Living in different places around the world has left artist Polly Borland feeling like an outsider with unwanted opinions, but she’s happy to let the subversion of her work speak for itself. “She grew up alone in this apartment with this doll,” Borland said of Dare Wright, creator of the Lonely Doll books. “Her mother would go out, leave her alone. Eventually she became a model and started taking photos. It’s no wonder I’m into dress-up. I get a lot from childhood. What might look childlike is not. There’s a sinister undertow to a lot of my imagery.”By Sarah Krasnostein.
The stocking truth of Polly Borland
Here’s a story that has nothing and everything to do with the artist Polly Borland. Last year, I saw one of my favourite novelists interviewed about her influences. The writer had been asked to provide an example of a painting that had moved her. On stage, she looked up as the Edward Hopper she had chosen was projected onto a screen: Sun in an Empty Room (1963). Why this painting, the interviewer asked.
“Well,” she replied. It struck me, that conclusory “well” – a door shutting. “If I could tell you that, he wouldn’t have needed to paint it.”
I’m reminded of this on the opening day of Borland’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. I am watching Borland watching two high-school students watching one of the works in her latest series, Morph (2018). The teenagers squint at the undulating image, take notes, then realise the artist is smiling at them. She wants to know what they reckon.
Shyly, they offer that it challenges their perspective – nothing they can describe, really, just how looking at it makes them feel.
“Yeah,” Borland says, nodding. “You’ve got it, girls.”
Borland and I walk on together, with the images that populate her Polyverse exhibition pulsing around us, all colour and texture and form. Their effect, singly and in combination, is to drop me within feeling distance of something I cannot name, something that may approximate the experience of being Polly Borland at the moment of creation. So I tell her the story of my novelist and her Hopper interior.
“Word art is my least favourite thing,” she replies. As a writer, I am strongly tempted to agree.
“One of my first loves was film,” she said earlier in the morning, when I asked about her influences. “At 15, I was going to repertory cinemas here. I was awakened to all this incredible European and arthouse cinema. Eraserhead, Pasolini. In my first year of college, we analysed all of Douglas Sirk. I just remember the power of being introduced to these ideas and these visuals. And, of course, the first visceral experience I had was Larry Clark, in Melbourne in the early ’80s.”
We sat for a while alone in the cafe at NGV Australia’s Federation Square gallery on this most Melbourne of mornings – a grey, grand final Friday, raining on footy crowds passing Flinders Street Station nearby. Borland is jet-lagged, recently arrived from her home in Los Angeles for the opening of her exhibition last night. Apart from the geometric glitter of her oversized spectacles and the red sweep of her fringe, she was all black and clean lines and the effect of her top third rising up from the black tabletop between us was sphinx-like, striking in elegant simplicity.
“We visited the Photographers Gallery in Punt Road,” she continued. “Larry Clark’s pictures from Tulsa and Teenage Lust were literally pinned to the wall, with scratch marks. And my mind was blown. I found them unsettling because they were showing things I’d never seen, even though I was on the periphery of the whole drug culture in Melbourne. I was blown away and I liked being blown away by something I found deeply disturbing.
“They’re my kind of influences: Pasolini, Fassbinder. Incredible. Fear Eats the Soul, Querelle… One of my favourite Pasolini’s was Mamma Roma – watched that over and over again. Visconti, The Leopard… There were so many films. And then of course, there was Diane Arbus, which was the reason, really, I became a photographer.
“And there were the children’s books I had as a child by Dare Wright – the Lonely Doll books.”
Like the artist Cindy Sherman, musician and artist Kim Gordon and fashion designer Anna Sui, Borland said The Lonely Doll – referred to by The New Yorker as “the creepiest children’s book” – made a particularly profound impression on her.
“It’s no wonder I’m into dress-up. I get a lot from childhood. What might look childlike is not. There’s a sinister undertow to a lot of my imagery.”
I’m familiar with the book from my own childhood and Borland strongly recommended Wright’s biography. “She grew up alone in this apartment with this doll,” she said. “Her mother would go out, leave her alone. Eventually she became a model and started taking photos.”
The Queen is here – HM Queen Elizabeth II (2002) – probably Borland’s most recognised portrait. It’s hard not to adore the high-camp chutzpah of Her Majesty against a gold glitter backdrop, the frozen millisecond of vulnerability and impenetrability. Still, I prefer the tapestries of the image that Borland commissioned from prisoners in HM Prison Service; the pixelated precision of their needlework on one side, a spaghetti of pragmatic personality on the other.
The gold sequins, the red lipstick, the blue of the Queen’s frock all migrate across the floor and appear again on Nick Cave, Borland’s friend of 40 years, in an untitled portrait. Cave’s face is obscured by the tug of a stocking and an electric blue wig pulled low.
Strolling through her Bunny series – nude, costumed, mocking the Playboy stereotype – I point to one image, deceptively simple. How much work does it take to arrive there?
“This stuff wasn’t hard,” she says, “although it took a number of years, actually.”
