There aren’t too many positive stories that emerged from the Covid lockdowns, but there is no denying they contributed directly to Australian superstar portrait artist Polly Borland shifting her practice in a radical new direction.

Borland, who lives in Los Angeles, was in Australia in 2020 exhibiting with the Adelaide Biennale when she and her filmmaker husband John Hillcoat (The Proposition and The Road) decided to holiday in Byron Bay. As luck would have it, the lockdowns came into effect and they found themselves happily stranded in the Northern Rivers. There she met Dan Tobin, co-owner of Urban Art Projects (UAP), the Brisbane foundry that oversees production of Lindy Lee’s highly sought-after sculptures, among others.

A couple of weeks later Borland drove to the foundry to meet with Tobin, in the hope he could develop a large double-sided frame for the lenticular prints she’d been working on.

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“We never talked about the frame,” Borland tells Broadsheet. “I walked in and Dan said, ‘We want to make sculpture with you’, [noting] I’d been making sculpture and photographing them for years. He said, ‘We want to take the sculpture out of the photographs and put it into the real world.’ And that’s how the whole thing happened.”

From this partnership Borland went on to develop her newest series of compelling, surreal sculptures, which form part of Blob Out, her upcoming exhibition at Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney.

It is a bold new direction for Borland, who made a name for herself as a fashion and portrait photographer, most famously shooting the late Queen Elizabeth II, alongside former world leaders Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, and more recently White Lotus star Jennifer Coolidge and her friend Nick Cave. But since 2020 and meeting Tobin, Borland has shifted her focus to sculpture, displaying her seven-foot-high aluminium sculpture Bod at this year’s Marfa Invitational art fair in the Texan desert, and two resin sculptures in Melbourne earlier this year.

One of Australia’s most seminal contemporary artists, Borland was born in Melbourne and studied photography at Prahran College, quickly making a name for herself shooting for Australian Vogue, among others, before moving to London with Hillcoat in the 1980s, and relocating to Los Angeles in 2011.

Borland branched out into more provocative, unsettling work such as The Babies, a 2001 portrait series depicting men who like to dress as babies; Bunny, in 2008, featuring Game of Thrones actor Gwendoline Christie upending the Playboy stereotype; Nudie, a series of nudes shot as self-portraits on her iPhone; and more recently her large-scale Morph photography series that sees humans stuffed into stockings and morphing into bulbous, barely recognisable shapes.

The sculptures for Blob Out evolved from a series of residencies at various foundries including UAP, another at upstate New York and yet another in LA, where she was introduced to a 3D scanner who helps create the Marvel costumes, “a real young tech head, lovely”, who helped her realise her Blob Out sculptures.

“Each sculpture comes from a living organism, then I create the sculpture,” says Borland, who creates costumes on a live model before scanning the costume, 3D-printing it, building a mould around the 3D print then casting it, in this case in painted aluminium.

The result is childlike, human yet not, and surreal. “My sculptures are very similar to my photos in that you have to really look at them to figure out what’s going on. They look like they’re soft yet they’re hard, they’re kind of claustrophobic yet there’s humour,” Borland says. “Most of my work is about the human condition and as I’ve gone on my visual language has become more abstracted. For me the bottom line is the existential angst of being alive, what it is to be alive. There’s something very earthly and human about the sculptures but also something very otherworldly.”

Blob Out also features a series of new lenticular photographic prints that also require the viewer to contemplate what they’re seeing. “There’s a visual sleight of hand that entices people to figure things out.”

While she hasn’t ruled out more straight photographic portraiture Borland has a conflicted relationship with Her Majesty, The Queen, Elizabeth II (Gold) from 2001, given her knowledge now of the ongoing, and what she describes as unforgivable destruction wrought on First Nations Australians through British colonisation.

Would she accept the commission today, given hindsight? “Well I photographed Trump,” she says. “My role as a photographer in those situations is to bear witness, it is a record. The power of the portrait has multiple usages. Did I know exactly what I was doing then? No I didn’t. Would I do it again? I probably would but I probably wouldn’t be asked!”

Her own print of that particular portrait hangs defiantly in her toilet. “I just feel we all have to wake up,” she says.

Polly Borland’s Blob Out is on display at Sullivan & Strumpf Sydney November 16– December 16. A companion exhibition, Tasmania painter Marion Abraham’s My Candle Burns at Both Ends, will be displayed at the same time.