Everything in Ash Keating’s studio ends up resembling an Ash Keating painting.
When I visit his space, a light-filled back room of a warehouse in Brunswick, it’s March and he’s working on a series of pieces for his show at the Meat Market in North Melbourne, which opens this weekend. It’s mid-morning but Keating has already applied several layers of paint to these paintings for the April exhibition. It’s an intensely physical process and it’s clearly taken it out of him. Three-and-a-half-metre-high canvasses are propped up against the wall on milk crates, blasted with wild sprays of light blue and lilac.
Keating’s process is impulsive and unpredictable and involves shooting the canvas from some distance with an airless sprayer full of paint and water. Most misses the canvas. The walls are flecked with shades of blue and purple, and the floor is a shallow puddle of marbled colour. It’s a different palette for him – most of his work is in oranges and reds. He’s keen to make the blue work.
Keating’s huge outdoor works can be found across Melbourne – you’ve probably seen one or two (or even had a dance beside) one of them. They’ve appeared in museum shows at the NGV MCA and NGA; on the sides of massive tilt-slab buildings out west; and in the city at institutions such as RMIT and the VCA, which commissioned him to cover multistorey walls in dramatic but serene oceans of colour.
His works bring abstract painting out of the galleries and onto the streets. The results give an illusion of depth; each fresh burst of paint strips back the last and reveals glimpses of the canvas’s history, drawing viewers into the space between the layers.
His studio-bound practice is a smaller-scale version of the same process. “I like the idea of getting the paint away from the artist’s hand,” he says. “I don’t work with a brush or anything direct to the canvas. I keep myself at a distance. I want to make marks with gestures.”
Keating’s is an organic and intuitive process. There’s little planning involved. The composition of a piece comes about naturally as he applies a layer of paint, wets it, applies again, and repeats until he’s happy with what he sees. Today it isn’t quite working. He’s been blasting the canvas with layers of white to “reset” the composition, but he can’t seem to nail it. “It’s too flat,” he says. “I’ve been trying to sculpt the perspective and the depth.”
“That’s the issue when your process doesn’t involve planning,” he says. “I’m losing a lot of layers that are working, because I’m pursuing some kind of perfection.”
But there’s something about the element of chance that keeps Keating interested.
Keating came to prominence a few years ago for his work on what used to be farmland but was rezoned as industrial. “I just wanted to create abstracts on a large scale but didn’t have access to materials that size,” he says. For those works he uses paint-filled fire extinguishers, and the physical act of painting becomes a performance, which he frequently records. But it’s also about returning colour to an industrialised landscape. “These buildings are taking over the land, and also our view of it,” he says.
When he was a kid, Keating spent a lot of time flying in light aircraft over north-west Victoria with his gran. He remembers seeing the Australian landscape from above and falling in love with it. “It really opened things up for me.”
Keating’s grandmother was Elva Rush, one of Australia’s earliest licensed female pilots. In an interview from earlier this year she talks about this moving panorama of “pinks, browns and creams” that dominate parts of Australia’s terrain, which look “just like a marble cake”.
When Keating was 16 Rush taught him to fly in her Cessna 150. “I was at a crossroads where I could have pursued flying or painting, but my heart was in painting,” he says. “I was more interested in looking out of the plane window than I was at the controls.”
Those views from the air inform his work to this day. His abstracts are constantly connected to interpretations and memory of landscape. You could also say the process of breaking the paint down with water and stripping back layers reflects erosion.
But they’re not literal depictions of anything. “I’m really just concerned with getting the composition right,” he says. “How I feel it flows, and how I feel it’ll be felt by the viewer.”
In the days after my visit to Keating’s studio he continues to send me updates. The new pieces are still troubling him. “I’m not so much starting again as calming the history of layers,” he texts. “You walked into a tricky period for me.”
Weeks later the exhibition is set up and ready to open. There’s no evidence of his earlier uncertainty. In the vast, dark space of the Meat Market 17 paintings hang on the walls, dramatically lit by production designer and theatre maker Matthew Adey. Away from the studio, the huge canvasses are imposing and involving. All those niggling doubts have disappeared and Keating is ecstatic about how the artworks come out. He shows me the pieces he was working on when I visited. They’re completely different: darker, looser and coated in countless more layers.
“I was hoping for the blue of the teal to really sing,” he says, “but it ended up being the green that really punched out.”
His intuition paid off again, just not in the way he expected it to.
Ash Keating: Gravity System Response is at the Meat Market until April 13. More information here.