It’s 2004, Melbourne, and things for the cities vibrant stencil art community are about to change. For many years the stencil was king – so much so that books were written, international websites spawned and a global movement eagerly watched the streets come alive in nooks and crannies with cut and sprayed works of art. from the political to the humourous, – in these days, freedom aerosol was still, for the most part, mostly practiced by graffiti artists and what we know as the “street art scene” was dominated by stencils and the artists who created them, plied a swaths across the city.
It was the year that the first incarnation of the Blender studios was shut down, and the year that the Everfresh studios opened – it was a time of transition between the old, and the new. Artist such as Sync, Ha-Ha and, of course, Dlux, three artists who had been right in amongst the stencil art and street art movement, moved off into different directions – continuing to pursue their works and enlivening their, and consequently our, surroundings.
Dlux, or, as he is more commonly know these days, James Dodd, was there, amongst it all, a part of the beginnings of a movement that have continued to this day. Where once street art was truly underground, it is now, in many ways, a commercial, comodifiable product – and yet artists such as Dlux have retained their ability to “keep it real” whilst navigating the many opportunities and pitfalls associated with the rise of street art as a cultural phenomenon. Although his work has evolved in many differing directions in the decade since, it still retains an element of authenticity that was, in all probability, spawned within that period of time – the rebellion, the enthusiasm and gleefully poignant philosophical elements are all critical elements of his work, and it would be hard to discern if so many of these elements would be present, if he had not been there to see it all in its rambunctious glory.
In the intervening years, Dlux continued to progress his work and delve into multifaceted areas, taking it into entirely new directions and extending his personal philosophies to encompass other areas of the community, including projects in regional centres and working with indigenous communities. In 2010, he was aslo recognised contributions to the Australian street art scene, when he was invited to participate in the National Gallery of Australias Space Invaders exhibition – a well deserved accolade for one who has worked so tirelessly to promote both his own work, and that of the artistic community in general. His work has also, over these years, diversified into everything from gorgeously coloured landscapes to abstracted public installations, and his own personal artistic mythos has developed alongside it all into a multifaceted riot of colours and earthly glimpses of both our country, and identity.
In 2004, the City of Melbourne went to “war” with street artists such as Dlux, persecuting them and their work for detracting from their narrow definition of municiple beauty - and it is telling that today, in 2014, when Dlux is still pushing forward into new territory with his remarkable work, that the City of Melbourne has just signed off on a new Graffiti Management Act. A new set of guidelines that, although still not quite at a point where we can celebrate, does offer a measure of support to street artists, and goes some way towards giving them the ability to practice their creativity without as much fear of retribution as there was in the year 2004.
Without the efforts, talents and contributions of artists such as Dlux (not to mention Ha-Ha, Sync, and all the other artists who practiced in those times) the foundations of what we call the Melbourne street art community would be vastly different to what it is now – and may, truly, not be as vibrant and beautiful a beast as it now is.
On the eve of his celebration of these past ten years, the group exhibition “Now & Then” with both Ha-Ha and Sync, we had a chance to catch up with Dlux (aka James Dodd), to discuss his art, why 2004 was such a pivotal moment, and what he still hopes to achieve with his work in the future …
As with every artist, you must have started out somewhere – what are some of your earliest creative memories and when did you realise that art was a path that had chosen you?
Ha, yes, a wonderfully cliché question that invokes wonderfully cliché answers! Both of my grandmothers were painters so I was always around drawing and painting. We always had paper to draw on in our house. I’m lucky that my family always encouraged me to pursue my passions so it was kind of always quite clear that I’d become some kind of arty person.
Mark making, painting and stencils – your mediums cross a lot of boundaries, what do all of these methods of expression have in common, beyond the mediums and techniques? Which of these hold particular interest to you, and why?
I get bored easily so I need lots of things going on to keep me interested. They are all interesting to me and they each can be used to tell different stories. Mostly, the common thing for me comes down to thinking about how people are creative in public space. Sometimes scratched marks in public furniture form nice conversations, sometimes you want to contemplate softly nuanced textures, sometimes you need to draw a dick on someone’s fence … Painting is just one of those things that can keep you excited for ever – there is no end point.
Tell us a bit about the whole scene in Melbourne back in 2004 – what was the most exciting aspect of being an artist in the city a decade ago?
I had come to Melbourne from Adelaide around 2002, I knew a few art heads but not many. I was at one of those points where I was hungry for everything and Melbourne dished it out in fistfuls. I was meeting stacks of similarly curious and passionate people and we were all excited to be finding all of these things together. The alleyways and lanes were already littered with tags and scrawl and were a natural place to start fooling around with stencils. It seemed at times that artworks were multiplying overnight by magic – I guess they kind of were. Everyone was pumped by what was going on.
How did you first meet Sync and Ha-Ha? How did the friendship between you guys begin, and how has it evolved over the years?
Ben Frost – is definitely the wizard on the mountain top – I’d known Frosty for a couple of years through other art adventures and he’d been in Melbourne for a little while when I moved there. He was living with this guy called Reagan who was into stuckism, conspiracy theories and stencils and our relationship grew quickly.
I’d known Sync’s work on the streets of Adelaide, in fact seeing his stickers gave me my first inspiration to start making stencils and stickers, but I’d never met him. I think I met him once at a Melbourne alleycat race or something, I can’t recall exactly, but he showed up one day to take a studio at the Blender. Suffice to say we were all in to the same things and spent a lot of time painting and adventuring together.
