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Home Talent! An in-depth look into Yvette Coppersmith's Art Practise

What impact did winning the Metro 5 art prize ($40,000!) in 2003 at such a young age have on your career?

It could’ve impacted my career in a very different way than it did, but I knew at that early point (I’d not yet had a solo show), I needed to get some runs on the board and expand my practice with freedom to experiment. I didn’t want to make what was expected based on that winning work, so I didn’t ride that wave as I could have in a commercial sense. Instead I applied for my first solo exhibition in a non-commercial gallery and did what most fine arts graduate would do, with the exception of applying for any grants.

The avalanche of publicity the prize generated meant I was plucked from the obscurity of being a fresh VCA graduate. It was incredibly exciting to feel like your dreams have come into reality so soon.  However amongst the heaped praise, I heard a opinions that I was too young for a huge success and it would burden my whole career – if indeed I were to have one beyond that point. But I felt a defiant my sense of myself as an artist. At the age of 22 I quit my part time job (painting assistant in the studio of John Young) and painted full time for myself.  It was the financial backing that every young artist needs.

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Your practice has spanned realistic portraiture, performance art to more recently expressionism and cubism? Can you please explain a little bit about this journey? 

Ha! Well it’s hard to sum up as each body of work has it’s own detailed story of how I arrived at it.

Style is a vernacular for the contemporary artist, to choose the language that best works to express their idea or subject matter. I started as a photo-realist painter, and for the first few years exhibited very slick paintings with a psychological, emotional and theatrical dynamic. The way I approached the ideas and subject matter varied but technically I was speaking in the same style. In 2008 a shift took place where I looked at certain influences which were looser in the brushwork, although still realist and figurative. Practicalities like a short timeframe for an upcoming show also helped precipitate a more gestural approach to painting. In 2013 there was a period of transition where I realised that much of the artists whose work I loved was very different to what I was making. I need to find how to align my influences with my own practice. It took about a year for all the experiments and ideas to crystalise and form the basis of my first still life series Love and Light which was exhibited at Utopian Slumps. That series was highly personal, it was a self-portrait in a sense, but through the genre of still life. Rather than paint a model I made myself my own muse. I approached former lovers and asked if they’d make a small sculpture from memory – of me as a reclining nude – giving them a packet of modeling clay to work with. In effect they became artists and I was the model. The results were humorous, clumsy little sculptures, which had little resemblance of me. And that suited me perfectly – it allowed me to paint from life, and yet the distortions of the figure were inherently in the work. I had been obsessed by Picasso’s figures, which were based on classical sculptures.  But rather than borrowing from the style of Picasso, I had all the distortions of the figure, just by painting from observation. All the objects in that series were white, and I painted them in muted greys and pastels, so it actually looked more Morandi than Picasso. Despite the emotional content, they were aesthetically quite restrained.

The next series I worked with couples. Each couple participated by making a still life from their personal items in my studio. That loss of control over the subject matter pushed my approach further to experiment with style. I wasn’t just looking at the objects, but at Modernist artworks, which were relevant to the type of painting I wanted to make. Having restricted parameters pushed my style to develop further. I became more reliant on looking at art, fashion, interior design, to give me the pictorial devices I needed to make a picture. It also provided a more intuitive and imaginative way of making a picture. From constantly broadening my visual language I have expanded the tools at my disposal as a painter. The way I will approach the portrait or figure now might incorporate stylised and abstract elements.

Just to expand on what you mean by my perfomance art – at one of my exhibition openings I did a performance as one of the characters in my self portraits.  It was tableaux vivant meets psychodrama. The performative element to my practice has leant me an affinity working with professional performers such as Paul Capsis (my first Archibald finalist in 2008), Moira Finucane, Justin Heazelwood, and John Safran (second Archibald finalist in 2009).

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What themes are important to you, what do you want your work to communicate? Is it a common thread or is each work completely different?

The work might look different from one series to the next, however the underlying thread is that I’m influenced by my relationships with others and draw upon personal narratives. My pieces have an intimate diaristic quality where my everyday surroundings and companions become muse, including myself in various guises.

My work has an emotional, romantic side and I think, how do I translate this to a visual language that I feel comfortable with? I want to make paintings where the strength in them supports the vulnerability. The paint itself is part of that, there’s also a cerebral aspect, a process driven approach, playfulness, but fundamentally I want to make paintings that I find desirable.

What else are you currently working on? 

There are a couple of commissioned portraits underway – one for the Australian War Memorial, Canberra and one for the University of Technology Sydney. I’ve just written an opinion piece for the National Portrait Gallery magazine’s summer edition, and a studio interview for next issue of Art Guide.

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Do you have a dream project or opportunity?

I would like to exhibit more internationally – what’s not to love about a gallery hopping vacay to gather inspiration, while reaching a new audience for your artwork. However I love working at home so much, I’d be just as happy staying in.

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