Over four decades, Australian artist eX de Medici has put her surreal Baroque artworks in the service of her anti-capitalist politics. By Miriam Cosic.

Artist eX de Medici

Greyscale portrait photograph of a woman with her hair tied into a bun, revealing only one eye as she obscures her face with a bookmark.
Artist eX de Medici.
Credit: Karleen Minney © Canberra Times / ACM

Despite the flamboyance of eX de Medici’s name, the scene inside her suburban Canberra kitchen is cosy. She has the kettle on and is putting pastries out on plates. Her long grey hair is bundled up and her face is bare of make-up. She seems to radiate a friendliness from deep inside, even on first meeting. “My mother kept Siamese and our father had a Burmese cat. And if you ever wanted to experience what a dog would be like, get a Burmese,” she says. “They want to walk with you. They’re very physical, very lovey-dovey. A wonderful breed…”

It doesn’t take long for a far less cosy conversation to emerge. In no time we’re discussing anarchism, machineguns and full-body tattooing as we sit at the kitchen bench with our mugs of coffee. Her critique of the capitalist system and of international warmongering is as intense as it is informed, the passion of an undergraduate still boiling 40 years later.

Her art is equally contradictory. It is immediately recognisable from metres away, with its highly detailed and deeply coloured subject matter, busy with animate and inanimate objects. On approach, however, the ethereality disappears and concrete and loaded objects such as machineguns, human skulls, engine parts and the odd swastika become conspicuous among the flowers and the anatomically perfect moths. The influence of the Baroque is clear.

The art appears to juggle two contradictory purposes. De Medici’s drawing skills and use of colour are powerful. Those moths, for example, among very specific biological and mechanical subjects, trap the viewer’s gaze and lead it across her surfaces. But the subjects are never just attractive, or curious, or even anatomically significant. Unlike so many political or sociological points in contemporary art, they don’t require contextual explanations in wordy wall texts. The conversation leaps at the viewer.

This first large-scale retrospective of de Medici’s work opens on June 24 at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in Brisbane. More than 100 works span 40 years: paintings (including watercolours), drawings, installations, photographs, clothing and more. The title alone, Beautiful Wickedness, points to the breadth and detail of her knowledge. “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” screams the Wicked Witch of the West as Dorothy inadvertently erases her in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

“The movie is a psychoanalytic response to L. Frank Baum’s allegorical novel, which alludes to unscrupulous industrial magnates – so-called robber barons – who preyed on human and natural resources across the United States’ drought-ravaged Midwest at the dawn of the 20th century,” writes QAGOMA’s director, Chris Saines, in the exhibition catalogue. “Subversive, countercultural and brilliantly surreal, The Wizard of Oz metaphorically sets up many of the targets eX de Medici trains her sights on.”

Her politics and her aesthetics merge seamlessly: neither dominates. Both the art and the politics are her purpose. “After the Howard government came into power, I was angry for so many reasons – refugee issues, law and order, degradation of parliamentary processes – so I decided to do the most conservative work I could think of so [the politicians] could understand what I was saying,” she says. “At the time, the art world considered watercolour puerile, feminine, hobbyist, super-conservative … Politics and the art world are very conservative groups in different ways. You can meld anything into anything with rhetoric and so I thought it was kind of clever at the time but no one got it.”

Her former partner, the sculptor Neil Roberts, with whom she remained close until his death, had a fit when she turned to watercolours. “He came over and he goes, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Have you gone mad?’ You know, saying it was so conventional,” she says. “But he got it in the end. I’ve been told by heaps of professional arts people, ‘Never change what you’re doing because you’ll lose all your buying base.’ Well, I didn’t have a buying base until I was 45. And so it didn’t matter to me. We didn’t care. And we weren’t cultivating careers. We weren’t doing what has to be done now.”

But that watercolour work led to all kinds of expertise drawn from the ongoing collaborations that are emblematic of her art. Her moths, for example, come from ongoing residencies at the CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection. But again, there is more than biology at work here. Depleted Uranium (2021), Mustard Sulphur (2021) and Tear Gas (2021) are part of a series that crosses furry moths with grim weaponry, a condemnation of the deadliness and futility of the technology of war. Again, her references are wide: a painting that portrays flowers exploding from the mouth of a gun is named Family Portrait (Birnam Wood).

De Medici is a unique figure in Australian art. She was born in the Riverina but grew up in Canberra. “We had no aunts or uncles around us,” she says. “It was just us and [my parents’] friends. And we’d go on holidays to our grandparents in the bush.” Her father was a political scientist and public servant who played all kinds of sport on the weekend. Her mother was an accountant who should, her daughter says, have been a professional golfer. De Medici used to play tennis with her during the week as a teenager but sport wasn’t for her. “You’ve got to be competitive and I’m not competitive,” she says. “As soon as a competition starts, I just walk away.”

