auction Houses are a little shady, and her critics of others (like C.Saatchi) are from me a little trying to pretend to be more than she really is, using the system of over inflated prices so clients by more of her works to speculate on ( ie. She always talk about in auction houses her work if going high, like 1000% up. But she is an artist so we forgive her, it is just the moralist speech that is a little “too much”.