I came to Borland through her 2001 series, The Babies, for which she spent five years documenting men who dress as infants. Before, her work had been mostly portrait, reportage, editorial; after, it became increasingly conceptual, studio-based. But the sensibility uniting her practice remained consistent – something darkly sardonic yet soft, twin strands of counterpoint and contradiction run through the body of her work like veins. Hidden celebrities. Adult babies. The porous divide between genders, surface and interior, private and public. Borland’s work dissolves binaries to produce a more accurate depiction of human experience than a simpler line.
“There’s not any one thing I’m trying to do,” she says. “But the general gist is that it’s sort of subverting the surface of things and clichés, what we would want to think or see. So that’s deeply unsettling. You’re looking at it and you think, ‘What the fuck is that?’ ”
It is a perspective greatly aided by her inside-outsider status. Born in Melbourne in 1959, she moved to London in 1989 and lived there for 23 years before relocating to Los Angeles in 2011 with her husband, the film director John Hillcoat, and their son, Louie.
Though she’s now found a community and settled into her LA life, she says arriving there from London felt brutally isolating. For someone who had made a career out of looking, and speaking, unflinchingly, she found herself suddenly “strangulated”.
“There’s lots of secrets and lies – Hollywood was built on smoke and mirrors. The culture shock was enormous and I was terrified.”
Though she has family in Australia, and has retained her accent, she’s lived overseas for longer than she lived here. “I feel like a nomad,” she says. “I feel no particular allegiance to any country.
“But I definitely feel that Australia is where I got a lot of my creative and emotional foundations. I gave a speech last night, which was very emotional because coming back and being invited to an institution that was a part of my life growing up is extremely significant and poignant for me.
“Now, whether I feel Australia is my home…” She pauses to think, closes her eyes, surfaces. “There’s things I really love, and I’m very grateful for growing up here. But I really sense the values and the kind of opportunities I was brought up with don’t really exist here anymore. But I think that’s a global problem.
“I think Australia was founded on a lot of denial. Not many people talk about it, but that’s a very Australian thing – particularly a kind of privileged, white Australian perspective. It’s very difficult because I’m sort of now an outsider so I’m not really allowed to have an opinion, and I’m like that everywhere I go.”
Her recollections of her youth are like an intimate museum of Melbourne in the ’70s and ’80s. Helmut Newton’s photographs of her parents’ wedding. Nick Cave at the dawn of his 20s. Hillcoat before The Proposition or The Road, at Swinburne Film School. Keith Haring, 1984, balanced on scaffolding, painting his mural up into the Collingwood sky while Madonna’s “Holiday” thumps from a ghetto blaster.
“A lot of my friends that I met here in the ’80s are still my best friends, still my creative collaborators,” Borland says. “So I’m very much still weirdly Australian.”
Her connection to Australia is not enough to be interested in the AFL grand final, but it is enough that she can bump into friends here to see her show and still just be “Poll” to them, and to sound, for one moment, as though she never left.
After she moved to LA, Borland created her Pupa series using sculptural elements, bulging forms stuffed into stockings that approximate skin. She also photographed her son. Passing an image of Louie from that time, his face distorted under a web of fabric, she says, with wonder, “It’s so painful, right? Look at him. It’s very powerful.”
What initially precipitated her move towards greater abstraction?
“I was 42 when I had Louie and I knew I needed to be near him. Also, I’d kind of burnt myself out with editorial, and editorial was going digital. My heart wasn’t in it. I was like, okay, I’m going to do what I want.”
So is this the work she always wanted to do? She nods. “I think this is what I always set out to do but it took me a while to get there. I probably needed those different steps along the way. There’s a complexity that’s able to exist more comfortably in what I’m doing now.”
I ask who she feels she is speaking to with her work.
“Myself,” she says. “It’s a real dialogue with myself and if other people like it, that’s great. If they don’t like it, that’s great. I’m not doing it to please people.”
Borland’s publisher calls her latest work, in Morph, “next level stuff”. The large-scale images – of anthropomorphic soft-sculpture forms that appear both human and not – have the saturated, slow burn of looking long at a Rothko. It feels like an unfurling; the result of living long enough to become more oneself. It would be a mistake, however, to understand this progression as a clean break with her previous practice because it expands on elements that were already there.
“The camera is a means to an end for me,” Borland says. “It’s not really about photography, my work. Normally, I don’t use my camera to document. I kind of use it like my paint and brushes.
“I was always, right from a child, making aesthetic decisions. I was editing the world and processing it visually and then on a level which was very sensory but also deeply emotional. So, I don’t necessarily see myself as a photographer. But it’s only now I finally feel like I’ve owned my own territory.
“It used to be, almost, about the surface. Now it’s like I’m exposing what’s inside.”
The gallery hums and echoes grow loud and intrusive as more people walk through. As our wandering through Polyverse comes to an end, I trip on what I want to ask, although I know what I want to know: What is inside? What is the new work to her? What does it feel like?
“Oh. I don’t know,” she says. It’s a door shutting. She closes her eyes, returns.
“I don’t have any underlying feeling about it other than I really like the work. I’ve created something that I really like, and I haven’t got any doubt in that.”
For a sweet second, the noise subsides.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Stocking truth". Subscribe here.