She had four siblings. “Our parents had five kids in private schools – at once! And the threat was that, if we were bad, we’d be sent off to board.” Their parents encouraged them to read and to think. They were politically engaged and she remembers walking her first protest with them, against the Vietnam War, when she was a child.

She is the only professional artist in her family. Art, she says, was “inherent” for her. “When I was seven, a woman who was an artist and teaching art at that time, who was a very old friend of my mother’s, said to her, ‘Get her to art classes.’ I just drew all the time, all the time. And ate up everything she gave me, all the books to look at.”

Asked what turned her childish love of drawing into a vocation, whether it was just a skill that rewarded practice or something deeper, de Medici thinks for a moment. “Maybe going to a fundamentalist Catholic school,” she says finally. “You know, having to go to church every Sunday and I absolutely adored the pomp and ceremony of the art that came through religion.” She loves the Renaissance and the Baroque, she says, and is a “huge Hans Holbein fan”. The Christian name she uses, eX, is a diminutive of her confirmation name, Xavier.

When she finished year 12 and decided to study art at university, her father warned her the profession would be a dead end. “And he gave me the booklet that the Chinese Communist Party produced: Mao Zedong’s address at the Yan’an Conference on literature and art. I have read that 100 times and I still have it. It’s increased and decreased in meaning for me. It’s ebbed and flowed. The last time I used it was for an exhibition two years ago.” That work gave birth to a lifelong consideration of how artists serve, she says. “That has always been a point for me. How do we serve? I’ve never worked on my personal emotional life in my work, because I don’t see any service in that. Yes, other people do it incredibly well and move us with it. I’ve been moved on a thousand occasions, but it’s not for me.”

Her sense of service took her a step beyond Mao’s communism, however. “Anarchism gave birth to my generation’s feminism,” she points out. “We were pretty hardcore and the second-wave feminists really thought we were a pain in the arse. I think they thought we were brash and vulgar and too head-first. In some sense, we were. But we never disrespected those women. They were incredible women. The women who set up the Women’s Electoral Lobby, you know, the women who fought for abortion. Susan Ryan. Elizabeth Reid. These were extraordinary women. They were highly educated, quieter women, legislators…”

De Medici stepped straight into the anarchist punk movement of the 1980s once she left school. She studied painting at what was then the Canberra School of Art and hung with a radical crowd exhibiting in a circle of women. She showed with Helen Maxwell’s Australian Girls Own Gallery – aGOG, with an anti-nationalist small “a” in its acronym – in Kingston. “It wasn’t any formal arrangement. She would just say, ‘Someone’s pulled out of a spot. Have you got any work?’ She showed hundreds and hundreds of women.”

De Medici became part of the local gay community through her friendship with a fellow student, Tony Ayres, and joined the Bitumen River Gallery Collective by 1983. Fred Nile’s virulent tirades against homosexual men in the midst of the AIDS crisis led to a group of gay men in Canberra forming the ACT AIDS Action Committee and de Medici joined their activism. Today she refuses to state her sexuality on principle, pointing out that one loves whom one loves. “I’ll just do whatever I want,” she says.

Meanwhile, her father’s prediction about art being a dead end was looking prescient. “Well, I didn’t earn a cracker,” she says. “Which leads me to why I went into tattooing: because I knew I could draw. This was drawing on another surface, on another form, and I could support myself financially with it.” She was intrigued by her then partner’s tattoo and had asked a reputable tattooist to give her one to her own design. It turned out dreadfully. Intrigued by tattooing, both as a form of rebellion – as it still was in those days – and as a form of work, she decided to turn her drawing skills to the trade. She found a highly respected tattooist, Kari Barba in Los Angeles, applied for a fellowship, and went there to work and study.

“We had many, many really hard years before I did my apprenticeship in the US,” she recalls. “That was from 1989 to 1991. And ultimately, it was by necessity. I’ve spoken about this openly, that I do not think tattooing is art. But tattooing paid every bill and I considered it my service. I was serving others by tattooing. And in the meantime, at night I would do my exhibition work, which I’d never made any bloody money out of. And I was showing in museums, in group shows, in curated shows. That was my night work. I slept four to five hours a night for 20 years.”

She was making wild work: installations with the artists in the circles she mixed in, large-scale drawings, photography, performance, sound works. “I’ve gone hard. I haven’t gone soft, I have gone hard,” she says. “You’d come across theatre workers, musicians, you name it. We all worked together. Across all the forms where everybody was really open to working together. Nobody works together like that any more.”

She slowly established herself in the art world, without relinquishing her purpose. As the Canberra art critic Sasha Grishin wrote in a 2013 review: “Art has to be a weapon for social and political change and, in the final analysis, this is the primary purpose of eX de Medici’s work.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Weaponising art".

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