A Conversation with Minna Gilligan


Minna Gilligan, Thought of you as my peek, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Daine Singer Gallery

Minna Gilligan undoubtedly maintains a massive curiosity in everything she does. She is prolific and constant in her approach to creating. She paints, writes books, collages, makes music, writes for Rookie Magazine, and strikes up creative collaborations with fashion brands. What I find the most compelling about Gilligan is that although her creative presence has grown exponentially through social media, her persona online is incredibly generous and authentic. She doesn’t seem to be trying to be anything other than what she is, and yet she isn’t interested in being flattened by any one-dimensional identity or single creative role.  She seems to want to actively exist in her work, as well as challenge what her work is, while simultaneously  examining how she shares her process and her identity. Gilligan is interested in honesty and its many complex forms, which is probably why as her work continues to diversify, it seems only to improve.

You are quite prolific. What function does making art serve in your life? In other words, why are you doing what you are doing?

Art serves an infinite list of functions in my life. I suppose I can initially identify an urgency and a necessity both to make and to share. I have an insatiable need to produce things—a painting, a piece of writing —in what I believe to be a somewhat futile attempt to document a fleeting circumstance or experience. I’m painfully aware of the overwhelmingly limitless trajectory of time and in some ways I use art as an attempt to egocentrically leave bread crumbs of my existence. Then, there’s the wonder and endless stimulation that creating ensues, and the exhilaration of making something from nothing. There are no rules or consequences in my making and because of this it’s an addictive world to slip into.

I know that you work intuitively, gathering images, then sitting down without concrete plans. I guess in light of reading a lot about inspiration and how that manifests for painters in particular, I wanted to ask you, what are your thoughts on inspiration? How does it manifest for you? Is discipline connected to inspiration?

Inspiration is acquired somewhat organically by curious individuals. I feel inspired through the course of my daily rummaging via odd, passing encounters, by having the mind of a hoarder and filing things away for later use. These things can be thoughts, exchanges, moods, or physical things; like pictures, records, people that I meet. I say that inspiration is acquired “organically” because what I mean is that I don’t force it upon myself to look for it. The looking is a natural action that I have never resisted or thought too much about, even. You hardly even really need to look, it’s not hard to find inspiration, to find something that sparks a thought, which then sparks another thought, which turns into some sort of action. I don’t mean to sound trite but I’ve never had a problem finding inspiration. It’s there right in front of everyone but it’s how you catalogue it, and then how you use it. You have to be an observer, a collector, curious and questioning—which yes, I suppose is a discipline in itself.

Minna Gilligan, Sad girl, 2014, Courtesy the artist and Daine Singer Gallery

Minna Gilligan, This feeling follows me wherever I go, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Daine Singer Gallery

Melbourne is special. Australia is also so unique and beautiful and diverse. Do you think there is something geographically-specific about your work? One observation I had while in Melbourne is that Australian artists aren’t shy about colour. Can you speak to what is Australian about your art?

I do think it’s becoming rarer to be entirely geographically and culturally specific whilst we’re in the midst of the Internet-age, but there are definitely nuances that come into play when identifying an Australian distinction in artwork. I suppose there’s a fearlessness, which does often come out through a somewhat brash use of colour. I guess that’s applicable to my work. There’s an immediacy and a fluidness in mark-making that I notice in the work of Australian artists. I admire the likes of Ruth O’Leary, Jon Campbell, Arlene Texta Queen, and the late Sally Gabori—who are all unapologetic about their use of colour, and whose work I would say have distinctly Australian nuances or agendas. I admire the work of the late Mike Brown and the late David McDairmid, each whom I also believe to have made work with a specifically Australian attitude. Maybe it’s easier for me to identify the Australian distinction in the art of other people rather than in my own.

Your work is often described as dreamy, bright and fun, but I find your work to be very sad and quite sobering. Maybe it’s the acidic colours and lonely characters, or the incongruity—the differing amounts of mess and clarity. There is usually a tension between forms and images that I find sad. Do you think of the themes and stories you share as melancholic?

I definitely do. I think a lot of the protagonists in my work are lonely, distant-staring, unsatisfied and searching for something. The colours in my work I would describe as dreamy and psychedelic, but I think psychedelia is intrinsically sinister and, oddly enough, sobering. I completely embrace the perceived melancholia, as most of the time it comes from something real within myself that is important for me to acknowledge and explore. Funnily enough, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been at the moment, so I’m interested to see if the works I make for my next exhibition in November will still harbour this same melancholia that permeates my otherwise “bright and fun” playgrounds.

