When Broadsheet phoned Ash Keating earlier this month, he was in the midst of a gruelling schedule. The internationally renowned Melbourne artist has been working around the clock on a new painting series that’ll be shown in Mildura in February. He’s also filming a cinematic video work, which will soon screen as part of his current exhibition Pressure at Bunjil Place, and preparing to produce a live painting on stage backed by music from composer Ryan Ritchie and a 12-piece ensemble.

“I’m a glutton for punishment,” says Keating. It’s part of the reason for the title Pressure, also named for the airless paint sprayer and high-pressure water hose he uses to create his explosive and colourful works, which draw on the tradition of spontaneous action painting to create fields of shifting colour.

Keating describes the work in nine parts as a particularly ambitious project, for an artist best known for his large-scale outdoor murals formed by layers of paint blasted out of fire extinguishers. One of his previous targets was the northern wall of the NGV, which became a huge mural of vivid sunset hues presented as part of Melbourne Now. Another was a neglected house – on the property of Museum Langmatt in Switzerland – which became a vibrant three-dimensional painting for the last months of its existence before being razed.

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Unlike his spectacular, fleeting outdoor works, Pressure – which was conceived during lockdown – took Keating back to the studio, and the gallery space. “With this show – through the whole pandemic – we were aware that people were stuck indoors with screens and weren’t able to go to galleries and we wanted to create a loud, bright and energetic gallery experience that makes people feel alive and connected to art in a tangible way,” he says.

We chatted with Keating about making ephemeral art, painting with fire extinguishers, and the physicality of his work (which now requires a personal trainer).

Your work came to prominence in part through your use of paint-filled fire extinguishers. How did you come to realise they were an ideal tool for large-scale painting?
I was throwing paint around and puncturing cans and doing abstract painting but could only get to a certain height. I guess I wanted to be able to paint at a big scale and I heard from a graffiti writer in the early 2000s that people in Europe were using them for big tags. So I found some in an abandoned factory, and it was just the start of that happening in Melbourne around 2002/2003. So I found about a dozen of them and started experimenting. First, just a few single colours then a few large-scale walls. One at the north end of the CBD near Victoria Street, which was on a really large, grey car park wall. It was about creating a work that questions whether it’s public art and whether it’s meant to be there or not, and people really loved the work and had quite an emotional response to it.

How physical is that process for you?

It’s very physical. I’m 43 years old now and I was 23 when I was starting it out, so it’s a different mindset now. Having said that, I do quite large-scale, endurance wet-on-wet paintings, so it’s about having many on the go at once, and these days I try to fill the extinguishers half full, which just gives them a bit more air pressure and makes it easier on my body. But ultimately it’s pretty heavy duty, and for the last 12 months I’ve had PT helping me with core strength. It used to come easy but I’m trying to extend the life of doing this for a few more years yet.

Your work has appeared in major galleries overseas, in industrial landscapes, on the walls of public institutions. Is there a location that’s been the most exciting or gratifying?
Mainly because it’s front of mind and it was such a surreal, recent experience: in late 2021 the then-director of Warrnambool Art Gallery [Vanessa Gerrans] contacted me at the end of lockdown and asked me to paint the gallery – they were going to do a repaint on it but she thought it would be great to get me to do a mural on it before that. So I painted this bright luminous painting, kind of responding to sunset. And the director of Museum Langmatt in Baden, Switzerland, contacted me and said, “I love that work. We’ve got a house on our site, which we’re going to demolish, but I’d love you to come over and paint it before it gets demolished. The house was the caretaker’s cottage … connected to a large mansion, which was owned by a couple who collected impressionist work over a century ago. It now runs as a gallery, kind of like Heide Art Museum. So they’re building a new entrance point to the museum and that house is coming down.

Much of your work is so ephemeral, how does it feel to create something that’s there and then it’s gone?
I heavily invest in good photographers and that makes me feel a whole lot better about the hard work that goes into everything I do. I have a good archive documenting that. And parallel to that, my projects do live on in the memories of others. That may not seem all that powerful at times, but when I hear about people recounting particular projects of mine and the passion around that, I think it can stay strong in that moment and then live on as a memory or documentation, even better than something fading into deterioration or obscurity.

You’ll be painting live on stage with composer Ryan Ritchie and a 12-piece ensemble – how does that play out? Will you be responding to the music or will they respond to you as you’re painting?
Both – the process is still underway. This is something really unique to happen in a theatre setting. In a way, even though I’m painting something permanent on a canvas, it is an ephemeral moment also, and it’s not just about me painting the work. It’s about painting happening live, it’s about painting evolving live, under stage lighting with really interesting music accompanying it. Part of the process will be me walking off when it’s finished and letting the audience look at the painting – still wet, still moving, with the music still going. It’s about wanting to create a different space other than a gallery where people can sit and take in something that’s happened before their eyes.

I remember being on stage doing plays in primary school and high school and the nerves of being under theatre lighting and in front of a live audience. While I’ve done live painting in front of audiences in outdoor settings, ultimately I tune that out – I don’t look at the audience or acknowledge them, I’m just allowing people to see my process. But I do understand that putting myself on the stage, I have to be aware of the way I am. You have to have a connection with the audience in some way or another.

What is it about Ryan that gels with your work and your process?
I’ve known him for 20 years. When we were both starting out I did a little film clip for him where I was puncturing aerosol cans while he was rapping over something. So we’ve known each other that long and we understand each other’s parallel pursuits and have a passion for that. I just kind of trust I’ll be able to go about what I do and whatever will unfold with him and the musicians will be something I’ll be content with and excited by at the same time.

Live Pressure is on Saturday February 10, 2024, at Bunjil Place. Tickets are available online.
Pressure, the exhibition, is showing at Bunjil Place until March 17, 2024. Entry is free.

bunjilplace.com.au