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Archibald Prize-winning artist Yvette Coppersmith’s principal subject is herself, in works created with little concession to how they might be perceived by others. “To make a work without an awareness of an audience is virtually impossible, even though I began doing portraits or drawings of faces to hang in my childhood room, and that’s probably what I still want to do. It’s a very private process. It’s really private, actually. It’s only the fact that you’re an artist and part of your role is to share your work.” By Kate Holden.

Artist Yvette Coppersmith on the meaning of self-portraiture

Yvette Coppersmith
Credit: ©OKAYPHOTO

When Yvette Coppersmith opens the door to her home in Melbourne, a flurry of freezing wet air with the scent of damp leaves blows me in. I am in a jacket and scarf and so is she because the heating is broken. We sit for two hours talking in her lounge, slowly more stiff with cold, clutching our coats around us with an elderly cat spike-furred and curling itself on the couch, our geranium-leaf tea cool within minutes. 

I am struck at first by her face. An artist of self-portraits, often, her paintings make her sphinx-like, with oracle eyes, raven hair, the lethal composure of Kahlo: that tight red mouth, the sibylline stare, the stark coiffure and brows, the bloodshot brimming gaze. It’s an antique face that’s stared from every age, from the 2000-year-old coffin covers of El Faiyûm in Greek Egypt and the oak-panelled halls of Elizabethan England, from ghettos in Europe and photos of Anaïs Nin and Anna Magnani; and now the pages of newspapers and contemporary art magazines. Coppersmith is a celebrated artist, and at 37, after four finals, she has won the Archibald. Now those features are doubled: the artist posing before the refraction of her, one ageless, monumental, the other proud and grinning.

“Have your feet touched the ground yet?” her friends ask her. She laughs. “I’m thinking, ‘You have no idea.’ As soon as I got back [from the award in Sydney] it was a cloud-killer, because I had another painting deadline.”

Coppersmith lives quietly, enclosed in her studio for days on end. When I arrive, she’s been up all night painting, a restoration after a month’s fluorescent public exposure that has left her blanched and bemused. The plain little studio, a converted brick outhouse, has the curtains drawn. Coppersmith’s work is psychological, intensely personal and reflective. Alongside her self-portraits – haunting, soulful and totemic – she paints still lifes and abstracts and other people, such as John Safran, Gillian Triggs, Paul Capsis. Early experiments in the representation of the feminine were done using cameras on a timer and leaping back into position. In the ensuing painting, precociously accomplished photorealist works, she displayed dynamic, distorting poses: herself with masculine facial hair; with unnerving toothpicks or pearls emerging from her mouth; tongue-protruding Pierrot child; gurning through the tight neck-hole of a peacock-blue dress. Now, in her maturity, she sits like a Dutch master before a mirror, constrained and composed by “the physicality of what you can hold for hours, days, months”. She works with an intricate flecked technique and a palette borrowed from female Australian modernism – the ochrous yellows of Cossington Smith, the powdery greens of Beckett, the dark reds of Preston – as she finds ever-changing and compelling images of the feminine, the eternal, the poised and prophetic.

The woman who gazes from the self-portraits is stylised, with cheekbones drawn in a severe pout to a closed crimson mouth; eyebrows dark as Nefertiti’s above bloodshot, tearful eyes or a cool patrician stare. The artist gives her image an iconography of hairstyle, costume and accessory to evoke the canon of the feminine – hibiscus behind the ear, doves by the cheek, noir trenchcoat, peasant shawl, musician St. Vincent’s artificial grey hair – and her own defiant occupation within it. “How do you make an image of a woman – yourself or another woman – that feels like it’s not exploitative?” Coppersmith asks herself. With all art there’s an assemblage of visual elements to consider aesthetically. “But if it’s of a person, then you’re engaging with the history – and also contemporary oversaturated image culture – and I wonder, when women turn their gaze upon themselves, are they engaging a male gaze? Or a female gaze? And are they aware of how they’re seeing themselves and how they’re seeing other women? Have we got the language?”

In person, Coppersmith is 20 years younger than in press photos, which make her seem matronly; girlish despite the dark lipstick and careful maquillage, the glossy long hair, the expensive knee-length coat. Presentation is important to her, and I wonder if she has made up so glamorously for our interview at her home on a weekday morning; she assures me it was for her own satisfaction, to feel alert after the long night awake. “If I look in the mirror and I’m not wearing it I don’t feel as awake or alert. When you see yourself and you look sharp and ready: it shifts you.” Upstairs in her bathroom is an industrial case of cosmetics and she tells me, slightly sheepishly, that as a teenager she saved money for a modelling and finishing school. “But I was too short,” she says. “I’m a miniature.” She has done make-up and art design for film shoots and theatre in her enthusiasm for artifice. “Without make-up my face is like a blank canvas,” she says, and she seems both enthralled and captive to the literal potential of this conviction.  

As a child she was mad for dress-ups. “I was like, ‘When did it stop being cool?’ I guess that continues in my work.” A painter to the bone, she expertly uses contouring, palette and contrast on her face, and dramatic second-hand couture, to make both a persona for her self-representations and more playfully – and protectively – for Yvette Coppersmith, public artist. Aware of her perceived delicate femininity, she caustically observes audience expectations at lectures or presentations. “When I speak I bring this force of animated energy. It gets them off-guard. The conversations you have before and after an event are very different.” It gives her an “understanding of how the image you create determines how people treat you. It’s connected to my self-portraits. I’m so aware of the choices we make in our daily life and what persona we want to take on. It’s such a construct, and we have power to alter it, and how society treats us – it’s a feedback loop – and then how we respond.”

