The fun of art with Kenny Pittock
I grew up on the same train line as Kenny Pittock. He lived in Melbourne’s fringe suburb Upper Ferntree Gully. When he found out I used to alight the Belgrave/Lilydale line at Heatherdale, he was jealous: “I would have loved to be on that side [of Ringwood] because then you can take the Lilydale or the Belgrave, whereas I had to only take the Belgrave line.” This was a common refrain for kids who lived along a train line that splits in two after Ringwood, a station once notable for its visible police presence and crush of high-school students, and now home to a refurbished mega-mall.
Pittock explains he’s just moved to the inner suburb of Brunswick, making it easier to spend his days working in the two small rooms that make up his studio workspace in North Melbourne, where we meet. As a fellow former arts student from the outer suburbs, I asked him about my belief that it can feel a little strange being an artist when you’ve grown up outside the cosmopolitan centre.
“Where we grew up, art… you never really thought about it,” he says. “Growing up, I never went to a gallery until maybe year 12 when I saw a Picasso show at the NGV as part of a school excursion or something. But I was always drawing, always making things, always writing – I thought I was going to be a journalist, actually.”
Pittock’s original career choice came early. “I did my work experience at the local paper,” he says. “I remember the year 10 careers counsellor giving a talk to our year level and he was, like, ‘Not everyone’s going to know what they’re going to do when they’re older at this stage – we can’t all be Kenny, who’s going to be a journalist.’ ”
It’s easy to see why he may have been suited to journalism. He is genuinely curious about people, friendly and disarming. His charm once resulted in American performance artist and author Miranda July deleting videos she’d taken for her son from her phone to make room for photographs of Pittock and his work – he’d made a sculpture of July’s novel The First Bad Man to present to her at a book signing.
It’s his lack of pretence that enables him to approach strangers on a train and give them the portrait he just drew of them. Pittock’s offering in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s (ACCA) annual NEW exhibition in 2014 had him fill a wall with line drawings of commuters on the Belgrave/Lilydale line. At the edge of the wall sat a ceramic replica of a MacBook laptop. I watched people look at the work and they invariably smiled and leaned in closer, often doing that soft-exhale laugh you do when something is funny, but you’re in a gallery so you restrain yourself.
Pittock was already working to democratise the space, having invited his subjects to the opening night. “A lot of the time I would get their email so I could send them a copy [of their portrait], and when the ACCA show came about, that was great, because they have a VIP night, and I got to invite all the people that were in the drawings,” he tells me. “It validated the work for [the subjects] I think. I was, like, ‘You don’t have to talk to me, you can stay for as little or as long as you want, but there’s canapés and free champagne.’ A few people came, and one guy in particular wore a little train badge. Now we’re Facebook friends and I think he’s Australia’s No. 1 Agatha Christie fan ... which is quite unusual. Sometimes I see these articles about him pop up online.”
To supplement the money he makes from his art, Pittock works as a trolley pusher two days a week, where he makes use of the discarded or lost shopping lists he finds. “Did you see the shopping list series I made recently? That kind of came about because I’ve been working in supermarkets off and on for years, which is probably where a lot of the food stuff comes from.” The series he’s referring to won him the prestigious Redlands Prize. “I work two days a week pushing shopping trolleys. I mean, that’s about as unglamorous as it gets, but I really like it. I like the people I work with and I like the shopping lists – that’s what’s really fun for me. But also you’re interacting with people and you’re around everyday-ness a lot. And that’s probably more interesting than working at… like…” I suggest working at an art gallery, and Pittock agrees. “Yeah, I think that would be the least inspiring.”
When British artist David Shrigley visited Melbourne for his National Gallery of Victoria exhibition in 2015, Pittock interviewed him for the now-defunct online magazine ThreeThousand. It seemed a match made in heaven, both artists working in a similar medium with a similar sensibility – Shrigley is also popular for his irreverent line drawings, sculptures and paintings that are often hilarious as well as moving. I wonder aloud how many people had made that comparison.
“I specifically didn’t look at his work for a long time in the early art school days because I didn’t want to be influenced by him,” Pittock says. “But obviously I really like him. The first time I actually met him – he came and saw the train drawings show, which was really cool. And then seven months later I got to interview him for Vogue Living, which was pretty crazy. That was really cool, too, because I could say to my mum, ‘Look, Mum, Vogue Living.’ Cos she’s not that into the art thing – like, she’s supportive but it doesn’t mean as much as something like Vogue Living. She understands that.”
