After his biggest year yet, artist Ash Keating feels he has returned to his first excitement with painting. By Dee Jefferson.

Artist Ash Keating

Artist Ash Keating paints a work for his exhibition Pressure at Bunjil Place gallery.
Artist Ash Keating paints a work for his exhibition Pressure at Bunjil Place gallery.
Credit: Michael Pham

About the same time many of his peers were preparing to get their driver’s licence, Ash Keating was learning how to fly a single-engine Cessna. It belonged to his grandmother, Elva Rush, a pioneering woman pilot. When Keating was about 15 or 16, she started teaching him during his holiday breaks, eventually flying him back and forth between Mansfield in Victoria’s north-east, where she lived, and Wangaratta airfield, an hour or so north, for professional lessons.

Keating recalls marvelling at the landscape below – Taungurung Country – and seeing “the late-afternoon shadows cross the trees onto the ochre, burnt grass in the summer”. “I kind of fell in love with Country,” he says.

About the same time, he was learning in art class about the aerial perspectives of Victorian landscape painter Fred Williams and taking field trips to the National Gallery of Victoria to see his paintings. His teenage brain was fired with inspiration, leading to his first paintings on canvas: aerial landscapes in predominantly ochre tones, with little Williams-esque trees daubed in thick, dark oil paint.

“That’s when I started feeling like making art was what I wanted to do: the excitement that I felt when I was making those early paintings,” Keating says.

So began a practice that has spanned 27 years so far and encompassed performance, installation and video. Keating is best known for his paintings – in particular, his large, vibrant, abstract works on building facades, using pressure sprayers and fire extinguishers in a gravity-based drip method that he developed working on the fringes of Naarm/Melbourne’s street art scene and honed through late-night trial and error.

Naarm residents of different generations may have passed Keating’s Mackenzie Street car park mural (circa 2004), or his billboard on the NGV International’s north facade (part of the 2013 Melbourne Now exhibition), or his multistorey works on the Victorian College of the Arts (2015-16).

His biggest paintings have taken place further afield – including 2012’s West Park Proposition, for which he filmed himself painting a two-storey-high, 50-metre-wide impressionistic “mirror” of the surrounding Werribee Plains on a concrete warehouse at Truganina, west of Naarm, and his sunset-inspired whole-exterior transformation of Warrnambool Art Gallery in south-western Victoria in 2021.

In recent years, Keating has turned increasingly back towards works on canvas – though still at a large scale. In 2019, he invested in his own studio in Coburg North, “built to accommodate my messy processes and scale of works” and fitted with hoists capable of manoeuvring canvases up to 10 metres high. There’s also a basketball hoop. “I built the dream studio,” Keating says.

He was recovering from a 15-hour studio stint the previous day when I called him on a Friday morning in early December. Two weeks earlier he had opened an exhibition of new large-scale paintings at Bunjil Place gallery in Narre Warren (in the south-east of greater Naarm), and now he was working intensively to produce a similar suite of works at a smaller scale for an exhibition opening at NAP Contemporary in Mildura in February.

It’s intensely physical work: the new canvases are 120 centimetres high – downsized from the 3.75-metre-wide canvases of the Bunjil Place show – and the process starts with applying layers of acrylic paint in different tones with an airless sprayer, with water washes in between that cause the colours to shift and melt into each other. Once the canvases are dry, Keating casts cups and buckets of liquid hand soap – the cheap pink kind you find in public bathrooms – over them in expressive gestures. More layers of acrylic are sprayed over this and left to dry before, finally, the artist uses a high-pressure water hose to rinse off the soap, revealing a negative print.

Both the Bunjil Place and NAP shows are titled Pressure. “The intensity of the process is actually holding the pressure washer [for that long] … and then waking up the next day and my body feels exhausted,” says Keating. At 43, he envies the physical resilience he had two decades ago when he started experimenting with fire extinguishers, refilling them with discount “mis-tints” and his own colour brews mixed from sample pots, and discharging them on inner-city walls in luminous, atmospheric murals. “I loved the physicality of it,” he says.

“I’m lucky to be in the physical health that I am, and I always think about that,” he says. “And that’s why I’m kind of trying to celebrate that energy. I certainly know that there is a time line for me to make this grand, large-scale work. Five or six years ago, when I was in shared studios in Brunswick East, I started thinking, Now is the time to find a big studio and just launch into the next decade of practice – because if you want to make big work, this is the time to do it.”

The past few years have been huge – and 2023 is his biggest yet. Besides the Bunjil Place show, he had exhibitions at Shepparton Art Museum; Colector gallery in Monterrey, Mexico; Museum Langmatt in Baden, Switzerland; and At The Above gallery on Gertrude Street in inner-city Naarm. Keating describes it as a year of experimentation and boundary pushing, as he edges his practice and aesthetic into new terrain.

The Langmatt commission was particularly special: the director of the museum had seen pictures of Keating’s Warrnambool project on Instagram, and emailed asking if he would do something similar with the caretaker’s house in the museum grounds, dubbed “Haus Germann”.

