The Sydney-based visual artist Julia Gutman has won the 2023 Archibald Prize for her portrait of the singer-songwriter Montaigne, titled “Head in the sky, feet on the ground”. At 29-years-old, Gutman is both a first-time finalist and one of the youngest winners (and the 11th woman) in the prize’s 102-year history.
“I’m so elated and overwhelmed to have won,” says Gutman of the selection. “Shocked, dumbfounded, but very happy. It’s honestly completely surreal. I’m so grateful to be working at a time when young female voices are heard.”
Gutman is featured in the twelfth issue of T Australia, for the debut of our new series: T Faces, a platform to champion the new creative guard. In celebration of the artist’s win, we have published the extended interview she gave to T Australia’s Victoria Pearson in the lead-up to the announcement.
Tell me a little about your introduction to art and, more specifically, to your ‘patchworks’ practice – how did this emerge as your medium of choice?
As a kid, I wanted to be an artist, filmmaker or writer. Storytelling is a big part of my familial culture. I grew up in a house where the only activity that felt competitive was captivating the table with your words. The Gutman mantra was always ‘Don’t confuse a good story with the facts.’ I started out in film school but realised quickly that I wanted my hands to be directly involved with every step of the making process, so I ended up studying painting. My early works were figurative, very personal and narrative based. Over the course of my studies I got a little ‘art schoolified’ and strayed from the story-telling that had initially drawn me to making in the first place. I started working with textiles during my masters, but in a fairly abstracted, conceptual way. I remember the moment when I noticed that all of my favourite artists were making figurative and personal paintings. I realised that I probably wouldn’t have been excited by my own work if I came upon it in a museum. That was a little bit of a lightbulb moment. It took me a few years to gain the confidence to return to my original interest but using the conceptual and technical understanding I had developed the process forward in an experimental medium.
How long on average does it take you to finish a patchwork piece? What is the production process like for you?
It depends on the scale – usually between one to three months. The works start with a drawing. I am always drawing – from life, from art historical references. I choose a drawing to scale up on an old sheet or piece of calico, then block out sections of colour by cutting and pinning pieces of old clothing, sheets and various other found textiles into the form. From then onwards it’s an intuitive process of rigorous machine embroidery, more layers of found fabric and hand-stitching. My process is labour intensive, but it isn’t precious. The edges are rough, the seams are wonky and the image is frayed all over. I like taking my time, but I think there is something a little punk about them too. Sewing, at least the way that I do it, is at once incredibly tender and inarguably aggressive. I am bringing together disparate things, mending, but violently puncturing them in order to do so.
This issue of T Australia is focused on the theme of ‘Artistry’ – how does your creative practice shape or impact your life? What role does your art play in your broader world?
Art-making, for me, is not really about the production of objects, but a more broad approach to life: it’s about how the thinking and reading and labour involved in producing those objects helps me become a more present, engaged connected and open person. Forming a community of artists, writers, and educators has allowed me to feel understood and supported in a way that I didn’t think was possible growing up.
In terms of studio practice, I can keep growing the parameters, pushing my own expectations of myself: that level of continual and varied challenge gets me out of bed in the morning! If things start to feel stale, or easy, I set myself a new condition. My process allows me to work through a question, a fear, a memory, a politic, to have the capacity to change my own mind. I think that the mental shift from ‘artist making the art’ to ‘art making the artist’ is the real catalyst for creative practice. I often wonder how people can get through life without it.
Is there anything you’d regard as integral to your creative process?
Literature. For such a visual maker, I’m heavily influenced by prose. I’m usually reading & listening to three books at a time. Also my springer spaniel, Tabitha.
Who are some artists that you look up to, or are inspired by?
Wangechi Mutu, Louise Bourgois, Anna Boghiguian, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Tshabalala Self, Salman Toor, Timothy Lai. My friends who are total mystics when it comes to textiles: Vita Cochran, Nadia Hernandez and Hannah Gartside. I’m obsessed with Julio Torres, standup comedian who is basically a performance artist. Writers Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Ross Gay, Jia Tolentino.
Clothes and textiles play a pivotal role in your creative output – what is your personal relationship to fashion? What initially drew you to used textiles as a creative material?
One shirt can tell a story on a personal, cultural, and global level all at once. Embedded in the fibres is likely a fraught reality of international manufacture; from the orientation of the buttons we might get a suggestion of the history of the garment’s design, touching on gender and class and the evolution of the way these modes of identity are signified. But what is most interesting to me is the distinct personal memory of the wearer. Clothes become records of the bodies we’ve lived in- you can analyse a pair of old jeans like an archeologist, looking for lines of how someone walked, sat, spilled; where they went, what they kept their pockets.
I am an obscenely sentimental person but I’m not very precious and also particularly clumsy. I live in my favourite things, wear them to the studio, sit on the floor outside a party, take my dog to the park and run around in the mud. I tear my jeans, I patch them, they tear again, on repeat until they just don’t want to be a pair of jeans anymore. Everything gets stained and ragged. My clothes always end up passed the point of wearability or donation, but I am too sentimental to throw them away. Over the years, I have accumulated an archive of things that both felt beyond repair and charged with memory. I think this is common, because most people I speak to have a similar drawer of things that have ceased to function as garments that they love enough to hold onto.
My process offers a simple gesture to the people in my life: give me your old crap, take some time to remember who you were when you wore it, let me hold some space for that memory in the studio and to reflect on our relationship more broadly. I don’t repair the clothes to suit their original function – the moment they are in the studio they cease to be clothing and become material, both literally and conceptually.
I channel a lot of my consumer impulses into my work. I love clothes. The act of collecting, layering colours and prints together and pairing unexpected things makes me feel so absolutely myself. There is this tension for me between the artfulness of fashion as a form of accessible self-expression and the irreprehensible social and environmental damage of its industry. Collaging fabrics together, curating the combinations and colour palettes in my work, there is this sense of play I get to have in the studio that’s sort of akin to a 90s shopping spree montage without any of the associated guilt.
You were recently selected to exhibit at the MCA’s “Primavera: Young Australian Artists” showcase. Can you tell us what that experience was like for you?
Incredibly surreal. I never adjusted to walking into the gallery and seeing my work. I used to work at the MCA as an educator, so there was the added joy of knowing how kids and families would be engaged in the exhibition!
Your work explores themes of femininity, intimacy and memory – what do you find so creatively inspiring about these subjects or ideas?
This body of work started after I lost a close friend in an unexpected tragedy. We had shared a studio until the moment of her passing, and had spent countless hours discussing art, critiquing each other’s work, dancing in the studio and deeply relating to one another. When she was gone and I still had a small sliver of one of her sculptures, I realised how arbitrary the outputs of our practices can be, by contrast to the relational experience of making them and connecting with one another in the process. I didn’t want the little shard of resin she had poured nearly as much as I wanted to talk to her about it. We need these goals to give us direction and get us through life, the daily practice of making art to grow our minds and steady our spirits, but I think the real purpose is entirely relational. (If its not already apparent, I am a cancer)
Having this idea as the core of my work keeps my life in perspective. It makes it hypocritical to get too caught up in the studio to show up for the people in my life. I’m grateful for that constant reminder of what is important to me.