After 20 plus years in New York City artist David Art Wales is back in Sydney. Earlier this year he returned to his favourite inner-city suburb and since then the “Warhol of Darlo” has been voraciously busy. Not even Covid-19 slowed him. Instead, the image of the molecule inspired his latest show, Going Viral, showing at Duckrabbit’s street window, 138 Little Eveleigh Street, Redfern, until June 30.
David and I communicated by email to produce this interview.
Do you work daytime or night?
Both. I have three modes: inspiration, desperation, and recuperation. Inspiration is when I’m in a flow state where ideas and finished pieces pour out of me. Desperation is when I’m handling logistics: printing, framing, deadlines, or techy stuff for . On a typical day in the first two modes I might start work at 6am and go till 8pm, fall into bed, sleep till 1am, and then work till 4am, fall asleep again, then wake up at 6am and start all over. It’s a recipe for burn-out but after a few months I can hang a whole show. Then I need recuperation until inspiration strikes again.
Have you always been so productive, and what keeps you this way?
When I dropped out of school, I remember thinking: I never want to be normal and get a regular job so I’ll work extra hard on creative stuff. As a struggling artist in NYC during the ’90s I was super prolific and sold a lot of work, even to celebs, but I was still just scraping by. So in ’99 I broke up with art and started a consultancy called Ministry of Culture (). For 20 years I worked with clients like Nike and MTV – and did zero art. When my wife and I moved back to Sydney two years ago, art and I finally got back together. The reason I’m so prolific now is probably because I bottled it up for 20 years and now that the cork’s popped I can’t stop.
How has Mr Puppy changed your life?
I ran the Ministry for 20 years with a team I loved so making art alone in Sydney felt pretty lonely till this little rescue shih tzu named Mr Puppy came along. She sits beside me all day every day and comes on errands. Famous artists have assistants. Artists like me have a dog.
How many events have you staged this year so far?
A bunch. 2020 began with David’s Art Sale, my retail art installation in Taylor Square. I merged a posh gallery with a discount store. Then Work Inc asked me to recreate it in their North Sydney co-working space for a few months. For that I collaborated with a textile artist named Sam Tannous who built arms for Mike, an armless boy mannequin I found in the trash outside Gowings during the ’80s. I needed Mike to be my stand-in as the David’s Art Sale cashier. Then I staged , where I sold my old life in NYC. At the same time I was still working on How I Felt, the series I showed at Duckrabbit in 2019. The original show comprised 170 pieces but I’ve done about 50 more since then. Once lockdown hit I switched to collaging the Covid molecule into old pop culture. The result is Going Viral, the 24/7 contact-free exhibition that’s in Duckrabbit’s street window till June 30. The opening had to be socially distant to comply with lockdown so we did two sets of 10 guests, all carrying pool noodles to maintain social distance. I also have two red Xs on the ground in front of the window that show how to stand 1.5 metres apart.
Next I’ll be fulfilling orders for people who bought Going Viral prints while I wait for inspiration to strike again.
How are you enjoying Sydney life and what do you miss now that you are here?
We adore Sydney, especially Darlinghurst where we live. I came up in this neighbourhood and any success I had in the ’80s happened here, so moving back after three decades in NYC feels like coming full circle. The only thing we miss about NYC is our friends there and the homemade taramasalata from International Grocery on 9th Avenue.
What makes your life worth getting out of bed for?
Making my wife’s breakfast and feeding Mr Puppy.
How does it feel when your work starts to have a life of its own?
Any creator worth their salt hopes their work connects with people so they can feel they’re contributing to the culture at large. We all want to feel useful and that our time on the planet has meaning. Decades ago, I created a character called Guru Adrian who was kind of a proto-meme and I still get asked for Guru t-shirts and badges and stickers. I love knowing that my art has meant something to others the way certain artists’ work has held meaning for me. I think of Aunty Jack, Warhol, and Sydney band Baby Beef. Their creative efforts have made my life better.
Who are your heroes?
During the ’80s Martin Sharp and Keith Haring had the same impact on me as punk bands had on musicians: they made succeeding as an artist seem possible. I was lucky enough to meet both of them. Martin became a friend and I collaborated with Keith in 1987. My Guru Adrian character had no body, just a head and shoulders, so Keith drew a body for him. That drawing sat in a drawer for 30 years till I finally did a print of it for David’s Art Sale.
Can you describe the process that produced the lighthearted, beautiful and profound Going Viral?
Going Viral began when I first laid eyes on that Covid-19 molecule. I figured it was a photo taken through a microscope but then I read that the image was created by medical illustrators to help the public grasp the virus. That visual identity made the virus part of our lexicon of villainy: the skull and crossbones, Darth Vader, Donald Trump, and now Covid. The molecule brings to mind classic sci-fi like War of the Worlds or Day of the Triffids so I started depicting it as an invading alien or an exotic plant. And people responded. I’ve lost friends to Covid but I don’t want every association I have with this time to be sad and negative. Going Viral is my way of imbuing the heartbreak of coronavirus with a touch of lightness, even humour. The job of artists is showing people a different way to see things. In that way, my prints are positive mementos of a dark period in history that we’ve weathered together.
David Art Wales
0415 395 394