For Keating, who is self-represented (rather than by a commercial gallery or dealer), it was “kind of a moment”: “It’s not easy, managing inquiries and the business side of things, the unknown,” he tells me. “So that was a beautiful thing: to be able to have that autonomy, with social media, stay active and ambitious, get some images up – and then have this dream project put in front of me.”

He was excited to be working in response to Langmatt’s collection of French impressionist paintings and, even though the museum’s budget was small, he threw himself into the project with fervour. In the year leading up to the opening, he trawled high-res images of the collection, pondering the links between impressionism and the abstract expressionism that has informed his own style. He kept returning to a Monet landscape titled Ice Floes at Twilight, attracted by the level of abstraction but also the reference to melting ice, and its resonance with the current climate catastrophe.

Working in his studio, he created a series of shimmering, pale canvases, using moulding paste to create “topographical” layers within the painting, perlite and vermiculite for texture, and glass beads and mica flakes for reflective and pearlescent effects. Keating presented Langmatt with a triptych landscape made in direct response to the museum’s Monet, specifically for exhibition in its park, where the natural light would interact in pleasing ways with the paintings’ pearlescent washes, and the environment would gradually, inevitably, take its toll.

He arrived in Baden three weeks before the Haus paint, to prepare for what would be a filmed durational performance. He rose early each day to sort and decant hundreds of litres of second-hand paint sourced by the museum, mixing colours to create new ones, and tinting whites and lighter shades to achieve hues he thought complemented the garden surrounds – then loading a phalanx of extinguishers with different levels of paint and pressure.

Creating this “palette of necessity” reminded him of his early days making guerilla street works on a dime and using discarded materials to make his art school works. “[The Haus Germann project] was liberating in that it took me away from the tendency to go with what I’m comfortable with,” he says.

Keating attributes his work ethic to his mum, Pat – “the most driven person I’ve ever come across in this world”. From a young age he helped at her floristry business during its busiest periods. Later, as a fine art student at Monash University and then VCA, he earnt money doing shifts at her waste minimisation company, “rifling through rubbish” to do audits.

It spurred his consciousness of environmental issues and informed his 2006 honours thesis. There followed a spate of performative videos and installations in which he coopted waste materials. In a somewhat notorious example from his honours year, he took vinyl offcuts from a skip out the back of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and attempted to use them in an art intervention during one of the gallery’s opening nights. ACCA’s director at the time, Juliana Engberg, intervened at the last minute to prevent the performance.

Consumerism and climate change were in the spotlight and art about the environment was in vogue. “The opportunities to make work quickly gathered as I delved into exploring environmental issues in a poetic way,” Keating says.

In January 2009, as Keating was prepping a major waste-focused project for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Western Sydney program C3West, his mother died in a car crash. Somehow, he spent the first months of grief delivering the project, dedicating it to her.

The following year, still struggling with the loss, he embarked on another major project, this time in Christchurch, New Zealand: a fictional property development for “sustainable living”. A few weeks before the launch, the first of two major earthquakes struck the city. Keating stayed for six weeks in the aftermath, as the city grappled with the devastation. Even after he returned to Australia, he tried to keep the project going, running online discussions as part of an effort to “stay connected to a meaningful discussion about the future of the city”.

With hindsight, he says that even before Christchurch he felt “a bit lost” in his practice. “But this particular project was so long and intense that I just kind of lost the love for art-making … I didn’t understand what I was making art about anymore.”

Aged 30, he found himself working as a gardener and a removalist, and staying rent-free with a friend. “I was so far away from being able to look after myself, because of the trajectory I’d taken myself on in my career,” he says. “You’re sort of at a crossroads where you have to think seriously, Well, do I want to be an artist for life?

He returned to his roots, “throwing paint around and using fire extinguishers to make paintings”. “I wanted to get my hands physically making the art again, rather than what had almost become like an admin practice,” he says.

Not long after, he was driving down the Deer Park bypass in Naarm’s west when he saw the tilt-slab factory that would become the site for West Park Proposition. The video he made of that work, in 2013, won the $20,000 Guirguis New Art Prize and was selected by the National Gallery of Victoria for its inaugural Melbourne Now showcase. It set Keating on a new pathway in his practice.

“Ever since then, I’ve just fallen in love with painting again. It’s my life,” he says simply.

With his most recent works, Keating says he has a sense of coming “full circle”: “The action of throwing the soap is the same as the action of throwing pots of house paint on walls over 20 years ago, when I was really just first exploring making art at a scale that didn’t fit in the garage or the school art room.”

Back then he took to the streets to find space, and got hooked: “You’re expressing yourself, people are seeing it, and their reactions are positive or negative – but you had a platform. And so now, with the different platform that I’ve built for myself – through so many different ways of making art – it’s come full circle, and I’m just trying to harness the energy that I had back then.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "Painting the town".

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