Caleb Reid is Dead Mad But he Makes Real Good Paintings

Photos by @docqment

Step inside the technicolour lava stream of one of Australia’s great young artists.

He was the third best surfer in the world as a teenager. Endured the tragic, premature passing of his mother. Survived crippling depression. Painted his way out of it. Ate a psychedelic plant from the Amazon. Observed his divine mother meditating inside a bubble in his stomach. Was reborn as an eagle. Spent years in galleries obsessing over the work of Whiteley, Bacon, Basquiat, and more recently, Monet. And survived a month in the Nullarbor in a banged up ’97 Ford Panel Van with your man Smivvy at the wheel (in which time I learned he rolls shit joints but, paradoxically, is one of the smartest, most talented c**ts I know). Today he finds himself as one of Australia’s great young artists and gave Monster Children some time on the phone ahead of his latest exhibition, The Dream In Between, opening at Piermarq gallery in Paddington tonight, the 28th of February.

What’s crackin’ Leb? Sounds like you’re in a good place…

Yeah man, I’m in a very good place. I had a big year trying to move forward in my painting life. It’s been good.

But it’s been a bit of a slog to get to this point, so indulge us in a bit of schadenfreude. What was the lowest point?

There wasn’t necessarily a low point in the journey. I’ve had an interesting year. I’ve come to terms with what I’m trying to achieve. It’s never been about trying to get to a level and rest on that level. Being an artist is about asking questions and getting into the unknown a bit. It’s more a continuation of self-growth and an understanding that even mistakes are a step forward. I had a month in Byron about three months ago and I sat in a room for three weeks and painted the small works there—34 small works—but I also wrote on a typewriter every day, some stream-of-consciousness stuff. I went through the process of asking myself questions—tough, deep questions about how I feel about things, and by writing them down I got to understand a little better the way in which my mind operates. I’m actually showing most of that document in the exhibition too.

Right. So what did you find?

Before, I would be saying things and I wouldn’t be so sure about them. It was like, ‘I said this, so that’s who I am and I have to stand by it.’ I realised that’s not actually true. When I’m talking I’m guessing at expressing how I feel. Language is a small thing trying to explain a really big thing. The sign on the front of a big building doesn’t express the complexity of what’s going on in all the different rooms inside. I got to understand how complex we really are.

What are some of the themes and ideas you’ve explored in this latest collection?

The 34 small paintings I did along with the writing explored this complexity of human emotion viewed from the outside, and with the more recent works I went past that and into the mind itself, into the dream.

Can you explain this transition from painting the physical to exploring the mind?

I can’t pinpoint humans. There’s so much going on, so many moods. It’s complex being human. You might have a happy relationship with one person and an angry relationship with another person. We are complex energy balls and my work has always tried to explore this. It seemed a natural progression to move from the physical and try and get inside of it. Into the place where the brain abstracts things, where it creates dreams or where the imagination is.

I understand you also invented your own alphabet for this show?

The alphabet came about because I could place secret codes and trickery inside the work. I’ve also stayed away from using white in the past because I didn’t think white was in nature but then, I realised white is in clouds, and someone mentioned that white was in dreams, which I thought was a nice, connected idea. I’d been making complex works with clouds of colour all year. I got to a point where a story would come out of the clouds and I would go with it. That’s where I got to the point of thinking maybe the mind lives inside the area that dreams. I was playing with these ideas, playing inside the emotion, inside the dream, and I invented an alphabet as another tool I could use in the paintings.

What are some of the cultural factors—music, literature, art, class, gender, travel—that impact on your work or even your process?

I’m more of the train of thought that I have to figure myself out before I can affect culture in any way. For me, the way I can help society the most is to understand myself as much as possible. What right do I have to go and affect anyone else if I don’t know who I am?

It’s inevitable when entering new terrain like you’ve done here that you’re gonna end up lost and confused and producing some pretty shit work. How do you a) Realise when your work is crap and b) Push through it until you’ve produced something that’s not crap?

I don’t put judgement on my work, whether it’s good or bad. I keep making until something pops up that’s like, ‘wow that’s interesting’ or ‘that’s something I didn’t know’. I tried to do a stream of consciousness document a year ago, but I wasn’t in a stable enough headspace and I got depressed and lost. If you ask yourself these big questions and you’re not in a good enough place to get to the bottom of them you end up somewhere dark. The second time I walked out to the edge of what I know, with really stable feet and it wasn’t so emotional. You’re walking in areas that aren’t solid, and if you ask those deep questions you can get to a point where you see who you really are and you might not like what you see. But the gateway to being a better person is facing up to those things that maybe you’re lying to yourself about.

And that’s why you don’t take acid at music festivals.

(Laughter). Or do. A bad trip might be just what you need.

Can you shed a bit of light on your process—what gets you up and painting, what keeps you painting, how you decide what to keep, what not to keep, that sort of thing.

I live with my works. I don’t have a studio that I go and visit. During this process I had a whole house that was gonna be renovated. It had six rooms and I had canvasses on every single surface of the place. It was a beautiful madhouse of colour. I work at all hours of the day and I love to live inside it. I’ll wake up and there’s not much routine because I’m trying to undo routine a bit. I’ll get myself into a spot where I just get up and start playing with a painting and I’ll listen to it and sometimes it’s like nope, there’s nothing here anymore. I’ll step to another and run instinctually. I just paint constantly. I paint all day, I paint all night. I’m not at the canvas painting at all times but I am living with the paintings at all times.

It’s been a torrid and pretty successful few years for you as an artist. What have you learned about the profession so far?

The more I’m attempting honesty, the more of a response I’m getting from people. Instead of me trying to please people and what they may want with paintings, I really try figure out what I want. I think staying away from trying to please other people is an important lesson. I don’t know what’s going on with them so how could I know what they want? It’s just a guess.

And finally what’s the secret to growing and evolving as an artist as far as you’ve figured out?

Being brave and relinquishing judgement. A really important thing is to paint as if it’s not important, decide if it’s important later. Learn that you’re not gonna just do one thing and it’s amazing. The path to getting good at anything is doing it over and over again. If you’re worried about the early work being crap you’re not gonna get to the later stages where something beautiful happens.

Get along to Piermarq gallery tonight to check out Caleb’s work.

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