The notion of the everyday has occupied the minds of artists since the dawn of time – Egyptians depicting the hunt; Vermeer’s milkmaid at work; van Gogh’s bedroom. And so it goes, all the way to Marcel Duchamp’s conception of the self-concious readymade –Ordinary objects passed off as art – in 1913.
Cut to 2018, and Sydney artist Julian Meagher is painting goon bags, the foil bag inside a box of wine, out of his Marrickville studio. “I’m not affraid of elevating the absurd – I think artists have a key role in doing that,” says Meagher. “And I love goon bags; they’re actually beautiful objects to paint. Once you start thinking about them as sculpture – their weightlessness but at the same time the heaviness of them – they are really beautiful shapes.” For him, the ordinary is anything but. “That’s the beauty of art,” he says. “Making people see the poetry of the everyday.”
Meagher’s work really is poetic. Thinning out oil paint with medium, his portraits of people and objects set against clear, white nothingness appear almost luminous, with the colours glowing against the pale. “Because I paint in such a translucent style, the surface of what I paint is really important,” says the two time Archibald finalist. “And so I try to paint water and glass and skin, changing these functional objects into non-functional objects of desire.”
Until 11 years ago, Meagher was a medical doctor. But he gave it all up to focus on art, which he had loved since childhood. “I’m motivated by a love of paint, not cash,” he says. He has just completed a commistion to create 10 original paintings for the newly refitted resort, The Byron at Byron, each depicting a native Australian plant, from banksias to kangaroo paws, to wattle flowers and gumnuts. “I’m intersted in why things become so symbolic,” says Meagher. “I lean towards symbolic objects – the goon bag, the VB can, Australian native flowers – to make us think about why we revere these objects and are at the same time repelled by them.”
Although he never wants to come across as didactic, Meagher acknowledges the political implications of portraying Australiana. “I’m a privileged white Australian male artist, and I’m still trying to reconcile my place in this country,” he says. “My Aboriginal friends have taught me a lot. You don’t have to make people think about things in an agressive way; it can be done as a starting point for a dialogue.
“I love very quiet paintings that aren’t loud in your house; that are quite serene. And for me that is a lovely place to get taken when you’re standing infornt of a painting. You can feel that meditative process the artist went through.”
Despite his career in medicine, Meagher’s heart was always in a tube of paint. “Being creative isn’t an easy, linear, straight road; it has its problems,” he says. “But if you can eke out an existance doing it, it’s magic.”