Sometimes emotion gets overstepped in contemporary art, as if experiencing art isn’t emotional. Of course the politics around this are interesting. What are your thoughts on emotion in contemporary art?

I’m really into openness and accessibility in art, which I’ve found isn’t necessarily a cool thing. With some of my experiences with contemporary art, I’ve felt excluded, and it can be very clique-oriented and closed off. I think there’s still stigma around laying everything on the table. There’s pressure for artists to be enigmatic, anonymous and autonomous, hiding under a metaphorical beret of dense texts and documentaries, absolved from all human-like responsibilities and reactions. I’m not about that.

Minna Gilligan, Grapes of Wrath, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Daine Singer Gallery

Minna Gilligan, Untitled, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Daine Singer Gallery

Minna Gilligan, Worried Sick, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Daine Singer Gallery

Can you comment on the difficulties you’ve faced as an artist? What’s the hardest thing about making things and sharing them? What are your thoughts on the art world?

I don’t think I’ve faced a whole lot of difficulties. The hardest thing I navigated was criticism for partaking in a number of commercial projects. There were opinions that my commercial projects were damaging my credibility as a fine artist. I wrote a blog post in response to this criticism, which I dismiss as essentially antiquated and irrelevant. I found that stuff really hurtful, but I’m over it now. Overall I’ve been very lucky in the trajectory of my career, but I also want to acknowledge that I’ve worked damn hard for everything that I’ve achieved thus far. I think the art world is still pretty traditional. People don’t like that I share so much of myself on Instagram, or that I take selfies and that I stand on the same plane as my art. I’m supposed to be like a shadow whilst I let my work speak for me, but I want both and I don’t think any artist has to be a shadow for their work to be accepted as “legitimate.” Sometimes I fear that I’m not taken seriously because of this sort of cheerfully neutral disposition I’ve put forward thus far, and I intend to change that. I have fears that my peers from art school don’t think I’m smart enough, or well-read enough, and I’m slowly beginning to rise above those insecurities and challenge those notions.

What are you challenging in your art practice? How would you situate your practice politically?

I recently wrote a piece that I presented at an event called “Women of Letters.” We were instructed to write a letter to a moment we wished we could take back. I was horrified to discover through the process of writing this letter, that I didn’t have a moment I wished I could take back. You can read the letter on my blog in full, but the gist was that I’m such a stilted, anxious communicator and I censor myself to such an extent that I barely say anything at all that could be construed as controversial lest I have to deal with negative consequences. What I wanted to take back, however, was this silence, or this position I project that is often cheerfully neutral. Lately I’ve felt uncomfortable with this cheerfully neutral stance, because I’m not cheerfully neutral—but it’s just what I’ve been comfortable with putting out there. My involvement in Rookie Magazine was the beginning of me starting to find my way politically. Our staff Facebook group has literally educated me on feminism, particularly so by Jamia Wilson, Brodie Lancaster, Jessica Hopper and Tavi Gevinson. I am not ashamed to say that I was completely clueless pre-2011. Now, 4/5 years later, I think I’ve finally built up enough knowledge and confidence to begin to project some (hopefully) informed opinions. Politically I’m interested in an inclusive feminism that is welcoming and focused on “spreading the word” in accessible ways. I’m interested in representation of women artists in the local and national art world. At the moment, I’m pissed off that 8/10 Archibald Prize finalists this year are men, and that people of colour and people of the LGBTQ+ community aren’t represented at all, and find it hard to gain a platform to show their work. I’m interested in learning how I can be a better ally.

I don’t know if my work has to be explicit in message to be politically relevant. My abstract paintings are not going to change the world through their visuality alone. I know that. Maybe they’re not even capable of delivering an overt statement that can actually make a difference. I suppose though, they can deliver awe and wonder, in turn sucking more and more people into my vortex while I use my position of relative privilege online and in-person to talk about things that I think matter. This is entwined with the idea that I think of myself as a person (selfies, writing, confessional blog posts) and my art-work to be of equal importance and to stand on the same plane. I think I can situate my practice politically without making traditionally political work, as long as I voice my opinions loud and clear through other platforms.

What advice would you give a younger artist starting out?

I’d say you have to work exceptionally hard, not rely on anything or anyone else to get your work done, don’t be afraid to be uncool, or to ask what’s in it for you.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Probably just my Dad telling me to work hard and harder, and an email from veteran Melbourne artist John Nixon who said to me:

“Use the opportunities that come your way,

the world is changing, keep going as you do.”