She sits with her back to the glass door showing wet geraniums, wet nasturtiums, wet salvias; against the green glare her features are visible but shadowed, her gaze very, very direct. She talks with the inexhaustibility of the exhausted, and bursts with – or excellently feigns – genuine delight when complimented. Her face seems to get younger as she tires, the jaw more weakly adolescent, her cheeks rounding. Considering mutability, Coppersmith points to another painting, gorgeous with emerald background, a full-frontal self-portrait face, and explains that the thick paint is a palimpsest: a diary of self-portraits each with its own hairstyle, stare, emotion, a composite of personae. “All I’m doing is using the physical self – the emotional self, the psychological – to bring those all together to make a fixed image. It’s really just a moment in time. Each painting is just one moment in time.” Like a strobe flash, the revelation between blinks. I glance from the painting to Coppersmith herself and see the green garden, and in front, those intense dark eyes in the shadow, an afterimage.

A successful self-portraitist, ensured of viewers, will invoke the subjective, only to have it instantly wrenched to the more problematic objective as soon as anyone sees it. Sensing her self is not fixed but capricious, Coppersmith observes it, daubs it into being, and presents it in flux, then dislocates herself to safety: wary that an audience might suppose insight, she insists, “It’s not me.” Lines are firmly drawn: she will sell works to some buyers but not others. She will welcome an interviewer to her private spaces – she drags me cheerfully to her bedroom to admire new op shop treasures, and showing off furry black trousers she giggles, “I might look like Snuffleupagus” – but not a collector. There is unease there, only greater since attention to her work has grown. “I want to make a picture that I want to hang in my house.” She gestures to a large yellow-backed self-portrait on the wall, foretaste of the Archibald-winning version. “A picture that I want to live with. But to make a work without an awareness of an audience is virtually impossible, even though I began doing portraits or drawings of faces to hang in my childhood room, and that’s probably what I still want to do. It’s a very private process. It’s really private, actually. It’s only the fact that you’re an artist and part of your role is to share your work.” She considers. “I don’t feel that it’s really a performance for other people. But I do have to take that into account. And that brings out, in me, a kind of ferocity – of trying to deal with that…” – she smiles sweetly – “…crap. Of how other people are going to perceive that image of you.”

In her archives are dozens of bubble-wrapped canvases. She admits she’s a kind of collector of her own work, and not in a hurry to sell her Archibald piece just yet. When she graduated from art school she wanted to put work in a range of contexts: an artist-run space, an art prize, a commercial gallery, commissions, “and just have the integrity in the work that it would hold its own with all of those”. In her 20s, when friends were partying, she would seclude in her studio for weeks to prepare a show. Coppersmith, in her neat, freezing little house, is warm but self-contained, self-possessed and determined. “All the decisions you make, all the sacrifices you make to develop as an artist and to keep your integrity and do things not just because you think they’ll sell but because that’s the direction you really want to go—” She pauses to breathe through remembered endurance, the exploitations, disappointments, delays in payment and breezy requests to work free. “There are so many sacrifices. And you don’t know if it’ll pay off.”

When she won that first prize out of art school, older artists suggested the success might blunt her edge. The first shows were self-portraits, deliberate defiance of this sabotage. Her voice is fading from two hours of talking, but the pride is clear, and the resolve: “So much of where I am now is off my own back. I say to my students, ‘You really have no idea what it takes, making paintings. If you don’t want to be frustrated, take a photo. Don’t paint. It’s a process. It’s not finished until it’s finished.’ ”

She is capable of knocking off two paintings in a night, or of taking years over a canvas, and, showing me the studio, briskly hauls out old drafts of the recent winning image. At the last minute, delayed by a commissioned work, she had hesitated over the final submission; started again, ill and agitated, worrying about the paint drying in time, pulled an all-nighter to make an alternative just in case. When the award was announced her planned two days in Sydney became 12 and, lightly packed, she had to buy new clothes for the carousel of promotion events. Now, with a work also in the Geelong Contemporary Art Prize, she’s finally back to work for a few days at least. “All of the admin, just that pressure to be instantly contactable, makes me anxious. Because it’s just too much to deal with – trying to stay on top of all this avalanche.”

She’s contemplating the year ahead, the demands of art celebrity, the distraction from her studio haven. “But life prepares you for these things,” she says, staunchly. She might be wide-eyed but she’s been a painter since she was 16. “You discover things in yourself that you can do that you didn’t even realise you can do. When you’re in your studio alone there’s a whole part of yourself that’s left unexpressed, and that’s the part that interacts with other people and the world and goes into different roles that you need to perform.” Coppersmith gazes absent-mindedly at her own faces, multiple, brimming silently with messages, before backgrounds of various colours, up on the wall, sphinxes and mysteries. “This is the phase when you’re just in survival mode, treading water. And then when you get back and you get the tiniest bit, like last night, you think: ‘Ah, this is what it’s about.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Note to self". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

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