Simon Wilde is a newcomer to the Shanghai art scene, an Australian who just recently moved into Prairie Gallery in M50. Though an abstract expressionist artist (by his own admission), his style is maybe best described as “abuse a piece of steel and see what looks good.” It’s genuinely impressive stuff, and photos don’t do it justice. We went to speak with him in person (over a generous glass of wine) about his method, setting up in M50, his current exhibition QUASAR and picking up where Jackson Pollock left off.
Oh, and making art by setting it on fire.
Simon Wilde: I’m Simon Wilde, I’ve just moved to Shanghai from Australia, I was born in Sydney and I grew up there, I’ve been working as an artist for the last, I don’t know, 5-6 years? The work I do… actually, let’s have a walk, shall we?
EnjoyShanghai: Uh, yeah, sure why not.
Simon: [now striding through his gallery space as we run after him, juggling a glass of wine in one hand and a voice recorder in the other]
The work is kind of unique because it’s abstract art, painted on steel, that’s the kind of work that I do. I started off doing it in 2009, I had been running a business and we stopped doing that, and I went on a bit of a bicycle ride from Sydney to Lake Eyre. Do you know where that is? It’s in the middle of the country. I used to write poetry in those days and I would write whole poems and stuff. When I got back I wanted to express it somehow.
I found some rusty piece of steel and I thought the red colors of the steel represented the desert, so I made this collage, and gradually I just sort of discovered this way of painting using steel. It’s great because you can burn things and do all sorts of stuff that you don’t usually do, I kind of ended up creating a new aesthetic in away.
ES: You did some business before you went into art?
Simon: I went to university and then went to Africa for a couple of years, worked on a banana farm and back-packed around and stuff like that, then worked as a lawyer, then worked as a property developer. I had a juice company too, which was the thing I was doing immediately before this, so it’s been a bit of a journey!
ES: But then you ended up basically coming to art as your kind of thing?
Simon: Yeah, it’s my passion, I think it’s where my real talents lie.
ES: Your earlier stuff was poetry emblazoned on steel. Why the evolution from written word to…
Simon: To the art?
ES: We were going to say to the abstract?
Simon: Well it’s funny, you know. I was doing the text by stenciling, using tape, pouring water on it to let it rust, that was creating the text. And then I did one where I started to use ink with the water, and then I discovered it made these interesting patterns and me dunno, gradually the patterns took over and the text took a back seat.
ES: And finally disappeared completely?
Simon: Yeah, pretty much, although there’s some scope to bring back collage elements, there’s none in these pieces, but I’ve started using paper again because you can put it on the steel and you let rust come through the paper, so then there’s a possibility of printing stuff, like taking photos and printing them onto paper and putting them on the steel, you know? I’m not very interested in the subject, it’s more about patterns.
ES: So are you thinking to take your art in a more photographic direction?
Simon: Possibly. Each exhibition I do, I generally like to make it around a poem, which I’ve done with QUASAR, so it’s a way of bringing the conceptual side of the process back into the work.
ES: Is there something in the process you really like? It sounds pretty involved, you gotta wait for the steel to rust…
Simon: Yeah, exactly, or the stuff to evaporate, you know. I don’t really paint them so much as construct them, or cook them.
ES: “Cooking art,” nice.
Simon: I use heat or chemical reactions or stuff like that, and it takes time and you don’t really know what’s going to come out, so like, this one…
… like with all these things, it’s from when I’ve set the thing on fire, or a part of it on fire, and this stuff is rust coming through acrylic paint.
ES: And this looks kind of like paint just poured on and left to run?
Simon: This is an enamel metal paint, which you’re not supposed to mix with water. Actually, you can’t mix with water, so…
ES: So you did it anyway.
Simon: Yeah. I’ve got this puddle over the top of this thing, and then poured this stuff on it and it causes this reaction, and as the water drains off or evaporates, you’re left with this beautiful film that just sort of settles onto the thing and then, you put some heat, it sort of bakes on. Then you get this ability to sort of see-through translucent layers and it’s…
ES: It looks kind of three dimensional.
Simon: Yeah, you can see many layers. The painting is a bit like a Jackson Pollock; he’s an inspiration, but I kind of like to think I’m picking up where he left off. He’s working in just oil paint on a flat canvas, so the oils don’t really interact with each other. Whereas with this kind of thing, because the different materials actually have chemical reactions with each other and they cause different effects, you’re getting a depth of visual effects.
ES: How long do you spend on these normally, roughly?
Simon: Depends, I mean, something could go really well and it takes a couple of days, or others you know, they’re going to take a year or something.
Simon: You’ll do a bit and then maybe you have to put it outside and let it rust for a few months, you know what I mean?
ES: So you’ve got multiple things running at the same time.
Simon: Yeah, of course, I’m set up here so I can run like that. These are the benches, and I’m going to clamp them flat, so with this, I can have four large pieces going at once, or even, something like these two (showing a pair of massive steel sheets that hang on the wall of the workshop), this is one piece in two sheets, you can put them together and do a whole bunch at once. I can put these two and seal them together, and then you can crack the seal at the end.
