Body Laid Bare: Julia Holden on using skin as canvas

by Emilia Mazza / 11 June, 2017
Performance artists Julia Holden painting Audrey Baldwin.  Photo /Supplied

History is revived in the hands of an artist using skin as a ‘living canvas’.

Julia Holden’s portraits look back at the past while engaging with the present. This week she pays homage to Henri Matisse’s Draped Nude with a painting performance at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Using a mix of painting, sculpture, photography, and performance Christchurch-based artist Julia Holden will be replicating one of Matisse’s most famous paintings currently exhibiting as part of the Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from the Tate.

Her painting-performances use live subjects that act as her living canvases. She paints directly onto their skin, which has first been protected with barrier cream, using non-toxic house paint.

It’s a fairly quick process, the artist explains, taking around 30 to 40 minutes all up. Intensive pre-planning means she will have sourced costumes, sculpted wigs from clay and painted backdrops ahead of time.

As soon as the painting is complete she takes a photo in order to capture her subject at their freshest point. “It’s an incredibly immediate process, she says. “The paint is is wet when I’m photographing it and in some cases, it’s still running. It can be a bit unruly!”

Holden’s portraits largely cite historical references and pay homage to artists that have gone before. The inspiration for her upcoming performance, alongside Christchurch-based performance artist Audrey Baldwin, came after seeing the abstract beauty of Matisse’s Draped Nude exhibiting as part of visiting Tate collection.

Rhana Devenport, Director of the Auckland Art Gallery, says the performance, inspired by the exhibition, will offer a singularly unique experience.

“It’s exciting to have these two artists presenting their high calibre performance work at our Open Late, which will create a great connection to The Body Laid Bare.” 

Holden and Baldwin have worked together previously. Their first collaboration offered a recreation of Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1885) that was presented for the opening of Holden’s 2016 exhibition I’m Your Fan.

This series of 23 portraits was an important showcase for the artist’s newly developed style. In her series I’m Your Fan, Holden delved a little into the creative histories of artists she had met since moving to Christchurch in 2012.

Each spoke about an artist they admired or who influenced their work, and Holden created a portrait based on the nominated favorite, using the artist as her canvas.

“I wanted to create connections between people and look at the kinds of conversations artists are in with artists across time.”

The prolific portraitist also held a second exbitition late last year. Lyttelton Redux captures the history of the Lyttelton port town through some of its notable figures. Present-day locals were cast to represent historical figures with connections to the town, creating links through generations, occupations or simple likeness. This exhibition is currently accessible in digital form with accompanying sound and will be on exhibition at Canterbury Museum from July 1 this year.

The artist has an extensive background in film and television which has primed her for collaborative art projects. Although she now works alone for the most part, or with those she is painting, these larger productions, with her performing, have been an entirely new experience.

“The first couple of times I was practically hyperventilating with fright,” she laughs. “Once I realised people weren’t watching me as such, they were watching the work as it developed before their eyes, I could relax.”

Holden acknowledges creating in front of an audience brings a lot of pressure, even more so in the age of social media where it’s likely people are taking photos of her and her work that go online while she is in the process of creating.

While she accepts this as part of living and working in the digital age, she emphasises being present to the work’s production offers viewers a visceral experience.

“It’s an immersive experience. You, Audrey and I are there, fully present. We are all part of the work, painter, performer and audience.”

Auckland Art Gallery, open late: 6pm – 10pm on Tuesday, June 13. Tickets $30 which includes entry to The Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from Tate.

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