The Influence

A 2007 retrospective of Tom Kreisler’s art has had a lifelong impact on Mitch Cairns’ work. By Kate Holden.

Mitch Cairns

An installation image of the Tom Kreisler retrospective from 2007.
Credit: Alex North

Mitch Cairns won the 2017 Archibald Prize for his portrait of fellow artist and his partner, Agatha Gothe-Snape. Cairns was born in Sydney in 1984, and his work in paint and print is known for its confidence and elegance. Some works combine geometrical, Cubist treatment with flat space, sketched architecture and bold colour, while others employ palely abstracted figurative forms; he plays with text as ornament and picture, using words in foreign languages and Letraset, floral patterning or collaged photographs.

His work is collected by many major institutions in Australia and he was awarded the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, which enabled a residency in Paris.

For The Influence, Cairns elected a posthumous, retrospective exhibition, Comma Dot Dogma, by the late Tom Kreisler (1938-2002) at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand. It featured more than 40 works, including drawings, paintings, ready-mades and notebooks from Kreisler’s work over 35 years. Born in Argentina of émigré European Jewish parents, Kreisler brought a lively Latin cultural perspective to the art scene of the 1960s and ’70s. His work, like Cairns’, sometimes includes text and domestic experience, and features both technical elan and a sense of play.

Was the Kreisler exhibition the first thing that came to mind?

It was a very daunting question, to reduce an influence down to one work – I felt very nervous about that. I didn’t know if it should be something historical, or a community of artists, or someone living. Ultimately I settled upon an experience: of when I went to Govett-Brewster in 2007, and I saw the exhibition of Tom Kreisler’s. I was in a van, driving around [New Zealand]. I did go to Govett-Brewster intentionally, but I think — as so often when you’re travelling — I just happened on whatever was on the menu, and this exhibition was on the menu. John Maynard, who founded the gallery, lives in Sydney and he had a very strong connection with the Kreisler family and indeed introduced me to his son, Aaron [Kreisler].

It was through a conversation with John, and John also working alongside my partner Agatha [Gothe-Snape], and her knowing my affection for Tom’s work; lots of conversations have come from those meetings.

If my memory’s correct, it was almost the full gallery. Tom was a local and was a close confidant in thinking about a regional gallery and how it would be seen by the wider world. John is Australian and he described himself as being an outsider moving to New Zealand; Tom was born in South America, so they had an affection for each other as fellow outsiders.

What drew you to this artist’s work? It has an elementary feel, integrated text, aspects that might resonate with your own creations.

It was definitely a bit of confirmation bias. You discover an artist who had a real lightness of touch, a wonderful conflation between the word and the image. I suppose if these were ingredients, it’s very easy to haemorrhage these and come out with unsatisfying outcomes. I was taken with the brevity with which he was able to bring these sometimes opposing forms into concert. I was in my first year out of art school so I was still on the hunt, and I’d never heard of him before. So I got not only an introduction to his work but a full, substantial retrospective, wonderfully curated by his son Aaron. So it was very felt, and it was very thorough, and you really sensed that connection between the artist, the site, his family; and you got a really lovely sense of him, in a way.

Are you drawn to older artists? Have you looked for elders, exemplars?

Perhaps that’s true. As we understand history in all of its forms, whether it be literary or art or music, we’re obviously drawn to what has come before.

Tom had died in 2002, so he was recently deceased, and died very young, in his early 60s. In theory, this guy should be alive. You do look for mentorship, you look for ballast, and assistance with the vocation of making something.

I saw a self-portrait you made, with a comment from you that you hadn’t done one for years but the situation presented itself.

I had a studio which was an ex-make-up school, with a long corridor of mirrors with the light globes around them, it was a really bizarre place. It made me think, Oh well, work with the limitation as it’s making itself clear.

The portrait is very reduced, not extravagant.

I often think – and this goes back to Tom, back to Adam [Cullen, for whom Cairns worked as an assistant] – of the things that I am really attracted to, which is touch and brevity and not trying to do too much. The paintings are very thin. The current painting is highly worked, but what happens in the one sitting can’t be stuffed up – you have to be really prepared for a painting session to go well, in order for it to satisfy you.

I definitely paid attention to that in relation to those two artists and their work, for sure.

Did Kreisler do portraits?

None that I’m aware of. When I speak to people from New Zealand it’s about 50-50 in terms of knowing Tom’s work. Even in NZ he’s not a star of the art world. I don’t understand that. But when you do speak to someone who knows Tom Kreisler’s work they’re often very enthusiastic. If one were to look him up on Google there’s actually not a lot out there. So that catalogue for the retrospective is available as a limited edition. It’s quite a rare, comprehensive, well-written account of his life and work. There are galleries that do exhibit select works of his, and he certainly has champions. It’s nice to know people who make work aren’t completely digestible through a shallow Google search.

It must have been exciting to come upon him.

Yeah, it was. It’s always been something I go back to. The catalogue is still always within reach. Whenever I move studios I always make sure it’s not too far away or in a box covered in a corner. I make sure I know where it is. And I suppose my work and his are very different; it’s certainly not about imitation, but it’s a felt response; it’s also about knowing that conflation of all the things that I intuitively have come to as a maker – they pre-exist as a model in his work. It’s good to know that you have a relationship – whether the other person knows it or not – with the types of work that they make.

Kreisler would have been a good mentor, if he hadn’t passed away. But his works are mentors to you.

What’s happened is being able to meet his family, and speak to John about him. That’s been a nice supplement to the experience of first seeing his work. I ran a small gallery in Sydney until the start of this year, and Tom’s son Aaron lent work to a group show I put together that included Tom’s work. So that conversation has extended to physically having his works in my hand.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "Mitch Cairns".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.