ES: And then you’ve got two paintings for the effort of one?
Simon: Yeah, kind of, you know [laughs].
ES: So these ones [in the gallery now] were done in Australia?
Simon: Yeah, I haven’t created anything yet in China. But you can see like these ones, where I’ve already done the first layer, where I’m grinding steel. So I’ve done the first bit because that’s a pretty industrial process.
ES: Why the move to specifically Shanghai?
Simon: I think in China, artistically, it’s going to either be Beijing or Shanghai, or Hong Kong, but my sense of Hong Kong is that’s more about collecting international artists, it’s not so much of a local arts scene. Beijing has a good local arts scene, but you kind of have to be Chinese and it’s a lot of government and official stuff, whereas I think as a foreigner, Shanghai is a little more international in its focus, and it’s less of a closed circle.
It’s big enough, there’s enough sophistication for it to be worthwhile, and then you’ve got something like this, M50, which is kind of unique. Australia is good, but it’s a small country, it’s pretty provincial, you know what I mean? There’s certainly nothing like M50 anywhere in Australia.
ES: What do you think is so special about M50?
Simon: It’s the most well-known, you know? You look around, the quality and the prices of the art is good, it’s comparable, so I think that just being here, for someone like me, who’s trying to establish a reputation, it’s just a good… you’re in the right environment, you’re in the right place.
We came here in December with the idea of doing this, and we looked around at a few places, and then we came here. The other places we looked at were like “yeah, just come.” M50 was like, “are you good enough to be here?” A bit stand-offish, but when we showed them the portfolio they were like “yeah come along!”
ES: Have you had a chance to meet any of the other artists here?
Simon: A little, language is a problem, but I love it.
ES: Anything you’ve seen that’s struck your fancy that you thought looked quite interesting?
Simon: I think Chinese art is great. I mean, the whole avant-garde Chinese thing that’s been going on for the past 15 years has been probably the most exciting thing in the international art world, in that period. So to me, it’s very exciting to be able to… I’m not really a part of it, except in a very peripheral way, I bring my own things and my own vision, but certainly to be a part of that world and a part of that moment in history is great.
ES: What do you think about Australia’s art scene in comparison?
Simon: Australia has a pretty good cultural output, but structurally, I think it’s very difficult for emerging people to breakthrough, it’s a bit of a closed shop and it’s quite small, it’s quite mature.
It’s one of those scenes where… well, this is true everywhere in the art world, I guess. But it’s a lot of, you know, the cultural arbiters will pick a handful of artists and then they’re the only people you hear about for the next 30 years.
Even if you are one of those fortunate few, as a painter, it’s still tough. A successful house painter makes more money than the most famous artist in Australia.
ES: Why do you think that is? No one really buys it, no one really cares?
Simon: I dunno, conservatism? Small market? [shrug] I don’t want to be telling terrible things about Australia but I kind of think you have to get out into the wider world. I’m just really excited to be here in Shanghai, you know?
ES: Tell us a little bit about the studio, about the space?
Simon: I love this space. I wish I had more of it, but I think that for the size that we’ve got, we’ve done a pretty good job. Before, there was like a partition here and another one here, and it was just kind of shit. So we just got rid of it all.
ES: Tell us a bit about the idea of separating out the showroom and the workspace but keeping them so close?
Simon: Well, for one thing, the production process is pretty industrial and messy and everything, so you kind of want to have some delineation between that and the fancy showroom where you’re trying to charge for your paintings. That’s one side of it, but the idea of having the curtains instead of a partition is good, it just gives it a nicer atmosphere. Plus, with the speakers up, you can have a gig or a film night too, if you like.
ES: Or show some Game of Thrones?
Simon: Yeah, maybe we’ll start charging for tickets!
ES: What about these crazy time lapses you do?
Simon: So I’ve set up a camera up there [pointing up at a tripod set above the workspace], so you can get a more intimate knowledge of the piece. We want to do these time-lapses all the time so that when someone buys the painting, you can give them a USB with the video of everything done. I think this space with its high-ceiling and its mezzanine kind of enables that.
ES: What do you hope your art’s trying to convey?
Simon: I don’t know. I don’t theorize too much about it. When I’m doing the work, it’s kind of an instinctive sense of aesthetics and I think it looks good and I’m happy with it, then that’s how I go. So it’s not about the subject, it’s you know… is it nice to look at? Is it interesting? Can you watch it for a long time, can you see things in it?
I’m satisfied if people just think “that’s a great thing, I want to live with that piece in my home or my office, and I want to see this every day.”
QUASAR is on right now, until June 12th at the Prairie Gallery. You should absolutely go, the 3D effect has to be appreciated in person.
Room B114, Building 4, 50 Mògānshān Road, Sūzhōu West Road
If the man himself is in, mind the flying paint. And the fire