HAPPINESS: The Soul in the Market Place

“I don’t know if money brings happiness but it does allow time to paint, to travel, to have a studio and buy materials. It allows a certain amount of freedom. I have been offered large sums of money to paint certain pictures over and over again but as tempting as it is I can’t seem to do it” – Jeremy Kibel

Artists are happiest when creating art. This much was clear when speaking recently with Jeremy Kibel, a finalist in the Archibald Prize two years running. In discussing his formative experiences as a painter, and his roles as curator and gallery owner, it was clear that for Kibel, moments of triumph occur when searching for answers to emotional and aesthetic problems within the art he is creating. Kibel speaks of ‘turning points’; he experienced one such when painting a body of work titled The Glass Asylum in 2006. “I was able to pull back, not overwork my paintings; l could be restrained without losing any of the visual impact l was trying to achieve. I figured out less was more.”

Born in 1972, after studying Art and Design in Melbourne Kibel took advantage of an opportunity to work as a studio assistant in New York in the early nineties in order to be immersed in the practice of art. This was followed by two similar positions with Jenny Watson and Robert Jacks from the mid to late nineties. His first solo exhibition was in 2000 followed by a further nine in galleries throughout Australia. Kibel also took part in numerous group shows picking up awards and prizes along the way. His love of art has been extended beyond his practice and now includes being the director of a gallery from where he runs Blockprojects.

“Art,” Kibble writes, “has fundamentally been a part of my life for as long as l can remember. When l was 12, my mother took me to see the Philip Guston exhibition at the NGV. From memory, I think it was 1984. I didn’t quite understand Guston’s work at the time but l was completely mesmerised by the paint. It struck a chord with me and my curiosity for painting has stuck with me since then.”

The commodification of art in our contemporary culture, Kibel maintains, does not affect his management of Blockprojects, however he does see being an artist as at odds with running a gallery. He says this while accepting that art is marketed the same way as luxury goods now: “I don’t make any moral judgment on that. It really doesn’t affect the way I run Block because as with my art, l believe in staying true to myself,” and when asked if it is difficult to ignore what is considered fashionable in the art market, he responds, “No… it is easy to ignore the transient thing… they come and go. Art is such a personal thing for me that I don’t think about it in terms of whether it is fashionable or not.”

Kibel’s experience of being in both worlds – the private studio and the spheres in which art is a commodity – has led to his having firm ideas as to what needs to be addressed. Kibel believes there is a lack of an open forum for critique of artists, institutions and curators.

He is saddened by what he sees as a missed opportunity for the Australian art world. If Australia is to compete internationally as an artistic and cultural hub, Kibel stresses the importance of how we see and present ourselves to the world. He notes, “Internationally, the perception of Australian art is that we simply don’t have one. I am not entirely sure what the answers are but we do need to look at our national identity and where we place our cultural priorities. For example, we still do not have a national museum that celebrates indigenous art. Ironically, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris has an amazing section dedicated to Aboriginal art and artifacts… We as a nation need to ask why we have such a disdain for the arts,” though he does suggest that the recent example of MONA in Hobart is “a clear indication of what can be achieved”.

Kibel argues that, despite some changes in the last decade, the art industry needs to significantly develop its business management skills, further champion the legal rights of artists and pursue governmental reform on matters such as increased tax benefits to large corporations and individuals who collect and support the arts (see Harold Mitchell, page 8).

Kibel relaxes when his discussion of art as cultural capital turns to the art of painting itself. Asked what period he would return to if he were able to learn directly from the studio practice of great artists, he says “I would go back to 1888, where Gauguin and Van Gogh spent nine weeks together, painting in the Yellow House in the town of Arles. Also, I would have loved to stand beside the young Gericault while he was working onThe Raft of the Medusa. Gericault was only 27 when he painted it – the painting sums up humanity to me. And I would have loved to be around during the New York school: Pollock, de Kooning , Motherwell, Still, Rothko, Newman etc.”

In the studio Kibel feels both most calm and most alive. While art as capital is an inevitable part of his world, when it comes to the ‘pursuit of happiness’, his prime focus is his studio.