Pittock and Shrigley share a sense of silliness, which is apparent in a gift the Melburnian presented to his interviewee.
“He collects rulers so I made him a sculpture of a ruler. It was a 31-centimetre ruler, cos I figured he’d have lots of 30-centimetre rulers but he might not have a 31-centimetre ruler.”
I ask Pittock how he feels about making fun art in today’s political climate – if he felt weird making replica Smith’s chips packets when world events seem like a constant cycle of horrors.
“Sometimes your work can feel like it’s not touching on some of the more urgent matters, but then it’s like, maybe for me it’s best that I don’t,” he says. “There are people who have better experiences [to draw on] and I can support them by supporting their work, rather than just mimicking.”
In the corner of the room there’s a sculpture of a vending machine, acting as a kind of plinth for a number of sculptures of chips, chocolate bars and other train-station snacks. They have punning names that play off big brands, such as “Myths Chips”, “Lisp Chips” and “Burger Things”. On the adjacent wall there’s a replica Matisse painting, with a packet of Maltesers illustrated at the top. The packet reads “Mattisse’s”. I notice a ceramic sculpture of a mug that is plain white with drawn-on text: “Guy Wearing A T-Shirt That Says ‘It’s Only Illegal If You Get Caught’ Getting Fined For Not Having a Concession Card”.
I ask if he means for a lot of his work to be funny, or if it simply is what it is. “Yeah, I think probably the second one. I mean, I grew up with Seinfeld and The Simpsons… But humour’s… hmm…”
As he trails off, I feel bad. Maybe he doesn’t like the observation. But his love of comedy is obvious. “Have you seen Get Krack!n?” he asks, of Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney’s ABC show. “It’s my favourite thing right now. I think it just really hits the nail on the head of everything I look for in [comedy]. I think [comedy] is art, as well as entertainment. I think a lot of stand-up comedy is great because it’s an art form that flies under the radar a little bit, but it’s possibly my favourite art form. I always get real nervous when I meet comedians, more than meeting anybody.”
When I ask if he sets a schedule or process for working on new material, he’s ambivalent. “Maybe I should think more about exhibitions, but I just like making stuff.” I wonder what he’s currently working on, among the sculptures strewn about. There are pieces he’s preparing for an upcoming City of Melbourne exhibition, to be shown in Melbourne Town Hall, and a private commission of a Sunnyboy confection for the Sydney band Sunnyboys. There are also tiny sculptures of the Monopoly instant-win tokens you peel off McDonald’s packaging.
Pittock shows me a drawing he did when he was in grade 4, and a sculptural present he’s working on for his father’s birthday.
“I’m working on these wedges, but that’s purely for fun,” he says, referring to the thick potato chips. “I’ve got a sour cream dip in the kiln right now. But I’m making them only so I can make the joke, ‘Some people make edgy art – not me. I prefer wedgey art.’ ”
He shows me a piece he made about his mum and explains its genesis. He had spent a weekend morning watching former AFL star Paul Chapman play at a local footy ground. He’d made a football card of the former Essendon and Geelong player, and also brought along one of his ubiquitous book sculptures to get signed.
“As I was leaving the grounds … a woman said to me, ‘Hey, did he sign the book for you?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, he was really great” and she said, ‘Well I’m not surprised, I’m his mum”, all proudly. She opened up the actual book and showed me her photo in it. And she’s like, ‘I’m here every week.’ So the next week I went back with some friends, and I’d made another football card, but this time instead of Paul Chapman, I made Paul Chap-mum.”
We both giggle at the piece and Pittock’s photos of Chapman’s mother. “But then I was like, why am I making art about someone else’s mum when I should be making art about my own mum? So I made a card of my mum.”
Such circumstances seem to be his process – a lovely, ambling process of just “making stuff”. He has won numerous awards, been in multiple exhibitions and publications, but the obvious joy Pittock gets from making his work is palpable.
As our conversation winds down and the wind picks up outside, we both remark how late in the year it is. Pittock asks if I still have a lot to do and I confess the end of the year always makes me wonder if I’ve achieved enough. He agrees that as an artist it can be hard to reflect on your own work and achievements. Then he offers a great piece of advice: “Sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses, and then sometimes it’s, like, I already know what roses smell like, stop telling me to smell roses.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 2, 2017 as "Fun house". Subscribe here.