We were all close through the Empty Show phase and through Early Space. Rick was always a lot more gangster and into rap painting and stuff so he fit in well with the Everfresh Crew. Reagan and I stayed dorks and hung out with other social miscreants and artfags. Now Rick lives around from the corner from me in Adelaide. He steals lemons from my tree that hangs over the fence.
How about your own artwork? The work you do these days has a huge progression and difference in style to what you did back then – what are some of the pivotal changing points in your work, and what common elements have carried through from then to now?
Yeah, for sure … I was initially excited by making things on the street because of the things that kind of creativity could do better than in a gallery. For a long time I was somewhat dissatisfied with gallery outcomes and invested my energy thinking about street stuff. After investing a lot of time and energy in street outcomes I started to see some gallery things that I was keen to try out. Now I find myself interested in things that might be able to cross between both contexts.
I’ve always been turned on by artists who work comfortably across a range of different approaches and mediums. People like Mike Kelley are a good example. You either have to be outrageously talented to do this or you have to work hard at building your understanding of different things. It’s a bit like speaking different languages.
There’s always a somewhat, in my mind, philosophical element to your work – it often has hidden nuances that narrate a thoughtful tale – is this a conscious approach? Do you often have a defined idea or philosophical, explorative urge when putting together a show?
I like art that has a reason, or quest, or concept. It’s not enough for me to make things that simply decorative. So that means I’m always looking for those things when I am making.
It’s corny, but I like to give people opportunities to reflect and to think.
You’ve actually done a hell of a lot of work out of the cities and in regional areas, and a bit of work in the past with indigenous communities – can you tell us a bit about some of these projects, and how this kind of work has both rewarded you and contributed to your own creativity?
I grew up regionally and have distinct memories of the small bits of contact that I had with practicing artists so it’s always been easy for me to relate. Travelling and turning around murals in a small amount of time is really exciting for me. Working really remotely and with indigenous communities has presented me with some of the most confronting experiences of my life. In the end, using aerosol with kids generally makes it easy to get their attention and it’s great when they have a really positive experience.
A big part of my process is basic encouragement of creativity – just seeing kids draw is huge for me. Mostly I work together with communities to facilitate their ideas so that they end up with an outcome that they have a genuine connection with.
If you could contrast things between “then and now”, how have things changed for the better “now”? How were things better back ‘then”? Is it a case of apples and oranges – too difficult to compare, or are there marked differences?
Yeah, things are different – that’s a good thing – it means we’ve actually progressed culturally. The big walls that people are smashing out now are amazing. That wasn’t happening when I was coming up. The great work of many artists over the years has meant that the support base for this kind of artwork is bigger than it has ever been.
As with any progression, young artists see what people do before them and want to take things beyond that. That’s what we did. People saw that and then did the next things.
It might be hard to believe, but it did seem impossible to make a living making the kind of art we wanted to make. And, hey, if we’re gonna be all dreamy eyed it was never about the money! I think that young artists now see that they can make a living doing these things. They chase that. That’s a fortunate situation.
What are all three of you hoping to illustrate with this somewhat retrospective-come-new exhibition?
I think it’s a bit of an adventure really. We’re not entirely sure. My personal curiosity comes from having not been living in Melbourne for a while, and missing the community there. Whilst I stay in touch as much as I can, I am interested to see what sort of conversations can be had about the shift in Melbourne street culture generally.
I’m also itching to share things that I’ve made with people who may only have known part of what I’ve done.
How about the whole “making a living as an artist” thing – is it as challenging ad it used to be? There seem to be more opportunities for artists to do so these days, bit for yourself, what is the day to day toil of making your way in the world as an artist actually like?
It’s exciting, but you’ve got to keep at it and there’s no one else to whip you into shape if you’re not pulling your weight. You need to be self-motivated – there’s no other way. Certainly I’m fortunate to have some momentum but that doesn’t mean I can sit back and enjoy the ride. I still work long hours and weekends on all parts of my practice. Art audiences (good ones) expect you to keep pushing and growing.
As a full time artist there’s a lot of time put in behind a desk as well, doing admin, communicating, responding to interview questions!
You’ve had a hell of a lot of shows and produced a fairly large body of work over the years – what have been some of your favourite shows and projects, and why?
Highlights have been celebrating the Space Invaders exhibition with a huge bunch of talented peers.
Most of my artworks are experiments – that means most of them ‘don’t work’ – so when I do manage to pump out a batch that are still satisfying to look at years later that makes me very happy. Spending time in Australia’s Top End, looking at unique graffiti has been a favourite. Invitations to travel to different parts of the world and do what I love to do rates pretty high.
Adventures, road trips, being naughty, all nighters – choosing the art life has given me so many fantastic experiences and friendships.
If you could give some words of advice to people out there doing their thing, that you didn’t know back in the day, what would they be?
Just the classics – I have a couple of favourites. Don’t become complacent. If you’re comfortable, you’re not excited. As an artist you have to make everyday – it’s both a guide and a declaration.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year, and, indeed, the future?
I’m working towards a solo show at the Contemporary Art Centre of S.A., in Adelaide in the middle of the year. I’m always playing, always wondering. I’m quite curious to try and make work that can be more poetic – things that aren’t as in your face but can still tell a story, offer insight into the human condition or offer an experience of beauty – not much! They’re ongoing goals and things that can be built upon forever.
What projects lay unrealised, and what would you like to investigate with your work in your next project?
That’s a big question. I keep journals of ideas and most of them begin with their fantasy version and then slowly get resolved according the reality of time and money. It’s just one step at a time mostly, trying not to trip over. One of the things I’ve been fooling around with lately is my passion for bicycles, adventures and art and wondering whether there are things there that might also be interesting for other people to consider art. It’s ongoing…