Portrait

In the studio with artist Elizabeth Newman. By Romy Ash.

Artist Elizabeth Newman

The front room of Elizabeth Newman’s house is understated. There is a wide, flat couch against one wall, with a hard Moroccan pillow for the head. Behind the couch are the analyst’s chair and a little shelf for notes and a cup of tea. The walls are hung with art, some of it Newman’s, some not. To the right, a painting cut from polar fleece and another cloth piece hangs from the wall like a black pelt. The couch doesn’t face these, but instead the window where the street is softened by the scrubby growth of natives.

In the hall, Newman takes me through a tall green curtain that separates this room – where she practices psychoanalysis – from the rest of the house. I ask her how psychotherapy influences her art practice and she laughs at me.

“It’s funny,” she says. “Everyone always asks that question. And my answer is that psychoanalysis doesn’t affect my art practice at all.”

She has taken me through to her kitchen and lounge, an expansive room with concrete floors, natural light and, on this grey Melbourne day, a wood-fired stove lit and warming the room. We drink tea and eat biscuits.

“You know,” she says, “my art practice is my art practice and it comes from a place of not knowing – and not wanting to know. I like it to be about nothing. Because then I think you get something really subjective, and really true. So I never have an intention. I let the work do its own thing. It’s how I was trained, the 19th-century model of the romantic artist. It’s a calling; you rely on your inspiration. I would say that I rely on the unconscious. Psychoanalysis has taught me to say that, but I don’t need to know how to say that.”

Newman is wearing a beautiful, indigo scarf and I ask her about colour, whether as a painter, she has certain feelings about it. “I love colours,” she says. “I love orange. I love green. They’re just joyous to me. I don’t know what the feelings are, but when I make a work – especially those monochrome works – the colour just comes to me, in my head – and then I think, ‘That’s the colour that I want.’ And then I have to make it, with paint. It’s very precise. It has to be exactly the colour that I imagined. I don’t know why. It’s completely meaningless, but with those monochrome works it’s about capturing a colour, as if you could capture it and put it in a shape.”

This seems to me like a very difficult undertaking, and I’m surprised. “You manage to capture it?” I ask, incredulous.

“Yes, I do,” she says. “It can be hard. It can be easy, too. I really like colour. It’s such a kind of old-fashioned thing … and to just say, ‘It’s about colour’ is really bourgeois or something. But I think there’s a place for joy, and also that a painting is always mute and enigmatic, and I think that’s an important space.”

Newman speaks about when she abandoned art, about the nine-year hiatus she took from a career that started in the ’80s. “Something traumatic happened, there was a crisis that occurred for me, and I just fled the art scene. I was very young and neurotic and I couldn’t cope with it, and I just ran away.” For all that time, she didn’t have a studio. Didn’t make work. It was during these years she learnt to be an analyst.

“Maybe it’s okay to just have a short career,” she says of art. “Some people really bloom when they’re old, and others die off. I think it’s unique, one by one. Maybe I’m lucky that I took a break, and when I came back, I was a bit naive. I thought I would just walk back in to where I was. And it wasn’t like that at all.

“In a way, the art world is a world of young people and it’s for young people. There’s always more young people coming through, more interest from buyers and dealers and so on, and after the initial flush of success it is a long hard road, and you have to wonder what sustains you in it. And for me, it’s not a private practice. It is initially, but it’s very important that it’s a dialogue. It’s for the other – for the social world.”

She takes me further into the house, through the garden that screens her studio, a simple building at the back of the block. Inside, her paintings ring the room, lined up against one another in preparation for a big show at Neon Parc. The colour reverberates. On the geometric pieces, the lines dance, playing with my vision. “For the most recent work,” she says, “I chose just to go back to painting and to make it silent – mute.” She gestures at the larger, more organic-looking works. “Painting these,” she says, “is a bit like jumping into a pool.”

She says that her work isn’t about expertise, or control of the medium. “Really, I just let the work speak to me,” she says. “There is a faux naivety to my work.” Surrounded by her paintings, though, as Newman humbly describes her process, I can’t see anything other than an expert completely in control of her chosen medium. “I like to keep it fresh,” she says, “and awkward.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 2, 2016 as "Art therapy". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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