Words by Vaughan Dead
What do you see when you look up into the clouds?
Do you see a bunny rabbit? Do you see Falcor the Luck Dragon from The Never Ending Story? If you’re anything like me, you probably see massive dicks and balls drifting across the heavens like giant fluffy white flying dildos (that’s normal, right?). However, if you’re more like Sydney artist Brooklyn Whelan, then looking to the sky reveals thrilling dreamscapes of utopian/dystopian-sci-fi-fantasy that are nothing short of oracular spectacular! This is Whelan’s universe, one he “stumbled onto” years ago after leaving his job as an art director to pursue his passion for painting and indulge in his obsession for the weather. It was a big risk, but one that’s paying off.
Now, after numerous sold-out solo shows worldwide and a list of creative partnerships that include some of the biggest companies and celebrities on the planet, Whelan has become that rarest of gems—an artist whose work is as critically acclaimed as it is commercially popping off. It is his neon pink, geometric angle knifing through the cumulonimbus you see as this year’s SITG motif and as the first ever ‘artist in residence’ we recommend you hunt out his installation, stand in front of it, make sure there’s nothing that can distract you and then stare into the work for at least 15 minutes. You might just disappear into an entirely different realm, or, if you’re like me, you might get a laugh when magical dick and balls clouds appear that nobody else can see.
I couldn’t believe it when the person I had to interview about the art for Splendour was my old pal Brooklyn fucken Whelan from the good old surf mag days!
It was a double win for me man, because not only do I get to talk to you, but I get to talk about myself to you too (laughs). Hey, congrats on your 10-year stint at Surfing World!
Thanks mate, I just did my last day last week.
You must be so stoked to be done with deadline.
Yeah except now I’m writing for this Splendour newspaper and I got deadline!
(Laughs) Oh man I’m trying not to laugh, but I feel for ya.
So how you going?
Life’s good. Everything is kinda going my way which is so cool. I’m just painting heaps which is good because it’s my main source of income now.
That’s the dream isn’t it? It’s funny because when I first saw all the art you’ve been doing I actually had no idea it was you that was making it. I was absolutely tripping on the conceptual nature of it and then the execution, it’s incredible stuff. I wasn’t aware back in the day that this style of painting was something you were interested in.
Yeah, it’s quite strange mate. I’ve been always been fascinated with the weather and skyscapes and that kind of shit, but I spent a lot of years just fucking around and not taking things seriously until the guys at China Heights Gallery in Surry Hills came to me and said, “This stuff you’re working on… we have got to get this shit out there.” So I began to go at it with a bit more focus and now those weather paintings have given me some identity within the art world and they’re primarily what I’m known for. So, it’s super trippy but I’m going with the flow and really enjoying it.
You were art director at Tracks surf mag and you’ve had a bunch of other cool jobs, but when did the belief that you could make painting your career kick in?
I had always loved painting and drawing and that lead me into graphic design and eventually into the role of art director, but after I left Tracks I just thought, “Fuck this. I have to give this painting gig a real crack.” So I went to China Heights and they were feeling the weather paintings and they told me to persist with that and see how I went. And that faith allowed me to put my head down and go for it. After that first show things took off pretty quickly. The thing about really committing to the art and nothing else was that it allowed me to find my own voice. I was able to dig really deep and find my own style… which is everything in art because nobody will take you seriously and you won’t stick out from the millions of other people if you don’t. You have to find and tap into that unique thing inside that only you have.
It’s so hard to commit to only making art though. So many of us have creative passions we’d love to explore on a deeper level but we let work and bills and basically life excuses get in the way.
You’re right, it’s incredibly hard, but in a strange sort of way it’s also the only choice if you want to be true to yourself. I think there are times when life waves red flags and you gotta pay attention to them. We’ve all had moments of thinking, “What am I doing? Fuck this! Life’s too short!” and in those moments you naturally tend to refocus on things that really matter. When I reached that point after leaving Tracks I remember thinking, “I’m giving this everything and if I hit absolute rock bottom and I can’t cope with it anymore and I fail, I’ll make the decision to throw in the towel and go work for an arsehole again.” And you know what? That’s a great motivator in itself because who wants to work for an arsehole again?
Now that I work for myself I’d argue that I’m working for the biggest arsehole of all.
(Laughs) That’s so true. I’m my own biggest critic anyway and nobody likes a critic!
How did you navigate the highs and lows that come with painting for a living, because some days you feel like you’re a God creating the universe and other days you feel like a total phoney?
Oh man, I’ve put knives through canvasses and chucked shit out on the street and every day I have doubts, particularly when I’m busting my nuts on an idea that just doesn’t work. It’s all part of the creative process. You go up and you go down. Sometimes shit is shit and right on cue, your brain will attack you. “Where am I at? What am I doing? Am I just a one trick pony?” Thankfully in the early part of my journey a lot of things fell into place and actually went to plan, and they’re still going to plan now. I’m painting for a show at the moment that will be on the week after Splendour. I haven’t done a solo show since the beginning of the year and I’ve had days where I look at everything and just think, “Man… what the fuck is this shit?” But now that I’m a month away from finishing I’m thinking “No, actually, this is great and I’m happy with where I’m at with it all.” So, I think it’s unavoidable. The trick is to keep pushing on until you either work it out or set it on fire (laughs).
Are you a believer in the notion of the tortured artist?
Not so much. I don’t think so. I’m pretty stoked where I’m at, I haven’t cut my ear off yet.
Man, it’s funny but I reckon a lot of my favourite artists are optimistic and quite happy people and that translates into their work.
100 per cent. It’s funny because with these weather paintings, trying to find my own way with them, the challenge of it was invigorating. I kind of stumbled onto it but when I did it was an incredibly positive feeling. I’m naturally into dark monochromatic shit, so when I first picked up that neon pink I remember thinking “everyone loves a bit of pink!” and that one decision sent me on this happy path and that feeling is infused into everything I’m currently painting.
At the risk of sounding like a deadset art wanker, with those hot pink geometric angles piercing through the calm chaos of the cloudscapes… there is so much conflict going on but it’s all so beautifully balanced. What inspired these compositions?
I think more than anything I was just exploring and experimenting with some ideas and that lead to the discovery of these new places, that I guess in some ways are quite sci-fi. I was really pushing myself, pushing paint around and trying to tap into something that had an immediate impact, something with instant feel. And if you’re lucky enough to get that, then you can have a lot of fun playing with it and helping it evolve. That’s the ultimate satisfaction. I think as far as composition goes I’ve still got that OCD art director head in a way, everything needs to be well balanced and well situated within the work. So, there’s the super organic element going on but then also the harsh geometry at play as well. I’m excited for people to see them in real life. They’re quite big and you can really get stuck into the little flickers and strokes. Instagram and any streaming device never eclipse the real thing.
Unless you’re taking a selfie which is always a thousand times better than the real thing.
I have to use that air-brush selfie filter these days (laughs). Too many harsh edges now that we’re older Vaughano!